When Clothes Fly Off, This Intimacy Coordinator Steps In

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.

It takes a lot of people to make a movie. You’ve got the director for overall vision, the gaffer on the lights, the set decorators to add texture to the film’s world, and the costume designers to envision the actors’ looks.

And when those costumes come off and things start to get a bit steamy? That’s where Jessica Steinrock comes in.

Ms. Steinrock is an intimacy coordinator — or intimacy director, when she’s working on theater and live performance — who facilitates the production of scenes involving nudity, simulated sex or hyper exposure, which she defines as “something someone might not otherwise uncover in public, even if it’s not legally nudity.” Much like a stunt coordinator or a fight director, she makes sure that the actors are safe throughout the process, and that the scene looks believable.

The role has come to prominence in the last five years. As the entertainment industry reeled from the litany of abuses brought to light by the #MeToo movement, many productions were eager to publicly demonstrate their commitment to safety. Hiring an intimacy coordinator was one way to do that.

“A lot of places were really excited about the possibility of this work and being ahead of the curve — showing that their company cared about their actors, cared about consent,” Ms. Steinrock said in a Zoom interview from her home in Chicago.

Ms. Steinrock — who has worked on projects including the critically acclaimed Showtime survival drama “Yellowjackets,” Netflix’s teen dramedy “Never Have I Ever” and the Hulu mini-series “Little Fires Everywhere” — has been involved in intimacy coordination since its early days. The industry took off thanks in large part to the highly publicized work of the intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis on the HBO show “The Deuce” in 2018. At that time, Ms. Steinrock, whose background is in improv comedy, was working on a master’s degree in theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, focused on navigating questions of consent in that space.

“In the improv world, I was picked up a lot or kissed or grabbed, or jokes were made about me that I didn’t consent to,” she recalled in a TikTok video. “And I was really curious if there were ways to navigate that better.”

The issue was particularly thorny in improv, which is grounded in a philosophy of accepting and building on whatever your scene partner gives you.

“You got placed in these uncomfortable or even harmful positions because the whole culture is ‘yes, and … ,’” said Valleri Robinson, the head of the university’s theater department, who advised Ms. Steinrock on her master’s degree and Ph.D. “It really started to come to the foreground for her that this was a problematic way of creating art.”

Ms. Steinrock and Ms. Rodis met through Ms. Steinrock’s then-boyfriend, now husband, who is a fight director. Ms. Rodis recognized a kindred spirit, with all the makings of a great intimacy coordinator, in Ms. Steinrock. She mentored Ms. Steinrock on her first gig: a 40-person orgy on the TNT show “Claws.” “She was thrown into the lion’s den, and she absolutely smashed it,” Ms. Rodis recalled.

Ms. Steinrock quickly rose to become a leader in the burgeoning field, and she now dedicates much of her time to educating people about it. In April 2022, she started her TikTok account, which now has more than 700,000 followers. In her videos, she critiques “spicy” scenes on TV shows (her current favorites include “Bridgerton,” “Sex Education” and “House of the Dragon”); breaks down how such scenes are filmed; and answers frequently asked questions about her work, such as “What do you do if an actor gets an erection?” or “If two actors are in an offscreen relationship, do they still have to follow the same protocols?” She’s not just demystifying her job, but also engaging people in broader conversations about intimacy and consent.

The role of the intimacy coordinator can be a tricky balancing act between choreography and care, and Ms. Steinrock brings an academic grounding in feminist and performance theory to the work, coupled with innate people skills.

“She’s very patient,” said Karyn Kusama, a director and executive producer on the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets,” who worked with Ms. Steinrock on the show’s pilot. “She listens. She’s looking to the actor to take the lead in terms of … what will make them feel most cared for.”

The pilot of “Yellowjackets” includes several intimate scenes, including one where two high schoolers, played by Sophie Nélisse and Jack Depew, have sex in a car, and another where a housewife, played by Melanie Lynskey, masturbates. Having Ms. Steinrock on set for those scenes was vital, Ms. Kusama said.

