Allegations of serial sexual misconduct by more than 20 women against British actor, director and producer Noel Clarke have revealed a grim picture about the state of the UK film and television industries. At time of writing, more women have come forward.
Four years after the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the rise of the #MeToo movement, it’s clear there’s still an extraordinary amount of work that needs to be done to make film and television production cultures safe for workers – especially women.
As feminist media studies scholars who recently began a two-year study into intimacy coordination in UK television culture, we believe that intimacy coordinators play an essential part in wider efforts to stop sexually predatory and abusive behaviour in entertainment.
What do intimacy coordinators do?
Intimacy coordinators help to plan and choreograph intimate scenes (including sex scenes), mediating between actors and a range of roles – including writers, directors, costume designers and prop departments – to ensure that actors feel comfortable with every aspect and stage of the process.
Intimacy coordination ensures that on-set production practices are safe for all involved and that intimate and sexual representations are handled transparently and with care. While this role was developed prior to the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, it’s taken on greater significance following heightened awareness of gendered abuses of power in film and TV.
Testimonies of abuse in this field draw attention to the fact that these aren’t isolated incidents, but rather part of a pattern of behaviour. As with Weinstein, in cases like these it’s alleged that many industry figures are aware of sexually abusive and inappropriate conduct and yet do not speak out. While the silence of bystanders is often framed as cowardice or moral failure, there are structural reasons that allow those who abuse their power to “hide in plain sight”.
Although it’s imperative that abusers are held accountable for their actions, it’s equally vital that reports about sexual abuse in British film and TV are positioned in relation to a wider context of gendered structural abuse and workplace harassment in the sector.
Sexual mistreatment in Hollywood
There’s a long history of female actors being treated as objects on and off screen. In her recent memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, Sharon Stone reflects on what it was like to perform sex scenes as an actress in the 1990s. On the set of Basic Instinct (1992), which Stone starred in, the actor has recounted how she felt manipulated into the infamous police interrogation room vagina-shot, which she saw on screen for the first time in “a room full of agents and lawyers”.
On a Desert Island Disc episode from 2000, Kathleen Turner told then host Sue Lawley that when she first arrived to shoot for Body Heat (1981) director (Lawrence Kasdan) expected her to do a nude scene without advance warning. When she expressed how nervous she was, her male co-star, William Hurt, reportedly pulled her aside and told her to drink a bottle of wine to relax herself. Though Turner frames the anecdote as humorous rather than abusive, it indicates a casual lack of regard for female actors around shooting sex scenes.
In a disturbing example from the 1970s, Maria Schneider said that she felt a “little raped” by both director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando during the infamous anal rape scene in Last Tango in Paris (1972), which was shot without obtaining her consent.
It’s important to remember what it was like for actresses in the pre-intimacy coordination world – and often continues to be like for them without well-established production guidelines. That it’s taken so long for the male-dominated entertainment industry to allow space for such a role, let alone grant intimacy coordination the cultural legitimacy it deserves, is telling.
A culture of consent
Among many disturbing revelations about sexually predatory and abusive behaviour in the British film industry are accusations of coercing women into performing naked auditions, filming women without their knowledge and sharing video footage of these auditions with others.
Following allegations against Clarke, Kaya Scodelario, the former star of UK teen drama, Skins (2007-2013), posted a Twitter thread in which she recounted being asked to take all her clothes off for a first audition with a big-name director (who she has yet to name publicly). She explained that it was only her agent’s refusal to let this happen that saved her from an exploitative – and potentially dangerous – situation.
Different casting, between me and another actress.Both worked very hard to impress this notoriously difficult director. auditioned multiple times. He emailed our agents ‘whoever agrees to go nude 1st gets the job’ The movie had no nudity in it. He just wanted 2 see who’d say yes
— Kaya Scodelario (@kScodders) April 30, 2021
Intimacy coordinators have also been using Twitter to advise actors that no screen tests or auditions should ever involve nudity. As Lizzy Talbot, an intimacy coordinator who worked on the set of Bridgerton, tweeted important information:
Nudity is not a requirement of any audition. If anyone claims it is – drop that project. Flag to unions and if you still aren’t sure – you can always ask an #intimacycoordinator
— LizzyTalbot (@lizzyhtalbot) April 30, 2021
Ita O’Brien, author of the Intimacy on Set guidelines and a forerunner of intimacy coordination, has also issued a statement calling for the dismantling of toxic behaviour and abuses of power in the industry.
— Ita O’Brien (@ItaOB) May 1, 2021
In response to recent allegations, charity Time’s Up UK highlights how important it is to organise around “safety guidelines to help people working in entertainment understand they have (…) a right to report sexual harassment and misconduct, free from prejudice and fear.” In the largely freelance and highly competitive film and television sector where speaking out has traditionally led to fears of being blacklisted, this advice is particularly important.
But intimacy coordination isn’t the sole answer to fixing structural inequalities. Nor is it the only way to make women safe in an industry with such stark gendered power imbalances, especially as some allegations of abusive behaviour take place off set. What it can help with, however, is establishing clear guidelines around what is and isn’t acceptable. That includes seeking explicit consent, looking at approaches to auditions and screen tests, requiring greater transparency over the filming processes of intimate and sexual scenes, ensuring closed sets and advocating for actors’ boundaries to be respected. Prioritising these measures is an important – and necessary – step forwards.
Featured image: William Hurt and Katheen Turner in an intimate scene from the film Body Heat, 1981. Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy