Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual assault.

In the midst of what should be a wild, carefree holiday in the sun-soaked streets of Greece, the unthinkable happens to a young teenage girl, and her world shifts. 

How To Have Sex is British filmmaker Molly Manning Walker’s debut coming-of-age feature, and is a stunning depiction of girlhood, the ups and downs of female friendship, and the complexities of consent.

The film was awarded the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and opened theatrically in Canada last week, following its North American premiere at TIFF 2023.

How To Have Sex begins as an ethereal, seemingly never-ending party. Tara and her friends spend their vacation in the coastal town of Malia partying, sunbathing, and befriending the older boys staying next door, free from the stress of parents and school. But everything shifts in one blur of a night, when Tara finds herself coerced into her first sexual experience.

Coercion is a type of sexual assault not often discussed or fully understood. Planned Parenthood defines sexual coercion as “using pressure or influence to get someone to agree to sex.” This can mean repeatedly asking for sex, threatening someone, or using a range of different manipulation tactics. Regardless, sexual coercion means that consent isn’t freely given.

Through this pivotal scene with Tara, Molly aims to challenge what consent means to the viewer. “Often people are obsessed with the fact that someone says yes, and so that must mean that everything’s okay,” Molly says. “She says no so many times. He throws her in the water, he takes her dress off. There’s so many times where he should have stopped and he didn’t.”

How To Have Sex not only depicts what sexual coercion can look like, but also how deeply this assault impacts Tara. After that scene, the tone of the film shifts—what once felt like a rowdy summer holiday now has an undercurrent of anxiety. The bass gets deeper. The crickets get faster in the background.  Trash gathers along the streets. What was supposed to be the best summer of her life is now a nightmare for Tara, made even more complicated by the fact that her assaulter is still close by, and she doesn’t feel like she can confide in her friends. 

Mia McKenna-Bruce effortlessly portrays Tara as both the upbeat, bubbly teenager we first meet her as, and the anxious, traumatized version of herself she becomes. Molly knew early on that Mia could offer exactly what she was looking for. 

“I just knew straight away she had this ability to do two things, how she was feeling internally and then how she was acting externally. That’s exactly what the film is about, how we present versus how we actually feel.”

Stories like How to Have Sex can be healing and affirming for those who have endured similar experiences, but they can also be a wake-up call for perpetrators. Molly describes the reaction to the film as twofold: “Lots of women have felt seen and have shared their stories, which is totally amazing. And then, the thing that’s kind of radical and feels unexpected was that lots of men also recognize their experience in the film, and they vouch to do better.” 

While more education is needed when it comes to the nuances of consent (a 2022 study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation revealed that 55 percent of people in Canada do not fully understand consent when it comes to sexual activity) How To Have Sex depicts experiences so many people can identify with. More stories like this on the big screen will hopefully prompt some much-needed conversations about sexual assault, coercion, and what consent really means.