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Let’s Talk About Sex! (in Movies and Television)

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The #MeToo movement is sweeping every corner of our culture, so it’s no surprise to find new conversations around sex on camera and how that should be treated in a work environment. Let’s get real – the amount of shows with sexual content has grown at an explosive rate – just think about your top three favorite shows. How many have some pretty elicit sex scenes? Yah, that is what I thought. (We all know Game of Thrones was on your list! 😁 )

But what sex looks like on TV and what it’s like to make couldn’t be more opposite. As a vast generalization, here’s a behind the scenes look into attitudes about filming a sex scene.

Actors: This is the worst, I’m scared.

via GIPHY

Director: Kill me now, I don’t know what sex is supposed to look like.

via GIPHY

Producers: Here’s one more headache to deal with.

via GIPHY

Audience: More, more, more! Is that real?

via GIPHY

I’m elated to tell you about a new position in the industry that is filling the gap when it comes to awkwardness, uncertainty, and straight up ignorance about sex on screen. It’s called an Intimacy Coordinator. Duties include choreographing physical action and touch, not shying away from uncomfortable conversations between Actors, Directors and Producers, and ensuring the physical and emotional safety of everyone involved. Recently, The Washington Post did a write up about it and Huffington Post published this video.

Let’s Talk with an Intimacy Coordinator

I am hella-stoked to have spoken with Kristen Elizabeth Knittles, an Intimacy Coordinator Apprentice (she’s in training with one of the top IC’s in the industry) who works in Portland and up and down the west coast. Here are some portions of an interview I did with Kristen.

Q: What’s your story? How did you get here?

My father was a professional film critic, so I grew up on studio lots at special screenings and premieres. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I began acting at 8 and became a professional model and actor in my late teens. In those days (late 80’s, early 90’s) erotica was huge and every studio was pumping out low budget erotica films. I took the advice of my agent and took starring roles that included a lot of simulated sex. It was awful! There wasn’t a single job I worked on where I wasn’t sexually harassed or assaulted. At the worst of it, a fellow actor was trying to rape me on camera and after calling cut myself to tell the Director what was happening under the sheets – HE DID NOTHING. The Director called a 10-minute break and took no action to tell the other actor to behave differently. I was expected to behave differently, not him. And this was not a unique situation. This was the norm. Needless to say, after these experiences, I no longer felt safe in the industry and walked away from my budding career in Hollywood.

After leaving, I taught acting in multiple states and locations, then opened up a small chain of pole dancing studios which I ran for over 5 years. In doing so, I became a sort of pseudo sex therapist and sex choreographer to private clients looking to spice up their relationship. Then, when I was finishing up my degree in Film Studies and working on my senior thesis on the female gaze, I watched the show Outlander and got onto some fan groups online. The conversations were shocking! Fans actually believed that the actors were having real sex! I immediately posted about how sex scenes are filmed. Within 24 hours of that post and after hundreds of responses and requests, I created a private group for women to openly ask me anything about sex, filmmaking, or more specifically, filming sex. It’s become a private invite-online community where I’ve supplied advice to women with all sorts of sex-related questions for years.

So, putting my entire body of work together, it seems logical that I was drawn to the work of an Intimacy Coordinator. I was already doing most of the work, just without the cameras.

After some social media talk about a need for an Intimacy Coordinator in Portland, I reached out to Ita O’Brien who sent me to Alicia Rodis the Intimacy Coordinator for HBO and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International. After hearing my personal story, Alicia immediately took me under her wing and began training me officially.

SIDEBAR: Talk about women empowering women – high fives to these amazing ladies for helping each other out. Together we rise!

Q: What advantages does an Intimacy Coordinator bring to the director, actors and producers?

The biggest advantage, aside from knowing how to choreograph simulated sex for the camera – which is not at all as easy as it sounds – is that the Intimacy Coordinator is trained to have the uncomfortable conversations. For example, an actor is trying to figure out how to perform thrusting during intercourse without genital contact. The Intimacy Coordinator is able to talk the actor through the techniques while not making the actor feel embarrassed for having to bring up the question. An Intimacy Coordinator is akin to a sex therapist but for simulated sex.

Q: What are the rates and how does this position relate to SAG?

Intimacy Coordinator is too new to have an official union contract, but we are absolutely working toward that goal. Since the role of an Intimacy Coordinator is parallel to that of Stunt Coordinator, the wages are matched with Stunt Coordinator wages. However, indie films that need Intimacy Coordinator’s will generally be able to work something out, case by case in accordance with their budget. It’s up to the Intimacy Coordinator whether or not they decide to take the lower paying, or no-pay jobs.  I work with Intimacy Directors International  who is certifying Intimacy Coordinators so that there is a standard protocol with set expectations. Hiring Intimacy Coordinators who have gone through the actual training is incredibly important because the actors emotional and physical well-being are at stake.

Q: If there is one thing you think people should know about this line of work, what is it?

The sex that you see on screen is not real, it’s not easy to perform, and it’s not at all sexy in the making. Intimacy Coordinators are filling a large hole that Actors and Directors have had to navigate themselves throughout the history of film and television. It’s like finally having a math tutor after you’ve tried to figure out algebra too many times on your own.

My Thoughts

We have Dialect Coaches, Stunt Coordinators, and more to help with tough things to do on set. It only makes sense for someone to be there for the sex stuff too. I believe these women are making Hollywood history. I thank them for their courage as they shine the way for actors, studios and producers as the #MeToo movement changes our industry forever.

Have you worked with an Intimacy Coordinator? I would love to hear your personal experience. Find me as Alyssa Roehrenbeck (FB) and @pdxalyssa (IG & Twitter).

Alyssa Roehrenbeck

About Alyssa Roehrenbeck

Alyssa Roehrenbeck is a get-shit-done type person with a fun loving, goofy side. She believes in working hard and playing hard – at the same time. As an Actress and Producer, she began at a young age by adapting and organizing neighborhood plays based on the popular American Girls collection (yes, really). She and her pals rehearsed, constructed hodge-podge costumes and then charged parents for admission and popcorn. After graduating from studies in Theater and Business, she’s honed her skills as not only a writer and actress, but as a smart and fearless Producer. She has Produced feature films like Seaside (starring Ariana DeBose from Broadway’s, The Donna Summer Musical & Hamilton), OK KO Game Jam for Cartoon Network, Misfits (starring Paige McKenzie) for Disney’s Free Period, and loads of web series and viral content, including The Drunk Show. For more information and current projects, head over to Deep Sea Pictures.