When the scripts of Hollywood's television series and films call for outrageous and high stakes action scenes, productions recruit the industry's most talented stunt teams to coordinate their actors' performances to ensure their safety and protection. Unfortunately, that same level of caution and care hasn't always been extended to the projects that involve graphic sex scenes, putting their stars in uncomfortable and even dangerous situations — but the Screen Actors Guild is determined to change that.
Today, SAG-AFTRA announced a new initiative dedicated to promoting the safety of its members as they film intimate scenes on set. The organization, spearheaded by its president Gabrielle Carteris, shared a comprehensive guide that provides a much-needed framework for intimacy coordination in Hollywood.
Intimacy coordinators, also referred to as intimacy choreographers, are the skilled and certification-trained professionals who work to make sure that performers are comfortable while filming scenes that feature nudity and simulated sex. They are heavily involved in pre-production, working closely with the production’s cast and crew to create a safer environment for all.
The roll-out of the initiative couldn’t have come at a better time. Hollywood has long been plagued with an observable problem where consent and abuse are concerned. Since the earliest days of filmmaking, many professionals in the industry have been subjected to abuse and harassment but have chosen to suffer in silence because of their desire to continue being employable. Harassment and discomfort (especially for women) within the environment became the norm, an unfortunate but all-too common unspoken consequence of working in entertainment.
In late 2017, the #MeToo movement — a phrase initially coined by survivor and activist Tarana Burke on MySpace in the early 2000s — gathered steam after several women stepped forward with shocking sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Taking note of the shocking revelations of the movement and the countless accounts of sexual abuse and harassment in the industry, SAG-AFTRA president Carteris was eager to bring about change with an action-oriented solution. After all, as an actress herself (her acting credits include a long-term role on the beloved teen drama Beverly Hills, 9010), Carteris has also experienced her fair share of on-set discomfort.
In conversation with Refinery29, she recalled a particularly disturbing memory: “It was when I had first started in the industry, and I was doing a final test for an audition. I was with the lead guy, and in the middle of the audition, he literally stuck his tongue down my throat. It wasn’t even part of the script.”
As a young actress just starting her career, Cateris, like many in her position at the time, didn’t feel like she could protest her co-star’s behavior. “I was on camera, and I was young and just wanted to be professional,” she said. “Nobody was stopping it or telling him that he was going too far.”
“I just wish that I had known that there was an option,” she continued. “I just thought that I had to show up and be good at what I was doing or somebody else would get the job. Nobody was talking about what was going on at the time — we were just told to buck up and not act like we were uncomfortable.”
Her experience, along with the personal accounts of so many others in Hollywood, inspired Carteris to take action. She and the members of the guild began quietly working amongst themselves to develop a solution, and after years of discourse and research, they were able to come up with their list of guidelines. The guidelines, officially released to the public today, highlight the crucial role intimacy coordinators play in creating a safe and productive environment on set.
Alicia Rodis, associate director and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International and working intimacy coordinator, played a key role in the creation of these guidelines. Rodis, who got her start in acting and also worked in stunts and stage violence, decided to become an intimacy coordinator when she realized that there was a stark contrast between the way action and sex scenes were filmed.
“I would go in as a day player or as a stunt coordinator, and I would have a liason, someone to talk me through what was going on and have my back,” said Rodis. “But when I went in to do background work, being topless or doing some kind of [sexual] simulation, I had none of that communication. It struck me — there was something missing there.”
Research led her to the work of Tonia Sina, a pioneer in the world of intimacy choreography, and together, Rodis and Sinia founded Intimacy Directors International. The organization trains individuals to become intimacy coordinators on sets where performers will be hyper-exposed, providing its students with the necessary emotional, mental, and physical tools to ensure best practices.
Rodis says that SAG-AFTRA’s new protocol is about creating a definitive standard as a way to help performers know what to expect when they get on set, especially in the pre-production stage. “It’s about having those important conversations with the director, with actors, with costume, with the prop team — communicating the expectations ahead of time is a huge part of what we’re doing here.”
Intimacy Directors International and SAG-AFTRA also emphasize the necessity of recruiting people from marginalized communities to fill these positions. Certain sex scenes require a certain level of advocacy and sensitivity; a scene depicting the sexual assault of a transwoman calls for a different type of coordination than a love scene portraying the consensual, mutual first time between two Black teenagers in Chicago. Intimacy choreographers recognize those often intersectional nuances and coordinate the simulations accordingly, making sure that the participants feel empowered and safe each step of the way.
Interestingly enough, the requirements to be an intimacy coordinator involve a high level of familiarity with the production space, and as a result, many intimacy coordinators, like Rodis, have a background in acting and production. In addition, the protocol requires these individuals to pass federal and state background checks and be expertly trained in gender and sexual diversity, consent, mental health, and first aid. All of these requirements ensure that the coordinators can monitor the production process effectively and make sure that the personnel on-site are comfortable.
The standards are not yet legally-enforceable (though Carteris believes that once it has been implemented across the board, stricter regulation may follow) but its impact on the industry as we know it is already very real. Already, a number of production companies and studios are employing intimacy coordinators on their sets — Rodis very famously worked on the set of HBO’s drama The Deuce with Emily Meade and Maggie Gyllenhaal to create a safer environment. With SAG-AFTRA’s guidelines, other networks will be sure to fall in step.
“It’s a progression,” said Carteris. “We want to get this into people’s hands and get them to utilize it in their contracts and on their sets. And I think that in that utilization, people will naturally start to enforce it. The most important part of this right now is people understanding what we’re talking about and then adopting it.”
The formal release of a set of official standards and protocols is a major step forward for Hollywood, as it is a public declaration of what the industry should look like. SAG-AFTRA’s leader is certain that the guidelines will help usher in a new era by providing the industry with the language around intimacy coordination and consent.
“We have an expectation that we’ll get paid on a certain day or have breaks at a certain time — with this, I want people in this industry to be able to expect to be protected,” Carteris concluded. “I’m hoping that young people in the future of entertainment will never have to personally know the pain that we had to know in order to make this happen.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).