Why There Should Be "Industry Wide Standards" for Filming Sex Scenes

'Vida' showrunner Tanya Saracho, 'Animal Kingdom' actress Nicki Michaeux and HBO intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis on Saturday opened up about the challenges around shooting sex scenes at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas.
ATX Festival
From left: Joy Blake, Alicia Rodis, Nicki Michaeux and Tanya Saracho

No detail was spared in the "Let's Talk About Sex (Scenes)" panel at the ATX Festival.

Vida showrunner Tanya Saracho, Animal Kingdom actress Nicki Michaeux and HBO intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis sat down with Outlander writer Joy Blake on Saturday afternoon at the Austin, Texas-based TV festival for a candid discussion about how to safely navigate television productions that involve nudity and other intimate content.

Michaeux kicked off the hourlong conversation by opening up about her first-ever sex scene on a television show she did not name. "My first sex scene, I didn’t really have anyone to prepare me for it. I was pretty nervous about it," she said, explaining that it was meant to be a dream sequence so it was particularly vague in the script. "I had been told you should let people know what you're willing to do and get really specific about 'you can touch me here,' 'you can't touch me there,' 'you can't tongue me.'"

The actor who was her scene partner began to tell her that some performers choose to not just simulate the intimate parts. "And I was like, 'Well, I don't really want to do real things,'" said Michaeux, whose credits also include The Shield, SWAT and In the Dark. Since it was a fully nude scene, she had to wear several pasties, material that covers up the actor's privates — but she ran into trouble when they wouldn't stick to her skin. "I can’t remember if I had drinks that day or not," Michaeux said to laughter from the audience. "I’m glad we can laugh about this because I was having a complete freakout."

The discussion centered on the importance of having intimacy coordinators on set, an increasingly common practice among networks and studios. Rodis, a former actress who co-founded Intimacy Directors International in 2015, started working with HBO on The Deuce, David Simon's period drama that employs a lot of simulated sex. "Just like stunts are coordinated and anything else on set is coordinated hopefully to a tee and with other plans in case things go awry, we feel strongly that sex scenes and intimate scenes and even just scenes with nudity should have that kind of coordination," she said onstage.

Rodis' goal is to empowering both writers and actors and improve safe sex practices behind the camera. "You don't have to have your genitals up against another actor's genitals because it's like, what's that line between sex work and being a performer at work represented by your union?" She tries to build in closure into these difficult scenes, which could range from simple eye contact acknowledging the end of it or a handshake where the actors thank each other for the great day of filming. "Sometimes it will be as simple as, 'Alright, we're going to move on to the next scene — would you please thank your co-worker?" says Rodis.

For Saracho, it's all about making her actors feel comfortable, so she makes sure that they rehearse any sex scenes two days before they actually film them. "There's a lot of sex on my show," said Saracho of Vida. "A lot." The showrunner cast the series with actors who were comfortable with nudity, and when actors came into the show for just the sex scenes, she'd let her lead actress choose who wanted to act in the scene with her. "'Cause it's her body," Saracho explained.

Ultimately, all of the panelists agreed that there should be better regulation of sex scenes and that the unions ought to get more involved. "It'll be a thing when the industry dictates it's a thing," said Rodis. "The more that HBO, Starz and Amazon institute more protocols demanding an intimacy coordinator, the more other networks and studios say, 'No, we are going to go way above what SAG-AFTRA, ACTRA or UK Equity is giving you,' that's when everyone else is going to follow suit and get onboard."

Summed up Michaeux: "What we need are industry-wide standards. We have to figure out a way."