After 118 days of strikes which rocked the foundations of America’s film landscape and put a pause on several high-profile productions such as Dirty Dancing and White Bird, its actors and actresses have found a shared protagonist in their union’s endorsed contract. Which singularly promises greater working conditions and most pertinently, protections against sexual harassment which we further explore here through the perspectives of its contributors. 
Lips navigating contours and hands brushing against various body parts, these are the scenes where intimacy coordinators are beginning to position themselves front and centre, and in the aftermath of SAG-AFRTRA’s negotiation with them for their agreement alongside the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, their roles are, at last, being bolstered beyond the Director’s chair too. “As the world changes, we’re trying to change the industry to match that,” intimacy coordinator Heather Ács voices to METAL.
She continues, “Because of the horrendous legacy, and often the current moment to be clear, it’s necessary, it’s of an absolute urgency that intimacy coordinators are implemented and utilised on every set, from independent to major studios. Why is this in the SAG contract? Because of activism and advocacy, that’s why.” And she’s not wrong either: sexual exploitation, particularly on the Hollywood stage, has long been an omnipresent extra. A WIF survey, for instance, whilst finding that 59% of respondents believed that the culture centred around sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct in Hollywood’s professional landscapes had ameliorated over the past year, also found that 46.2% of participants themselves, or somebody they were familiar with, had experienced abuse or delinquency in the same time-frame. It’s also pervasive across the spectrum. Back in 2017, Alex Winter said to The Guardian, “It’s a very taboo subject. I don’t know of any boys in any pocket of the entertainment industry that do not encounter some form of predatory behaviour… It’s really not a safe environment.” Looking back on this calamitous past, WIF CEO Kirsten Schaffer has conceded that “while we’ve seen improvement in the industry in the years since, there’s no denying discrimination, harassment and other misconduct still run rampant.”
“After the prominence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there suddenly became an industry wide awareness of the issue and the prominence of intimacy coordinators increased,” points out Kristina Arjona. “I wasn’t even aware of intimacy coordination as a profession before those movements in 2017.” To strip it down, this advocacy work, undertaken throughout the years, jogged through the present so that intimacy coordination could continue to move forward alongside it into the future; the contract, which was ratified on December 6th, prescribes that there should be clarity concerning anti-harassment and non-discrimination, along with forward guidance on how to report. Background actors also need to have cognisance if their part includes sexual or nude scenes ahead of their audition or interview. There’s also a prerequisite around coaching that emphasises a need to update harassment circumvention programmes to ensure best practices for sexual scenes are in position.
SAG-AFTRA has been slowly but surely working towards this breakthrough, whether through publishing a guideline of protocols for the use of intimacy coordinators, which was released back in 2020, or by assembling an enumerate of qualified professionals on their platform who are able to meet their most desired training requirements. And while those on and beyond the list are not recognised as members of the union, nor are they entitled to be, 2022 saw the SAG-AFTRA board envisage “a path forward” for intimacy coordinators to inevitably join their ranks. President Fran Drescher explained at the time, “The National Board is committed to bringing intimacy coordinators into the SAG-AFTRA family and ensuring they have the kind of benefits and protections other members already enjoy.” 
“The fact that intimacy coordinators exist at all is a huge sea change in the industry. When I was performing simulated sex scenes, or nudity in my 20s (early 2000s), the sentiment was often, you’ve done it before what’s the big deal?,” emphasises Hanna Hall. “The rise of ICs not only acknowledges that performing simulated sex scenes requires planning and safety considerations much like stunts, but also reflects the importance of having discussions about gender and sexuality making even creative choices more informed. There has been a significant cultural shift towards prioritising acceptance and gaining a deeper understanding of gender and sexuality. I think intimacy coordinators are a direct reflection of this shift.”
Chantal Cousineau, who was a consultant during the SAG-AFTRA negotiations, says that it’s important to craft and support safer workspaces for minor performers, those who are differently abled, and those of differing cultures and races. “There is much to cover,” she points out, “and this work seeks to establish a separate and more ethical approach to informed consent.” As a voice in the #MeToo movement after coming forward with accusations against a well-known director, Cousineau has since gone on to undertake intimacy and coordination work for productions such as This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy and Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick. 
What’s come from this is ultimately a changing, carnal appetite on the part of various audiences–Normal People and Sex Education being particular cases in point in their reflection of this. The former was heralded by GQ amongst various other publications as the “sexiest show on TV” that “get’s the details right,” a compliment that was paid because of the languorous spontaneity its scenes were born from, a sharp contrast to the ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ approach which dominated its predecessors. Of course, behind the scenes (or more appropriately, outside the bedroom in this circumstance), every kiss, caress and hickey had been arranged or choreographed to a T. Sex Education, meanwhile, has also rumpled the sheets. Largely thanks to the real-life storylines, observers have been persuaded to digest its various erotic scenes through. “The more generations who are in their teenage years, twenties and thirties have a cultural accountability in terms of bodily autonomy and sex-positivity, the more we’re going to see it reflected in institutions that hold power,” says Heather, the intimacy coordinator.
“Looking at sex-positivity, I identify as a sex-positive person. I’m queer, I have a background in BDSM and kink culture, I’m committed to intersectionality… so I have a particular point of view that I’m coming from,” she adds. “One of the things that I find when I walk on set— it’s always a little funny— is that people tend to sort of button up, and I say, that’s not the point; the point isn’t to water down sexuality, the point is that if we are consenting and communicating like responsible people, then the possibilities are endless. I want to see more sex on scene, more expansive gender, expansive sexuality. I say let’s make it fun, let’s make it spicy, let’s make it sexy, let’s make it sultry! I love levity in a sex scene, let’s find humour. It’s about expanding, not contracting,” she concludes.
“Sex is an integral part of the human experience,” affirms Liz LaMura, another intimacy coordinator. “An open and nonjudgmental approach to sex-positivity embraces the range of sexual expression. Bodily autonomy is a right granted to every person. It means my body is for me; my body is my own. It’s about power, agency and choice. An intimacy coordinator helps to ensure that performers feel safe when shooting a simulated sex or nudity scene,” she continues. “Listening and observing are essential skills used by an IC. Finding the precise language to use for performers is part of the job. When someone fully understands what is expected of them, there is a sense of ease and the director’s artistic vision can be realised.” Needless to say, as the lights are dimmed once again and the cameras begin to roll accompanied with roars of ‘action!’ which will undoubtedly echo across many of Hollywood’s studios, we look forward to seeing what roles intimacy coordinators gear up to support next.
Chantal Couineau - Photo: Lisa Franchot
Heather Acs - Photo: Lydia Daniller
Kristina Arjona - Photo: Chase Anderson
Liz LaMura