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The Case for an Oscar for Best Intimacy Coordinator

The Case for an Oscar for Best Intimacy Coordinator

Porn represents a third, more or less, of the internet,” says legendary sex-positive erotic filmmaker Erika Lust. “But what you see in porn is [a mirror of] the values we have in our society. There’s degrading visions of women, there’s lots of racism in it, and that’s from the get-go.”

For the last 20 years, Erika Lust has made it her mission to change that mirror. Erika Lust Films, her adult entertainment studio, is devoted, according to its website, to “sex-positive, indie adult cinema that portrays sexually intelligent narratives, relatable characters and realistic hot sex.” The Swedish-born, Barcelona-based filmmaker has made her name and career as a purveyor of so-called ethical porn: Erotic cinema centered on the female experience, on start-to-finish consent, on liberated sexuality.

With Hollywood enjoying a post-#MeToo revival of sex on screen — the spicy threesome of Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, Sean Baker’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Anora, a screwball comedy set among Brighton Beach sex workers — the industry could do worse than to look to Lust for the way forward. In the world of ethical porn and intimacy coordinators, she’s the head honcho.

Lust (real name Erika Hallqvist) began her career in the entertainment industry as a runner on commercials, chauffering talent and fetching drinks for people on set. “I learned the industry from the inside,” she says.

In 2004, when she had an opportunity to make her first short film, Lust knew exactly what she wanted to do. The erotic tale The Good Girl was, initially, a “cliché” porn story of a pizza delivery guy turning up, ready to go. “But then I said to myself: ‘You can make the story different.’ It’s just about how you create the characters and the tension between them,” she recalls.

The Good Girl won an award at the Barcelona International Erotic Film Festival, and Lust leveraged that success into funding for a collection of sex-positive shorts. Five Hot Stories for Her claimed several top industry prizes, including the Feminist Porn Award for movie of the year in Toronto. “My perspective was very much that I wanted to try and make it about the female experience because that’s what [porn] was lacking.”

Erika Lust on set with performers.

Erika Lust Films

Lust has hundreds of film credits to her name. Some of her movies are educational, some artistic, some strictly commercial. But all are made, she says, to the highest ethical standards in their development, production and distribution. 

“There are serious meetings before a shoot, [to help actors] understand what a scene is going to contain,” she says. “It’s also a huge help to have an intimacy coordinator because there will always be a certain power imbalance on a set.”

Intimacy coordinators are still working to become the new norm in Hollywood. Only after decades of top actresses voicing their discomfort in filming intimate scenes without proper consent, and a #MeToo movement that shone a vital light on the abuse that can result from a too-casual, often male-dominated, set, has the job gone from punchline to budget line on any serious production.

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor in Challengers

Courtesy Everett Collection

Challengers frontwoman Zendaya spoke about how “incredible” it was to have intimacy coordinator Mam Smith on the set of the steamy tennis drama. “It was important that we felt safe,” the star said.

“We’re in an educational position, really,” says Smith. “In a nutshell, an intimacy coordinator is an industry professional who ensures that scenes involving physical intimacy or hyper-exposure are executed safely and respectfully for all involved, and that includes the actors, as well as the crew members and the whole production.”

An intimacy coordinator speaks to the performers before, during, and after the intimate scene is filmed to ensure there are no surprises. They talk through what lighting is most flattering, lay out exactly which body part will be going where, and are constantly checking in to make sure the actors are comfortable.

Both Smith and Lust welcome Hollywood’s recent embrace of intimacy coordinators and the change in attitudes towards the profession. HBO hit Game of Thrones, which dominated global television from 2011-2019 and famously contained many a sex scene, did not have an intimacy coordinator. In 2022, when GOT season one star Sean Bean (Ned Stark) expressed the opinion that intimacy coordinators “spoil the spontaneity” of a sex scene, he faced swift backlash.

Lust argues that perspective, once de rigueur among industry heavyweights, misses the point. “So many times, there are important actors who go: ‘I don’t need an intimacy coordinator, I feel so good with myself and my sexuality.’ Great for you, but maybe your co-star feels like she or he really would like someone to be there.”

HBO has now mandated intimacy coordinators on all their sets — something Smith agrees is vital across the board for systemic change to take place. Ideally, “you wouldn’t be allowed to do an intimate scene or hyper-exposed scene without a trained professional there to support the actors and the production,” she argues. “Creating a safe environment on set is imperative to having good performances. I think if a director isn’t aware of how an intimacy coordinator can support them and create an environment under the protocols that the actors are comfortable with, then they won’t understand how they can use an intimacy coordinator and have it be a benefit to everyone involved.”

