CONTENT WARNING: This blog post contains mentions of sexual violence and uses language and examples that could be upsetting. Please read with discretion.
Potentiality Statement: My name is Audrey Gatewood, and I am a senior-year Social Work student at UMBC, and field intern at the Women’s Center. In this blog I am writing about the relatively new position of an Intimacy Coordinator on film and theater sets. I describe the need for intimacy coordinators, what they do, how they are being used, and the larger cultural implications of creating this new role. I have an educational background in theater and film production and work as a photographer. Additionally much of my academic focus has been around sexual and gender based violence. The implementation of intimacy coordinators on sets is an exciting move towards safer and more equitable work environments for actors. Please note, I am not an intimacy coordinator, and I have never worked with or interviewed one. I am writing from research I have done, and general observations and understandings around production environments and rape culture. I will be talking about actors in film and theater interchangeably, though there are nuanced differences in their work circumstances, history and experiences.
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones during the filming of Normal People.Photography Enda Bowe/BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu . Image shows a bedroom film set, with two white people laying together in a white bed, undressed covered by sheets. They are surrounded by camera and lighting equipment, and two film crew members directing the scene.
In the 1972 drama, Last Tango in Paris, actress Maria Schnieder was 19 years old and new to the film industry. So, when she arrived on set and was told, unbeknownst to her previously, that she would need to shoot a graphic scene where her character would be raped, she felt she couldn’t say no. Schnieder was working with esteemed Hollywood star Marlon Brando, 48 years old at the time, and director Bernardo Bertolucci, 31. She spoke on the incident in an interview in 2007:
“ They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie’, but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take” https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2018/11/26/story-behind-filmmaker-bernardo-bertoluccis-last-public-controversy/
Actors may find themselves in challenging, harmful or unethical work situations where their boundaries are blurred. Not many other jobs pose the risks associated with having to simulate scenarios that could involve violence, emotional turmoil, physically demanding stunts, nudity and vulnerable intimacy. This can be paired with power dynamics, the high stakes of a professional acting role, and the expectation that the actor should be willing to do anything for the character, like we see in the case of Maria Schnieder.
That being said, if you ask someone if there should be a stunt coordinator on an action movie, they might say “of course.” What about someone to choreograph a fight? Of course, you wouldn’t just tell an actor to swing swords at each other, or jump out of a building, would you?
While stunts and fights are understood as explicitly risky, scenes which involve intimacy generate risk as well. If done unethically, sex and nudity in productions can be traumatic experiences for actors, who may be expected to just ‘know how’ to portray intimacy, be comfortable being exposed, and endure the blurring of their personal boundaries versus the wants of the director. Intimacy coordinator Clare Worden says, “It ranges from the just really awkward and uncomfortable, to finding tongues in your mouth when you don’t expect a tongue in your mouth, and it all goes all the way up the scale to, you know, full-on sexual assault.” Intimacy coordinator and the associate director and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International (IDI) Alicia Rodis says, “ “[…] violent scenes we could choreograph, we could talk about. But when we got to intimate scenes, no one really knew how to approach it, or really have a common language about [them].” Stunt coordinators and combat choreographers have been staples on large productions for decades. And though intimacy has been featured in film and theater for just as long, it’s only recently that a new position has been established: An intimacy coordinator.
An intimacy coordinator brings professional skills and ethical perspectives to choreographing intimate scenes in theater and film. Their job is to work with the director and actors to map out the specifics of a sex scene, so that boundries are clear and informed consent can be granted. The actors will rehearse the scenes with the coordinator present, creating a safe technical foundation for the actors to work from. Special protective cups, modesty garments, tapes, and other tools are included, as well. “My motto is no surprises- we should have a very clear plan before we get to set about what’s going to happen,” says intimacy coordinator Lindsay Somers. “[We discuss] the degree of nudity, wardrobe, and choreography for the scene, and the performers personal boundaries are included in the choreography. They aren’t puppets or chess pieces to be moved around.”
A major benefit of having an intimacy coordinator on set is that they can act as liaisons and advocates for actors’ boundaries. They are informed about actors’ contracts, workplace safety rights, specifics of the script, and consensually decide on choreography, making them theoretically unwavering to boundary-violating suggestions. Consider Maria Schnieder’s experience, and how it could have been different had there been an intimacy coordinator on set to help her say no in the face of two powerful, older men.
More and more productions are employing intimacy coordinators, perhaps in response to highly publicized social movements and controversies. For example, Hollywood had a reckoning in 2017 through the ‘#MeToo’ movement, branching off of earlier work done by activist Tarana Burke, in which people who had experienced sexual violence shared a solidarity hashtag, ‘metoo,’ on social media. Hollywood actors joined the movement, and in the process exposed predatory figures in the industry, most notably producer Harvey Weinstien, who had more then 80 allegations of sexual assault and rape against him. This cultural moment set off a public discourse about sexual assault on sets, and perhaps created an environment where more actors felt empowered coming forward.
