The Endangered Sex Scene

How Hollywood grew wary of intimacy

John Cuneo

“This is my kit.” Alicia Rodis, who since early last year has been HBO’s lead intimacy coordinator, a new title that translates roughly to chief sex-scene coach, held up a clear vinyl case filled with what at first glance appeared to be toiletries and packages of pantyhose. On closer examination, though, the products and their names were mysterious. Shibue. Hibue. Stanga.

“Let’s say we’re coming in to do a sex scene,” she said. “They’re simulating sex and they’re excluding genitals—we are going to see someone fully naked, but not their genitals—and they’re in the bed, with sheets. So what do we need to make sure?” Here she picked up a Shibue (“she-boo”), which looks like a panty liner except that it’s meant to adhere to a person rather than to an undergarment. “We take a Shibue, open it up, and put a silicone guard underneath so everyone becomes like a Barbie doll.”

Rodis wants both to shield sensitive body parts and to make their contours undetectable. She explained that costume departments know all about the items in her kit, but she doesn’t like to leave anything to chance. If she’s new on a set, she will bring Shibues in a full range of human skin tones and some silicone guards, too. She waved a lavender package containing one (brand name: Silicone Valley), then continued riffling through her supplies. “Knee pads or elbow pads in case someone’s on a hard floor. Sticky tape, moleskin. Wet Ones, tissues, breath mints. Baby oil so they can take anything that’s adhesive off. Razors—though usually I’ll talk with actors beforehand and ask, ‘Could you shave your bikini line so we know that you’re not going to get a free spa treatment when we take off the Shibue?’ ” She held up a Hibue. “The same thing, but for someone who has a penis.”

Rodis, who in a previous life was an actor and a stuntwoman, still has headshot-ready blond ringlets and a performer’s lithe physicality. That day, a Wednesday, she was working from her home office in Astoria, Queens, preparing for shoots on various shows. Among them was The Deuce, the David Simon and George Pelecanos drama about sex work in 1970s Times Square and the birth of modern porn, which begins its third and final season this month. Rodis’s bookshelves were packed with volumes about theater, sex, and sword fighting; across from her desk hung a certificate from the Society of American Fight Directors identifying her as a stage-combat teacher and a bulletin board covered with photos, cartoons, and buttons with slogans like “No does not mean Convince me.”

We sat down on a couch and Rodis turned on an episode from The Deuce’s second season. She fast-forwarded to a scene that takes place on a porn set done up with a kitschy Arabian Nights look. Like many scenes in The Deuce, it is sexually graphic but deliberately unsexy, in this case comically so. As the movie-shoot-within-a-TV-episode unfolds, the porn director barks commands at an actor named Tyler (played by Justin Stiver), who appears to be naked save for a gold lamé turban. Tyler is having sex with a porn actor named Shana, and the director wants him to raise her hips six inches for a better camera angle; Shana resists indignantly, offering a vivid description of what the requested position will mean for her insides. “I don’t want to hurt her!” Tyler protests.

When I asked Rodis how she’d facilitated the scene, she explained that she’d briefed both actors on the planned nudity and physical interaction, and on what type of wardrobe assistance—or lack-of-wardrobe assistance—they should expect. The day of the shoot, the three met in person to discuss in more detail who would be touching whom, how, and where. A conversation like this, Rodis explained, can also involve choreographic elements, such as “setting the number of pumps.” Once she had established that everyone was comfortable with the plan and made sure both actors had robes to wear before and after the scene, it was finally time for filming.

Video: #MeToo Is Changing How Sex Is Simulated on Set

The growing demand for more ethical practices across the entertainment industry has paved the way for a new profession: intimacy directors.

However basic all of this might seem, Rodis’s work represents a major departure from how sex scenes have historically been planned—or, as has often been the case, improvised. Rodis, who is 38, began acting onstage in her teens and continued through her 20s, when she added some TV acting and also took up fight directing and stunt work. On TV sets, she found, actresses were sometimes expected to shed their shirt without advance notice. As for sex scenes, performers were often left to muddle their way through the action. Some directors had an attitude of, as she put it, “I want to discuss what your character does for everything until it gets to anything sexual, and then just go for it.” The message that sends to actors is: “ ‘You know how to kiss; kiss how you kiss.’ But no one should give a shit about how the actor kisses”—or comports himself sexually—“it should be about the character.” At best, this inattention produced lackluster sex scenes. At worst, it suggested an unserious attitude that could leave performers feeling confused if not traumatized.

