It’s the middle of the night in Manhattan’s West Village, and it hasn’t stopped raining for hours. I’m on location for a film shoot, in a small room that could more accurately be described as a solarium: all four walls and ceiling are made entirely of thick glass. The noisy rain surrounds us; inside we’re very calmly filming a queer BDSM scene.
I’m here as the on-set Intimacy Coordinator (IC) for an indie movie, my very first in-person gig since being vaccinated for COVID-19. The screenwriter-director hired me a few years back to give notes on her script about queer artists making kinky feminist porn. After we hit it off, she also connected me to one of my first IC gigs, for a genderqueer off-Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire (I like to say once you’ve discussed power and gender in Tennesee Williams sex scenes, you feel pretty invincible). Around the same time, I was brought onto the set of the groundbreaking TV show Pose as a dominatrix tech expert. The more I work in this field, the more I realize what a perfect match it is for someone like me: an artist with a background in the sex industry.
I’ve just had an hour of private rehearsal with the two actors portraying porn stars, and now they are in costume, their hair glamorous, fake sweat glistening. I hold their “modesty” robes and notice something about the actress’ lingerie that makes me stop the entire shoot. I call for the makeup professional to come onto the closed set with safety scissors. My whoremothers, the women who trained me in dungeons and on porn sets almost two decades ago in the Bay Area, would never forgive me for allowing this actress to be filmed with the tags still on her lingerie!
Intimacy Coordination is about comfort, and boundaries, and respect, and mitigating risk; and it’s also about taking sexuality seriously as an art form.
This is a small but meaningful example of the attention to detail I bring to IC work, the things I notice because I know what sex work is like when it’s not just a metaphor. I know how it feels to watch a film about the sex industry and see inaccuracies large and small. These sloppy misrepresentations make me feel like my community is being reduced to (often harmful) pop culture tropes. Intimacy Coordination is about comfort, and boundaries, and respect, and mitigating risk; and it’s also about taking sexuality seriously as an art form.
While we have more celebrities than ever (Cardi B and Janet Mock the most powerful among them) who are out and proud about their backgrounds in the sex industry, we need to take these fields — BDSM pros, strippers, cam models, pornographers, full-service providers — much more seriously as a source of highly employable skill sets. Especially as those professions continue to be stigmatized and criminalized. I bring the communication techniques and aesthetic training I learned from my marginalized community into the world of cultural representation. And that matters.
While there are some organizations that have developed accreditation programs, IC work is still a very new field. Film and television unions like SAG-AFTRA are still developing IC standards in conjunction with existing protections like nudity riders and modesty garments. This leaves space for sex workers to influence the narrative.
For me, IC work is something between a sensitivity reader, ensuring authenticity in choreography and character; a stunt coordinator there to construct conditions of physical (and emotional) safety; and a sort of on-set culture critic there to help the cast and crew appreciate what I call embodied fictions. Like sex work, it’s also emotional labor, improvized creativity, and willingness to push past the taboos of what should be spoken in ways that can interrogate the standard flow of power.
A colleague of mine, Olivia Troy, comes to Intimacy Coordination after seventeen years practicing professional BDSM. She’s brought authenticity and impressive gear to the TV shows Billions and Bonding among others. After getting certified through Intimacy Professionals Association she founded Reps on Set, which she describes as “a production consultancy focused on better representation of minoritized and historically excluded groups in film and television through script review, cultural and intimacy coordinating, and casting support.”
She tells me that working in BDSM has prepared her to “understand how to meet productions — from the actor to the director, producers, and showrunner — where they are.” Whether the filmmakers have worked with ICs or not, Troy says it’s important to reconize the level of experience the actors have with sex scenes. “Some actors, especially those who may be doing their first onscreen simulated sex or nude scene, may need far more care and hand holding than a veteran performer who simply needs the space and structure that a good IC provides to do their job safely. “
“Much like in BDSM,” she continues, “which is grounded in connection and compatibility, I really believe that there’s no such thing as ‘the best’ intimacy coordinator, so much as it’s who is the IC that’s the best for your production. Does your IC’s experience, on or off set, reflect key aspects of the story you’re telling? Who has a style that meshes with how your set runs and what your actors need?”
