Put your right hand here. Try moving your hips down a little. This position looks odd.
That may sound like someone being coached through a round of Twister, but really, it’s a set of common directives given to actors by intimacy coordinators. Not even a decade ago, most people working in Hollywood had never heard that term before. Now, intimacy coordinators have become an industry standard, booming in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which became a phenomenon in large part due to the volume of sexual assault allegations that came from the entertainment industry. Hollywood talent, both young and old, are now adjusting to this new normal.
An intimacy coordinator, as defined by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), is “an advocate, a liaison between actors and production, and a movement coach and/or choreographer in regards to nudity and simulated sex and other intimate and hyperexposed scenes.” In short, they serve the same purpose as a stunt coordinator, but instead of fight scenes, they’re working to ensure actors’ safety during sex scenes.
Looking to Hollywood’s past, it’s not hard to see why a post–#MeToo industry would be eager to embrace professionals on set. There is a dark, deep–rooted history not only of sexual misconduct off screen, but many instances of inappropriate situations happening during the actual shooting of sexual or otherwise intimate scenes.
The most notorious example of this is Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film The Last Tango in Paris, in which star Maria Schneider was subject to sexual assault during the filming of an extremely explicit sex scene, known colloquially as “the butter scene.”
In the scene, star Marlon Brando’s character uses butter as a lubricant while having sex with Schneider’s character. The scene is very graphic, and Bertolucci himself admitted to not having revealed to Schneider that butter would be involved in the scene until the day of filming, saying that he wanted Schneider’s reaction “as a girl, not as an actress” and that he “wanted her to react humiliated.” In 2007, four years before her death in 2011, Schneider said of the scene that she “felt humiliated, and to be honest, [she] felt a little raped by both Marlon, and by Bertolucci.” At the time of filming, Brando was 48, while Schneider was 19.
Schneider’s experience on the set of Last Tango in Paris is not an isolated incident. Many other actresses have come out and spoken about feeling uncomfortable while filming sex scenes.
Sharon Stone reflected on the scene that catapulted her to super–stardom, the infamous “leg cross” in Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct. At the GQ Awards in 2019, Stone made a speech in which she revealed that Verhoeven told her that she needed to remove her underwear for the scene because of lighting issues, and that nothing would be shown in the movie.
Fortunately, intimacy coordinators seem to be having a great impact on sets, making actors feel safer and more comfortable in very vulnerable scenes.
The HBO show The Deuce was one of the first productions to embrace intimacy coordinators. In this show about sex workers in the 1970s, several of the show’s actors began to feel uncomfortable with the volume of nudity and sexual scenes they had to participate in. (The show also starred James Franco, who was accused of sexual assault by multiple women in 2018.) In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, The Deuce star Emily Meade, who initiated the change, said intimacy coordinators make sets safer, adding that she “wasn’t signing up to be an exploited porn star, [she] was signing up to play one.”
Now, almost every television show and film in production will have an intimacy coordinator on set. The star of the Hulu hit Normal People, Daisy Edgar–Jones praised the communication aspect of intimacy coordinators, noting that “[h]aving a sense of why certain scenes are happening and what is being communicated meant that we could just approach them like we would approach any dialogue scene. It became about the story.”
However, not everyone in Hollywood has been receptive to the influx of intimacy coordinators. Controversy sparked over the summer when Game of Thrones star Sean Bean gave an interview expressing his problems with intimacy coordinators, claiming that they “spoil the spontaneity” of sex scenes.
Bean’s comments received major backlash, with many actresses coming out against him. The star of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story, Rachel Zegler, tweeted in response to Bean that “spontaneity in intimate scenes can be unsafe. [W]ake up.”
Bean cited Lena Hall—his own co–star in the show Snowpiercer—in his proclamation against intimacy coordinators, saying that Hall “had a musical cabaret background, so she was up for anything.” She took to Twitter to push back on his comments, saying “Just because I am in theater (not cabaret, but I do perform them every once in a while), does not mean that I am up for anything. … I do feel that intimacy coordinators are a welcome addition to the set and think they could also help with the trauma experienced in other scenes.”
No matter what Bean or anyone else thinks about intimacy coordinators, their presence in Hollywood is not going anywhere and will only continue to become more tied to sex scenes. Many of the industry’s rising stars, such as those on Euphoria and Sex Education have only ever filmed sex scenes with intimacy coordinators on set. Hollywood’s history has been riddled with violence against and exploitation of women, and if intimacy coordinators can reduce the amount of actresses coming away from sets with trauma and shame, then a bit of lost “spontaneity” is a worthy trade–off.