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Coordinated: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
The very first time you met me on this podcast, I told you about my earliest memory of sex on screen. It was in 1997 at an afternoon showing of Titanic in the mall movie theater. It was a while before I ever knew the difference between sex on screen and sex in the real world, but I have no doubt that all the media I consumed left a massive imprint. Ten seasons of Friends; too many bad episodes of Grey's Anatomy, ER, and The O.C. made me think that sex is pretty much always one way: clean, easy, and involving vaginal penetration.

But, it's just not. It's messy. Human. There are fluids and noise. And it's only been really recently that I've started seeing more examples of that kind of sex on TV. And that's in large part due to a growing field of professionals who are invited on set to think about context, consent, and communication. Welcome to the world of intimacy coordinators.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao. Making sure a sex scene looks artful and effortless while keeping actors well being in mind requires the work of experts.

Mia Schachter
I often think about sexiness almost like a musical number, where the musical numbers further the plot and they further the character arc — they show you something about these people. I think a really effective, sex scene tells you something about the people and furthers the story.

Anita Rao
That's Mia Schachter. They're a consent educator and an intimacy coordinator. Their portfolio of work includes shows like Grey's Anatomy, Perry Mason, and Euphoria. Their job on set as an intimacy coordinator is part movement coach, part mediator and part sex educator.

Mia Schachter
What we're doing is — we're establishing with the director, what they're hoping to see and how they would like to tell the story, visually. And then, we're touching base with the actors and really working with them to figure out what their boundaries are, where their comfort is, to sort of, you know, answer any questions that they might have - answer any fears that they might have - that's how we work through our prep at the beginning.

We're looking at the whole script — we're talking to the actors about their boundaries, so that we can then facilitate a conversation between actors and have a rehearsal, a private rehearsal with the director and the actors on the day of shooting, and make sure that we are planning ahead and getting specific about what it is that we're going to do, so that actors can truly give informed consent.

Anita Rao
The field of intimacy coordination is relatively new. It's been around for a while in theatrical productions, but the demand for intimacy coordinators in Hollywood specifically has skyrocketed in the past few years — fueled by the MeToo movement and reports of sexual misconduct on and off set — actors, directors and crew, who've been in the industry for a long time, aren't always used to having someone around in this kind of position. And it can take some getting used to. So, part of Mia's job is being really clear about their role.

Mia Schachter
Our job is to eliminate surprises to the best of our ability because that shock is where there's a lot of potential for trauma and harm. Historically, sex scenes and nudity have been scenes that have been, you know — like the can gets kicked down the road, like we'll figure it out on the day, or like, you know, this person will figure it out, or we'll let the actors figure it out - and we're really trying to avoid that, so that we can build trust and then build a structure in which actors can play.

Something that has really changed my life from this work is the idea that within a structure, I feel a lot more room to explore and be creative. And that's the feedback that I so often get from actors. There's this fear that having an intimacy coordinator might stifle creativity, or neuter a scene or sensor a scene, and I've really seen it be the complete opposite —where people feel so much more free to flow with each other because they know what's off limits and what's sort of on the menu — so to speak.

Anita Rao
What boundaries are and how you respect them — that's work I've been doing in therapy for the past decade, and it's just one part of the job of intimacy coordination.

Teniece Divya Johnson
I often remind everyone that boundaries don't have to be — they don't have to cause blood or break bones in order to be a boundary, it can be something that makes you uncomfortable. And that takes you out of the spirit of the work that you're in.

Anita Rao
That's Teniece Divya Johnson. Their a stunt performer and also an intimacy coordinator. You'll see their name on shows like Pose and Succession.

Teniece Divya Johnson
It's been really interesting to go into a workplace and introduce new terminologies such as consent or boundaries, and then ask people in real time to then enact them. I'd also like to expand our definition of intimacy. Too often we define it as simulated sex acts on camera — when the definition of intimacy is familiarity or closeness. So, any type of relationship you have has some level of intimacy. So, we're able to help people with chemistry on camera and engage in closeness and touch — we should always be asking before that, so it's not just the scenes that are labeled 'steamy time.' It's really nice when a production allows you access to all the pages, and then you can show all the wonderful ways in which you can be of service.

Anita Rao
When Teniece first learned about the field of intimacy coordination, it actually brought up some difficult memories — memories of trauma they experienced on set that nobody had ever tried to prevent, or even acknowledge.

