Sex in Cinema: Intimacy Coordinators on How to Do It Right

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Welcome to Sex in Cinema Week, Consequence‘s deep dive into movies, the Hays Code, and what society labels taboo. Check back throughout the week for essays, interviews, and lists examining censorship of movie sex scenes and the creativity it inspired in filmmakers. Today, we look at the new practices put in place for sex scenes on film, since the days of #MeToo.

Here’s the way it used to be: A film production would get to a scene in which a character might enjoy an intimate moment alone in a bathtub, and everyone would be too embarrassed to talk about it. “Because there wasn’t a forum by which you could logistically sit down and just contemplate it creatively and artistically,” says pioneering intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (Sex Education, Watchmen). “So the director would be going, ‘You’ve read the script and then you’ve seen there’s a masturbation scene in there…’ But you get to the day of filming and the poor actor’s going into the water going, ‘Oh, what do I do here?’ And there wasn’t a practitioner to support the director, so often, the director was absolutely scared themselves. Because there wasn’t a forum to talk about it professionally.”

Intimacy coordination changes that, a relatively recent addition to the production process that exploded in popularity soon after the fall of 2017. While the rise of intimacy coordinators on set is without question a reaction to the #MeToo movement, experts in this field like O’Brien and Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC) Creative Director Alicia Rodis were already deeply versed in exploring the topic and developing guidelines for its practice, well before Harvey Weinstein kicked off a worldwide discussion about sex, abuse, and the workplace.

Every intimacy coordinator interviewed for this piece came to the position with different backgrounds, though many had worked in theater and/or stunt coordination beforehand. IDC CEO Jessica Steinrock’s first love was improv comedy, and her research as a graduate student, she says, “was looking at how do we create spontaneous dynamic comedy in a way that is consent-forward and prioritizes the agency of all of the folks that are participating in it. So consent and improv was really like my core.”

In addition, Steinrock’s husband is a stage combat professor, and “through him, I got to meet some really incredible artists, who were looking at how we create moments of intimacy with the same level of care and choreography that we create moments of fights.”

Intimacy coordination and stunt coordination actually have a fair amount in common, as Steinrock explains. “There’s a lot of roots to this work in stage combat. When you’re punching someone in the face on stage, you’re not actually punching each other in the face. It’s an illusion to make it look like a fist is coming in contact with a face. And we use similar techniques to make it look like someone’s hand is coming into contact with someone’s genitals.”

The intimacy coordinator’s job usually begins well before shooting starts, as they meet with the director and actors to discuss the scenes in question, and determine what kind of boundaries they want to set up. Everything from where hands might go to exactly how much nudity will be present gets discussed, with the specifics added to a nudity rider signed by the actors, removing any possibility of a surprise on the day of shooting.


Sex Education (Netflix)

“I’ll take that information and I’ll carry that to respective departments like costumes, ensuring that they have, well ahead of time, awareness of how much nudity there’s going to be, what kinds of modesty garments they’re going to need to provide, what kind of barriers they might need,” Steinrock says. “This is happening weeks and weeks before we’re even on set for filming.”

SAG requires that any nudity riders be completed at least 48 hours before the scene in question is shot —  UK-based intimacy coordinator Yarit Dor (Glass Onion, Daisy Jones & the Six) says productions in her country also try to follow that standard. “I think they appreciate it because the minute you have a number of hours, you know what to work with,” she says.

Having those plans in place that far in advance is to the benefit of all parties, because they not only set up everything that’s expected on the day of production, but include stipulations as to what would happen if a person’s mind changes during those two days, and they no longer want to perform the scene as specified (the answer being a body double, though that body double will not be required to perform anything beyond what the original performer originally agreed to do).

“Very rarely does that ever happen,” Steinrock says. “And most of the time, because we are all humans, if someone had that strong reaction, it would either be handled either by ‘Let’s hold off and wait and calm down’ or ‘Let’s not do the thing. Let’s figure out a different way to tell that story.'”

On set, those “barriers” Steinrock previously mentioned come into play, ensuring that any genitals that aren’t meant to be exposed are protected, creating layers between the performers during simulated intimate contact. Other tools that might be used include objects like “a half-inflated netball”, as used but not seen on Bridgerton to allow simulated thrusting.

Intimacy coordinators haven’t been universally embraced by the industry, with actors like Sean Bean saying that their presence can “spoil the spontaneity” of shooting a sex scene. While she’s seen statements like this before, Kennedy Murray says “It’s not something that I’ve encountered on set. And all the prep work that intimacy coordinating involves — the point of it is to make sure that everyone feels confident, that they know what’s going to happen and what can happen, and that what can happen or what is going to happen is what they’ve consented to, and that the consent is reversible at any point.”

Intimacy Coordinators
Intimacy Coordinators

Daisy Jones and the Six (Prime Video)

As Marcus Watson (No Hard Feelings, Bros) explains, “Once you understand what those boundaries are, what the story is, then we can look at the choreography and say, great, we might have to hit this kiss or this hand placement because it tells a very specific story in this framing. But [an actor might say] ‘I’m very comfortable with you touching my back and my stomach and my arms during this moment.’ So then we can have moments of spontaneity within that, because there’s a structure built for the actors to play, where they know that they’re safe and being taken care of.”

