From a longing stare to moving in for a kiss, the anatomy of a modern sex scene is something most of us know all too well.
But amid the expertly crafted sense of lust are a host of details hidden from an unwitting viewer.
Ita O’Brien is responsible for some of television’s most talked about sex scenes, from Netflix’s Sex Education to the BBC’s Normal People and I May Destroy You, credited with bringing a fresh and nuanced perspective to sex on camera.
The founder of Intimacy on Set is one of television’s foremost intimacy co-ordinators, a niche but burgeoning industry responsible for producing pitch perfect television sex while ensuring dignity remains firmly intact for all involved.
While TV sex previously had a sense of “scrabbling through and getting on with it,” she said the Harvey Weinstein scandal and Time’s Up movement created a watershed moment.
“Before now, there was that sense of ‘there’s the intimate content’ but because there wasn’t that invitation to be adult, open, professional, people would be embarrassed and they wouldn’t talk about it,” she told news.com.au via Zoom from her London home during the coronavirus lockdown.
“The actor wouldn’t really engage, wouldn’t really have been spoken to about that scene and they just come on the day and suddenly it’s just sprung on them.”
She now trains up to 60 intimacy co-ordinators from around the world – including Eve Morey who works on Neighbours – and likens her role to that of a stunt or dance teacher.
“Just like a stunt or a dance, that time you take to rehearse, while it seems like you’re taking time, actually it’s saving time because once you’ve put it in front of the camera, it’s efficient, it’s repeatable, you get a way better intimate scene.”
HOW IT ACTUALLY WORKS
So what is going on behind the scenes of your favourite TV shows?
O’Brien says the day on set is the “tip of the iceberg” with much work done behind the scenes to prepare actors, crew and wardrobe on key guidelines.
For an intimacy co-ordinator that means ensuring there is no confusion about what is required and gaining active consent from all the actors involved, as well as working out their fears and boundaries.
From there, it’s to wardrobe where an array of “modesty garments” are assembled including “genitalia pouches” for men and “patches” for both sexes.
“The guidelines are for simulated sexual content, that ‘never ever should their naked genitalia touch’,” she explained, saying the least a woman would wear is a “genitalia patch.”
“It’s basically like a flesh coloured G-string but with the sides chopped off. It sticks just above the pubic line and then around into the small of the back or between the buttocks, depending on what the shot is.”
Men wear the same, plus a “genitalia pouch” which she described as “absolutely just standard.”
“It is not suitable for someone to actually have naked genitalia if they are performing simulated sexual content. Absolutely not. You don’t ever want to have the possibility of leaking fluids or anything like that. This is simulated. This is pretend. These people are acting,” she said.
The only exception is where no touch is involved, such as a shower scene, but actors often cover up once a shot is over, which viewers may not realise with clever editing.
“What we want is for the actor to be as empowered and as least vulnerable as possible at all times. So if you’ve done the wide shot and we’ve seen that sense of the whole body nakedness and then we come to the two shot and we’re only seeing them from the waist up then we’ll put their tracksuit bottoms on. Or in their close up and we’ll put their camisole top on. So we’re always looking at what’s in shot and what can the actors wear to keep them as comfortable as possible,” she said.
O’Brien takes into account crew present on set to ensure it’s not a “situation where you could have one lone woman in the space with nothing but the male gaze”.
She also personally OK’s “touch points” with actors such as somewhere on a person’s thigh, for example, and ensures last minute incursions like coldsores are worked around.
Her first full-time production was 2018’s Sex Education, a John Hughes inspired high school drama about a hapless teen turned accidental sex guru. O’Brien said the “brilliant” team’s commitment to rehearsals allowed the young actors to get their awkward sex techniques, including the famous “clock” pitch perfect.
She also received high praise from Michaela Coel, the writer, director and star behind I May Destroy You which shows some of the most boundary pushing sex scenes on modern television, covering issues like stealthing, rape and period sex.
