How to Make Sex Scenes Natural and Nonthreatening? Cue the ‘Intimacy Coordinator’

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SYDNEY, Australia — In the soft afternoon light, men and women huddle in groups, their images reflected in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Some kiss. Some fondle one another. Some touch fingertips, tension sizzling.

This isn’t a nightclub or an orgy. The men and women are actors. And they’re taking part in an “intimacy workshop” — part of a growing trend to carve out safe spaces in the theater and film industries.

At the helm is Ita O’Brien, a London-based “intimacy coordinator.” A former dancer and director, she — along with other intimacy coordinators and specialized stunt people — is emerging as a powerful influence in an industry grappling with the fallout of #MeToo.

Ms. O’Brien, 53, has worked for the likes of HBO and Netflix. And her approach, increasingly in demand globally, has found particular resonance in Australia, where a laddish culture persists in a world of theater and film that tends to be insular and has recently come under fire for protecting the status quo.

Ms. O’Brian says the global entertainment industry should have a code of conduct so that performers can operate in the workplace “without fear” — a need illustrated by several cases that made headlines in recent years.

The 2013 film “Blue is the Warmest Color” was applauded for its raw and exposing depictions of lesbian sex. But one of its main stars, the French actress Léa Seydoux, later described the filming as “humiliating” and said it had made her feel “like a prostitute.”

Three years later, with the #MeToo movement prompting a reconsideration of previously accepted norms, an infamous anal rape scene in the 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” was condemned as akin to sexual abuse. The scene, involving butter and a baguette, had been sprung without prior warning upon the 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider, who later said that during the scene she had felt “raped.”

To avoid any compromising situations — and to help productions safeguard against litigation or accusations of inappropriate behavior — Ms. O’Brien has created a series of “Intimacy on Set” guidelines for directors, producers and actors.

They include always having a third party present in rehearsals, agreeing in advance on areas of physical touch and nudity levels, employing modesty patches and pouches to ensure that bare genitals never touch, and using proper terms for body parts and sexual activities.

The guidelines also say that intimate scenes — whether they involve full simulated intercourse or the smallest physical contact — should be fully choreographed, and that during rehearsals actors should verbally consent to all physical contact before it is made.

And Hollywood is on the same page: HBO announced in October that all future productions involving sex scenes would have an intimacy coordinator present, and North American nonprofits like Intimacy Directors International, founded in 2016, are gaining traction.

Ms. O’Brien was partly inspired to travel to Australia after connecting with Safe Theatres Australia, an organization co-founded by Ms. Norvill and Sophie Ross, an actress and activist, that aims to combat sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. In 2017, they delivered a dossier to major Australian theater companies containing 58 anonymous testimonies describing such infractions.

Shelley Casey, 31, a Sydney-based actress who attended Ms. O’Brien’s workshop in Sydney last November, described the atmosphere in Australia’ film and theater worlds as “Just get on with it — don’t cause a fuss.”

Recalling rehearsals in which she was made to perform intimate moments as other production members chanted and whooped, she compared the expectation to improvise sex scenes to an era when fight scenes were also improvised — leading to unsafe rehearsals.

“Imagine the days when they put a sword in your hand and said, ‘Just wing this fight scene!’” she said, whereas the Intimacy on Set guidelines give “everyone the rules, the boundaries, the language, the communication.”

Many actors feel that they have no choice but to go along with a director’s instructions, particularly in an industry rife with power imbalance and celebrity worship.

Ms. O’Brien says she has heard plenty of horror stories: actresses unexpectedly told to remove undergarments on set, and sex scenes veering out of control while the camera is rolling, leaving one party feeling taken advantage of.

To give power back to the performers, her workshops focus on consent.

In Sydney, actors paired off with a director to create an intimate scene, stating out loud where they were happy to be touched, and where they were not happy to be. The key was to ask, when undoing a belt or stroking a person’s thigh: “Is this O.K.?”

“It just means there are no assumptions made,” Ms. O’Brien said, “and you have that moment of agreement and consent of touch, and everyone feels taken care of and happy.”

As a team, the groups then blocked every step of the scene so that nothing was a surprise.

Stemming abuse is not the only issue. Many at the workshop — where participants mimicked the mating rhythms of horses and gorillas in a bid to loosen up — said that using standardized guidelines also lessened the awkwardness of sex scenes.

Last year, Ms. O’Brien worked on the British set of the upcoming Netflix comedy “Sex Education,” which follows the trials of a teenage virgin and was released in January. The show’s director, Ben Taylor, said it was this “initial breaking down of taboos” that was most valuable, as well as the open discussion of sex scenes.

“Our shoot was far better for us having met Ita,” Mr. Taylor said in a telephone interview. “I think she is about to become very busy.”

He said that Ms. O’Brien had created a critical space to discuss fears and anxieties with a young, often inexperienced cast. And, he stressed, the focus was not just on physical safety, but also on ensuring that the sex scenes appeared authentic.

“Weirdly, probably the most revolutionary part was not the filming of it at all, just talking about it way in advance — settling nerves and making it a subject you wanted to explore and talk about,” Mr. Taylor said.

Not every member of his cast was sold on the idea.

“For some people it was almost like having a third wheel they didn’t need to have,” he said, and a handful of his younger actors who had not gone through traditional training asked, “‘Why is this woman making me breathe like a gorilla or move like a fish?’”

A longstanding criticism of over-rehearsing sex scenes has been that it will lead to a loss of chemistry. Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed “Last Tango in Paris,” once defended the film’s rape scene by arguing that he had wanted Ms. Schneider “to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation.”

Ms. O’Brien argues that her guidelines help create magnetism between actors rather than squelching it. Her program aims to keep the actors “personally safe so they can be artistically free,” she said. “It doesn’t lock down or censor — it actually frees the actor up.”

Sara Wiseman, an Australian-based actress who took part in a workshop that Ms. O’Brien held in Sydney, agreed.

“We have to be vulnerable, we have to be sometimes violent, we have to be intimate with someone, so you want as much support on your side as possible,” said the actress, a New Zealand native known for her roles in the series “Rake” and “A Place to Call Home.”

Ms. Wiseman — who minutes earlier had been performing a tentative and tender kiss scene with another actress in the workshop — paused.

“Then you can bust out the creativity,” she said, “because you know your parameters.”

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