Teniece Divya Johnson
I'm a stunt performer. I'm pretty tough. But, it's funny to think when abuse happens that, you know, we literally go into trauma responses. And so, you may behave in ways you didn't expect — and you may be in a process where you're not allowed to process that. And you just have to move on to the next thing, so that you're that good actor, or people want to work with you again, or what have you — and through this process, I've learned I wasn't alone in the harm that I experienced.

It's been really exciting to learn that, collectively, we all come from a place of hurt or healing — and I found a lot of hope in the fact that we could do things differently. So, I started following people that were doing the work. I never thought I, personally, would get involved. I was just so mesmerized seeing these actors — I don't know, kind of like burst open into new shapes and find new ways to express themselves when given 'no' as an option.

Anita Rao
Talking to people about sensitive topics is not always easy. Trust me, I should know. So, I asked to Teniece and Mia how they approach those conversations about sex, nudity and boundaries with actors and directors.

Teniece Divya Johnson
I find the best approach is to meet people where they are. No one came to work for a PhD in consent. They're all moving like a freight train towards the destination. So, we meet them where they are, introduce gently some new tools that may be helpful, and this can be a sensitive area — we're talking about veteran directors, we're talking about veteran performers, we're talking about producers that have been doing this forever. So, when we're introducing new tools, it's really important that we're engaging people in a sense of curiosity and wonder, and far, far away from feelings of shame or guilt.

Anita Rao
Mia, does that mean establishing, I guess, some kind of closure aspect? Like is there an aspect to the end-of-the-day of filming where you check in with people and see how things felt, and see if they want to do things differently the next day? Is that something that is part of your role?

Mia Schachter
Yeah, I love to have a check in afterwards. And sort of depending on the scene and my relationship with the actors that will look different. I definitely like to check in and ask especially if, you know, if I've never worked with someone before — how was that for you? Is there anything that I can make sure happens or doesn't happen next time? For a lot of people, working with an intimacy coordinator is really, really new. And if they've been doing this for a long time, I'm trying to toe the line between, you know, staying out of their way and supporting their process without interrupting it. And so, those can be conversations before and after.

Anita Rao
The work of intimacy coordinators is often invisible to viewers, until it isn't — when you're sitting in your sweats, pressing play on that third episode in a row of Sex Education or Bridgerton — you're reaping the benefits of their behind-the-scenes work. To see sex on screen that is real, human, and much closer to what happens in your bedroom than what you saw in the Notebook is so powerful. One of our listeners Kira, saw many of those moments in the British TV series Fleabag, between the main character Fleabag and her crush, the hot priest. While that show didn't have an intimacy coordinator, it still struck a chord with Kera and its approach to depicting vulnerability.

Kera
I've watched Fleabag multiple times, I love it. The scene I really like is when Fleabag kind of forgets the line between, like us in the audience, and then to hot priest themselves because she feels closest with them. There's these moments where she gets confused — and she says a line to him that she never said to us. And I love those moments because Fleabag is so used to — like we usually share these kind of weird sex scenes with her. She, puts down the camera or like, knocks it away, because she doesn't want us to see - it's just so great because now that she has intimacy with somebody in her world, she kind of wants to hold that. And those are like, those are kind of my favorite scenes where she forgets that she can be vulnerable with somebody else - and then once she does, she's like: Ah, no, I want this for myself, and I can't really share it with y'all.

Anita Rao
What a memorable sex scene. For Jo, the sex scenes that really stuck with them were in the movie Carol. Actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara spent two weeks rehearsing their sex scene together before filming.

Jo
The reason why I like Carol so much is because the movie builds up the tension between Carolyn and Therese for so long — and it's pretty common now, amongst all Carol fans, that when they get to the Waterloo hotel, or in, you know - that something's going to happen. I love the way that Carol was shot in that sex scene — you can see how soft and how intimate sex between two women can be, especially when they're disrobing each other. And the way that Rooney Mara just is enveloped in Cate Blanchett's desire and body is just so hot and alluring.

Anita Rao
That's Jo and Kera. Like the contrasting dynamics in Fleabag and Carol — every relationship experiences intimacy differently. But, in movies and TV, there are some historical patterns -— and those have a lot to do with who's in the writers room and behind the camera - where more diversity could help make viewers, and actors alike, feel more seen.

