Graphic DesignThe Uncomfortable History of Sex Onscreen

Two faces, defined by black, empty, space and scribbled red and white lines, face each other

Illustration by Jessica Coppet

This article was published in Touch Issue #93 | Spring 2022

When Michaela Coel—the creator, writer, and star of I May Destroy You, the acclaimed television series about the aftermath of a young woman’s rape—took the stage to accept her award for best leading actress at the 2021 British Academy Television Awards, she brought attention to a crucial development in the history of the entertainment industry. Coel singled out the contributions of her intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, one of the increasingly sought-after consultants who are responsible for choreographing and supervising sex scenes and scenes involving nudity. Under O’Brien’s guidance, the show’s complex and emotionally challenging sex scenes, which feature consensual and nonconsensual encounters between both straight and gay characters, came to life with exceptional regard for the actors involved—as well as the communities being depicted. 

Today, the need for intimacy coordinators might seem obvious given the delicate nature of shooting sex scenes. Yet the profession, at least officially, is a relatively new one, and the perception that such experts are essential crew members is even newer. I May Destroy You is certainly not the first series to tackle queer sexuality and the reality of sexual violence, but the attention to the nuances of these experiences, and the care practiced both on- and off-screen, does represent a kind of high-water mark for the industry’s historically fraught handling of sexual content. 

The world of entertainment, after all, has long been dominated by a cisgender and heteronormative majority, with creatives and executives consisting primarily of straight white men with (at times simultaneously) repressive and exploitative attitudes about sexual desire. Such conditions, along with flimsy or nonexistent systems of accountability, have allowed for the prevalence of behind-the-scenes abuses, especially as U.S. popular culture began to embrace—or at least deem profitable—more expansive and graphic depictions of sexuality in the wake of the 1960s sexual revolution.

Before the upheaval of that period, which saw the end of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code and the rise of edgier, more explicitly provocative films spearheaded by the New Hollywood generation of filmmakers, onscreen sex and nudity as we know it were largely absent from popular U.S. cinema. Nevertheless, Hollywood’s silent and pre-Code eras were rife with provocative imagery—morally questionable women dressed in revealing gowns, for instance, or laying in bed, their nude bodies covered tastefully by furs and bedsheets.

The films of the pre-Code era in particular were known for their taboo-busting scripts, which often challenged the double standards women faced at the time. In this brief period before the talkies were subject to the exhaustive content restrictions of the Production Code in 1934, the movies seemed to challenge social norms as a rule (though Hollywood was less motivated by any commitment to progressive causes than by the need to energize the box office, drawing in Depression-era audiences with sheer titillation). Though never explicitly shown, socially condemned activities such as one-night stands and premarital and extramarital sex were strongly suggested by innuendo-laden dialogue and winking transitions—fades to black or curtain-closings following passionate embraces, close-ups of individual body parts, breathy conversations in undeniably postcoital situations. Adultery, promiscuity, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions were all on the table, though most badly behaved women got their comeuppance; meanwhile, gay men and lesbians occasionally showed up as side characters presented in derogatory ways, for the gags or to heighten the risqué atmosphere of a setting. 

The Production Code deemed these allowances unacceptable. Over the course of more than 30 years, its rigorous moral guidelines would go on to affect practically every film made by the Hollywood studio system, dictating the selection of scripts and what themes and dialogue were permissible. Any displays of “sexual perversion” (i.e., homosexuality), adultery, and miscegenation were forbidden, while “scenes of passion” were curtailed because of the gender bias meant to curb the expression of female sexual desire. 

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Still, a small number of films managed to defy the Code, with the most scandalous depictions of female sexuality often reserved for fallen women, villainesses, and nonwhite characters. Howard Hughes’s racy western, The Outlaw (1943), features a heavily implied rape involving Jane Russell’s half-Mexican character, Rio, and the film’s marketing campaign stooped to emphasizing the size of the actress’s breasts. Filmmakers also found crafty ways to circumvent the Code: Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), in which Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for almost three minutes, evading the Code’s no-kissing-for-more-than-three-seconds rule by repeatedly pausing and resuming their make-out marathon.

The Code’s influence began to fade as new understandings of sexuality took hold in U.S. culture, and Hollywood sought to distinguish itself from television programming subject to even stricter censorship rules. When a 1952 Supreme Court ruling deemed motion pictures to be a form of expression entitled to First Amendment protections, filmmakers and studios began to rebel more flagrantly. Sex comedies featuring blond bombshells such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield swept the box office. Meanwhile, popular European imports like Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956) pushed the boundaries of sexual content allowed in American theaters, making American films, by contrast, seem puritanical and passé. Though And God Created Woman did not explicitly show sex or nudity, its star, a fresh-faced Brigitte Bardot, did play a nymphomaniacal orphan with a penchant for sunbathing. 

