Consent is something that you can revoke at any time.
I landed in intimacy coordinating five or six years ago at the birth of the Me Too movement. Up until that point, for many years I’d been a costume designer and wardrobe stylist and fashion editor. It was super fun and aligned with my creativity and the creative process, really fun to work in collaboration with photographers and directors and actors creating images. As things unfolded and the Me Too movement really pushed forward, we were seeing that there was no protection or transparency around whenever there was intimacy, nudity, or simulated sex, either in photography, film, or TV. There was no advocacy to make sure that there was transparency about what was going to happen, so there was a lot of harm being done. An actor is given a script, and in the script notes or the script direction, it could say “Jimmy and Nancy have sex,” and there’s no description beyond that. Are they nude having sex? Is it romantic sex? Is it make-up sex? Is it hostility, is it a relationship that’s secret? And of course, in the story we understand more about that.
The process for me goes something like, if I’m hired to do a season of a show or for a movie, I’ll read the scripts and I’ll break down the areas of the scripts that have intimacy or physical contact or simulated sex or nudity or hyperexposure. If there’s an intense amount of engagement and there’s children in the room and yelling or violence… there are areas that we now call “hyperexposure” where you want to really be mindful of, “Ok, this needs to be addressed on the front end so people know what’s going on and how long this is going to last.” After I get a script, I’ll break it down, and then I will set up a meeting with the writer, producer, or director, whoever’s vision is trying to actualize this. I’ll ask them to get specific with me as I go through the script on what’s happening here, what’s your vision of this, how would it look, what are they wearing, how are they touching each other, what are the positions, how long might this last… so I can begin to flesh out what exactly is occurring. Oftentimes, I’m finding that that hasn’t really been thought through, the specifics of it. That’s a really interesting starting point because you can see how not having that clarity, when you land on set with two people that don’t have clarity, it’s kind of a recipe for a lot of misunderstanding. Your vision of “hot and sexy” is very different than a 50-year-old man’s experience of that, or a 15-year-old’s. So really teasing that out and asking them to be thoughtful about that.
Once we have an understanding of what these things might feel like, I will then have individual conversations with the actors about these scenes; specifically, the vision of the creator and where they fit and where they’re aligned with their own personal boundaries. “Are you comfortable with this kind of nudity or activity or touch or simulated sex? How do you feel about that, and this sort of portrayal?” And in that space, my role is to advocate for them and to hold those boundaries. I’m really asking them to be authentic in thinking this through: what feels right to the character and for them personally? And then with that information, I’ll have an additional conversation with the writer/producer/director about “This is where we are, do you think we can still tell the same story with these kind of parameters?” (If there are any that are very different from the desire or hope for the project.) From there, I’ll work with the actors together in terms of what this might look like, and that’s usually a phone conversation. Once I’ve garnered that language and their boundaries, I will have a conversation with the legal team that’s working for the production to create a narrative for the nudity rider. There’s a nudity or simulated sex rider that becomes a document that protects the actors, as well as the production, in terms of what the parameters are and the scope of the work: how much we’re going to see physically, how much touch, how much engagement with somebody else, so that there’s no misunderstanding. That’s the goal, that we have a guideline.
So that’s one piece, but also to have a producer or director come in and say, “I just really need to get this,” and it’s not in alignment with what the actor’s comfortable with – that power dynamic and that pressure can be very coercive for somebody. To not have some advocacy in that space… that’s my role to be like, “I’ve got this. We’re not going to do this today, perhaps another day we can revisit this, but not today.” The goal is to keep people safe, physically and emotionally safe. If you’re in the middle of a sex scene and the energy shifts, or from the get-go you don’t like the energy that’s coming toward you from your scene partner and it makes you triggered or uncomfortable or reminds you of something that you didn’t even know about from being a teen or something like that… having the ability to have someone in the space where you can say, “I only want to do this one more time.” I get to be that person and they don’t have to not only be acting but advocating for themselves, too, or be the bad guy with their scene partner: “It feels uncomfortable, I don’t like the energy, I don’t like the way you’re touching me…”
Then I will talk to the costumes department about modesty garments and barriers, so if there’s simulated sex and there’s pelvis-to-pelvis contact or body-to-body, we create some sort of barrier between the actors so it’s not skin-to-skin. Making sure that we have what is needed for the actors, and probably multiples. I’m available to help the costume department with fitting those if they need, or if they would like support… mostly because that’s my history so I was making those garments before I ever did this.
