When Clothes Fly Off, This Intimacy Coordinator Steps In


Creating a film requires a multitude of people. There’s the director who manages the overall vision, a gaffer handling lights, set decorators imbuing the film environment with texture, and costume designers crafting the actors’ aesthetics.

When costumes are removed, and scenes turn a bit titillating, Jessica Steinrock steps in.

An intimacy coordinator or director for theater and live performances, Steinrock manages the production of scenes involving nudity, simulated sex or extreme exposure. She safeguards actors, much like a fight director or a stunt coordinator, and ensures the scenes appear credible.

In the last half-decade, the role has gained prominence. When the #MeToo movement exposed numerous abuses in the entertainment industry, many productions were keen to show their commitment to safety — hiring an intimacy coordinator became one such method.

“Many organizations were keen on exploring the potential of this role and leading the way. They wanted to demonstrate that they prioritized their actors and consent,” Ms. Steinrock noted during a Zoom interview from her residence in Chicago.

Ms. Steinrock has worked on projects such as “Yellowjackets,” a critically acclaimed survival drama by Showtime, Netflix’s teen comedy-drama “Never Have I Ever,” and Hulu’s mini-series “Little Fires Everywhere.” She has been involved in intimacy coordination right from its early days. Her background in improv comedy led her to explore questions of consent while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“In the world of improv, I was often kissed, grabbed, picked up, or made the subject of jokes that I didn’t consent to. That made me wonder if there were better ways to navigate these situations,” she revealed in a TikTok video.

The issue was rather complex in the world of improv, where performers are encouraged to embrace and build on what their scene partner presents.

“Getting placed in uncomfortable or even harmful positions became a norm because of the ‘yes, and …’ culture of improv,” observed Valleri Robinson, who advised Ms. Steinrock during her master’s and Ph.D. programs and is the head of the University’s theater department. “This made her realize how problematic this can be for creating art.”

Ms. Steinrock and Ms. Rodis, another prominent intimacy coordinator, met through Ms. Steinrock’s then-boyfriend (now husband), who works as a fight director. Impressed with Ms. Steinrock’s potential to become a great intimacy coordinator, Ms. Rodis mentored her on her first assignment on the TNT show “Claws.”

Ms. Steinrock quickly gained recognition in this emerging field and now spends much of her time educating people about it. She launched her TikTok account in April 2022, which now boasts more than 700,000 followers. In her videos, she critically analyzes intimate scenes from popular TV shows, explains how these scenes were filmed, and answers common questions about her line of work. This not only sheds light on her profession but also facilitates wider discussions on intimacy and consent.

The role of an intimacy coordinator can be a delicate juggle between choreography and care. Ms. Steinrock’s work is informed by her academic background in feminist and performance theory as well as her innate people skills.

Karyn Kusama, a director and executive producer on the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets,” who collaborated with Ms. Steinrock on the show’s pilot, mentions, “Jessica is very patient, a good listener, and always allows the actor to lead in determining… what will make them feel most taken care of.”

The pilot of the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets” features several intimate scenes. Ms. Kusama highlights the importance of having an intimacy coordinator like Ms. Steinrock on set during such scenes.

Ms. Kusama notes that as a director, she feels empathy for how vulnerable actors can be during these scenes and always checks on them. However, an actor might find it difficult to respond truthfully to difficult concerns, knowing what’s at stake. In such situations, a neutral party like an intimacy coordinator is more likely to get an honest response.

“Discussing sex as a society can be incredibly difficult,” Ms. Steinrock observes. Her role aims to “establish more communication channels,” she says, so that actors feel secure discussing any related issues, no matter how minor or major.

According to Ms. Kusama, having an intimacy coordinator not only ensures a safer environment, it also results in enhanced and appealing art.

This is where Ms. Steinrock’s choreography skills come into play: She can suggest ways to utilize breath or alter positions to make a scene more suggestive.

Intimacy coordinators have become an important part of the entertainment industry over a span of just five years. HBO, for example, has made it mandatory to have them on set in all of their productions since 2019 (with their program being overseen by Ms. Rodis). Ms. Kusama notes that she can hardly imagine working on a project with intimate scenes without an intimacy coordinator.

With the swift growth of this field, intimacy coordinators have been in a constant struggle to establish norms and standards. “We need to first understand and agree on what this role involves. That’s the basic step towards establishing a new profession. And then, we need to outline what qualifies a person for that role,” says Ms. Steinrock.

In 2020, Ms. Steinrock, Ms. Rodis, and Marie Percy, another intimacy director, formed ‘Intimacy Directors and Coordinators’ with Ms. Steinrock heading it. She transformed I.D.C. into the leading training and accreditation entity in the field, despite having no previous experience as a CEO. I.D.C.’s four-level program includes a blend of online and offline classes and is the only entity providing certification for both intimacy coordination and direction. It also organizes workshops for other professionals such as actors or directors who wish to incorporate these practices into their work.

Ms. Rodis says, “Jessica has crafted acceptable structures that allow us to articulate what our certification means, its academic backing, the equitable practices we follow, and the responsibility we have towards artists.”

Ms. Steinrock sees advocating for these standards as a crucial part of I.D.C.’s objective. In 2020, she was part of a working group set up by the Screen Actors Guild to design new safety standards for intimacy. SAG also inaugurated a registry of approved intimacy coordinators in 2022 and is planning on creating a pathway to union membership for these professionals.

“Intimacy coordinators are not the ultimate solution for an industry that has traditionally exploited its performers— and countless others involved. However, incorporating them into productions is an important step that organizations can take as part of their larger pledge towards safety and equality,” states Ms. Steinrock.

According to her, it’s essential to diversify intimacy coordination. While it’s a unique discipline led predominantly by women in a male-dominated industry, it is still majorly white and heterosexual — a consequence of relying mostly on referrals to grow.

The ultimate goal is to make intimacy coordination a standard across the entertainment industry. Ms. Kusama believes that it can help us view each other and the role of sex in our lives in a new light, viewing it as something richer and brimming with potential.

Ms. Robinson is thrilled to see her former student bring these complex issues to the forefront. “She’s enhancing our vocabulary and offering routes beyond the industry to address issues which people often find challenging to discuss.” she commented. Even though most of this awareness has stemmed from TikTok, Ms. Steinrock’s doctoral dissertation has been downloaded over 700 times, indicating the immense interest in this subject.

Ms. Steinrock hopes that by encouraging people to reevaluate how sexual content is presented in the media they consume, it could influence how they approach sex in general.

“Media often provides a person’s first encounter with intimacy,” she explains. “When we care about the way things are created, it initiates discourse about how they operate in other areas which can profoundly affect people’s day-to-day expectations.”

This Intimacy Coordinator Takes Charge When Clothes Come Off