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A job for our times: HBO is hiring “intimacy coordinators” for its sex scenes

Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

From our Obsession

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Whether you work in a cubicle, café, or corner office.

Until last month, when Rolling Stone reported that HBO had hired an “intimacy coordinator” as a coach and advocate for actors who depict sex on screen, few people had ever heard of the job title.

To be sure, they’re an esoteric bunch: experts who oversee simulated sex, keeping actors physically and psychologically safe, as stunt coordinators have long done for fight scenes. But with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the awareness it created about how common it is for women to endure uncomfortable experiences at work, the job is now almost certain to become a lot less niche.

The lessons of #MeToo certainly resonated with Emily Meade, the 29-year-old star of The Deuce, an HBO series about sex workers and their pimps. On set, her workplace is essentially an ersatz ’70s-era, sleazy New York. Offset, her employer is a network regularly criticized for portraying excessive sexual content.

Emboldened by the movement, and chastened by the realization that she’d been ignoring her own discomfort on sets for years, Meade asked the creators of The Deuce for an advocate at work, and they obliged, finding and hiring an “intimacy coordinator” named Alicia Rodis. According to Meade, she was “like a mother or a sister on set” looking out for her.

The experiment went so well that HBO decided to hire intimacy coordinators for all of its shows, the Rolling Stone story announced. And just like that, a tiny profession that couldn’t be more in keeping with the zeitgeist became known far outside the theatre circles where it had established a foothold a decade and a half earlier.

Clarifying the boundaries

The intimacy coordinator role was invented around 2004 by Tonia Sina, who with Rodis co-founded Intimacy Directors International, a training and vetting association that provides intimacy “choreographers,” for the stage, and “coordinators,” for the TV and film industry.

The attention their small organization has been getting since the Rolling Stone story broke has “overwhelming,” says Sina, who reports that the group has been fielding roughly 40 to 60 calls per day, mostly from people who want to train and gain the Intimacy Director credit. Producers from around the country, and from as far away as Finland, Chile, and Australia, have also been ringing up looking to hire help for their own productions.

The goal of intimacy coordinators and choreographers, Sina says, is to make depictions of sex safer for everyone, in much the same way that stunt experts are hired to keep actors from actually harming each other as they stage a convincing, dramatic clash. Except the protection that intimacy coordinators offer is both physical and emotional.

In a savvy promotional interview published on HBO’s website, Meade explains her day-to-day interaction with her coordinator, who works as a go-between, shuttling between the actress and the director to discuss what’s going to be asked of Lori, her character, a young sex worker who is new to New York’s Times Square scene, and clarifying what boundaries exist for Meade. What will she actually consent to, and under what conditions?

“It’s hard when I’m being asked things from the director first, whatever it may be. I’m worried about letting people down,” Meade says in the HBO interview. “So I like to have Alicia talk to the director first and get briefed on what they want.”

The coordinator’s job is not to scrub a show clean of sex, and Meade says she wouldn’t want it that way. “I’m open to pretty much anything that serves the story and makes sense,” she states in the Q&A, “but I just need to be clear on that, and process what is being asked of me.” For her, she said, “to even have five or ten minutes or a whole day to process it before responding is really helpful.”

Perhaps there’s a certain atmosphere or sexual position that’s triggering, in which case it’s the intimacy coordinator’s job to find a way to revise the scene, without compromising the director’s or the writer’s vision. Either way, knowing that someone has drawn some lines around what’s going to happen, Meade says, allows her to “be in the moment,” without wasting any mental energy worrying about whether lines will get crossed, as can happen, and allegedly has happened, on HBO sets and elsewhere.

A day in the life

The Rolling Stone article paints a scene of Rodis’ coaching: The camera is on Meade as she performs oral sex with a fake penis. It’s the first time in her career she has done this. Rodis is within sight of the actress and has planned for Meade’s comfort, providing her with knee pads and keeping mouth spray at the ready.