Intimacy coordination, for so many, is valuable on its own merits, but its widespread adoption could be seen, cynically, as a way for productions to protect themselves from potential lawsuits or allegations of misconduct. Says O’Brien, “Unfortunately, it’s money that speaks. If you look back in history, there was a time when people didn’t have stunt coordinators. They’d just say, ‘Go pretend to fight,’ and they’d have people with broken noses and stuff. And so they’re starting to go, ‘Hmm, there’s a lawsuit that can happen here, so I’ll mitigate that loss by bringing in place a practitioner who can make sure that we can keep it safe, while also creating really brilliant physical storytelling.'”

Similarly, before ICs were common practice, O’Brien says “It was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a sex scene. What’s going to be asked of me? What coverings am I gonna have? What’s going to be happening on the day?’ And the thing is that in all of that uncomfortableness, there is actually an injury that comes from that, but it’s emotional and psychological. And [before], that injury wasn’t considered something that someone could come to the producers and say, ‘I can sue you for this injury.’ That just wasn’t there.”

Then came #MeToo, “and finally, those complaints being taken seriously meant that the industry was acknowledging that that was an injury that had to be answered to. That’s the difference, that suddenly the producers are going, ‘Okay, so now I’ve gotta take care that I’m not going to be sued for this declaration of injury.’ For me, that is the industry. That is the shift, that sadly it is about money.”

One issue that Dor brings up is the fact that the majority of ICs working today are not male, something she finds “completely perplexing. I’ve had several colleagues who are not cis women who have been asked in an interview by a producer or a director, ‘Tell me, the fact that you are male, how does that affect how you work with female performers?’ And that is actually a discriminatory question in an interview setting. They wouldn’t ask that to a female intimacy coordinator. So why are they asking that to a male intimacy coordinator? I feel like there’s some sort of stereotype here that maybe has come out from the #MeToo movement because the role is so connected to that movement.”

Watson acknowledges that as a cis male coordinator, he’s in the minority. “I think as a society, we see women as more nurturing, and as caregivers,” he says. “But there isn’t a gender to advocacy, and that’s what I try to speak to — that I can see a story and help to make sure that we are advocating for the actors’ boundaries, but also working with the production to make sure that we’re fulfilling their artistic needs as well. That’s advocacy, and I don’t think there’s a gender to that.”

Intimacy Coordinators
Intimacy Coordinators

Bros (Universal)

However, he fully acknowledges that “it is important to recognize that statistically, in terms of sexual misbehavior and violence, men have caused more harm than women. If someone specifically asks for a non-male coordinator, that should be respected no matter the reason. People have legitimate concerns when working on scenes of intimacy. Because of past trauma and/or current boundaries, ‘I’d prefer a female coordinator’ is completely valid and should be honored.”

He does tend to get more work on scenes involving two men than, say, two women: “Rarely are they going to bring me in to do choreography for that scene, which I completely understand. But ‘we’re looking at a heterosexual sex scene, and we really don’t wanna hire you because you’re a man’ — that’s where I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ Like, I get it. But it’s still frustrating. I just want to continue to bring awareness to the advocacy aspect of it.”

Advocacy is just one facet of the intimacy coordinator role, of course, as is safety. For O’Brien, what matters is “the intention of creating the best scene possible, because I come from being an artist. That is my intention. And when people employ me just to be the tick-boxer, to just keep people safe, that’s negating my skills. The productions that I want to work on are those that are working with me as an artist, that are bringing me in to help elevate the artistic vision for everybody.”

Steinrock feels similarly. “It is really the director’s show, and I am there to help support their vision. At the end of the day, my minimum is just that we’ve had consent conversations, everybody knows what the choreography is supposed to be, and that we’re really clear on where hands are going and where hands aren’t going. I might only contribute that to a scene, and that’s great if the director is feeling confident in their ability to get the artistic vision.”

However, she adds, “my favorite is when a director does want to collaborate more with me, and I get to offer some of those more choreographic elements — when I get to really be in the weeds with them. And I hope that they feel similar, that I add that value back.”

Intimacy coordination is still evolving, both as an art and as an industry practice. The new 2023 SAG-AFRTRA deal with the AMPTP, which at time of writing is being voted on by the membership, includes a deal point that states producers “must use best efforts to engage an Intimacy Coordinator for scenes involving nudity or simulated sex and will consider in good faith any request by a performer to engage an Intimacy Coordinator for other scenes.”

It’s impressive progress forward, especially considering where things began. As O’Brien says, “In the past it was ‘Doctor Theater, the show must go on.’ And that’s been amazing to me, just the ripple effects of delivering this work. Just as, in a way, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement was that thing of going, ‘We can’t turn a blind eye to predatory behavior. Nobody should be expected to be in their workplace and tolerate harassment and abuse.'”

But what’s most inspiring about the world of intimacy coordinators these days is that younger generations — not just actors, but directors as well — are very passionate about these matters. Murray loves working on student films “so much, specifically because of that. I think it’s so cool that we have so many of these young up-and-coming artists who are really leading with these ideas in the work that they’re doing.”

Sex in Cinema: Intimacy Coordinators on How to Do It Right
Liz Shannon Miller

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