Then I’ll have a conversation with the assistant director or the AD team about closed-set protocols and making sure that when we’re on set together, that only the essential people are on set and that all the monitors are turned off around set so that this isn’t being broadcast and there’s no still photography and we have robes, towels, etc. When we land on set, I reconfirm consent with the actors. As we move through it, I’ll check in with them. I kind of get a sense of how experienced they are and how comfortable they are – if they’d like me to check in after every take or every couple of takes or just let them find their flow. I don’t want to interrupt their process, but I want to be available. And then after we’re finished shooting, I usually have the actors just check in with each other and thank each other for their work and have closure. Because it’s intimate work.
So previously to this, if there was a sex scene or hyperexposure or sexual violence, there was no one present to advocate for the actors. It’s one thing to have a conversation with me four or five days ahead of time about the vision for this scene, and landing on set and being in the presence of – if it’s a closed set, maybe there’s five, ten people around. It’s a lot. Garnering consent in that space is a lot to consider. Especially if you’re a young actor and you want to work and you want the role and you want the experience and you’re comfortable doing these activities… it still causes anxiety and thoughtfulness for people. To make sure that in that space there is an advocate who can step in and say, “Hey, can we take a couple minutes?” If you need a couple minutes, let’s take it.
There were small rumblings of it beginning prior to the Me Too movement but when that burst forth, globally most people got to see the abuse of power that was happening and the coerciveness of that power. Whether it was a producer or a writer or a director or a co-star, and they have this young person who feels beholden to go along with something that they’re not comfortable with. Or, they don’t like how this person touches them or the energy or the lack of respect. Even watching their energy shift from consent to “I’m uncomfortable.” That’s where I would step in and be like, “You’re not comfortable anymore. Let’s step off the set and take a minute and walk through this.” Because consent is something that you can revoke at any time. It’s reversable.
A friend of mine at HBO said “Annie, you’ve got to look at this, it’s something that’s occurring and you’re very aligned with this work already.” I was speaking with somebody who was on the front end of this as well and she and I had a long conversation and she said, “This is right up your alley.” I began to do some mental health training and some other trainings, and this was at the very beginning of even creating curriculum around this. So, figuring out what was needed in terms of choreography and consent training and trauma and being able to recognize some of these things in a more formal way. As things started pushing forward, a couple people asked if I was interested in working on their short films or films and then I did some work and jumped in for some people who did some work on the first shows when they needed somebody to step in, and that’s how it began. It’s progressed from there. We’re on the cusp of unionizing with SAG-AFTRA which is great and we have some protocols in place for what this looks like. It’s not perfect and we have some revisions that need to be done; it’s a very fluid, new position.
If there are children involved, I may not necessarily be involved on-set, but when I’m breaking down a script, I’ll highlight that, like, “Ok, tell me about this. Is this person yelling at the child, is he touching the child, is there pedophilia or sexual activity happening?” It may not be stated. I really just try to be clear about what the intent is with that scene. Because there are different rules and regulations with kids and when they can be on set. Or if someone’s giving birth on set, you would want an intimacy coordinator because there’s going to be nudity.
Working with actors and actresses who have done multiple sex scenes without an intimacy coordinator previously, I’ve had actresses where I’ve had the conversation with them about the scene on the phone and talk about consent and how they feel about it… I’ve had them call me back or take me aside and say, “I didn’t realize that I wasn’t ok before. And after you asking me how I felt about this or what my thoughts were or what my boundaries were, I sobbed at what I agreed to that I wasn’t ok with.” That’s trauma that’s not even recognized. It’s a better world today.
Most specifically, the male actors that are engaged in simulated sexual activity or contact or kissing, or whatever it might be, they’re like, “I’m good, I just want to make sure that she’s ok,” is very often what I hear. And I’m like, “Well, what if I’ve got her taken care of? Then how are you?” Am I supposed to feel stimulated, am I supposed to feel aroused, how am I supposed to feel about this? “I’m married!” or “I’m in a relationship! What’s happening to me?” And it’s like, you’re a human. You are going to have some feelings around what’s occurring, this is activity and it can be arousing and you’re going to have a very human response to that, and that’s something for us to talk about and consider. There’s definitely an element of emotional intelligence that’s a huge piece of this.