Infographic from Consent Wizardry
Emilia Clarke, famous for playing Daenerys Targarye on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is one in a growing list of actors who have publicly stated they felt pressured or disregarded during filming on intimate scenes on set. Clarke said she found herself vulnerable to the demands of the directors, noting that she initially acquiesced to such explicit on-screen nudity because she was 23 years old and fresh out of school, working on her first major film set. “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, sheet stays up,’ and they’re like, ‘You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans.’ And I’m like, ‘F*** you.'”
Perhaps as a response to the negative backlash HBO and GOT faced from Clarke’s comments, and the overall shift from #MeToo, not only HBO but Amazon Prime and Netflix now require intimacy coordinators on their sets, and many other recent productions have employed them as well. Bridgerton, Euphoria, and I Will Destroy You are just a few of many recent productions that utilize intimacy coordinators.
In 2019, The biggest U.S. actors union adopted new guidelines for nudity and simulated sex scenes. It seems the relatively new implementation of the intimacy coordinator is here to stay on film and theater sets.
Intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis on set. CBS NEWS. Three people film a scene outdoors; a Black woman with long locs lays on the ground on a tarp like material with a white, shirtless man kneeling above her. An additional person, Alicia Rodis, squats to the right of the actors, speaking and gesturing towards the woman. Camera equipment is visible in the background
As Alicia Rodis points out, violence and stunts have been comfortably choreographed on sets for years, but productions have been unequip for forthright and equitable conversations about sex, intimacy and nudity. Culturally, we are adjusted to displays of violence as entertainment, but view intimacy both as so sensitive that we struggle to be transparent about it, and yet entertaining enough to feature in tons of media. Without a clarified professional or process on set, who is guiding the intimacy?
I would argue it’s our broad, cultural understandings around sex running the show, which is a potentially dangerous thing. Unfortunately, our larger culture around sex is often not healthy or transparent, rather it dictated by what scholars call rape culture. The term rape culture refers to a setting in which the normalization of rape, assault, and coercion are intertwined with common attitudes about gender and sex in general. This can show up in more subtle, daily occurrences, such as how the news covers instances of sexual violence using minimizing language, and the aligned social commentary that follows. For example, the following is a headline from The Sun, a Brisish tabloid news paper, covering the rape and murder of 20 year old India Chipchase by Edward Tenniswood : “Woman ‘drank six Jagerbombs in ten minutes on the night she was raped and murdered.” The staff’s attempt to pin blame on Chipchase for drinking creates a direct, common scapegoat: she was asking for it.
Rape culture also shows up, for example, in how a friend may talk about a date they went on, where they saw how their date was dressed as a form of consent. Studies show that college students frequently do not have a consistent definition of consent, and displayed varrying attitudes and experiences around sex based on gendered expectations. Rape culture can appear as victim blaming, sexual objectification, ‘slut-shaming,’ trivializing sexual harm, and more- all of which is influenced by media that doesn’t approach intimacy with a safe, consent-based framework.
Even as there is an increase in the prevalence of intimacy coordinators, there is still a skepticism attached to the role. Intimacy coordinator Elle McAlpine says, “When we go on set, we’re sometimes called the fun police. It’s not about that; it’s about educating people about this work.” This displays both a misunderstanding of the coordinators job, and a telling indicator of rape culture. What does it mean that when someone being deliberate, negotiating and enforcing boundaries, and being explicit and intentional about intimacy, is considered ruining the ‘fun’?
It seems that the use of intimacy coordinators is only going to increase from here on, which could indicate a positive collective shift in how we are viewing intimacy and consent. The amplification of intimacy coordinators as critical crew members will hopefully continue to bring conversations around consent and autonomy to the collective forefront, and make sets a safer place for actors to work.
Baldwin-White, A. (2021). “When a Girl Says No, You Should Be Persistent Until She Says Yes”: College Students and Their Beliefs About Consent. Journal of Interpersonal Violence
CBS Interactive. How intimacy coordinators are changing the way intimate encounters are filmed. CBS News.
Hilton, E. (2021, May 13). Let’s talk about simulated sex: Intimacy coordinators two years on. The Hollywood Reporter.
Izadi, E. (2018, November 26). The story behind filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s last public controversy. The Washington Post.
Lewis, S. (2019, November 21). Emilia Clarke says she’s been pressured to film nude scenes after “Game of thrones”. CBS News.