The women helping Hollywood shoot safer sex scenes

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Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dominique Fishback in The Deuce (2017)Image source, HBO
Image caption,
The Deuce looked at the rise of the adult film industry in 1970s New York - and there was a lot of simulated sex and nudity in the script

Alicia Rodis walks onto set in New York with a mission: to oversee the shooting of a very complex - and daring - group sex scene for a TV series on a major US network. She's there to make sure the director observes the intimacy boundaries set by each of the 30 actors taking part.

She keeps track of the conditions of their consent on a big spreadsheet, to make sure everyone is comfortable when the camera rolls.

In a theatre elsewhere in the city, Chelsea Pace choreographs an intimate scene performed by a couple.

"Here you don't 'grope', you make muscle-level contact with the front of your partner's body," she says, using non-sexual language to interpret the stage directions, as the two actors repeat a set of movements.

Welcome to the world of intimacy coordinators.

These women wouldn't have been doing this job just a few years ago. Now they are part of one of the fastest-growing professions across the entertainment industry.

Image source, Dahlia Katz
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Alicia Rodis is HBO's intimacy coordinator. The American TV network now hires a specialist for every show involving nudity

As trained facilitators, they help performers and productions navigate sensitive scenes involving physical contact, from hugs and kisses to nudity or simulated sex.

Just weeks ago, the powerful US actors' union SAG-AFTRA issued a landmark document, regulating sex scenes through the hiring of these intimacy experts. It's part of a wider drive to stop sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry.

"This came off the back of the concern of our members for their safety," says SAG-AFTRA president, Gabrielle Carteris. "Actors, and women in particular, spoke out to tell their stories. Not just about Weinstein, but many others,"

The former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, 67, was found guilty of two accounts of sexual assault in a New York trial last month.

Allegations against him helped spark the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. In the two years since, the demand for intimacy coordinators in Hollywood has soared.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Ex film producer Weinstein was found guilty of rape in watershed case

"We have stunt coordinators, choreograph fight scenes and really take care of people when physical violence is involved," says Alicia Rodis, who first trained as a fight choreographer.

"But then when it comes to intimacy and nudity, which is another high-risk situation, there was no consideration at all. It is shocking."

Rodis is now a full-time intimacy coordinator and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International.

Industry experts estimate some 50 intimacy specialists are currently advising productions, mainly in the US and the UK, a tenfold increase over just a few years.

Image source, Getty Images
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The portrayal of intimacy on screen has been re examined in post-#MeToo Hollywood

Power imbalance

Improvising intimate scenes after basic instructions from the director used to be norm, leaving actors to fend for themselves in establishing boundaries.

"We used to rely on actors actual lived experiences, we just had to hope that an actor's idea of 'passionately making out' would match the director's," says Pace, who also acts and co-founded research group Theatrical Intimacy Education in 2017.

Image source, HBO
Image caption,
Clark's role as queen Daenerys Targaryen initially required her to take her clothes off quite a lot

The power dynamics at play in the industry makes it hard for actors - particularly women - to speak up if they aren't happy.

"First rule of self-preservation is to say 'yes' to everything you get asked. That's really baked into actors' training," says Pace.

The issue has been simmering since long before the Weinstein scandal erupted, in October 2017.

Decades after filming Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Maria Schneider said she had felt "humiliated" and "a little raped" as the director surprised her with unscripted sexual contact. She was 19 at the time.

More recently, Emilia Clark has spoken about filming some explicit scenes on Game of Thrones, which she found "terrifying".

"I'm now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don't know what I'm meant to do, and I don't know what's expected of me, and I don't know what you want, and I don't know what I want," she said in an interview.

Image source, Fox Photos / Getty Images
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Filming a kiss in 1926. Things have changed dramatically in the industry but only in recent years

But things have started to change in post #MeToo Hollywood.

One of the turning points happened on the set of HBO series The Deuce, about the blossoming porn industry in 1970s New York. Emily Meade, who played a sex worker and porn star, spoke to bosses when she found some of her nude scenes overwhelming.

"I'm somebody who has played really sexualised characters my whole career. I did my first sex scene at 16. And there are many times I've felt uncomfortable, whether I've realized it in the moment or looking back retroactively," said Meade in an HBO interview.

In came Alicia Rodis, hired for the first time by a mainstream TV network to facilitate the simulation of sex in a scene.

Image source, Paul Schiraldi / HBO
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Alicia Rodis with director Susana White on set of The Deuce

"I always say, 'Let's discuss what's on the page but also what's not on the page,' so there are no surprises when we get to set," she explains.

"I want to champion the director's vision but also make sure that we stay within the boundaries of the performers."

HBO later announced that the network will contract intimacy coordinators on any show that involves nudity and other companies, like Netflix, Amazon and Apple+, followed suit.

Image source, Getty / SOPA Images
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Intimacy director Yarit Dor helped stage Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in the West End

Intimacy directors are now also often found on big theatre productions.