The dam broke during the following decade, when enforcement of the Code became practically impossible. Popular cinema fed off the rise of the U.S. counterculture, the weakening of obscenity laws, and the women’s and gay liberation movements. Meanwhile, the provocations of underground and exploitation films by filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Russ Meyer, and Joseph W. Sarno trickled into the mainstream, anticipating the “golden age” of American commercial pornography in the decades to come. By the end of the 1960s, acclaimed Hollywood movies openly wrestled with the implications of the sexual revolution: Think Jon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), who travels to New York City to become a male prostitute, or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), in which two couples dabble in polyamory. 

Two people, draw with red lines, with their arms over each others' shoulders

I May Destroy You (2020)

Women’s desire seemed to be liberated from the shackles of repression and propriety that dominated classic Hollywood. Consider the rise of Jane Fonda, who went from playing a frustrated virgin and ambivalent mistress in sex comedies such as Sunday in New York (1963) and Any Wednesday (1966) to a futuristic astronaut on a sexual odyssey through space in Barbarella (1968). Then, in Klute (1971), she took on the role of a clever and sympathetic call girl, one whom we see both servicing a client and later falling in love. But for every Bree Daniels (Fonda’s admirably complex character in Klute) in U.S. popular cinema, there were 10 Barbarellas—that is, female characters whose “liberated” sexualities also deepened their sexual objectification, with their bodies and images circumscribed by a patriarchal “sex sells” mentality and the unhinged demands of male filmmakers in the name of artistic freedom and authenticity. 

At the same time, the movies had also become more luridly violent and more willing to depict brutalized bodies. In Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs (1971), a woman’s graphic rape prompts her husband’s violent revenge. Susan George, who played Amy, the wronged woman, was originally asked by Peckinpah to perform the rape scene in the nude. Peckinpah’s camera leers at George’s character, zeroing in on her legs and breasts in order to reproduce the lascivious gaze of the barbaric men who ultimately violate her. George managed to convince the filmmaker she could pull off the pivotal rape scene without taking her clothes off—a rather remarkable feat considering that young actresses, especially lesser-known ones, were often expected to perform full-frontal nudity, or bust. Instead, George convinced Peckinpah she could convey Amy’s experience entirely with her eyes, which she did, punctuating her wide-eyed terror with glimpses of lusty receptivity (unsurprisingly, this scene has been widely criticized for its implication of Amy’s consent). Though George’s heated negotiations with Peckinpah on set ultimately concluded in her favor, the informal nature of that discussion—often unmediated and reliant on the savvy and determination of an actor willing to risk losing the part entirely should the director refuse to budge—was the norm. 

One of the most disturbing episodes in cinematic history, about the lengths to which men—conferred unchecked freedom to indulge their “genius” whims—were willing to go, occurred on the set of Bernardo Bertolucci’s racy 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. In the film, actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play anonymous lovers who meet regularly in a shoddy Parisian apartment to indulge their darkest passions, with Brando’s Paul growing increasingly cruel and sadistic. In one scene, Paul anally rapes his mistress, striking her and using a stick of butter as lubricant. Brando and Bertolucci had apparently come up with the scene before the shoot, and in order to generate a realistically anguished reaction from Schneider, they failed to inform her until the very last minute. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act,” said Bertolucci in a 2013 interview. For her part, Schneider says that her onscreen expressions of hurt and humiliation were completely real. 

The Code’s influence began to fade as new understandings of sexuality took hold in U.S. culture, and Hollywood sought to distinguish itself from television programming subject
to even stricter censorship rules.

Decades later—when erotic thrillers such as Basic Instinct (1992) and Fatal Attraction (1987) were all the rage in the ’80s and ’90s, or when premium cable channels began featuring programming that challenged what was once considered acceptable for television with series such as Sex and the City, True Blood, and Girls—informal discussions remained the status quo when it came to shooting sex scenes. 

“If you talk to the actors, you will find out that they were completely at ease. If there was a problem, they would have said it,” said Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven, responding to the absence of intimacy coordinators on the set of his recent lesbian nun movie, Benedetta (2021). Because a willingness to yield to direction is often equated with professionalism, approaches such as Verhoeven’s—whether or not the actors truly feel at ease and cared for—have often led to abuses of power on set. Several actors from Game of Thrones, a series notorious for its gratuitous nudity and prolonged sex scenes, have publicly discussed the poor experiences they had shooting intimate scenes. Jason Momoa recalls being pressured to “sacrifice” himself and remove his genital-covering intimacy pouch by showrunner David Benioff, and Emilia Clarke, still a new face when she shot a rape scene in the first season, remembers acquiescing to uncomfortable direction: “I was so desperate to be the most professional actor I could be that I’d be like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ for anything they threw at me. I’ll just cry about it in the bathroom later.” 