Coel told a BAFTA Q&A session that O’Brien bought an “energy that came on set and let us get into our bodies so that we didn’t feel weird”.
“Not only is the mental and physical wellbeing of the cast important, it enables us to get there safely and get what we need for the scene,” she said.
In early 2020 the unwelcome coronavirus pandemic shut down television and film sets around the world, while also forcing millions of people home onto the couch.
Broadcasters recorded record-breaking figures with Netflix traffic hitting an all-time high, forcing the company to reduce bandwidth in Europe. In Australia, subscription TV providers saw big gains including Stan, Amazon Prime Video and Foxtel. The world’s largest porn site, PornHub, had a record 24 per cent increase in traffic after offering premium content free for 30 days (with frequent handwashing).
Porn director Erika Lust’s two websites, Lust Cinema and X Confessions, were no exception, with her online audience growing and existing members spending around 30 per cent more time online, forcing the company to acquire more servers.
“We quite rapidly saw the rise in traffic,” she said from her lockdown base just outside Barcelona. “People were missing out on life, sexual experiences and wanted to cater for their personal sexual experiences online, that is pretty obvious.”
Rapid lockdowns forced a complete rethink of the company’s films in production. Lust said they turned to post-production of shot footage and used couples or roommates already in lockdown together to create new content. Her documentary, Love and Sex in the Time of Quarantine, featuring four performers struggling to adjust to monogamy, or finding time to have sex with kids in the house, has been one of the site’s most watched films ever.
WHAT HAPPENS ON SET
While Lust’s version of sex on screen differs to the simulated version O’Brien creates, the Swedish director said she also employs intimacy co-ordinators and navigates key issues like consent and contraception before filming.
“We try to be very, very clear on what sexual acts or what kind of sexual representation we are looking for,” she said.
“The most important thing is to … have a very clear idea of what sex you want to shoot when you start doing castings or you have ideas for performers. For me, many times I even create ideas around performers that I like to work with or that I see work well for a part.”
She said most professionals who have sex on screen for a living have their favourite colleagues and stick to a set of guidelines. For an unfamiliar couple, Lust will set up an online call and then speak to them separately afterwards to gauge chemistry.
Recent, clear test results are a must, as is a discussion around condom use. Lust often tries to weave discussions around contraception and consent into the narrative as she feels many people are still “insecure” about communicating their sexual desires.
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On set, Lust said planning is key but it’s also important to remain aware that it’s a “real emotional sexual moment” happening.
“You have to try be aware of the power balance. Obviously they are performers, they would like to do the best performance ever but you need to read them, feel them, see that they are really there and that they are liking what is happening.”
Contrary to the typical assumption about many pornstars – that they are promiscuous people shooting for fun or cash – Lust said in reality the most successful are more likely to be into yoga and clean eating.
“The kind of people who are working are very different from what people have in mind,” she said. “The unserious people they fall out of this quickly.”
While there is always demand for “normal” style dad-bods rather than a typical “porn-star” look, she explained bringing on newcomers is particularly challenging given they are “taking that step that will change their life”.
The prevalence of online privacy means its difficult for her company to control what happens to its footage and she has to have frank conversations with new performers to explain that “it will come out”.
“It’s not a little secret that you can have earning some money on the side, it will affect your life so you have to think about that,” she said.
As for how the current pandemic has affected the kind of sex people want to see on screen, Lust said her X Confessions site has seen a demand for “post-apocalyptic” stories featuring trends towards latex, mask-wearing and a “feeling of protection” – along with the perennially popular affair narratives.
It’s also prompted a rethink of many people’s own sexual relationships with digital stories and video contact taking on a new dimension.
“Some people are doing sex parties online. Obviously they can’t touch each other but they can still work on their exhibitionism, they can still be a voyuer if they want. There are new kinds of watching and exposing yourself to other people.
“From what I’m understanding that has become quite more popular in these times because obviously it’s a way of exploring but still being safe. I think in the end that’s what people mostly are looking for. How can they have an active life but being safe.”