By Rachel Hawes
Content Warning: this article contains references to sexual assault.
Intimacy on screen is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years its place in the film industry has been rediscovered. The emergence of intimacy coordinators can be credited for this revolution, changing approaches to sex scenes both artistically and pragmatically.
Male dominance in the film industry has historically moulded sexual depictions of women in objectified and degrading ways. It has also perpetuated these attitudes on set. Maria Schneider’s experience, in which she was purposely excluded from the decision to substitute butter for lubricant in her scripted rape scene, demonstrated indifference to boundaries in the workplace. In fact, the intention for director Bernardo Bertolucci was to inspire a genuine emotion of humiliation in Schneider, treating her as a prop on set. The negative psychological impact on Schneider demonstrated the need for safeguarding measures protecting women in the film industry.
Following the viral #MeToo movement in 2017, concerns around sexual assault and manipulative behaviour in the industry were pushed to the forefront. The exposure of Harvey Weinstein unmasked a world of abuse behind the glamorised Hollywood name.
In the same year, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien introduced her ‘Intimacy on Set Guidelines’, inspiring a momentous shift in the treatment towards sex on set. New rules were implemented to ensure actors’ consent and set boundaries for their comfort. This shift also impacted the representation of sex on screen. Rather than constituting an entertaining and commodified addition to film and TV, sex scenes were revolutionised as realistic, vulnerable and emotive portrayals of human experience.
The 2020 BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, on which O’Brien worked as intimacy coordinator, particularly exemplified this naturalistic framework for portraying intimacy. The series struck many as a refreshing take on youthful explorations of love and sex, displaying a raw and electrifying awareness of physicality. The series follows Connell and Marianne, played by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. They are both intensely thoughtful and introverted characters but somehow connect in these vacant spaces of thought.
Intimate moments, achieved with noteworthy delicacy, nurture this connection. In their first sexual encounter, Marianne and Connell remain standing, facing each other and tentatively removing their clothes. There is an astounding beauty and tenderness in this scene, creating a real consciousness and appreciation of each other’s bodies. There is a notable absence of voyeurism, avoiding excessive focus on female nudity which is often perpetuated in the film industry. A 2016 report from Mount Saint Mary’s University claimed that female nudity was three times as likely as male nudity in Hollywood films. Full frontal male nudity is featured several times within the series and Marianne’s nudity is often mirrored by Connell’s nudity.
There is a further emphasis within the scene on consent. Connell reassures Marianne that they can stop at any time, continuing the dialogue throughout. Consent is recognised as something subject to change rather than as a single decisive moment in a sexual encounter. They continue to ask each other, ‘Is that okay?’, between intermediate pauses. Female pleasure is often a taboo shied away from on-screen, with women positioned as fulfillers of male desire. Instead, for Marianne and Connell, it is integral to their own enjoyment that they recognise pleasure in each other.
The role of intimacy coordinator has been scrutinised for introducing over-choreographed premises for sex scenes. Mescal commented in an interview for Dazed that “it never felt like there was a disconnect from the emotional part of the scene – it never felt clinical or creatively dead.”
The freedom to act remained untouched, but O’Brien provided the necessary inspiration for achieving naturalistic and believable sex. Throughout the series, these intimate scenes remain just as impassioned as the first. They are approached with more ease and familiarity but lose none of their original tenderness.
Revolutionising sex on screen has not stopped at Normal People. O’ Brien has also been on the set of Sex Education and Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You. There is a boldness within each series to venture into what are considered ‘taboo’ sexual topics. Sex that is awkward and fumbling is given a place in Sex Education. Heavier themes of consent and sexual abuse are voiced in I May Destroy You, unpicking the various forms assault can take. Michaela Cole’s striking acceptance speech at the Bafta’s was entirely dedicated to O’Brien: “I know what it’s like to shoot without an intimacy director. The messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew. The internal devastation for the actor. Your direction was essential to my show, and I believe essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”
Sex scenes are becoming honest, safer spaces for both actors and audiences. The future of the film and TV industry is with intimacy coordinators.
Image: Stephen Monterroso via Unsplash