Creating the best sex scenes: Inside the career of an intimacy coordinator
We all love a bit of adult intimacy in our viewing, but for actors that intimacy can be unnerving, uncomfortable – and even downright dangerous. The very best sex scenes are now in the hands of intimacy coordinators, creating that extra level of comfort so our favorite characters can shape those sizzling scenes with assurance.
Emily Meade plays a porn star on HBO’s The Deuce. She felt uneasy about a graphic sex scene in which she had to simulate oral sex. At one point in the lengthy scene, she was supposed to stand in the corner, half-nude, while other characters spoke.
“Reading that was a bit scary to me. I’m not only a little worried about the act of doing that, which is pretty vulnerable and potentially embarrassing, but especially with the Internet, there’s going to be images of me, topless, pretending to give oral sex for the rest of my life,” Meade confessed.
So, Meade asked co-founder and associate director of Intimacy Directors International (IDI) Alicia Rodis to walk through the best adaptation of the sequence with Uta Briesewitz, the episode’s director. Rodis helped Meade have a conversation about her concerns surrounding the sex scene and discussed the possibility of using a robe.
As a result, Meade felt comfortable doing the scene as written because it “gave me the confidence to know we are all on the same page.” And in the end, the director decided not to show any close-up images of Meade during the act. That comfort level does come across on camera, creating some of the best on-screen sex scenes out there.
With the rise of the #MeToo & Time’s Up movements structural changes in Hollywood are underfoot, as the industry shifts from the old, problematic phrase “that’s just how things are” to facing issues of consent, harassment, and sexual assault head on. The best of those changes have found their way onto sets, particularly on shows with sex scenes, which are increasingly staffed with intimacy coordinators.
Intimacy direction has been nascent in the field for roughly fifteen years but has recently experienced a surge. Though it has been common for a stunt coordinator or fight choreographer to design combat scenes on stage or screen, the same standards are not typical for scenes that depict sexual activity.
Intimacy coordinators play an integral role in creating the best sex scenes by helping choreograph sequences with the actors’ boundaries at the forefront. Intimacy choreography can mean anything including monitoring actors’ hand placements, ensuring they have certain types of genital barriers, and guaranteeing that no one is pressured into nudity that wasn’t previously agreed upon.
“We’re at this emotional revolution where we’re saying that actors’ psychological and emotional health is just as important as their physical health,” said Jessica Renae, a Ph.D. student studying intimacy direction.
The nonprofit Intimacy Directors International (IDI) has been leading the charge in training intimacy directors since the organization’s founding in 2016 by Tonia Sina, who developed the methodology in 2004. Rodis is the point person working with SAG-AFTRA in creating protocols for vetting intimacy directors, and ensuring that they’re on set.
SAG-AFTRA hopes to create best practices for actors appearing nude or in simulated sex scenes. In the past, this wouldn’t have been much of a conversation – if it was a conversation at all – because most major productions didn’t work with intimacy coordinators.
After hiring Rodis to work on The Deuce, HBO declared in October that it would require intimacy coordinators for all shows containing sex scenes. Showrunner David Simon, also known for creating The Wire & Tremé, told Rolling Stone he’d never work without intimacy coordinators again. Coordinators can also be found on sets for Netflix’s Sex Education, Amazon’s Electric Dreams, & Showtime on The Affair.
Yes can be no, finally
Much of the current discussion around intimacy coordinators began with Meade, who’s acted since she was a teenager but only learned about intimacy coordinators after landing her role on The Deuce, a show that doesn’t back down from the reality of its subject matter – the prostitution & porn worlds of 1970s New York City.
Although she didn’t encounter any problems on the series, as filming went on, she began to think it best that there should be an ambassador of sorts for the sex and nude scenes, someone to ensure everything runs smoothly and give a voice to the actors — particularly those not as well known as herself.
“This is an industry where actors are told that ‘yes, and’ is the only answer,” Rachel Flesher, an intimacy coordinator who worked on Netflix’s GLOW,” stated. “Not just ‘yes.’ It’s ‘yes, and I’ll do more, and I’ll do anything.’ And their hireability is based off their willingness to do whatever it takes.”