Going behind the (sex) scenes with an intimacy coordinator
“I was asked if this is a real thing or was I just making up a job for yourself?'”
There’s no greater lesson in consent and boundaries than spending a day with a cat. Any unwanted head pats or non-consensual belly rubs will leave you with bites of shame and scars along your arms. I’m pretty sure there’s a ‘touch at your own risk’ warning sign hiding somewhere in their fuzzy toe beans. I vote for a cat day at all schools trying to impart sex ed to young minds. No notebooks or diagrams for the teachers, just protective gloves and gear to teach them about boundaries.
Aastha Khanna works on similar lines. There are no felines involved, but her professional toolkit consists of shibues and pasties, which sound like they could be dog breeds. You know those behind-the-neck headphones that your fitness freak flatmate wears during her 5 AM run? A shibue is kind of like that, but instead of behind the neck, it goes between the legs to cover your genitals.
A film set is Khanna’s classroom and one part of her job as an intimacy coordinator is to ensure that actors have things like shibues, nipple covers and other ‘modesty garments’ to ensure their private body parts remain private while filming sex scenes.
Like stunt coordinators plan out every Matrix-style fight scene, discuss safety, precautions and rehearse every possible move, Khanna does the same for intimate moments.
After analysing the anatomy of a sex scene, Khanna sits down for one-on-one sessions with actors to brief them about the physical interactions required. She translates the director’s vision: the kind of wardrobe (or lack thereof), genital prosthetics and even physical barrier for the actor’s safety, like padding and cushioning.
“If a scene involved one actor spanking another, then we have silicone pads that the receiver would wear. This way, there’s no physical contact between the person’s hand and the other’s actual posterior, and they can’t feel it,” Khanna explains. “I ask the performers what they consent to, and where their boundaries lie in terms of physical contact.”
She then acts as a liaison between the actors and the director to create a safe environment where the scene can be shot.
Her presence makes a huge difference, with actors thanking her for advocating for them. “It’s hard for them to articulate what they need to say to the director. Every time they’d try to speak, they’d end up saying yes to doing something, then later they’re unable to correct themselves or change it if they’re unhappy doing it.”
Sexual content on-screen has evolved from fireworks, boiling milk and that shot of two flowers touching. Rumour has it that the intimate scene in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) used the image of a spider web tearing to represent the breaking of the lady’s hymen. A more comedic attempt in Aiyya (2012) showed Rani Mukherji fantasising about sex while at a petrol pump, where the hunky attendant got a bit creative with the gas nozzle between his legs, resulting in an eventual overspill splashing on to her face.
— bollyglot gifs (@BollyglotGifs) February 19, 2017
Before intimacy coordinators, directors would explain what they wanted out of a shot and actors would be left to awkwardly figure out the mechanics. Khanna still faces push back on set.
“I’ve even been called the sex police,” she says, adding that the production team doesn’t always understand why her presence is necessary. “It’s like I’m an HR person who’s just walked in. But my job is to make things smoother and easier for everyone.”
People in the industry became more cognisant of the need for intimacy coordinators after the #MeToo movement publicly unveiled how toxic the film set environment can be.
In 2018, HBO, a network known for its daring and risque content, announced the hiring of their first intimacy coordinator for The Deuce. They were also the first network which committed to hiring intimacy directors to choreograph all sexual content, with Amazon and Netflix following suit.
In early 2020, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) released a set of guidelines as a response to the Me Too and Times Up movement. Leading intimacy coordinators like Ita O’Brien, Alicia Rodis, Claire Warden, Tonia Sina and Amanda Blumenthal are becoming household names on film sets. The Intimacy Professionals Association, founded by Blumenthal, is where Khanna got her certification.
In a bustling industry where there are 10 other actors ready to replace you in a project, it’s difficult to say no even when you’re uncomfortable. Especially if you’re a woman. We’ve been socialised to be amenable even when uncomfortable, and say yes to opportunities. An attempt to lay down boundaries could easily end up ticking off the director and have producers rethinking your casting, especially if you’re young and new in the industry.
The film industry and the movies it creates — with depictions of sex, sexuality, harassment and stalking — has an undeniable impact on the rest of the population. This is the largest concentration of influencers in the country. In 2003, when Kal Ho Naa Ho, came out I successfully begged my mom to buy me burnt orange cargo pants because my beloved SRK wore burnt orange cargo pants. We all want to emulate our on-screen heroes, including what they’re doing off-screen. That includes trying to recreate steamy scenes with our partners as well.
Having someone who’s trained to craft intimate moments can even enrich the storytelling. An intimacy coordinator makes the depiction of unconventional intimacy and sex scenes easier for performers, encouraging others (directors and actors) to explore the same. That opens up more conversations around taboos that we’re finally getting to see on-screen.
Take the show I May Destroy You. It’s been lauded for its nuanced take on sexual assault and normalising things like period sex, which we hadn’t seen before on television. A lot of that had to do with the writing of show creator and star Michaela Coel, but also the work of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien.
The scenes we got to see, of both love and trauma, were incredibly impactful. Each beat, thrust and hand placement was choreographed with respect to the actors’ emotional and physical boundaries, creating a realistic depiction.
Khanna says that to become an intimacy coordinator, it’s crucial to be attuned to the performers’ needs, and those of people around you. Being perceptive and observing your surroundings can come naturally but also needs to be practised. Sex scene coordinators like her also bring to the table an understanding of gender, sexuality, trauma and harassment, as well as the laws that govern the same.
There should be a growing call for more intimacy coordinators in India. Not just for actors to safely perform intimate acts, but so we can also use their skills to explore uncharted territories of sex and sexuality. Even if we just get to momentarily live vicariously through what we see on-screen instead of having those conversations in person.
As the youngest to be certified in the field in India, Khanna may just be paving the way for an era of a multi-layered approach to sex, sexuality and intimacy as we see it on the big screen.