Mia Schachter
Expanding the definition of intimacy is huge, and a barrier to that, I think, is budgeting. Sometimes, you know, people don't want to pay more to bring in someone to facilitate intimacy with beyond what they "need" an intimacy coordinator for. According to, you know, various guidelines or precedent, I would love to see simulated sex expanded to see visual representation on screen of sex that is not goal oriented — or sex that doesn't involve, you know, like a sort of culminating act where people explore each other's bodies and have more curiosity and more play in those spaces — you know, in bed and in close relationship with other people. I think very often it's this sort of like — I'm almost thinking of like a sex staircase where it's like — you just go up, up, up, and then it's over, and I'd love to see a little more creativity in there.

Anita Rao
I'd love to see more like messiness. Like, I feel like humans, like I don't know there's fluids and there's noise, and it's not always pretty.

Mia Schachter
Definitely, I think, you know, like lube, condoms, toys, all those things are — I would love to see more of those, and I'd love to see people laughing — having sex and laughing, you know — like slipping and bumping into each other and like — when your chest makes that fart sound, you know.

Anita Rao
Teniece, was there anything more about that that you wanted to say? Hey, I heard you saying something there.

Teniece Divya Johnson
No, I was just in agreement. I believe there should be more humanity, and I think if we saw more awkward scenes, if people didn't know what to do, or like trying to navigate their way, we might feel more seen in the world versus trying to emulate — I don't know, candle light and everything going right, and then judging ourselves from that image of perfection.

Anita Rao
I know that intimacy coordination is still a young field and still pretty overwhelmingly white. Teniece, I'm curious about your thoughts on making the field more diverse? Is that something that you're seeing happening slowly, or what are some of the barriers to the diversity of the field?

Teniece Divya Johnson
I think that this industry behaves like any other industry in America, and has the same foundations of centering whiteness, and causing harm to those that are different. And I think we're beginning to see a need for expanding our education because it is a multi-disciplinary field — and just because you're good at consent does not mean that you can — you are good with all people, that you can deal with race, or you can deal with gender, or you can deal with class.

That's not necessarily what the skill set comes from, and I think that a lot of work has to be done. And currently, right now, there's leadership that's not reflective of the change that's needed. And people are like: Oh, how do we decolonize this — maybe invite some Black and brown people to the table. They might have answers and solutions to the problems you keep recreating in all these different industries.

And it's problematic because of the access and power intimacy coordinators are being given in the short span of our existence. So, if we don't have people advocating, and knowing what spaces they should be in, and when they should be training and investing resources — funding time and energy into other people to step into those spaces — then we really have to question: are you acting like an advocate?

Anita Rao
There's no doubt that Hollywood still has a lot of work to do when it comes to power dynamics, equity and consent, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been some moments where folks felt really supported, and the scene was amazing.

Mia Schachter
My favorite scene that I've worked on was on Perry Mason, in episode one, I believe — between Veronica Falcone and Matthew Reese. It was a scene that was written very comedically. There were going to be two twin beds that sort of spread apart, and then he falls through them, and as she climaxes — they re-wrote it slightly and ended up being between a bed and the wall — and like a cow moos at one point when they're done — and, you know, they're on a farm, and it was all about this kind of like playing with the exchange of power. And the visual ended up kind of playing with some perspective in really fun ways. Like she starts out kind of against a window, and then they're in bed and she, like, shoves his face down with her hand, and she really takes control.

And originally, I believe the idea was that they would climax at the same time. And then it ended up becoming a really cool scene where she climaxes and he doesn't, and then he sort of like, peeks out from behind the bed and asks her for some tequila as she walks toward the camera — and what I really love about that scene is that it's a wonderful example of how having an intimacy coordinator can often help actors feel free to go further than they would have otherwise. She felt safe.

Anita Rao
Life isn't what you see on TV — except maybe some scenes in Pen15 about being an awkward kid in the 90s. But the lessons that intimacy coordinators have to share about consent - those are valuable on and off screen, always.

Embodied as a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on-demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

Kaia Findlay produced this show. Amanda Magnus is our editor. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Quilla wrote our theme music.

The show is also supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop

And as you heard earlier, your voices are an essential part of our shows. We love hearing from you and we really want to hear more of your stories. We're working on a show right now about gender affirmation surgery. If this is something you've sought out, what was the process like for you? What advice would you give to others? Email us embodied@wunc.org.

And, as always, follow us on Instagram or Twitter at embodiedwunc to get a preview of our topics and all of the best parts of our show.

I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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