Let’s Talk About Sex Scenes

Countless women have been mistreated ever since sex became common on our screens. Hollywood’s newfound awareness of intimacy choreography can help change things.

The first sex scene ever filmed was not a sex scene at all. It was a kiss. And there was way less kissing than talking. May Irwins’ make out session with John Rice, a recreation of the smooch from the Broadway musical The Widow Jones, took all of one second. Filmed in 1896 at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio, the soundless footage — titled, simply, The Kiss — opens with Irwin deep in conversation with Rice. While it is impossible to tell what they are saying, the two actors appear to be discussing logistics. Thirteen seconds in they seem in agreement. Both pull back, Rice dramatically smooths out his moustache and, while Irwin is still talking, he cups her face and the two of them peck. Or, on his end, nibble. All in all, the actual moment their lips touch is almost nothing — 94 percent of the first sex scene was actually the discourse around it.

Were this to happen today, the actors would have had clearer direction. Last week Rolling Stone reported that HBO would be hiring intimacy coordinators for every show that called for it after “The Deuce” star Emily Meade, who plays a prostitute in the series, asked for help with her sex scenes. The network consulted Intimacy Directors International (IDI), a non-profit established in 2016 that represents theatre, tv and film directors and choreographers specializing in the carnal. “The Intimacy Director takes responsibility for the emotional safety of the actors and anyone else in the rehearsal hall while they are present,” their site explains, alongside a standard set of guidelines called The Pillars: context (understanding the story), communication, consent, choreography and closure (signaling the end of the scene).

The Pillars are similar to the Sex Scenes on Set guidelines endorsed by Women in Film and Television U.K., which were published in February. This was around the time the British actors’ union Equity announced that it was considering introducing standard intimacy practices. At the BAFTAs that month, actor and director Andy Serkis characterized the move as “censorship of creativity.” To that, guidelines creator Ita O’Brien uses the analogy of asking your actors to engage in a sword fight without preparation. I laugh at the prospect. “Exactly, you just laugh,” she says, “because you know how ridiculous that is and yet that’s what they’re asking people to do with sex scenes.” Where fights may inflict physical injury, however, intimacy is more likely to trigger emotional trauma, which is less quantifiable and thus less considered. It also tends to predominantly affect women.

Four years ago, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reported that female characters on film were twice as likely to appear in “sexually revealing attire” and to be partially or fully nude. And even when the appearances are equivalent, the response is not. When Margo Stilley and Kieran O’Brien had unsimulated sex in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs in 2004, it was Stilley who was deemed the bad role model. Since fucking went mainstream on screen, women have largely been the ones getting fucked over. In 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci had stars Marlon Brando, 48, and Maria Schneider, 19, engaging in violent simulated intercourse (the orgasm as “little death,” apparently) in Last Tango in Paris. Screening Sex author Linda Williams called the film, which was based on Bertolucci’s own sexual fantasies, a major event due to “the Americanization, through the body and voice of Brando, of a sexuality once associated with European sophistication.” It was a sexuality that sold out Schneider both on screen and off. Bertolucci admitted he conspired with Brando to introduce butter into the film’s infamous rape scene without telling the teenager. He said he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” And he got his wish. Schneider told The Daily Mail in 2007, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

Television wasn’t as explicit in the ’70s, but that decade ejaculated the grossly named “jiggle TV” with shows like “Charlie’s Angels” in which, presumably, no one was wearing a bra. This developed into no one wearing pants in “NYPD Blue,” which was famous for its booty shots. But it took cable’s ascent in the ’90s for TV to let it all hang out. With no FCC rules to regulate them, channels like HBO and Showtime went all the way. The sex talk in “Sex and the City” dripped into the soft core of “True Blood” and then into the real core of “Girls.” Currently, HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the show that birthed “sexposition,” is winning the battle for most exploitative cable series. Last year, Sara David at Broadly counted every instance of rape and nudity on the show and noted season 3 particularly had “numerous women killed in highly sexualized or gendered ways,” not to mention a later rape that turns consensual (as if such a thing existed). Natalia Tena, one of the many actresses who has stripped down in the series, told The Independent in 2012, “I think it’s really unfair, every actor, any actress has had her tits out. Every single actress I know. Blokes it’s like, let’s see some dick.”


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Actresses have since become more vocal about their sexualization at the office. Eryn Jean Norvill has been in court in Australia over allegations that co-star Geoffrey Rush touched her breast and called her “yummy” during a 2015 production of King Lear. “Mogulettes’” Sarah Scott filed a complaint in August alleging that her television co-star Kip Pardue put her hand on his penis during a scene in which she was only wearing underwear, before masturbating in front of her in his dressing room. And earlier this year Sarah Tither-Kaplan alleged that James Franco removed actresses’ protective plastic covering while simulating oral sex in a group scene for his film The Long Home.

