Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning not only shone a light on the industry’s toxic culture of predation and sexual violence. It also underscored the critical need for an overhaul of the way sex and consent are portrayed on our screens, and a major change in the way cast and crew members are treated on and off set.
In Netflix’s new teen comedy Sex Education, that change is palpable in the way the writers’ tackle the topic of sex, but also in how sex scenes were filmed.
Netflix hired an “intimacy coordinator” to ensure both cast and crew felt comfortable when filming sex scenes and responsible for making sure actors agreed to be touched during intimate scenes.
Director Kate Herron told Mashable at an advanced screening of the first episode that the intimacy coordinator helped cast members with the sex scenes, but her main function was “making it clear that everyone’s comfortable with what’s going on”.
“It was about making it a safe, comfortable working environment.”
“So, things like agreeing touch, but also other things like everyone being on board with what the scene’s about,” said Herron. The intimacy coordinator wasn’t just tasked with liaising with the actors engaged in the intimate scenes, she also worked with the crew. “That’s equally just as important for crew as well. No one should have to go home after filming a sex scene and feel like what they’ve done is like something really wrong,” said Herron.
“It was about making it a safe, comfortable working environment, particularly because, not all the sex scenes I did, but quite a lot of them were for comic effect and you cant really make something funny if people don’t feel comfortable,” Herron added.
Ita O’Brien — the intimacy coordinator — says she works to ensure that intimate scenes are rehearsed to the same extent you would a fight or stunt scene and that everyone involved is consulted throughout. “I give a structure and process to get through sex scenes,” said O’Brien. “So instead of a director saying: ‘this is what I want, get on with it’, or ‘you two go away and work it out yourselves’, both of which can leave people in compromising situations.
O’Brien talked about how she goes about making sure everyone involved isn’t dreading the sex scenes and feeling uncomfortable. “I’m there to help them choreograph it clearly, ensuring everyone was okay with both the physicality and the nudity,” she said. “You agree the scene step-by-step, including where people have consented to be touched, so they can be freer to tell the story and further their character through the scene.” The same rules apply to supporting artists, who according to O’Brien are often “overlooked” and “told to go off and make it up themselves.”
Before the filming even began, the entire cast and crew took part in a day-long intimacy workshop. “We started with people sharing experiences of intimate scenes and sexual content at work, both good and bad,” said O’Brien. “Actors said to me that was groundbreaking, to have that connection as an opener and a leveler.” It was also important to help the actors keep their “personal self private” during sex scenes. “You don’t want to bring who you are into a sex scene, so how else can you explore sexual rhythms? We looked at footage of dogs, cats, lions, gorillas, slugs and snails, then physicalised them so they had the rhythms at their fingertips and could apply them to different characters,” said O’Brien.
Created and written by Laurie Nunn, Sex Education is the story of 16-year-old Otis, a “very shy, awkward, quite neurotic teenage boy” who lives with his mum Jean, a sex and relationships therapist. “Because of this he has this weird secret superpower, he has this incredible theoretical knowledge of sex and relationships even though he himself can’t even masturbate,” Nunn told Mashable.
Nunn’s exploration of the universality of being an awkward, sexually inexperienced 16 year old is inspired by her love of iconic teen movies and TV shows and the YA genre. “We really wanted to pay homage to the John Hughes films of 1980s,” said Nunn. Netflix’s commissioning editor Alex Sapot described the series as “a real homage to John Hughes, the ’80s” and “an interesting intersection” of the John Hughes aesthetic and Laurie Nunn’s modern voice. Nunn added that their aim was to harness this inspiration and “take tried and tested tropes and subvert them and look at them from a new perspective.”
In light of the criticism John Hughes‘ movies have faced for their depiction of teen sex, this subversion of tropes is, it’s safe to say, necessary if Sex Education hopes to achieve its goal of being the next iteration of the teen drama. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Molly Ringwald — who starred in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles — spoke about how she now feels about the sexualised scenes in light of the #MeToo movement.
In an op-ed in the New Yorker, Ringwald wrote that her mother “spoke up during the filming” of the scene in The Breakfast Club in which “bad-boy character” John Bender hides under the desk of Ringwald’s character Claire and seizes the opportunity to look at her underwear. “Though the audience doesn’t see, it is implied that he touches her inappropriately,” wrote Ringwald, who was a minor at the time of filming the scene.
My mom also spoke up during the filming of that scene in The Breakfast Club, when they hired an adult woman for the shot of Claire’s underwear. They couldn’t even ask me to do it—I don’t think it was permitted by law to ask a minor—but even having another person pretend to be me was embarrassing to me and upsetting to my mother, and she said so. That scene stayed, though.
Three decades on, this homage to Hughes’ teen films is distinctly different in its approach to sex both on and off screen.
O’Brien thinks the show has the potential to change attitudes towards sex in the #MeToo era. But, the work behind the scenes, can and should spark change within the entertainment industry. HBO took the decision in late 2018 to “staff every one of its television shows and films” that feature sex scenes with an intimacy coordinator.
“There has been a seismic shift this year,” said O’Brien. “Apart from this for Netflix, I’ve done a series with Amazon, and Sky have said they’ll be using intimacy guidelines. It’s all really positive for the industry.”
Sex Education‘s approach to navigating sex scenes with a cast of young actors — many of whom are on their first big break — is a positive one. But, hiring intimacy coordinators shouldn’t be something unique to the teen genre. This move sets a valuable precedent and should be adopted industry-wide.