Voices: Why Bridgerton’s sex scene with Nicola Coughlan was so groundbreaking

Luke Newton and Nicola Coughlan, who are the focus of the period drama in season three (PA Wire)
Luke Newton and Nicola Coughlan, who are the focus of the period drama in season three (PA Wire)

Come for the costumes, but stay for the sex. Ever since Bridgerton landed on Netflix in 2020, that has been the rallying cry among its global fanbase. Say what you like about the Gossip Girl-meets-Jane Austen plotlines and reimagined Regency soundtrack of pop classics. Deep down, we all know that the thing that has made Shonda Rhimes’s Regency romp for Netflix such a resounding hit is its steamy love scenes.

But this season’s contribution tops them all, though not for the reasons you’d think...

For its third instalment, Bridgerton centres on a friends-to-lovers storyline between Penelope Featherington (played by Nicola Coughlan) and Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) and after a bit of a will-they-won’t-they tussle, the two find themselves engaged and twisted among the bedsheets – or should we say, a rather lovely looking throw.

The twist? Colin has been fashioned as quite the casanova this season and with plenty of sexual liaisons under his belt, his experience far outshines that of Penelope, who had never so much as kissed a man until she asked Colin to do the honours a few episodes ago.

Suffice to say, she’s a little nervous about the whole thing. And yet, her first time with Colin is Bridgerton’s hottest sex scene to date.

Put aside any pre-existing thoughts you might have about Coughlan’s body (many have conflated body positivity with body shaming by labelling the actress “brave” for her nudity) because that has nothing to do with the scene’s brilliance.

Frankly, I reckon it’s about time we stopped commenting on women’s naked bodies on screen altogether, regardless of their size. Instead, focus on the way the writers have centralised and celebrated one thing: consent.

Every act is pre-empted by Colin asking Penelope if it’s “OK”, first. These are explicit verbal and non-verbal cues, with Colin regularly checking in with her, asking if she’s alright, warning her that it might hurt. There is a lot of nodding, agreeing, and direction. Everything that happens does so with total expectation and encouragement. And yet, it remains incredibly sexy.

Watching this scene, though, I felt a pang of sadness. Why don’t we see more sex like this on screen? What’s stopping teachers from showing scenes like this to teenagers in schools? And how different would our earliest sexual experiences have been if we had?

I hate to use the phrase “virginity” because I find it archaic and sexist (“she ‘lost’ her virginity” characterises female sexuality as shameful) but the first time you have sex is so much more important than we realise. It can shape your entire sexual persona for years to come. I know it did for me and my friends.

How lucky for Penelope, then, to enter this new phase of her sexuality with the most supportive, considerate and consent-cognisant of partners? Some may turn their noses up at the consistent check-ins, arguing that it’s less spontaneous and subsequently less tantalising.

But as someone who has put up with a litany of things in the bedroom from partners who didn’t ask first, I couldn’t disagree more. There is nothing sexier than consent. This messaging was conveyed in the BBC adaptation of Normal People, too – but let Bridgerton be a reminder that this is something we need so much more of across pop culture, particularly when it’s the first time onscreen couples have sex.

We’ve seen the consequences of this play out in other recent parts of pop culture – consider Molly Manning Walker’s astonishing debut, How To Have Sex, which features a teenage girl having sex for the first time on a group holiday, only to later be sexually assaulted. This experience reflected that of my friends and me: adults who came of age when sex education amounted to nothing more than putting a condom onto a banana.

Adults who grew up knowing nothing about female pleasure, let alone consent. Adults who were sexually assaulted so many times and in such a variety of ways as teenagers that it was simply normal. I wonder what would have happened had we watched something like this specific Bridgerton scene back then? How different our lives might be today as a result.