'Sex Education': How an Intimacy Coordinator Helped Change the Show's Approach to Love Scenes

Sex Education Still 5 - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from season two of Netflix's Sex Education.]

It's not just the characters that have changed in Sex Education’s second season. The sex those characters are having has evolved, too.

From solo and shared masturbation scenes to the exploration of specific fetishes, the tentative toe-dipping into dirty talk and more inventive methods of showcasing queer sexual health, the shagging the teens (and adults) of Moordale enjoy in the Netflix drama's sophomore outing is much more than just a punchline.

For creator Laurie Nunn, widening her lens to multiple points of view meant she was free to investigate something that’s rarely done well on television: female pleasure.

“I think it's always been something I felt very passionate about, even in series one, but being able to delve deeper into these characters and have more time with them has brought it to the forefront a bit more,” Nunn tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That really gave us a great opportunity to tell another story about female pleasure and desire.”

In season two, we see a variety of women investigate their kinks and desires in refreshingly honest, often empowering ways. Ola (Patricia Allison) and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) confront their feelings for each other and their queerness through frank discussions on sexual disorders and imaginative approaches to conquering the roadblocks they erect. Maureen Groff (Samantha Spiro), wife to churlish school principle Mr. Groff, rediscovers love for her body thanks to vagina workshops and her budding friendship with Jean (Gillian Anderson). A vibrator and an orgasm embolden her to take control of her life in surprising ways.

Characters also discover the power of bodily autonomy in season two, whether it's Ola directing boyfriend Otis (Asa Butterfield) on how to pleasure her or Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) setting boundaries following a traumatic sexual assault.

The show’s commitment to approaching female pleasure in an unbiased, nonjudgmental way shouldn’t be surprising considering Sex Education was the first Netflix series to employ an intimacy coordinator. Ita O’Brien, a trained dancer, actress, movement director and intimacy coordinator, helped develop the Intimacy On Set Guidelines that have sparked a change in the way TV and film approach filming scenes simulating sex and nudity. While O’Brien spent years training theater groups in these practices and developing the now widely referenced guidelines, Sex Education marked the first series to seriously use her expertise.

“The idea of creating time and space for rehearsal of the intimate content wasn't there, and there was pushback from that. The production, if there's a fight or a dance, they will make time, they'll know they have to put in a schedule time to choreograph, time to rehearse, and that's the shift that we were asking for in the industry,” O’Brien explains.

It was an ask that Sex Education director Ben Taylor eagerly said yes to.

O’Brien held a workshop for the cast and crew a few weeks before filming began. “I share how the guidelines work, and then they get up on stage doing a warm-up,” O’Brien says. “Each of the actors look at the different scenes that they had and then I put them into groups, and we worked through the various scenes, helping them find the structure, the guidelines. And it was a joyous day, it was so lovely. And, of course, in asking people to get hot and sweaty together, physical work just helps to make a connection with each other, to help to open that ensemble feeling.”

From there, O’Brien stays in constant contact with the actors, directors, assistance directors and wardrobe technicians, mapping out scenes away from set, walking talent through choreography and assisting on the day of shooting, acting as an advocate for the young castmembers, many of whom have never filmed an intimate scene before.

For Wood, who got her big break playing the lovable Aimee, having O’Brien there to guide her through the mechanics of shooting a sex scene like the one series one opens on, meant she could forget about any embarrassing hang-ups and focus on acting out her character’s desires in the moment.

“I feel really grateful and also quite sad for the people who didn't have that because even if the director is amazing and open and lovely like any of the directors on Sex Ed, it is still nice to have someone who you can run stuff by,” Wood says.

One hurdle she still encounters when working with directors, something she hopes seeing how Sex Education handles its intimate moments will change, is the myth that an intimacy coordinator is there to stifle spontaneity.

“Some of the fear from directors is that if you choreograph the scene, one, you're taking away their direction, and two, that you're stopping creativity but actually, it's the reverse,” O’Brien explains. “I'm not directing them how to act, what I'm doing is giving a shape, a pure form; there is agreement and consent to touch and there's a clear shape to the physical journey. And then it means the actors are free to then act. The actors can be comfortable and free to bring different aspects to each and every take because there's a clear physical frame, they know that where they're touching their fellow actor is OK, they know that they're not going to be touched anywhere that's not OK for them, so they really can release into enjoying serving a scene.”

It’s something Wood thinks helped her character’s sex scenes come across more authentically which, in turn, helps young women watching the show to identify with their own sexual desires.

“I want people to watch it and relate,” Wood says. “Not watch it and go, ‘Oh, why is this girl wanking in a private space with sexy lingerie on looking all made up?’ The desire for it to be relatable and human kind overrides the vanity.”