“There was this idea that if [the actors] are going to look sexy and like they fancy each other, it has to be real. Directors were telling their actors to go out to dinner together before they filmed their big sex scenes. No, actually. You need to be able to trust an actor to act,” O’Brien tells Bitch. “Many believe that bringing structure to intimate content will dampen the creativity and spontaneity and everything will look mechanical. But that’s what rehearsal is for. As with anything that requires choreography, you need to do it two or three times, and once it’s in the body, you can go back to being spontaneous.” 

Intimacy coordinators such as O’Brien—who, in addition to her work on I May Destroy You, has overseen the intimate scenes in shows such as Sex Education and Watchmen and has a professional background in dancing, acting, and massage therapy—began developing and teaching her methods in 2015, before producers came calling in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. 

Two faces, defined by black, empty, space and scribbled red and white lines, face each other

Bound (1996)

Originally a sex and relationship coach with a background in advocacy work for survivors of sexual assault, Amanda Blumenthal is another pioneer in the field. Having worked on the sets of HBO’s The White Lotus and Euphoria, she remembers her early days as a professional intimacy coordinator in 2018 being rife with trial and error: “In the beginning, actors, directors, and producers didn’t know what it was like to have an intimacy coordinator on set, and our practices weren’t standardized back then, so no one knew what to expect.” 

For O’Brien and Blumenthal, however, it’s not only about safety. “Stunt coordinators aren’t just there to keep people safe; they’re there to choreograph a brilliant stunt or fight,” says O’Brien. “[Coordinating intimacy] is a way of storytelling, of adding nuances to intimate experiences and power relations and feelings of love.”

“There’s also an advocacy dimension,” says Blumenthal, “[to] being there to communicate with the director or people in the costume department about the needs of performers who are queer or trans.”

Indeed, part of an intimacy coordinator’s job is to bring a level of authenticity to sex scenes, something that historically has been missing from movies and shows that depict queer sexuality. “Most [lesbian] movies, like Personal Best or Desert Hearts, concern a tender coming-of-age story, shy, romantic, erotically timid. Lesbian life does not begin and end with baby powder foreplay,” writes Susie Bright in Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World

Well before intimacy coordination became a concrete profession, Bright, a writer and sex educator, was hired as a “technical consultant” on Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s lesbian crime thriller, Bound (1996). “I think [people] imagined that meant I stood over [actors] Gina [Gershon] and Jennifer [Tilly] with a riding crop, snapping, ‘Deeper, harder, a little to the left,’” writes Bright. “My expertise was needed to show how our butch/femme heroines Corky [a James Dean look-alike recently paroled] and luscious Violet [a curvy, mobster mistress] become lovers in the first place.”

“There’s an advocacy dimension [to] being there to communicate with the director or people in the costume department about the needs of performers who are queer or trans.”

Unfortunately, films such as Bound are exceptions in the history of queer sex scenes in mainstream entertainment, which, again, have predominantly been envisioned by and for heterosexual men. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or–winning lesbian romance, Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), represents a low point in this particular equation; the filmmaker subjected his two straight lead actors, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, to a gruelingly lengthy and tyrannical shoot, while the nearly 10-minute long graphic sex scene itself feels ripped out of a porn movie intended for straight men. 

Having intimacy coordinators on set can be a way of developing a character’s story because, as O’Brien notes, it is their job to make sense of and communicate the details and particularities of any given intimate experience. “It requires research, reading books, reaching out to communities of color or LGBTQ communities to better understand what these experiences feel like,” says O’Brien. One of the scenes she feels most proud of bringing to life takes place in I May Destroy You, when Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is gay and Black, has anal intercourse with someone he meets on Grindr: “[Kwame] is pressured into having unprotected sex, so it’s an encounter that goes from consensual to abusive, and I had to depict it in such a way that honors the Black, gay community. So I had to make sure, for example, that the penetration took time.” 

“Thank you for your existence in our industry,” said Coel, shouting out O’Brien in her acceptance speech at the 2021 BAFTA TV Awards. “For creating physical, emotional, and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power, without being exploited or abused in the process.” Not only do Coel’s words sum up the ideal conditions for onscreen sex and the production processes that surround it—processes that have taken decades to hone and required massive paradigm shifts around gender and sexuality—they express a belief in the empowering and radical possibilities of art itself on terms no longer dictated by narrow, patriarchal structures.  

 

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by Beatrice Loayza
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Beatrice Loayza is a film critic and culture writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in MUBI Notebook, Sight & Sound, i-D, Hyperallergic, and other outlets. She is an unconventional Capricorn but a Capricorn nonetheless.