The Secrets of Staging a Sex Scene
As far as television goes, HBO has been a proud trailblazer in prestige programming for the past half-century. With landmark hits like "The Sopranos," the first cable drama to snag a Best Drama Series Emmy nom, to "Game of Thrones," the most expensive and most-watched fiction series in history, the network has long enjoyed heaps of critical and commercial success.
So much so that HBO's adoption of new protocols and policies can send shockwaves throughout Hollywood. That's a big reason why when the network made intimacy coordinators (ICs) mandatory on their sets, starting with 2017's "The Deuce," the practice quickly became industry standard.
Buzzy streaming hits with lots of screwing, like Hulu's "Normal People" and Netflix's "Sex Education," became known for working closely with ICs, whose touch made the sex scenes stand out. But what exactly does the job entail? Put simply, an intimacy coordinator or director (the former term is used in film and television, while the latter is used in theater) works on sets that involve nudity or simulated sex acts.
ICs act as a liaison between actors and the director, helping to translate the director's vision for the people performing it. This can include everything from choreographing the sex scene to making wardrobe suggestions to serving as an advocate for actors, and even educating the crew, depending on their level of involvement.
It's an influential role, especially for a culture in which so few receive real sex education, and provides tangible benefits for both the actors and the audience, including safer worksites and a better sense of what sex can really look like.
Entertainment's new era
Intimacy direction has likely existed in practice for some time, especially in the theater, but it was a scandal that thrust the practice into the spotlight. When #MeToo and #TimesUp hit Hollywood, ousting sexual-predator-slash-producer Harvey Weinstein, demand for ICs exploded, ushering in a new culture of consciousness on film sets. Before long, intimacy coordinators became ubiquitous, even appearing on music video and porn sets.
For intimacy coordinator Meagan Schroeder, it was a welcome change of pace. Based in Montreal, Schroeder has worked steadily as an actor since graduating from college in 2016, which has given her keen insight into the physical and emotional toll the profession can take.
A petite blonde, Schroeder said she often finds herself cast in "victim roles," ones that ask for piercing screams and hysterical crying. But those emotions don't always up and leave once "cut" is called. Schroeder has witnessed other actors shaking uncontrollably or getting diarrhea before performing, their bodies already entering fight-or-flight mode in anticipation of simulated stress.
Schroeder has experienced similarly intense reactions herself. "There's a part of my conscious that's aware that we're playing, but my subconscious has no idea," she explained. "So if I'm being thrown against a wall, my body just thinks that we need to fight."
Schroeder became an intimacy coordinator in part because she wanted to help make acting a more sustainable career, for herself and also others, by providing actors support during their most vulnerable professional moments. Seeing the field take off in popularity, particularly among people from a wide range of professional backgrounds, excites her.
"When I go on a set, I'm bringing my actor training with me, so I'm using a lot of body language," said Schroeder. "Whereas someone coming from a sex education perspective might bring an expertise in anatomy, and someone with a background in gender studies might be great at suggesting inclusive language. We're all bringing very unique tools to the jobs we approach."
Intimacy coordination as care work
For some pros, like Chicago-based actor, screenwriter and director Kyra Jones, survivor advocacy has always been part of that toolbox. After college, Jones became the assistant director of Northwestern University's sexual violence resource center and did acting work on the side. Once she became aware of intimacy coordination, it appeared to perfectly match her skills and interests.
Currently busy with her staff writing gigs on Hulu's "Woke" and "Queens" on ABC, Jones is technically still training to become an intimacy coordinator. But she's already broken new ground in this arena. Her first full-length feature, "Go to the Body," is about a racial justice organizer who's assaulted by a fellow activist, an event depicted in the film.
But Jones' concern was not solely on the actors directly involved in the scene: She wanted to ensure the whole cast, plus the crew, received the utmost support in processing the experience. She compiled and distributed a list of mental health resources, scheduled frequent breaks while filming intense scenes and hired producers with rape crisis counseling training.
'How can I make a film that's a love letter to survivors if I'm not caring for the survivors who are helping me create it?'
Jones even plans on paying for (voluntary) group therapy sessions for cast and crew during the ongoing production. Going above and beyond to care for your creators, even on an indie budget, is a concept that Jones would love to see normalized. It's especially important for her own projects, which are generally staffed by individuals with marginalized identities.
"Most of the cast is Black, and almost our entire crew is women and trans/gender-nonconforming people of color," Jones said. "With those demographics, I know statistically that many, if not most, of the artists working on my film are survivors themselves. How can I make a film that's a love letter to survivors if I'm not caring for the survivors who are helping me create it?"
Just like Jones, Schroeder is aiming to leave an impact beyond any given film set through her work as an intimacy coordinator. Helping to put out better depictions of sex in the world—with more nuance, sensuality and creativity—was the other huge draw to the work.
"I want and need people to know that penetrative sex isn't the only sex out there," Schroeder said, "and that there are so many expressions and ways to experience your own pleasure—and your partner's pleasure—that are cozy within your boundaries and still so steamy."