Rodis was struck by how much more care went into staging physical interactions that were violent or dangerous than into staging those that were sexual. For a fight scene, choreographers mapped out every beat, helping actors work through each movement in slow motion, over and over, until they were automatic. In stunt work, a focus on safety was considered “nonnegotiable.” Why weren’t sex scenes governed by the same approach?

When Rodis heard that a fellow fight choreographer, Tonia Sina, had begun offering what she called intimacy direction and choreography services, she reached out to her. In 2015, the two women joined forces with a third actor turned fight director, Siobhan Richardson, to found their own company, Intimacy Directors International. Initially most of their work was in the theater, where a series of scandals had focused attention on the question of how sex was performed onstage.

By late 2017, however, the nascent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements were drawing similar scrutiny to the TV and film industry, with allegations of on- and off-set wrongdoing leveled at actors including Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jeremy Piven. Then, in January 2018, the Los Angeles Times published an article in which several women accused the Deuce executive producer and lead actor James Franco of behavior on film sets that was “inappropriate or sexually exploitative.” One woman said he had removed protective guards from actresses’ genitals during an oral-sex scene. (Franco’s attorney disputed the women’s stories and told the paper, “The allegations about the protective guards are not accurate.”)

The next month, shortly before The Deuce was scheduled to begin taping its second season, Rodis got a message from a producer on the show. “He was like, ‘I’m looking at a website, and, um, it says that you do a service?’ ” She called him back, and two days later—after binge-watching the first season of the show—she went to Silvercup Studios in Queens to meet with David Simon and nine or 10 long-faced HBO producers and executives, each of whom had a copy of her résumé. “You could tell something was up,” she said dryly.

For the show’s first season, Nina K. Noble, an executive producer and a longtime collaborator of Simon’s, had taken various steps to ensure actors’ comfort, from personally reviewing scripts with them to improvising intimacy barriers out of yoga mats. But after #MeToo’s allegations and revelations, Noble told me, some of the cast members had asked the producers to do more, and she agreed that it was time for outside help. (I asked Noble whether the decision was related to the allegations against Franco; she denied that it was.) Rodis was asked to explain exactly what she might bring to the show, so she described the objectives of her theatrical work—including choreography, consent and safety, and cultivating a connection between actors so as to promote chemistry. Here, Simon jumped in. “We don’t want them to be connected,” Rodis remembered him saying. “This is transactional sex, and shame on us if we try to make that look glorified in any way.” She emphatically agreed. That night, she was offered the job.

In the opening season of The Deuce, Emily Meade’s character, Lori, has a lot of sex—all of it transactional, none of it glorified. Upon arriving in New York from Minnesota, she signs up with a pimp named C.C. and becomes a prostitute and later a porn actor. Both jobs are detailed graphically. Before The Deuce, Meade’s career had included several difficult sex scenes (the first, when she was 16, involved her character’s rape by an older man)—but she had powered through them with gritted teeth. Approaching Season 2, however, she felt ill: She now knew just how dense with difficult sex The Deuce could be, and #MeToo had brought back memories of sexual traumas she had suffered in her own life.

The first time Meade worked closely with Rodis was for a scene in which her character travels to Los Angeles for the Adult Film Association of America Awards. There she meets a talent scout named Greg, played by Ryan Farrell; they flirt, pile into the back of his limousine, snort some cocaine, and—fully clothed—make out. By any standard, let alone The Deuce’s, the scene is tame. Meade was nonetheless anxious. She didn’t know Farrell, and the atmosphere on TV and movie sets had recently grown tense. “This is right when we came back to work, right after Time’s Up. Everyone’s walking on eggshells,” she told me. “Obviously any decent man is going to feel uncomfortable just grabbing at my breast.” Farrell told me that he was, in fact, concerned about Meade’s well-being, but wasn’t sure how to effectively convey that concern. “If you keep telling somebody you’re not a creep, it’s kind of creepy,” he said.

Ahead of the shoot, the episode’s director, Steph Green, explained her vision of the scene to Rodis, who called the actors to run through a proposed plan. Afterward, Rodis made sure that each actor’s contract had a rider stipulating that Farrell would touch Meade’s clothed breasts, and Meade would grab Farrell’s crotch through his pants, under which he’d be wearing a prosthetic penis. The day of filming, Green, Rodis, and both actors met in private to prepare. (Green has long run trust- and chemistry-building exercises before intimacy scenes.) Before rehearsing the scene, she and Rodis asked the actors to hold each other’s gaze for a long interval. The actors also took turns inviting each other to touch agreed-upon body parts: hand, knee, thigh, and so on.

