Netflix’s Sex Education earns its title

Choreographing intimacy ushers in a new age onscreen

Sex Education used intimacy coordinators on set.
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Sex scenes in movies and TV have long mystified and fascinated audiences.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe intimate scenes are professional transactions between actors and, typically, not that sexy to make. It gets even more complicated when actors date their onscreen lovers in real life—like The Notebook’s Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, or High School Musical’s Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. 

This fascination can take a more sinister tone in light of the #MeToo movement, which swept the entertainment industry to reveal abuses of power. Influential men have long taken advantage of their career-breaking control over the industry’s more vulnerable professionals. In a post-Harvey Weinstein era, women have advocated for improved safety standards in settings that demand long hours, high emotions, and close contact with co-workers.

That’s why the employment of an intimacy coordinator for Netflix’s latest hit, Sex Education, is refreshing and meaningful. 

The series, a British dramedy starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson, follows Otis, a shy high school virgin living with his mother, who works as a sex therapist. Otis partners with his sexually experienced classmate to set up his own sex therapy clinic at school, dealing with his peers’ most intimate problems. 

The show’s been met with instant acclaim—if a friend says they’re binging something new on Netflix, odds are it’s Sex Education. Its widespread popularity makes the show’s depiction of adolescent sex through the use of intimacy coordinators particularly important. 

Intimacy coordinators work to make public depictions of sex more comfortable for everybody. They’re similar to stunt experts who train actors to do their own tricks—making on-screen action more realistic and preventing harm. 

The coordinators provide a step-by-step approach to sex scenes through choreography and timing. They allow actors to rehearse fully clothed and ensure their motions look real; they also set boundaries, giving a way for actors to keep their personal feelings out of the equation. If an actor feels uncomfortable with a certain depiction of intimacy, they can express their concerns to the coordinator without fear of retribution from anyone else in the production. 

Intimacy coordinators aren’t anything new. The position was first introduced in 2004 by Tonia Sina and Alicia Rodis, who founded Intimacy Directors International. Since its inception, the company’s spawned a movement with coordinators working on shows like The Deuce, Crashing and Deadwood. In October, HBO announced that all of its future productions would employ intimacy coordinators on set.

When consent matters so much in daily life, it’s important to represent it in the institutions that guide young people’s perceptions of relationships. Actors are professionals. Whether depicting the removal of a belt or an explicit instance of sex, they deserve to feel in control of their bodies and surroundings. 

Despite a wave of young people mobilizing to speak out for equality, our social climate remains weighted with setbacks. From September’s Brett Kavanaugh hearing to an American president claiming he can touch the female form however he wants, it can be difficult for women to believe their bodies and experiences will be respected. 

That’s why even the smallest actions, like adding one person to a TV set, can make a difference.  

In 2019, sex is a reality onscreen, just like in real life. It’s critical to represent it in a way that sets a positive example without holding adolescents to unrealistic standards. 

Intimacy coordinators on sets worldwide continue to create change for the better. They depict fumbling and vulnerable moments in a respectful manner, keep professionals safe, and promote equitable power dynamics.

As actors continue to benefit from this training, intimacy coordinators bring a new meaning to sex education.

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