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How Intimacy Directors Make Sex Scenes Safe And Consensual In The #MeToo Era

A few months ago, HBO announced it would hire intimacy coordinators for all of its productions. (Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)
A few months ago, HBO announced it would hire intimacy coordinators for all of its productions. (Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)

In the #MeToo era, actors who perform sex scenes on stage and in films are raising concerns about consent and safety.

To meet this new focus, the demand for intimacy directors or coordinators — professionals who work with actors and production staff to ensure safe sex scenes — is on the rise. HBO now requires the presence of an intimacy director in every new production that has intimate scenes.

Before the #MeToo movement, hiring an intimacy director on set or behind stage wasn’t commonplace.

Yet intimacy director Claire Warden says actors have been sounding the alarm for years — for the sake of both actors and audiences — and only recently have powerful industry executives began listening to their concerns.

Warden describes her job as part advocate, part liaison, part movement coach expert. She says the most frequent question she hears when she explains her career is, “ ‘Wait, we didn’t have that already? Or then, why didn’t we have that already?’ ”

When working with actors, she says she’s present to ensure they feel that they have agency over their bodies and that all parties are consenting at every level.

“We’re also there to help the whole production team liaise when we’re doing scenes of nudity or intimacy or sexuality and to let the conversation move across the whole team,” she says.

Warden’s job is integral to the story because while ensuring everyone is comfortable and confident during a sex scene, she also has to make sure the performance looks real.

Interview Highlights

On power dynamics of intimate scenes, how she works with actors to elicit a good yet safe performance and her work as a fight director

“I think [power dynamics] also [come up] in our fight work. But interestingly, we as a society have very different relationship with violence than we do with sex and intimacy. And I think the difference, you know, in the intimacy work is that we are looking at the physical safety and respect, but we’re also looking at psychological and emotional safety. So, again, really, it’s about building a structure for the actors at the beginning. We have a little physical kind of ritual that opens up the work each time called tapping in and tapping out, which lets them kind of step into this [space and say], ‘Great, now we’re going to be professionals working together and creating a story together.’ We have conversations about what is the story we’re telling. It matters that we know what the story is before we start telling it, that way not only are we creating something that’s specific and fits with the play or the film we’re doing, but it also helps our actors to know that we’re doing this because of the story, not for personal gratification.

“It can seem like a little loose description, but really I do a lot of like holding the space so that feelings that come up, conversations, their own particular stories, they’re able to manage and work through and decide what becomes part of their work and what doesn’t. So it’s really about checking in on all three of those levels, physical, psychological and emotional to make sure that we screen something that’s healthy for them to do and sustainable, especially if we’re talking about theater when we’re going to be doing three months, six months, a year’s run. Is it sustainable to do that?

On working with the cast of “Slave Play” and preparing an actor to perform an intimate scene night after night

“Our director, Robert O’Hara, did an incredible job of creating the space right at the beginning for, you know … difficult conversations. This is going to feel close to many people and we’re going to make space for that and we’re going to have to talk about it as we create it. And so really, for me, it’s about my job is to help to craft the story and take the director’s input and the actor’s input of their own characters and the work they do. And with that, creating that structure so that they can step in, but also step out and leave it at the theater.”

On why it’s important for audiences to know intimacy work is happening behind the scenes as they watch a film or staged performance

“When actors are incredibly confident in what’s happening onstage in a scene of sex or intimacy, that is something that can be read kind of viscerally by an audience. And right now, where we are in the world and this epidemic of sexual assault that we’re in and this awareness, what often happens to an audience when a scene of sex begins on stage is straight away that question goes, ‘Are those actors gonna be okay? Is this all right?’ And if they’re not sure, they tend to leave the story and sit and worry about that. If they can read with their bodies the actor’s confidence level and that the actors are completely okay with what’s happening, they get to relax naturally, go deeper into the story. So we’re actually shifting the audiences receiving experience of watching theater or film.

“The conversation that is happening is that we are reinforcing the need in any kind of interaction, physical interaction, the need for conversation and consent and agency and individual’s agency over their own body and that coercion and persuasion and power dynamics are unacceptable when it comes to sexual interaction. We learn as a nation, you know, we’ve become very influenced by the entertainment that we watch — TV, film and theater. And so it is a way to reach a large populace and not only have that conversation about consent, an allowance, but also so we can actually start diversifying the stories that we’re telling so that we’re not just always seeing, you know, white, cis, heteronormative, male-driven power dynamic in our sex, but that we can actually open up the conversation about intimacy, about sex, about the kinds of people that have it with each other and on their own and start really representing the world out there so that that conversation can begin in a fully inclusive way.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.