Ruby and Otis in Sex Education on Netflix

Image Source: Netflix

'It took a lot of the fear out of the process': The integral role of intimacy coordinators in helping women film sex scenes

Michael Caine completely missed the point when he questioned the role of intimacy coordinators.

Ensuring consent, safety and the comfort of actors when filming sex scenes seems like quite an obvious step. However, major Hollywood productions have only taken this particularly seriously through the hiring of intimacy coordinators in the last five years.

After the industry’s #MeToo movement began in 2017, American TV network HBO became the first to employ an intimacy coordinator on a major production, hiring Alicia Rodis in 2018 to work with the cast of TV series, The Deuce. Meanwhile Sex Education, which began in 2019, was the first Netflix series to employ an intimacy coordinator to help choreograph movements to prioritise cast safety. 

In changing how TV and film productions approach the filming of scenes simulating sex and nudity, the hiring of intimacy coordinators has helped actors, especially women, feel protected and comfortable in the workplace. Yet, intimacy coordination still has its critics and is often questioned by high-profile people, particularly men in positions of power.

Earlier this week, English actor Michael Caine questioned whether intimacy coordinators are necessary. 

“Really? Seriously? What are they? We never had that in my day,” Caine told Daily Mail when asked about the subject. “Thank God I’m 90 and don’t play lovers anymore is all I can say. In my day you just did the love scene and got on with it without anyone interfering. It’s all changed.”

Last year actor Sean Bean suggested in an interview with The Times that intimacy coordinators could “spoil the spontaneity” of sex scenes. 

While some people believe that intimacy coordination could get in the way of the natural flow of acting or directing, it’s actually a practice that’s critical to opening dialogue around consent. It helps ensure actors aren’t taken advantage of, or forced to do something that they’re not comfortable with.

Michela Carattini, who was the intimacy coordinator on the set of SBS’ newly-released drama, While The Men Are Away, says she has seen the practice allow actors and directors a greater level of safety, which often yields better performances and willingness to take more creative risks.

“Intimacy coordination provides a formal risk assessment and risk management process for screen and stage productions with intimate content, as well as providing an opportunity for the actors and the director to speak to their needs, safety and artistry without the same fear of industry repercussions and power dynamics,” Carattini tells Missing Perspectives.

“Creatively, we [intimacy coordinators] are experts at choreography, characterisation, masking and ‘smoke and mirrors’ aspects of filming intimate scenes in the pretend space.” 

Filming an intimate scene can be one of the most vulnerable positions an actor finds themselves in their career. For many women, the thought of topless images of them being on the internet for the rest of their lives is understandably daunting. For others, filming these scenes can feel triggering if they have past trauma related to sexual assault. Carratini says this makes the roles of intimacy coordinators all the more important.

“If someone with expertise is taking the time to interview stakeholders, assess and minimise risk, we have lower incidences of assault, microaggression, harassment and secondary traumatisation on set or on stage,” she says.

“The same way it is useful to have a medical before actors perform anything which might affect their physical wellbeing, it is useful to know in advance if stakeholders are particularly vulnerable to being triggered by the material, coerced by time or other pressures, and to have tools in advance for minimising and managing these challenges, including know what will be effective when challenges do come up.”

In 2020, a dedicated Equity committee of Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) established Australia’s first Intimacy Guidelines for Stage and Screen. This included “new processes for work involving nudity, intimacy, simulated sexual activity and sexual violence to ensure performers are prepared, supported and able to do their best and most daring work”. 

At the time of release, MEAA Equity federal president Jason Klarwein said “the expectation is that these guidelines are used on every production in the country."

Author, disability advocate and Missing Perspectives Editor-In-Chief Hannah Diviney says working with an intimacy coordinator on the set of SBS show, Latecomers, was “extremely helpful” in making her acting – and on-screen sex scene – debut much more comfortable. 

“It took a lot of the fear, self-consciousness and nerves out of the process,” she says, explaining the guided choreography of movement “made it as routine as a fight scene or dance”.

“It was great for feeling safe, establishing boundaries and making it so we could focus on the performance without feeling compromised in any way.” 

In response to comments made by Caine and Bean, Diviney acknowledges that what’s only a relatively recently adopted approach is not universally accepted, but that it should be a standard practice for the sake of actors’ wellbeing. 

“I completely understand why that opinion exists because of course change is uncomfortable and yes, in a romantic real-world context, you want sex and intimacy to have elements of spontaneity,” she says. “But this is work and in a workplace, people deserve to feel safe and prepared.”

Carratini agrees, noting it’s often those in positions of power that make critical remarks about intimacy coordination. 

“If someone is a high profile or powerful person in the entertainment industry, the power dynamic benefits them and is sometimes not even visible to them,” she says. 

“Play and spontaneity are critical to storytelling, and, as with real-life intimacy, so is consent and being safe enough to focus on play, creativity and achieving flow-states.” 

It may be a recent practice and one that makes some men feel micromanaged, uncomfortable or undermined. But accommodating their uneasiness or egos at the expense of women’s safety is simply not an option.