My homework for the week was to say no — and I couldn’t stop apologizing for it.”No, I don’t want to listen to your sad-boy music,” I told my boyfriend as he picked up our car’s aux cord. “I’m the driver, and I want to listen to Dua Lipa.” (Sorry.) “No, I can’t use my last seven PTO days to go on a trip with you,” I told my mom on the phone. (My bad.) And when the editor of this story asked if my draft was ready, I Slacked back, “Nope, not yet. I need a few more days.” (Okay, in this case I actually was sorry.) I know that no means no. No is, as Instagram infographics have informed us for years, a full sentence. So why did I feel so bad about saying it?
Answering that question led me to seek out Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC), a two-year-old organization that teaches and educates individuals and institutions in the ways intimacy is presented in live performance, television, and film. Though there is no formal path required to become an intimacy coordinator or director (yet), IDC provides a certification program for behind-the-scenes choreographers who ensure that actors are able to consent to performing staged acts during intimate scenes. The group offers four levels, all of which are required for certification, and one-off workshops like Decolonization & Care in Intimacy Choreography and Digging Deeper Into Boundaries. I signed up for Foundations of Intimacy, a remote (due to COVID) workshop that took place over four weeks in three-hour class segments.
Shows like Euphoria, Insecure, and Sex Education all have intimacy coordinators on set. (When the professional works for onstage productions, not those onscreen, they are referred to as intimacy directors.) And some of them have outsize reputations: Ita O’Brien has been lauded for her work staging realistic hookups between inexperienced teens in Normal People, and all that Bridgerton bodice-ripping stayed safe thanks to coordinator Lizzy Talbot.
If you consider the 130-plus years of film history, it’s a relatively new job. Only this past summer did SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents film and TV performers, open its membership to about 40 intimacy coordinators. But there have always been behind-the-scenes advocates — they just weren’t always getting paid for it.
“People have been doing this work unofficially for a long time on TV and film sets and in rehearsal
rooms,” says Karim Muasher, a New York-based intimacy director for two years, who started his career as an actor and theater educator. “It may have been someone in wardrobe making sure an actor had a robe to put on between takes of filming a sex scene, a fight director being asked to choreograph a scene of sexual violence, or a stage manager checking in with an actor after rehearsal to make sure they’re really comfortable with the partial nudity being requested by the director.”
But, Muasher adds, many point to Tonia Sina’s 2006 graduate thesis “Intimacy Encounters: Staging Intimacy and Sensuality,” which applied the principles of fight choreography to staging safer sex scenes, as being pivotal for turning this helping position into a legitimate career choice. Especially when #MeToo laid bare the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, and exploitation in Hollywood, producers scrambled to hire intimacy professionals.
These professionals are in the business of agency, of putting autonomy in the hands of cast and crew on a stage or set. For my own narrative, in the scenes of my work and personal life, I wanted to teach myself how to demand more. Paradoxically, demanding more starts with saying yes to less, says Jessica Steinrock, PhD, an intimacy coordinator and CEO of IDC. “There is a historical expectation that women have to manage the emotions of the people around them,” she explains. “There’s a hosting mentality where it’s our responsibility to make sure that everyone is having a nice time.”
It is possible to escape this trap. Dr. Steinrock says she’s become much better at asserting boundaries through considering consent. She’s found that saying no to the things she simply doesn’t want to do can be an act of kindness to others, even if they don’t realize it at first. “It
helps me be conscious and courteous,” she says. “I can protect myself and set boundaries for how I want to be treated.”
My IDC class consisted of me and a few dozen folks getting together on Thursday nights. We learned the pillars of consent: context (everyone must understand the story they are asked to perform); communication (between directors, actors, and an intimacy coordinator/director); consent (which is given freely and can be taken away at any time); choreography (every scene of intimacy must be performed the same way for each take); and closure (a small exercise, like breath work, performers try at the end of a rehearsal to signify moving on).
The class was mostly actors, but a few directors, college professors, and mental health professionals had signed up too. The instructors were all working intimacy directors and coordinators. We listened to their lectures and also worked in small groups to talk about our experiences with consent in our lives and in the workplace. We played games that revolved around saying no. One was like tag, where the “it” person had to go around and ask classmates if they’d like to take over. We learned how to be patient, going around and around respecting the nos until someone decided (freely and without pressure) to take over. We took notes. We learned the basics of what an intimacy professional does: advocate, liaise, and choreograph. We mused on past experiences in which we could have done more to create a “mutual space,” or a place where consent can be freely given, denied, or revoked. We recalled times we had power in our own life and regretted when we didn’t use it to lift others with us.
Many of us came to class with the best intentions. We wanted to keep people “comfortable.” That’s a mistake, our teacher said. So often producers hire intimacy professionals to make sure “everyone’s comfortable” on set, but as our teacher noted, good art doesn’t come from a place of comfort. An intimacy professional’s job is to make sure that even if people are a little uncomfortable, they never feel unsafe. “The biggest misconception is that intimacy directors and coordinators are the sex police,” Muasher tells me. “We are not here to say no to everything and censor content. Our goal is to find a way to get to yes while working within everyone’s boundaries.”