By Anne Branigin
Lizzy Talbot remembers when people openly mocked her job.
As an intimacy coordinator, Talbot has worked on several high-profile productions in the United States and the United Kingdom, including the hit Netflix series “Bridgerton,” a show where the sex scenes were so buzzworthy, they generated ranked lists and numerous behind-the-scenes articles.
The work of intimacy coordinators is complex, requiring them to routinely navigate issues of consent, safety and boundaries to make sure intimate scenes don't physically or mentally harm the people in them.
But before 2017 – when the Harvey Weinstein scandal roiled Hollywood – intimacy coordinators weren't as common, though people like Talbot had been advocating for better conditions onstage and on set for years.
She recalled the first podcast interview she ever did. She talked about workshops she was doing to help create safer intimate scenes. After she finished, she said the hosts opened the floor to questions.
There were “incredibly derogatory” questions, Talbot said. She said one person asked if “eating directors” would soon be needed on set.
Over the past several years, as conversations about consent and boundaries have been proliferating across many industries, intimacy coordinators have seen an increasing demand for their services on TV and film productions – and their work is getting more recognition in kind.
They have been lampooned and lovingly rendered on shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “High Maintenance.” At the 2021 BAFTA Television awards on Sunday, actress, writer and director Michaela Coel shouted out intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien when accepting the best miniseries award for “I May Destroy You.”
“Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe, for creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process,” Coel said.
The skill intimacy coordinators bring to set are relevant off the set too. Even as coronavirus rates ease in some places, many people are grappling with new questions around safety and intimacy spurred by the pandemic: What if that cute hookup isn't vaccinated? What if my partner has been less interested in sex because of their mental health? What if I still don't feel safe meeting up indoors?
Developing a better understanding of our boundaries and learning how to communicate them are important steps in answering those questions. Here is what intimacy coordinators can teach us about navigating those challenges.
At the heart of an intimacy coordinator's work is choreography.
O'Brien, whose credits also include “Watchmen,” “Sex Education” and “Behind Her Eyes,” likens this work to that of a stunt coordinator: establishing the movement of the scene, helping to manage rehearsals, monitoring filming and ensuring that filming goes smoothly for all involved.
To do this effectively, a lot of communication and liaising must go on, as well as advocating on behalf of the actors. This means knowing, in great detail, what an actor's process is when it comes to intimate scenes: What they're comfortable with, what makes them feel powerful, as well as what makes them feel vulnerable or unsafe.
O'Brien said she likes to lead with asking actors, “What do you require?”
This frames the experience in a much more proactive, positive light, she said. She encourages actors to be specific about what they are OK with.
Knowing what they're comfortable with lets her advocate more effectively; production can cater to the actor's needs. Framing them as needs or requirements also draws clear boundaries around them.
Talbot added that it's important that actors know and articulate their boundaries before filming the actual scene. If they are unsure in the moment, it can increase pressure.
“Urgency is a form of coercion,” Talbot said. Having personal and professional boundaries mapped out beforehand is helpful in navigating those scenes with confidence.
They see this same approach applying to real-life intimate partnerships, especially in the pandemic. Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist and president of the Gottman Institute, which specializes in relationship research, agreed. But it's helpful to remember that boundaries do change and to allow yourself some flexibility if that happens.
“You need to have a little room for spontaneity … to alter your boundaries and not feel guilty about it,” Gottman said.
The pandemic has complicated relationships in myriad, profound ways. One of these is that the coronavirus itself has caused a shift in interpersonal boundaries, said Christina Jeffrey, a mental health counselor and assistant director of the therapy services provider Humantold.
For her clients who are dating, “questions about the behaviors one finds acceptable in a pandemic, and whether one is vaccinated, tend to dominate the conversation early on,” Jeffrey said in an email. “These are the first-line questions to building intimacy because the responses indicate whether there are any basic shared values.”
“Intimacy is ultimately about safety and connection; if a person is not a safe person, it is really hard to develop a good connection,” she continued.
To accurately gauge what an actor feels safe with, Talbot uses open questions. For example, asking “How do you feel about …” rather than “You're OK with this, aren't you?”
The latter approach pulls the person along with you, increasing pressure to answer in a certain way. To have honest conversations about boundaries, it's important that each side be an active listener who creates space for partners to give complete, honest answers.
Even in established intimate partnerships, boundaries are shifting all the time, Gottman said. Many people experienced high levels of anxiety and stress over the past year, which can impact their sex drive.
Context is everything in intimacy coordination, and in real life, Talbot said. “Because you said yes to one thing, that doesn't mean you will continue to say yes.”
In real life, these context changes – a tough work day, an indoor date vs. an outdoor date with someone who's not vaccinated – can have higher stakes, sparking arguments or feelings of rejection.
It's important to remember that consent isn't a one-time conversation. Or, as O'Brien put it: “Consent is a process, not a moment.” It requires regular check-ins about what your partner is comfortable with, what they're feeling and what they're going through.
These don't have to be “huge summits,” Jeffrey said. For the person setting the boundary, it can be as simple as saying “I prefer dining outdoors,” or “I have early-morning meetings this week and would prefer meeting during the day.”
Intimacy coordinators and mental heath experts agreed that conversations around consent and boundaries have a bad reputation. While this has shifted dramatically within the past few years, people may still view these discussions as cumbersome or awkward.
But they don't have to be. As O'Brien pointed out, understanding and respecting boundaries provide tremendous freedom.
Knowing what you and your partner need opens up the opportunity to be “free and open and creative and fun,” O'Brien said. “Your boundaries are a gift … so you can be free with (everything) that you are saying yes to.”
Accepting boundaries is powerful, Gottman said. Sharing and accepting boundaries requires vulnerability, which is key to forming any close partnership. And that, in turn, builds trust.
For Talbot, that increased trust has resulted both in better art and better, safer environments on set. But it's important to remember that the process will look different for everyone.
“People are carrying around a lot of struggle and worries and heartache and trauma from what's happened in the past,” she said. “It can take a long time.”