It’s a world away from what Meade had become accustomed to at work, writes Rolling Stone journalist Breena Kerr. In past jobs, the actress had to not only speak for herself, but prep for scenes involving exposure. “For some jobs, she even packed her own safety supplies, like a flesh-colored thong that she hoped would protect her during nude scenes,” Kerr reports.

Rodis, in a separate HBO interview, also describes her routine of studying scripts, talking to directors and showrunners about what’s on the horizon, checking in with costume artists to review wardrobe options and protective covers, and cross-checking nudity riders in an actor’s contract. “I’m there as someone whose sole purpose is to ensure there are no surprises to anyone on set. Even the crew,” she says.

Before the camera begins rolling, Rodis maps where actors will be positioned during intimate scenes—regardless of whether they’re lewd, violent, or chaste—and says she will “make sure there is always an exit so if the actors need a minute, they can have a minute.”

More believable, safer sex

Although women may more often play victims in violent sex scenes, Sina tells Quartz that male actors—who are more often cast as aggressors—need as much support to deal with the emotional fallout from inhabiting an ugly role.”We’re protecting everybody, frankly,” says Sina. “Everybody gets to have a safe place to work.”

For producers, the value of hiring of an intimacy coordinator doesn’t end with the improved mental health of the actors. The experts also teach cast members how to fake sex in a way that, paradoxically, makes it look more authentic.

The intimacy directors’ association site boasts that its members enhance storytelling with their deep knowledge of “physicality” and body language. They claim they can teach “instant chemistry and vulnerability techniques,” and provide “cultivation and choreography for sexual tension.” When Sina coined the title, she avoided limiting the concept to sex, which she calls “one spoke on the wheel.”

“People making eye contact, just touching, embracing, sexual violence—all of those things fall under this category of intimacy,” says Sina, who studied modern dance to develop some of her ideas about sex scene choreography. Her approach is always more stylized than graphic, she explains.

With intimacy choreographers on a job, actors can expect professional, respectful instructions for how to fake a carnal act. Normally, says Sina, it’s common for directors to ask actors to “just go for it.” The performers are told to “do whatever feels natural,” so they’re left to demonstrate what they normally do at home. ”That’s not acting,” Sina says.

The coordinators also build unmissable borders between work and life, or in the case of stage and film actors, make-believe and reality. One way they do this is through language: they eschew slang for body parts or sexual acts and will reframe a director’s crude instructions with technical phrasing more appropriate for a workplace.

At the close of a scene or rehearsal, intimacy coordinators encourage actors to cross the life-work barrier with intention. Actors are urged to find some simple way of together marking the end of the performance, rather than simply walking off the set, or stage, as if nothing intense had just happened.

Is this progress? 

Now that we’ve been made aware of intimacy coordinators, the obvious question is, why didn’t they exist before this? How did we expect actors to deal with even plain vanilla sex scenes, never mind the ones involving dark or victimized characters?

“It’s crazy it took to 2018 for sexuality to be treated with the same sensitivity and vulnerability as violence, or animals or children,” Meade says in the HBO Q&A, referring to the requisite stunt experts, guardians, or animal advocates that routinely appear during productions, and have done so for years.

At the same time, while an intimacy coordinator can help rebalance power on a set, there are still larger questions about the sex on our screens. Would audiences have felt less traumatized by the depiction of stomach-turning sexual cruelty in HBO’s Game of Thrones, for instance, knowing the actors felt more at ease during the shoot?

In reality, coordinators are still facilitating projections of sexual acts that reflect and indeed may perpetuate unhealthy notions of sex and objectification of women.

Sina says that intimacy directors will speak up when they feel a sex scene is not actually serving the story, and says she has rejected jobs where she found red flags regarding a director’s intentions.

She would like to see awareness grow to the point where we do “have less portrayals of violence, sex on TV and on film and in theater, as we start to understand it more and start to gain perspectives of victims and what that does to people and how traumatic it is to see sometimes,” she says, adding, “I would say that I think we’re evolving in the arts of how we portray sex and how we think about sex.”

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