"You are a support system but also part of the creative process, to explore how intimacy as a storytelling tool fits in the story," says Yarit Dor, credited as the first intimacy director in London's West End.

"In theatre, it is a four-week process. In TV and film it has to be much quicker, so you work intensively with the actors before getting to the set," compares Dor.

Image source, Molly Prunty
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Chelsea Pace (left) works on off-Broadway shows and TV series: 'Intimacy is a storytelling tool, it has to serve the story'

New language

Amanda Blumenthal, an LA-based intimacy advisor on Showtime's highly sexualised series The Affair, says the job is "part mediator, part counsellor, part choreographer".

"A show will assume an actor will be OK doing nudity because he or she has done it before, which is not always the case," says Blumenthal, who runs Intimacy Professionals Association.

"It is an incredibly difficult situation to be in. I have found myself on set helping actors to enforce their boundaries."

Over the past year, the growing community of intimacy experts have developed techniques and protocols for the job - from advising writers to discussing technical aspects of how to film simulated sex.

The new SAG-AFTRA guidelines cover the pre-production stage, with the intimacy coordinator meeting one-on-one with performers prior to the rehearsal, and making sure the costume department provides appropriate nudity garments, prosthetics and barriers to cover genitalia, such as silicone padding or hard fabrics.

During filming of an intimate scene, the coordinator will make sure the set is closed and the crew numbers are kept to a minimum. And they will help choreograph the physical interaction of the scene itself.

"A big part of our job is to make sure there is continued consent throughout the filming of the scene," says Blumenthal.

Image caption,
'Because the job is so new, actors and directors and producers are learning how to work with us,' says Amanda Blumenthal

In the UK, Directors UK have worked to provide clear and practical guidance on directing nudity and simulated sex.

And Ita O'Brien, the BBC's first intimacy director and advisor to Netflix's Sex Education, has been developing a set of guidelines, collecting best practices in the industry. There is a need to establish boundaries, says O'Brien, "including an agreed strategy to halt the action where necessary."

These scenes need as much planning as a car chase or any other stunt, experts say.

"If there is kissing and maybe some heavy-petting, are we OK with having our breast touched? Having back, shoulders, bottom being touched? We make sure there is no genital contact or, if actors agree to have genital contact as part of the scene, that there's a barrier," explains Rodis.

Before, the role of looking after performers often fell on costume and makeup artists, who would hand out robes in between shots and glance at the monitor to make sure the camera was not revealing more than was agreed.

Image source, Andy Difee
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'We used to choreograph physical violence but then ignore scenes with nudity,' says Rodis

Now, intimacy coordinators are bringing a new element to the set - desexualised language to interpret the stage directions.

"It is not one actor groping another actor: it is one character groping another character, but the actors are making muscle-level contact," explains Pace.

Rather than "caress your partner", Pace says she would instruct an actor to "make some skin-contact with the side of your partner's face".

"It is not only more specific but also free from sexual connotations", she says.

"We find that the scenes get cleaner. And I don't mean censored, just better thought-out", agrees Rodis.

Image source, Forever Tonight / Swetha Regunathan
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Even if the sex is simulated for the camera , the physical proximity between actors is real - and it may not always be comfortable

Structural change

Yet the new role of the intimacy supervisors met with some reluctance in the industry.

At first, says SAG's Carteris, directors and producers feared the shooting process might be slowed down.

There's also a financial concern, as hiring a specialist can remain off-budget for smaller productions.

"We are not the sex police. Sometimes directors think we are there to tell them 'no' to a moment of nudity they want to have. That's not what we do," says Pace.

Image source, HBO
Image caption,
Zendaya stars in Euphoria, a hard-hitting teen drama with graphic depictions of sex - and Amanda Blumenthal was hired as its intimacy coordinator

"Once they work with an intimacy expert, many directors feel that having this extra person takes some of the weight off them, it's a safeguard," says Yarit Dor.

There is however a more radical industry shift that is needed - one that shakes that "yes culture" that stops actors, particularly women, to stand their grounds.

"This is about redistribution of power on the set. We need directors who want actors to have a say, and actors to know how to articulate what they need," Pace says.

Image source, Marlayna Demond
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New generations of actors familiarised with intimacy coordinators may bring about change

The increasing number of trained intimacy choreographers, as well as intimacy-aware new generations of actors, may help this industry shift.

Last year, Intimacy Directors International had more than 70 applications for 10 places in their certification course, according to Reuters.

"The truth is there are not enough intimacy coordinators right now, and demand is only going to grow," says Carteris.

The pool of coordinators also needs to be more diverse, actors argue.

"Mostly women now, we also need more non-binary people and from different backgrounds," says Rodis.

"Sometimes it's just not appropriate to have a white intimacy coordinator, who may not know how to create a safe set for people of colour, and we need to be aware of this."

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