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'Reel sex isn't real sex': Why intimacy coordinators are needed for film and TV

As "an actor's advocate," intimacy coordinators help with intimate scenes on set. They also do so much more, including supporting young performers and babies and answering questions from families.
couple in bed
Before intimacy coordinators were an official title, parts of the work was often done by a combination of the wardrobe department, directors, and even stunt coordinators.

Last month, four B.C.-based intimacy coordinators made SAG-AFTRA's intimacy coordinator registry for film and television.

Short for the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, SAG-AFTRA established the list to provide "as a resource for employers," the organization's website states. 

The registry provides the names of applicants who have met the requirements of work experience and training.

New to the list are Vancouver's Megan Gilron, Karyn Mott, Sam Jeffery and Amanda Cutting.

So what exactly is an intimacy coordinator (IC)? 

Below is an edited version of an interview with the group. It touches on everything from training to why the role is important in a production setting.

What is an intimacy coordinator?

Megan: An intimacy professional (intimacy coordinator for film and TV, intimacy director for theatre to align with and parallel the titles of stunt coordinator and fight director in the industries) is a movement coach, an actor’s advocate, and liaison between performers and production. They are also collaborative storytellers who support the creation of detailed and specific intimate stories.

Karyn: Intimacy professionals are also choreographers for scenes that involve nudity, simulated sex, or sexual content. Our team is also certified in MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) and trained in trauma-informed practices and is often brought onto a set for scenes of high emotional content where performers or crew may require additional support.

What kind of education/training is required to become one?

Megan: ICs train in a variety of topics ranging from Mental Health First Aid, consent and boundaries negotiations, language for choreography and the biomechanics for sex and sexuality in a myriad of identities and experiences.

Why are intimacy coordinators needed?

Amanda: The “me too” movement started by Tarana Burke shows us how much power dynamics are abused or not considered when working with performers on set. Sometimes, someone may agree to a situation out of fear of retaliation. Having an intimacy coordinator be that intermediator between production and a performer supports clear communication and reduces the pressure on the artists.

If one performer says “no,” we communicate that the option isn't viable; we don't “out” which performer said no. We will present alternative options to tell the story supporting the director's vision.

Other reasons are that reel sex isn't real sex. Meaning, making it look like it's happening requires particular, not necessarily intuitive, movements. This choreography ensures we don't have actors' genitalia bumping up against each other, but the actions are believable to the camera. This knowledge requires specific movement and vocabulary training.

When did the film industry begin incorporating this role on set?

Sam: Before intimacy coordinators were an official title, parts of the work was often done by a combination of the wardrobe department, directors, and even stunt coordinators. Officially, I believe the film industry started incorporating intimacy coordinators around 2016.

Many people assume 'intimacy' means sex scenes. What other kinds of scenes have you facilitated between actors?

Karyn: We have been brought on to support performers and production in scenes involving young infants and children. Many folks do not consider that a familiar hug or a peck on the cheek can be uncomfortable to young performers, and having a discussion around all of the asks of the performer and then having their consent is incredibly important.

The industry has always said working with babies is hard. Intimacy coordinators can help with that process as well. We have conversations with the parents to frontload them about what a set is like, answer any questions they may have, and learn the baby's schedule, routine and preferences. This allows the baby and the parents to show up on the day confident in what their child will be doing. We then facilitate conversations with all performers working with the babies: discussing the safety of holding the baby and physical movements/reactions they may want to have if using a mixture of a doll/baby.

What are some of the challenges intimacy coordinators face on the job?

Megan: Often, we are challenged by how new the role is, as we are consistently educating productions and the industry about our role and how we integrate into the creative process.

Sam: Sometimes, not everyone will be thrilled to have us involved, be it an actor, director, producer, or another crew member. Often it’s a misunderstanding about what intimacy coordinators do, thinking that we’ll be the “intimacy police,” or work to prevent scenes from being sexual, or dictate to actors and directors how to do their jobs.

When that happens, it’s essential to support all folks involved, even those not sure about working with us. I find that usually, by the end of the process, even if they’re not gung-ho about intimacy coordinators at the start, by the time we part ways, we’ve at least developed a mutual respect for how ICs are supporting the other professionals we’re working with.

What's your favourite part of your job?

Megan: I love getting to work on projects where the directors and actors are open to the collaboration we offer and how the choreographic language and tools can elevate and support the creation of the best performances. I love getting to support with my sexual health education training and advocating for authentic representations of sexuality to show things we’ve not yet seen on screen.

Karyn: I love seeing the immediate benefit and positive impact our job, conversations, and connections can have on people.

It is noted in the press release, but can you confirm a few specific filmed-in-B.C. projects you’ve worked on?

Upload Season 1 + 2, Batwoman S3, Mahalia, The Magicians S5, The Good Doctor, Freya, and Superman & Lois S 1+2, Resident Alien S2, Surface (Apple+), Prom Pact (Disney+), Radio Nowhere, Snowpiercer.

What kind of advice would you give to someone who's considering becoming an intimacy coordinator?

Megan: Having a foundation of knowledge in the medium you’re choosing to work (film, TV, and theatre) and how to integrate into the process based on how you know these sectors already work. Come to the vocation with the intention of constant and ongoing learning. Also, 85% of this work is admin! Paperwork, emails, phone calls, and spreadsheets — understanding that to do our job well!

Karyn: I would suggest folks get into some introductory courses — the information and knowledge you will gain in these classes/workshops will provide you with a foundation, a framework, and language. And reach out and connect with folks working in the industry, offer to pay them for a consultation and then take the time to formulate some questions to ask these folks. Find out what is really the day-to-day practices of an IP and then begin to assess if it's for you.

How would you like the role of intimacy coordinators to grow on TV and film sets?

Megan: I would love to see the whole industry embrace consent-forward practices and integrate more of the language and awareness that is in our training so that safety and advocacy are something everyone involved in production can have.

Karyn: I dream of the day we have the history of protocols and practices that other departments have and that an IC department/ team is just part of a set culture. As a strong advocate for mental health, I hope to see our continued use in scenes of high emotional intensity, violence, etc., as we work through a lens of Mental Health First Aid and trauma-informed practices. I believe everyone on set's mental, physical, and emotional well-being is essential.

Sam: I’d love to see a growth of the role to the point where there are so many qualified individuals of varying backgrounds and identities that productions can have choices about which IC to hire — so that intimacy coordinators are getting work not only because they’re qualified and great to work with, but because they suit a particular job and are the best fit for a project.

Amanda: My hope is with the integration of new policies and practices, the sets will start treating the individuals who are the backbone of the industry as humans who have needs and boundaries and not like machines allowing for a much healthier and more productive sector as a whole.