Tension and Intention:
How Streaming Services and Intimacy Coordinators Are Changing The Sex We See on TV
Long before America had access to the internet, online porn, and OnlyFans, it focused its censorship efforts on everything except gratuitous violence.
Mainstream television, under pressure from various conservative organizations and lobbyists, held pretty fast to the notion that protecting a woman from her sexuality extended to suggestions of just-starting or just-finished coitus, and hiding everything below her collar bone under a suspiciously L-shaped bed sheet. If people were having wild, unadulterated sex they certainly didn’t want their audiences knowing about it. While we are still behind in showing full-spectrum representation and honest depictions of sex and sexuality on television, streaming services have begun to open the gates. Season 2 of Pose brought us the very moving lovemaking scene between Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Ricky Wintour (Dyllón Burnside), two gay Black men living with HIV.
After it aired and sparked a dialogue about representation in television, Porter told The Hollywood Reporter, “That's what I love so much about television — because of multiple episodes, multiple hours, we get to see characters evolve and grow and live in a more real-time fashion.” Pose, originally owned by cable TV network FX, also streams on Netflix.
Another network that has chosen to evolve and grow and live in a more real-time fashion is HBO, which released I May Destroy You in June of 2020. The show is created, written, co-directed, and executive produced by Michaela Coel, who also plays up-and-coming writer Arabella Essiedu.
During a scene where Arabella and her date—Biagio—begin hooking up, she informs him that she has just started her period and her flow is heavy. Biagio, a cis-hetero male, is not bothered. He is, in fact, so completely fascinated by the freshly shed uterine lining sitting on the towel they’re about to have sex on that he starts marveling at the gooey blood clot, saying, “Wow, it’s so soft.”
Although his initial reaction is one of shock, it is a relief to watch him suddenly shift into a childlike wonder at something that he already understands and accepts as a normal experience for anyone with a uterus. And this is after he asks if he may remove her tampon, and she obliges.
It’s a relief, and it’s also refreshing to see this kind of acceptance on the latest streaming service content. Hulu and Netflix are not beholden to television network head the way mainstream networks are, and can therefore get away with showing and saying more. Thanks to creators like Coel who are pushing for more representation, more integrity, and less stigma in serial television, we can finally start sharing the parts of art that imitate our lives, and vice versa, potentially creating more honest dialogue.
The conscious and careful effort that goes into recreating moments like that period scene does an enormous service to those of us who, frankly, are a little exhausted from hiding behind socially constructed taboos. And scenes of such a highly delicate matter are made possible with the care and precision of intimacy coordinators.
Not to be confused with an intimacy coach, who assists people with sexual problems, intimacy coordinator is a relatively new role to the film and television industry, which is beginning to grow legs.
“My job is to eliminate surprises when a director hasn’t planned out their sex scenes,” says intimacy coordinator and consent educator Mia Schachter. “Historically, a scene involving nudity, or partial nudity, is something people are left to deal with on the day it’s filmed, which makes no sense to me. You don’t do that with a stunt scene or with a scene involving animals. Why should a very intimate sex scene be treated with less care?”
At its core, the role of an intimacy coordinator encompasses advocating for performers who are not emotionally or mentally prepared for what a director is asking, thus introducing a political activist element to the choreography and theater of filming a sex scene. “So much of what’s written in a script is ‘and then they have sex.’ Something’s missing here. What do you want the arc of the scene to be?”
Amberly Rothfield has done similar work within the porn industry and echoes Schachter’s sentiment. “Is the sex about the act or the story? Where are the performers drawing their boundaries, and is the director respecting them? Everyone involved should have a clear understanding of what’s being asked, and whether or not certain needs can be met without disrespecting the performer and their boundaries.”
Because Schachter has used her background in dance and theater to inform her work as an intimacy coordinator, she has a clear understanding of power dynamics on set. “All directors should be trauma-informed, full stop. For example, I’m not going to tell a non-binary person they have to wear a bra if they don’t want to.”
She teaches classes in intimacy coordination through Centaury Co., which was co-founded alongside Yehuda Duenyas, who shares much of Schachter’s approach to the burgeoning role of intimacy coordinator.
“The sexiness we currently see in television has evolved in the last 10 years,” says Duenyas. “There’s definitely a greater amount of different types of sexual variety and representation in media, which gives a real opportunity for character development to happen through the lens of intimacy. It says a lot about a character.”
While it’s great that television is starting to lean more into the current taxonomy of different sexual representations, there is still quite a lot that is untapped and worth exploring. While it’s up to the director to show the parts of the character that are integral to the story, those choices also affect the integrity of the story as a whole.
“The period scene in I May Destroy You illuminates the human experience while dealing with a heteronormative American representation, and it does it really well,” says Duenyas. “I’m a cis hetero male who has been in those situations with a partner, and that was my reaction, too. It was really nice to finally see that done in a really respectful way.”
Some directors might argue that their work won’t have integrity if the story can’t be told how they want, despite a performer’s objection to a nude scene. Duenyas argues, “There’s a million ways to tell a story. You don’t have to show everything to see everything. There’s a lot of space in between to create stories that carry a lot of impact.”
Similar to Schachter, Duenyas comes to intimacy coordination from a theater background. “I started in 2007, and I was responsible for directing some very intense sex scenes. It’s especially intense in a theater setting where you have to repeat yourselves.”
He also agrees that a trauma-informed director “knows how to get actors to start telling deeper stories because you get to move further into the true purpose of the story and character.”
Part of pushing those stories further involves removing stigma and increasing representation. Therein lies the challenge of showing more truthful content while making the sets that content is created on a lot safer. “So much of what we’ve seen is one of two types of sex — sexual or kinky. In keeping with Mia’s stunt coordinator analogy, if you’re trying to throw someone through a glass window, you’ll have a more effective scene if you have someone to tell you what goes into making it effective.”
Schachter echoes, “What I would love to see is people wanting to tell those kinds of honest stories because they think they’re important, and bringing intimacy coordinators into the conversation a lot sooner to establish what’s best for everyone involved.”
There are still certain things that are considered “porn” in a SAG-AFTRA production, namely mouth-to-genital, or genital-to-genital contact. “None of that has been allowed. Now there’s so much more to oversee to make something believable,” she says.
“There’s a lot of paperwork and protocols,” laughs Duenyas. “There’s so much to consider — how do you want to mask things? What kinds of genital barriers are in place? There are a lot of different plates to keep spinning and it’s only you on set. And the subject matter can be sensitive. There are a lot of things we do to make a safe container.”
There has been a push for SAG-AFTRA to include intimacy coordinators as skilled artists on set, given the need to understand negotiating the dynamic between the actor and the production.
Duenyas says, “We are starting to develop protocols with SAG to establish what those
standards and practices are, so that when people are trained to be certified, they know what they’re doing. And with an intimacy coordinator’s understanding, productions are more informed.”
As we collectively continue to evolve and grow and live in a more real-time fashion, intimacy coordination, as we are coming to know it, has the potential to shape storytelling so that integrity is never lost on a set again. “We know that we are way more nuanced than what we’ve been shown, and now we’re beginning to tell more real stories in a more dynamic way because of the work intimacy coordinators do.”
Mia and Yehuda’s training company, Centaury Co., will be offering training classes for underrepresented intimacy coordinators in 2021. Follow them on Instagram for more information.
Centaury Co.: @centaury.co
Yehuda Duenyas: @xxxy_1
Mia Schachter: @consentwizard
Jimanekia Eborn: @jimanekia