When it was time to shoot, the aforementioned prosthetic was produced. “It was an actual fake penis that they use in some of the scenes,” Farrell said. “I was like, ‘That’s pretty extreme!’ ” He put it in his pants. “Emily got to actually feel it when it was on top of me,” he said, “and when things like that start happening, it’s an icebreaker, and everybody loosens up a bit.”

Farrell and Meade got in the back of the limo, together with a cameraperson, while Rodis and Green watched the scene via monitor. (By long-standing tradition, TV and movie sex scenes are filmed on closed sets, without any unnecessary people milling around.) Early in the proceedings, they paused to fine-tune the way Farrell was touching Meade’s breast. “His hand was sort of flat,” Meade recalled. As a result, Rodis said, it looked as if Farrell’s character was pinning Lori down instead of caressing her. “If you give your hand just a little bit of a cup to it and bring it underneath,” she told Farrell, “it isn’t going to look like you’re forcing her down.” The small adjustment didn’t require added contact or pressure, Rodis said, but it made the scene into “an intimate moment and not something that he was pushing her into.” In the context of Lori’s story line, that was a crucial distinction. For all her sexual encounters up to this point in the series, this is the first one we see unfold entirely outside her pimp’s clutches—the first one she appears to actually want.

More graphic scenes call for different measures. In the new season, another actor performs oral sex on Meade’s character. “I’ve had to do that multiple times, and every time it’s been either someone inappropriately close or awkwardly far away,” she said. Rodis, by contrast, “was able to fully structure it—how he arched his back and where he put his hands; for him to put his mouth or his face toward my left leg in a certain way so it looked like he was doing that, without it being inappropriate.” The goal is to minimize, not eliminate, awkwardness. “It’s still awkward, no matter what,” Meade said. “You have somebody’s head in your crotch.”

Fundamental to Rodis’s approach is her comfort talking about human bodies and the things they can do together. “It is a skill just to speak freely and technically about sex scenes,” Green said, adding: “How can we figure out where this can all go wrong until we can talk about what it is in the first place?” When Rodis first arrived at HBO, such frankness wasn’t necessarily what people were expecting; to the contrary, she sensed that some veteran actors and directors suspected that intimacy coordinator was code for “censor”—that “the Millennials were coming to sanitize everything.” Rodis is sensitive and chooses her words carefully—she is capable of saying bloodless things like “rear backside nudity” with a straight face. But she is also, as Meade put it, “completely down for the raunchy silliness of it all.” This combination of candor and lightheartedness allows everyone around her to speak frankly, too. And that, far from sanitizing sex, enables richer and more realistic depictions of it.

In rethinking its approach to sex scenes, HBO is motivated by more than benevolence toward its actors. It is scrambling to salvage an essential element of its identity, not to mention its bottom line, in the face of new realities. Pay cable’s freedom to titillate no longer offers the same competitive advantage it once did, thanks to streaming porn. Last year, the network retired its late-night adult programming, including reality shows like Real Sex as well as soft-core erotic movies. At the same time, the revelations of #MeToo have made networks more tentative about shooting sex that could be interpreted as exploitative. Nina Noble told me that, in her view, The Deuce probably wouldn’t have been green-lit post #MeToo—even though the show’s objective is not to revel in exploitation but to shine a critical light on it.

Financial and cultural pressures have already had an unmistakable effect on how sex is depicted in film. In an essay this spring, The Guardian’s film editor, Catherine Shoard, described a new “age of cinematic abstinence.” In June, the Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday declared that “the classic sex scene—once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies—has been largely forgotten and ignored,” as studios now favor films that are either violent or kid-oriented.

For the moment, at least, HBO seems intent on finding a way to make sex safe for the small screen, and the small screen safe for sex. Rodis now advises about two dozen intimacy coordinators at the network, who work on shows across the network’s lineup, including High Maintenance, Succession, and Westworld. I asked her what she believes is at stake in her efforts. Suppressing such an essential aspect of the human experience would be negligent storytelling, she told me. Imagine if we treated sex like the ancient Greek playwrights treated violence, “where everyone just went offstage, and then someone came back and said, There was a killing!

The costs of such an approach would not be merely artistic, she added. Depictions of sex on-screen have a powerful ability to shape our attitudes toward intimacy. “Sex scenes are not just a vehicle for someone to get off,” Rodis said. “Sex has so many narratives, and it’s so complex and it’s so important. People who are growing up with the internet and just seeing a certain type of pornography? I think we owe it to them to show forms of sexuality that are not the top 50 videos on Pornhub.” Put another way, the severing of sex from art would impoverish both.

This article appears in the September 2019 print edition with the headline “The Sex-Scene Coach.”