Here are four lessons I learned from my time as a professional dominatrix and pornographer that exemplify the reasons more producers should hire sex workers for Intimacy Coordination jobs.
1. Negotiation, Safe Words, Aftercare
One of the first things I learned when I started working in a professional dungeon in the mid-aughts was how to communicate with clients before, during, and after sessions. Even the fact that we called sessions “scenes” points to the theatricality inherent in kink.
In IC work, Negotiation is less about mutual desire and more about having these overwhelming conversations ahead of time so the actors are best able to be uninhibited when practicing their craft.
I learned to Negotiate with my “scene partner” in a neutral setting (for us that meant meeting fully clothed in a parlor where we were surrounded by house plants rather than genitorture equipment). These days, it’s even advisable to conduct such negotiations over (encrypted) email, where everyone can take the time to contemplate one another’s desires and boundaries, where they do and do not overlap.
In IC work, Negotiation is less about mutual desire and more about having these overwhelming conversations ahead of time so the actors are best able to be uninhibited when practicing their craft. Acting and BDSM have at least one thing in common: learning to hone control in some ways so that you can lose control in others.
Probably the best-known tenant of BDSM Negotiation is the Safe Word: codes like Red and Yellow that stand for Stop or Slow Down precisely so we can say No! but mean Yes, Keep Going, I Fucking Love This! Sadomasochism pain scales such as 1 for light feathery touch and 10 for intolerable agony are also useful short-hand for intensity on set.
As for Aftercare, I like to encourage actors to plan for the likely comedown from an intense day on the job. It’s important to plan ahead with healthy and sustainable ways to integrate the high that comes from creating something extraordinary. For some, a long run or hedonistic pampering day might do the trick. For others, it might be intimate time with a real-life partner (or some solo sex!), a great meal, or simply rest.
2. Physical arousal doesn’t always correspond with desire
The thing everyone is worried about but no one knows how to discuss when filming a simulated sex scene is: what if someone gets a boner?! I like to begin addressing this by pointing out that more than just hard penises can be an emotionally confusing indication of physical arousal.
Regardless of gender or genitals, most human bodies have endocrine systems that release hormones and autonomic nervous systems that can be activated by all sorts of stimulation. A body can get wet, sweaty, flushed, smelly, and more; sometimes it has nothing to do with actual sexual interest. Sometimes a body just responds, like; oh, this is what we’re doing now?
This is not to say a body always tells truths that transcend the will of the person, which is an insidious trope of rape culture. The point is, internalizing shame for the natural ways our bodies react is not the path towards a safe, liberated respectful workplace. All bodily responses, like all feelings, are valid. Ethics is about taking responsibility for how we allow our bodies and feelings to influence our behavior.
These responses can lead to discomfort for the person with the body, their scene partner, and the crew. As someone who has spent years honing the ability to hold erotic space that has nothing to do with my personal sexual interest or needs, I am well versed in the things bodies do that don’t connect with our minds. Many sex workers I know have stories of orgasms, erections, pheromones, and more that emerged from sessions with people they didn’t find attractive or situations they didn’t find arousing. Your mind knows you’re a character or persona, but your body doesn’t always get with the program.
So how do sex workers deal with this discomfort? Pragmatism helps. Breath mints, deodorant, and air fresheners can take the edge off of weirder sensory experiences: I recommend discussing with your partner if they have a preference for Axe Bodyspray or organic essential oils. When the sex is simulated, performers use modesty garments, whether DIY’d or purchased from specialists, which help pad the body in much the same way a stunt person requires; highlighting the fact that a sex scene can be treated like any action sequence, with the same level of consideration for safety and authenticity. Finally, it’s important that performers are empowered to take breaks to get some privacy, breathe, and stay hydrated so they can create something that feels beautifully real to the audience.
Risk is essential for both adventure and art.
3. There’s no such thing as a safe space
Anyone who has ever thrown a sex party knows it’s impossible to offer a completely safe space. Risk is essential for both adventure and art. What you can do is plan to mitigate harm. Come up with tools and techniques to handle dangerous situations.
The trust in the safety net means you can take those graceful tightrope steps without being distracted by what will happen if you fall. If we train in the proper use of a parachute, we can build up the nerve to experience what it’s like to literally jump out of a plane.