But it’s not just the actors who have been accused of mishandling intimacy on set. In 2013, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos were awarded the Palme D’Or along with their director Abdellatif Kechiche for Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a film about the lifespan of a passionate lesbian relationship. Several months later, the actresses spoke out against Kechiche’s alleged abusive behavior on set including an unchoreographed 7-minute quasi-pornographic scene for which he did take after take after take of sucking, licking, slapping and scissoring. “Of course, it was kind of humiliating sometimes, I was feeling like a prostitute,” Seydoux told The Independent. She said she would never work with Kechiche again, while the director, who was recently accused by an unnamed actress of sexual assault, called the complaints “indecent.”

This is the type of situation that an intimacy director could have prevented. Tonia Sina, co-founder of Intimacy Directors International with Alicia Rodis (who works on “The Deuce”) and Siobhan Richardson, started choreographing sex scenes for theatre as a graduate student back in the early 2000s. In 2006 she wrote her thesis on staging intimacy and in 2014 published a seminal article for Fight Master magazine called “Safe Sex: A Look at the Intimacy Choreographer.” All three of the IDI founders have a background in fight choreography and while it could be considered counterintuitive for movement that is associated with connection to grow out of movement that is associated with disconnection, both disciplines require coordinating action and have the potential for injury.

U.K. intimacy expert Ita O’Brien also learned early on to model the planning of intimacy on stage combat. After realizing there were no guidelines in the U.K. while working on a play about abuse, she started developing her own four years ago. O’Brien consulted with Jennifer Ward-Lealand, the president of Equity New Zealand, which published perhaps the first official sex scene guidelines in 2015, following a panel discussion with about 80 actors and directors. “We had been hearing from a number of performers that they had experienced feeling unsafe and unsure on set or in rehearsals,” she says via email. “We believe that the more actors are educated (and thus have a sense of agency) then the less opportunity there is for exploitation or coercion.”

It is something of a happy ending (try not to) that the women who have faced exploitation for so long are now the ones providing a corrective. “If you haven’t experienced that vulnerability, it’s not even in your thoughts,” explains O’Brien, adding, “people are embarrassed and don’t know how to deal with it and so avoid it.” She has worked for Netflix, Amazon and HBO and says that the time constraints with film and television and the unclear rehearsal process make planning sex scenes harder than in theater, where there is more room for exploration. But some general rules apply at all times: having gender balance on set when a woman is performing, training actors to speak up when they feel uncomfortable — “I say your no is a gift, because then your fellow actor and the director can trust your yes,” explains O’Brien — and the capacity to stop if it all gets too intense. This goes for actresses performing assault, for instance, but also for embarrassed actors who have become inadvertently aroused — Henry Cavill, Ewan McGregor and James McAvoy have all copped to this. “It’s making it normal,” says O’Brien. “It is normal.”

Though #MeToo has been credited for Hollywood’s newfound awareness of intimacy choreography, it was President Trump’s election and sexual assault allegations that sent the discipline mainstream. “It made people more aware that they maybe in the past have overstepped some lines, and that they need re-examine the way they’re approaching their work,” Tonia Sina told The Huffington Post. Last spring, New York’s Tisch School of the Arts even introduced a Sex on Stage class. Which is not to say there are no models outside school or expert opinion. The year Chilean director Sebastián Lelio became the first Oscar winner of a trans storyline with a trans star (A Fantastic Woman), he also directed Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience. The 2017 film follows a woman (Weisz) who returns to her Orthodox Jewish community, where she engages with her childhood crush (McAdams) in one of the more lip-gnawingly scrutinized sex scenes in recent memory — all you need to know is lychee-flavored “spit” acts as surrogate ejaculate — despite the two actresses remaining clothed.

There were no details in the script, but Lelio spoke to his actresses two weeks before the shoot. He had consulted some lesbian friends and every gesture had been storyboarded. He explained why the scene had to be so long (6 minutes) and the reason for its specificity (force). On the day only a handful of people were present on set. Lelio stayed focused on his actress’ faces, making that the center of pleasure rather than their bodies. He later cut out Weisz’s character’s orgasm because it wasn’t needed. In short, he did everything right and in the end where Serkis warned of restriction came release instead. As Weisz explained to ScreenCrush, “I guess we felt safe because we knew what was required of us. We had to hit these points, and then we could abandon ourselves to doing our jobs, which was to feel. It was very vulnerable, very emotional. I’ve never done a sex scene that’s that full of emotion and longing and needing and release and desire. It was the culmination of many, many years of waiting.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.