Only earlier this year, Kate Winslet told The New York Times Magazine that she would have benefitted from an intimacy coordinator “every single time I had to do a love scene or be partially naked or even a kissing scene.” Winslet said: “It would have been nice to have had someone in my corner because I always had to stand up for myself.”

Intimacy coordinator and stunt veteran Mam Smith.

Publicity

Yorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning Poor Things, which saw Emma Stone’s character discover a joy for pleasure and venture into sex work, had an intimacy coordinator. As does Netflix’s Bridgerton, which filters Julia Quinn’s regency-era stories through an erotically unrestrained lens.

The consensus seems to be that intimacy coordinators, far from holding talent back, are providing actors and actresses with the safe space needed to really go for it.

“There’s a long way to go,” says Lust, “especially for male directors and producers, to understand the value and the worth [of intimacy coordinators].”

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But Hollywood is still a man’s world. According to a study from USC Annenberg and San Diego State University, 83 percent of the 250 highest-grossing movies in 2023 were directed solely by men, and just four percent employed at least 10 women in key behind-the-scenes roles. Lust says it is up to these male power brokers “to understand their own privilege, which many men are reluctant to understand because they don’t see it. But we see it from the other side. If we could get more women on top, if we can get more women and non-binary folks into this industry, they will use this power. [We need] people that have the right knowledge.”

Lust highlights Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a series that grappled with abuse, consent, and sexuality, as a masterclass in portraying emotionally and physically tough sex scenes. “There you have a wonderful example of someone who is talking openly about the importance of intimacy coordinators, of the importance of telling traumatic, difficult scenes and situations and how they, together, built this. That’s a fabulous example.”

Coel won big for the show. In her BAFTA acceptance speech in 2021, she dedicated the best mini-series award to the intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien. “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. “I know what it is like to shoot without an intimacy director. The messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew. The internal devastation for the actor. Your direction was essential to my show and I believe essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”

Michaela Coel at the 2021 BAFTAs.

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Smith suggests while budgetary constraints remain an issue in hiring intimacy coordinators, a more serious problem is regulation. “It’s a bit like the Wild West right now, where people are able to train or get certificates online and not have much background or experience to bring to the table,” she says. “Something we’re working on right now as intimacy coordinators is trying to create a strong standard of practice and a strong training setup, so that there’s consistency and people can know what to expect. Then it’s executed at a higher level.”

Smith was an advisor on Jorey Worb’s short film BITE, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. The project’s star, Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars) told THR that the introduction of intimacy coordinators “has created such a positive change in the entertainment industry…The time we had to prepare, the discussions we had together with [Worb] before, during and after the shoot allowed me to feel at ease and safe, both physically and emotionally.”

BITE centers around a woman (Bellisario) who is sexually assaulted by her dentist. The incident disrupts a bubble of peace that Worb’s protagonist had built over some time and forces her to confront past trauma. Worb notes out that acts depicted on-camera could sometimes mirror a real experience a crew member has lived through, and why a professional is needed for extra support — after all, set remains a working environment. “If you’re doing intimacy, [you need] to have an emotional support coordinator available for people, even just by a phone. What if the gaffer had the same assault happen as a child? Emotional safety: it has to be thought out.”

Smith adds: “Traumatic stories are important to tell with care. And we’ve discussed not creating trauma on set. You want to tell a traumatic story, and you want to be able to let that story be told in a safe way, but we don’t want to impact performers or generate trauma.” Lust has an organization of psychologists she relies on in case someone is triggered or even if there’s a hard moment an actor wants to talk through. There’s a lot to learn, but Hollywood is moving in the right direction. Both Smith and Lust are excited at the prospect.

One thing Lust would like to see is professional recognition for intimacy coordinators, including nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys.

“They just got casting included as a category,” she notes [the Academy announced in February that best casting will be introduced from 2026 onwards]. “How many years were people lobbying for that?… I think it would be great [for intimacy coordinators] to get recoginition. For that to happen, I think we have to change the equality in this industry.”

Smith adds: “I would love to see it happen. I do think we have a way to go before we can be acknowledged because we just haven’t been standardized. In that sense, I think it’s going to take a while.”

For Lust, the issue is bigger than the movie business. “Filmmaking is a really, wonderful media that has so big an influence. It gets people to see different ways of thinking, different ways of understanding the world. It’s a media that helps you to empathize with others. And that ultimately opens up your ability to accept others. So for me, it’s not just art. It’s also politics.”

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