How safe is sex in movies?

Pre- & post-covid, womxn are vulnerable to sexual harassment on film and TV sets

Intimacy coordination with Ita O'Brien
Rehearsals with Ita O’Brien

#MeToo spotlighted concealed power dynamics

By Melody Emmett –

At the 2019 Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) last year, actor and movement director, Kate Lush, a coordinator for Intimacy on Set in the UK, gave a workshop at the invitation of the SA organisation, Sisters Working in Film and TV (SWIFT). Intimacy on Set was founded by intimacy coordination pioneer, Ita O’Brien, who with others developed a set of best practice guidelines for working with intimacy, simulated sex and nudity on film and TV sets. https://www.itaobrien.com/intimacy-on-set-guidelines.html

Actors rehearse with Ita O’Brien

My role on set is very much about sending out my antenna and trying to listen to everybody – from producer, to director, to actor.  While the structure really helps to put in place a clear process that allows you to choreograph a sex scene safely, it is absolutely, fundamentally about the whole industry having a process, just like you have if you have somebody choreographing a dance or a stunt coordinator making the best fight possible. So the intimacy coordinator is lifting the intimate content that has fallen through the cracks before now because there hasn’t been an understanding that actually we need a craft, we need a structure to allow the actor to bring their craft of acting to the intimate content just like anything else, and to allow the actor to have autonomy over their own body. 

Kate Lush approached O’Brien after feeling she had been manhandled on the sets of the UK low-budget horror scenes, where actors in a rape scene would be told by the director to just go for it.  And when asked to train drama students to act in intimate scenes she found that directors contradicted what she taught her students. “Actors would come back to me and say: He stuck his tongue in my mouth, what am I supposed to do?Or, The director told me to take my clothes off and it wasn’t in the audition.

In despair, Lush asked O’Brien to train her to become an intimacy coordinator.   

Shortly after meeting Lush, film director and founder member of SWIFT, Sara Blecher, went to the UK to do the training with O’Brien. 

Sara Blecher and Kate Lush training with Ita O’Brien in London

It was an extraordinary experience because this was the first group of women from all over the world that she was training and I think for all of us it felt that we were at the beginning of a very important moment in history; that there was the world before intimacy coordination where people just do intimate scenes and then there is the world afterwards, where intimate scenes are understood in a completely different paradigm.

In South Africa, where women are leaving the industry because they feel unsafe, intimacy coordinators could bring the change that is needed.

If you have to do a sex scene with a director who has never done a sex scene, with a crew that do not respect a closed set, for many, many, many actresses, it’s so traumatic, they stop acting. When you sign up to act, you don’t sign up to be a porn star, and in many cases, actresses are expected to do porn or to expose their own personal, intimate sexuality rather than becoming the character they are playing.  Intimacy coordination is a way of protecting them, Blecher said.

The potential for lasting psychological and emotional damage is very real. 

There is an inherent risk in un-choreographed sex scenes; a risk of trauma, and a risk of sexual harassment,” O’Brien says.  “Any scenes involving fights or stunts are discussed in advance and mapped out to avoid anyone sustaining injury…It could be argued the emotional and physiological injury sustained in a poorly directed sex scene could have much longer lasting implications, and cause much more hurt, than any physical injury.

Bertolucci said: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”

On the set of Last Tango in Paris

Even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears….I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” Schneider said.  Schneider never really recovered from the experience. She struggled with addiction throughout her life and attempted suicide several times. She never took a nude role again.

Angela Sithole

Angela Sithole who starred in the acclaimed South African film,  Knuckle City, participated in Lush’s workshop,  together with Thembikile Komani, who plays Duke in the film.

Sithole said: I have had experiences where I was told at the last minute that this is a sex scene and so go and figure yourselves out…

“There is so much that needs to be taken into consideration before an intimate scene happens. There need to be rehearsals before an intimate scene, just like there are rehearsals before a fight scene.  Before a fight scene, there is always a build-up, there is always a rehearsal, there is always a demonstration; there are steps that take place before you do a fight scene. In exactly the same way, there should be steps that you take before you do an intimate scene.”

Actress Terry Pheto said: The worst thing that one can do, especially for a young actor – or for any actor – is to just walk into the scene… you can’t just do your own thing. An actor must be adequately prepared and know where the camera is going to be and what the camera angles are, otherwise you are playing with emotions.

Director of the film, Love Lives Here, which contains several sex scenes, Norman Maake, said he would embrace the idea of intimacy coordinators in South Africa.  Maake is very conscious of protecting his actors.  He does not allow crew to socialise with actors on his set. Some crew come from undisciplined sets and they bring bad habits with them, he said.

 For me preparation is everything.  The actor first gets to read the script and understand what the role of the character is demanding from them and to question if that is something that they want to do… The idea is always for us to reach our story goals.  So that conversation in the beginning is very important, because it tests the comfortablility of an actor; what they have done before, what they are willing to do, what they are not willing to do…I always insist that the two people who are going to do the sex scene also form their own boundaries.

In ‘Love Lives Here’, that is how it was done. So that by the time you see it on screen, it looks like the ideas we talked about.  And I feel that why it also looks great is because the actors were in control.

Blecher and Lush have joined forces to teach on SA film and TV sets an in film schools. Covid-19 put a spanner in the works and many actors, screenwriters, and technical crew lost work.  As the industry stabilises, the work must go on. Sexual harassment and the abuse of womxn is endemic in the industry, as it is in South African society as a whole.  Intimacy coordination has never been more important. 

A variation of this article was first published in Sunday Times Lifestyle, Screen Africa, and Callsheet

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