It is not required yet. It eventually will be required, like having a stunt coordinator whenever you’re doing anything that entails crashing a car or speeding vehicles or exploding things. People ask, “Really? This didn’t exist, why does it need to exist now?” Well, imagine crashing a car on set and not having somebody present to make sure they’re safe, or how it was going to occur, or talk to the director, “How do you see this going? Is this car blowing up or is this car blowing up? Or are they both blowing up?” All these pieces of it are really important to figure out, and the timing of it. It feels really purposeful and a huge contribution, in the most surprising ways. I’ve found this embraced. I was working with a director yesterday and it’s his first time working with an intimacy coordinator and we were going through the script and the intimacy scenes together and I was discussing with him, “How do you see this? Where’s their energy in this? How’s he touching her and where’s she touching him?” Afterwards he was like, “There are so many things that I hadn’t even thought of that you just brought to this and I’m so grateful, thank you.” Or I went to a set and I was riding up in an elevator to the location and a young man, maybe in his early 20s who’s a production assistant on set, he goes, “I’m so glad you’re here. It’s always better when the intimacy coordinator is on set.” You recognize the need, for not just the actors, but for the crew. There have been times when there’s a simulated rape scene or something like that where I’ll have a safety meeting with the crew prior to shooting and just say, “The content that we’re shooting today is very sensitive. If this is something that might be triggering for you, take care of yourself. You are not required to stay here. Step away.” If that’s something in your history, that can be very, very difficult and uncomfortable and you should not be required to re-traumatize yourself. So those kinds of situations, or working with seasoned actors who have done many sex scenes prior to this role existing, and having trepidation, like, “Oh, are you the sex police? Are you here to stop the flow of things?” To have them circle back and be like, “You were awesome, what a beautiful mix of levity, humor, and protectiveness.”
There’s been a huge influx of people who are curious and interested and want to be trained. In discussing and thinking about it, you can see that there’s a level of maturity and experience that one must be able to bring to this and draw upon. Whatever previous trauma you have, has to have been looked at because we’re all going to get triggered by things. But having these things exploding while you’re working would not be safe for you or the people that you’re advocating for. So there is a piece of this that needs to be very thoughtful. My experience with people coming into the marketplace is that often they don’t have production experience. The channels in which I’m having conversations and being able to figure out how to get the information I need, to speak to certain people… that all comes from my experience working in the field for many years. It’s not something that people can’t learn, but I call it a big girl panty job. This is a job for people with big girl panties on, who can put that hat on and be like, “This is my role.”
Again, it’s imperfect and it’s new, so as we flesh out further what the protocols are of what our roles are and how we do our job, that’ll get more figured out. SAG-AFTRA has accredited several programs that they require in order to be registered with SAG under that umbrella. And then you have to have a certain amount of productions, some production experience. It’s the same for stunt coordinators; in order to get in the union, you have to have a certain amount of work experience and education.
Several colleagues and I are creating some education podcasts for the industry for this work because of where we intersect. And not by way of any malice or anything, but there’s been pushback because, “Why are you here? What do you do?” There’s some fear around it because it’s new; it’s just ignorance, they just don’t know. And some intimacy coordinators didn’t know where we intersect and how we engage. So those are beginning to happen so the industry can begin to have some conversations around what our role is and what is intimacy. There are a couple of big questions: what is intimacy? And what’s nudity? Some people say, is kissing intimacy? I say so, yeah. And then there are productions that will call and say, “Well, they’re just kissing.” Well, yeah, and they’re not in a relationship. They’re at work. That to me would require an intimacy coordinator. There’s no tried and true guidelines yet and I do my best to educate productions as I go into things. Sometimes they’re like, “We’re going with you,” and other times they’re like, “Um, no.” I’ve had productions say, “Can you do this remotely?” No. I cannot.
In terms of my vision for myself and how I see this going, I could see going and working for a network and working on all of their projects and bringing in vetted intimacy coordinators to work on specific projects that I could oversee so they have the stability and consistency within that. Because we are a department of one. Having somebody within the network who navigated that for the network would be great. I also see myself at the intersection of adolescence and authenticity, transparency, consent, and creativity. As an adolescent you’re looking for those cues all around you. And really empowering young people to be authentic for themselves because when they have transparency about that, then they can consent. Then they have the ability to create whatever they want, because they’re safe.
I’m on the leadership committee with SAG-AFTRA as we go to unionize, so I’m also working in that capacity. I don’t necessarily see myself building a curriculum, but I see there definitely is a space between the curriculums and getting to where I am: how do you bridge that? If you don’t have the work experience or the production experience or the emotional intelligence – these are unteachable pieces. That sort of discernment becomes innate. That is something that you see when you’re with people – there is that ability to be sensitive to what is happening around you and pivot as needed and stay relaxed and calm. It’s very exciting. It’s very exciting to be a contribution in this capacity. Often people say, “That’s great for women.” No, it’s great for everybody. Really dispelling that myth that masculinity is fine no matter what – that’s part of the problem. They actually need to have the authenticity to be seen, too. This is important.