As a director, Ms. Kusama said she has always felt a deep empathy with how vulnerable actors are in these scenes and makes a point to check in. But even if she poses a question, it can be hard for an actor who is uncomfortable to respond honestly knowing how much is on the line. An intimacy coordinator, as a neutral party, is more likely to get an honest answer.

“Societally, sex is really hard to talk about,” Ms. Steinrock said. Her role is to “create more pathways of communication,” she explained, so the actors feel safe discussing any issues, big or small, that may come up.

Having an intimacy coordinator doesn’t just create a safer environment, Ms. Kusama said: It also makes for better, sexier art.

“It demands that you take responsibility for your story with the actors, that you actually say, Yeah, we’re depicting sex and here’s what it needs to mean — i.e. it needs to mean something,” she said. “And conversely, I can say to an intimacy coordinator, ‘You know, it feels like I’m watching two people peck each other on the cheek, and there’s zero heat here.’”

This is where the choreography piece of Ms. Steinrock’s job comes in: She can offer ways to use breath or adjust positions to make a scene more evocative.

In just five years, intimacy coordinators have become a vital part of the entertainment industry. HBO has required them on all of their productions since 2019 (Ms. Rodis oversees their program). At this point, Ms. Kusama said, it’s hard for her to imagine signing on to a project with intimate scenes without one.

The discipline’s explosive growth has meant that coordinators have had to create standards in real time — like building the tracks of a roller coaster as it shoots into the air. “We have to first define this role and agree on what it is,” Ms. Steinrock said. “That’s Step 1 of building a new profession. And then we have to define what being qualified for that role looks like.”

In 2020, Ms. Steinrock, Ms. Rodis and another intimacy director, Marie Percy, formed Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, with Ms. Steinrock at the helm. She had never been a chief executive before, but she taught herself on the job, quickly growing I.D.C. into the leading training and accreditation organization in the field. Its four-level program includes a mix of virtual and in-person classes. It is the only organization to offer certification for both intimacy coordination and direction, and it also runs workshops for other artistic professionals, such as actors or directors, who want to bring these practices into their work.

“Jessica has created the accountability structures so that we can say: ‘This is what our certification means. Here’s all the education behind it. Here are the equitable practices we have, and here’s the accountability we have to these artists,’” Ms. Rodis said.

Ms. Steinrock sees advocacy for these standards as a key part of I.D.C.’s mission. She was part of a working group organized by the Screen Actors Guild to establish new safety standards for intimacy, which were published in 2020; in 2022, the union launched a registry of vetted intimacy coordinators and announced that it would create a pathway to union membership for these professionals.

“Intimacy coordinators are not a panacea for an industry that has historically abused its actors — and, frankly, historically abused most of the people in it,” Ms. Steinrock said. But integrating them into productions is a clear step that institutions can take, as part of a broader commitment to safety and equity.

For Ms. Steinrock’s part, that commitment also includes working to diversify intimacy coordination. While it is a rare female-led discipline in an industry dominated by men, it is still predominantly white and straight — one of the pitfalls of a young profession that has largely relied on word of mouth to grow.

Ultimately, the hope is that intimacy coordination becomes standard across the entertainment industry, and “that it helps us see each other and the role of sex in our lives differently, as something richer and more filled with possibility,” Ms. Kusama said.

Ms. Robinson has been excited to see her former student bring these issues out into the open. “She’s enhancing our vocabularies and giving us pathways beyond the industry to address these topics that people find so difficult,” she said. And while much of that awareness has happened via TikTok, Ms. Robinson also noted that Ms. Steinrock’s dissertation had been downloaded more than 700 times — another sign of just how much interest there is in this area.

Inviting people to re-examine how sex works in the media they consume, Ms. Steinrock said, could improve the way they approach sex in general.

“Media is so many people’s first experience with intimacy,” she said. “And when we care about how things are made, it starts conversations about how things are operating in other spaces, and I think that can have a huge impact as to what people expect in their day-to-day lives.”

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