Opinion | All film productions need intimacy coordinators

By Rachel Soloff, Staff Columnist

Warning: This column contains content relating to sexual assault that some readers may not be comfortable with.

“Normal People,” a mini-series following a complicated relationship from high school through college, has garnered a lot of attention lately for its portrayal of sex. The scenes are emotional and intimate and help to develop the relationship between Marianne and Connell further. The reason? The actors were comfortable.

The show had an on-set intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, who helped create the scenes and make sure the actors knew what to do during filming. She also ensured that the showrunners knew the actors’ limits. Overall, her job was to ensure everything was professionally done. Additionally, when filming these scenes, they had minimal crew members present to ensure that the actors were comfortable. They also ensured actors consented to perform the sex scenes.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm. Many actors have spoken up saying they’ve felt uncomfortable while filming intimate scenes. Some said they felt they couldn’t say no to filming them. In worst-case scenarios, there have even been sexual assaults that have happened from the lack of guidelines on filming these types of scenes. There needs to be a set of clear and direct protocols in place to ensure that the actors involved in sex scenes feel comfortable while filming the scenes. Some of these measures include having an intimacy coordinator involved, having a minimal crew when filming and ensuring the actors give consent. These protocols need to be set in stone and necessary for any sex scene to be filmed. Right now they aren’t. 

Prior to the #MeToo movement, there were barely any protocols in place for filming sex scenes. The first set of guidelines came from the Screen Actors Guild in 2019, including requiring the use of an intimacy coordinator when filming sex scenes. The first show with an intimacy coordinator, “the Deuce,” was in 2018. Organizations like the Guild are setting a precedent by requiring specific protocols for filming sex scenes, and they are the first of their kind. Unfortunately, these protocols are only applicable if members of the production are a part of the Guild, and even then they are not required by law. Many independent movies can bypass these requirements if their actors are non-union. If these protocols become requirements and not just a guideline, they would be more substantial which would create a far safer and better environment for filming.

These protocols — in addition to requiring an intimacy coordinator — include requiring written consent from both parties being filmed. These protocols also ensure that only essential crew members are present when filming intimate scenes. By having a proper definition of how sex scenes should be filmed as well as the role that an intimacy coordinator should play in a production, showrunners and movie producers will know what they entail. This makes the hiring process just as easy as hiring a lighting technician and therefore normalizes having an intimacy coordinator on set.

Before these protocols were put in place, there were no regulations on filming sex scenes whatsoever and coercion was the norm. Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones a show known for its nudity and sex scenes — said that she was often coerced into filming sex scenes and appearing nude.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Clarke said on a podcast referencing how she felt on the first day of set. “I have no idea what any of this is. I’ve never been on a film set like this before. I’d been on a film set twice before then. And now I’m on a film set completely naked with all of these people.”

Salma Hayek, an actress in the movie “Frida,” was coerced by Harvey Weinstein into being nude and performing a sex scene, who said he would shut down production if she didn’t do so. Some directors say that they just want to make the fans happy or make sure a scene is realistic and that’s why they push these boundaries. But in reality, this does the opposite. When actors are more comfortable, they can focus on acting instead of their safety. The actors can truly achieve what the scene was meant to be instead of feeling nervous. 

Many intimacy coordinators essentially choreograph the scenes so the actors know what is coming. Often, the actors rehearse the scenes before filming while clothed. If scenes are mapped out ahead of time, similar to how a stunt double practices a stunt or actors practice fight scenes, the actors involved can know what’s coming and because of that, can feel safer. Additionally, if the scenes are rehearsed before filming, the actors can figure out what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable while they still have their clothes on.

Overall, the importance of an intimacy coordinator comes down to the emphasis of consent. Ita O’Brien, the intimacy coordinator for “Normal People,” said she starts all of her workshops with an exercise in just saying “no” and “yes” firmly. There is a need for intimacy coordinators and other measures while filming sex scenes, especially because of the lack of consent that productions of the past had. Filming something as intimate as a sex scene with someone you may or may not know well in front of a crew of people is uncomfortable as is. By having a minimal crew member presence and preparing for the scene with a professional, actors can feel more comfortable while filming intimate scenes. 

As we can see with shows like “Normal People,” it is possible to make a great series or movie with meaningful sex scenes without making anyone involved uncomfortable. As the industry continues to confront its past, it’s crucial to set a good precedent for the future. Comfort and consent need to be the most important elements of filming sex scenes.

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about entertainment and social justice. Write to her at [email protected].