It’s up to the most vulnerable people in the situation to set limits and boundaries, and up to everyone else to respect them. I encourage actors to identify what makes them feel respected, and what makes them feel emotionally unsafe. I suggest setting boundaries together to demonstrate trust.
Scene partners can let one another know if they would prefer to be called by a character name or the name they usually use. They can identify places they prefer to never be touched, like a foot or back of the neck. And during a scene, actors should always ask before touching; I suggest practicing taking a deep breath and pause after asking, so you don’t end up doing that obnoxious thing where you touch as you ask if it’s ok to touch!
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the resurgence of #MeToo in Hollywood over the past five years, from the countless people working in entertainment who have been exposed for their abuses, it’s that we could all get some training in restorative justice.
And the entire production needs a protocol for how to handle transgressions of these boundaries. A transgression could mean entitlement to touch someone’s body, or a crew member mistakenly misgendered a colleague. How do each cast and crew collectively want to respond to those mistakes?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the resurgence of #MeToo in Hollywood over the past five years, from the countless people working in entertainment who have been exposed for their abuses, it’s that we could all get some training in restorative justice. A lot of famous and powerful people are really, really bad at accepting the consequences of their actions. Accountability begins with knowing how to sincerely say you’re sorry.
4. Representation matters: what you’ve seen shows you what is possible
I like to start my sessions with actors by asking them about a memorable or favorite sex scene from a movie. Mine, since you asked, is Bound (1996), a scene of butch bottoming between two queer characters, written and directed by two queer women, famously choreographed by queer sex writer Susie Bright; this is a film created by people who understand dyke cruising, leather subcultures, and hand sex! This question is a great ice-breaker that teaches me so much about what an artist values: romance, symbolism, raunch, or seeing themselves onscreen in a way they never had before (as I did with Bound).
My theory is that so many cinematic sex scenes are bad because people are afraid to blur the lines between their own desires and the fiction they’re embodying. This is true of sex writing and fine art, too; creators use the lowest common denominator stand-ins for sexuality so they don’t risk being exposed.
On the other hand, some of the worse stories of exploitation in Hollywood have to do with directors allegedly manipulating their performers into their own power gratification. Sharon Stone claims that she didn’t know where Paul Verhoven positioned the camera when she uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct. Maria Schneider has spoken out about feeling raped by the notorious and unscripted butter scene in Last Tango in Paris. And the less said about the treatment of the actresses in Blue is the Warmest Color the better. It’s completely unethical to withhold information to trick actors into getting the performance you want. It disrespects their humanity, and it disrespects their abilities as storytellers.
The more we know that the sex scenes we watch in film and porn scenes we stream online are supported by transparent production ethics, the more we will be able to enjoy what we’re seeing without being distracted by worry that someone is being exploited against their will.
“‘Clear boundaries, no limits,’ was a maxim for my BDSM play and it applies just as well to my work as an intimacy coordinator.
The solarium scene ended up better than any of us could have dreamt. Dramatic rain against transparent walls contrasted gorgeously with the tenderness between the characters (even if it was a pain for the sound guy!) After watching many takes in real-time, I repositioned myself to see through the camera person’s monitor, and realized something that took my breath away; how all these craftspeople could take a scene between a fictional pro domme and her fictional submissive and transform it with the language of film. Knowing firsthand that the actors felt safe and supported made me hopeful about the future of all entertainment industries.
As Troy says, “‘Clear boundaries, no limits,’ was a maxim for my BDSM play and it applies just as well to my work as an intimacy coordinator. I like to establish the field of what is (and isn’t) possible before a scene starts so that once we’re in the flow, there’s no uncertainty, just creativity.”
An “intimate” scene has infinite possibilities; it can have any tone and meaning for the characters, story, or aesthetics of the movie. It can be gratuitous, humorous, romantic, manipulative. It can be about how well the characters know one another, or how much they don’t, or how much they think they do. So in making these scenes, how do artists discuss technicalities like thrusting style or the believability of a performed orgasm without veering into inappropriateness?
I don’t have all the answers (yet!), but I know one thing for certain: professionals need to talk about sex scenes, drag these topics out of the realm of unspoken taboos and transform them into strategies. It’s the only way to reduce harm, and it’s the only way we’re going to get great art worthy of the liberated future culture we’re all trying to build.