I sat with my best friend in her violet wallpapered bedroom, her mum’s 2010 Macbook pro propped on my lap. Pulling up an incognito-mode-tab, we typed “Lesbians kissing” into the YouTube search bar.
Eyes stared into the floor and we fiddled with our sweaty hands awkwardly. Our 14-year-old baby gay dreams were shattered. Scrolling through an endless amount of soft porn created for the eyes of straight men, we searched for something that would give us real answers as to what intimacy and love looked like for a gay person.
As an adult, there are still so many questions about what intimacy looks like for someone like me. Sure, the LGBTQ+ community has seen some great wins in terms of media representation within the last few years. The likes of Sex Education (2019-) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) have made waves when it comes to representing queer intimacy appropriately. But for every good piece of representation, there are about ten godawful, sacrilegious ones.
Katherine O’Keefe, Los Angeles’s first lesbian intimacy coordinator, feels this same pain. In our respective homes, we both huff and roll our eyes as the talk turns to Game of Thrones. “They just chuck a couple of tits up on the screen for the dumb-masses”, she scoffs. O’Keefe thinks that intimacy onscreen needs a massive overhaul - but more so for LGBTQ+ people who are always either over- or under-sexualised. The way sex is portrayed for people who are LGBTQ+ is either ‘porny’ or boring. Or both. But O’Keefe is creating the change that the screen industry desperately needs. She is turning sex, something normally used to boost ratings, into a storytelling tool.
“Sex is a very powerful and emotional thing,” says O’Keefe. “Intimacy is a thing that humans crave — I think using it as a part of storytelling is really underutilised”. We all know ‘that scene’. Two characters: they make eye contact across a bar, then it cuts to them fucking in a cab. It’s incredibly overused. O’Keefe believes that with any intimate scene, the audience should walk away learning something about the character that they didn’t know before.
I speak with Leah Pellinkhof, an Australian lesbian intimacy coordinator, about her process when choreographing a sex scene. She explains to me that when she walks onto set, the first questions she asks herself are: “What does the story mean?”, and “What do we need to tell the story?”. Wearing a shirt with “Shakespeare” printed on its front, she chuckles while giving me a demonstration of ‘horse sex’. Clapping her hands at a slow rhythmic pace, Leah explains that she uses this as a tool to help actors with characterisation. When she commences working on a show, she asks the actors: what animal do they think their character would look like when having sex? As I cock my head to the side, Pellinkhof gives me an example of an actor she worked with who decided that their character would have sex like a horse because of the animal’s stocky and tough nature.
Pellinkhof changes her speed to show me dog sex, clapping her hands quickly as if applauding. She explains that it’s the pacing and length of thrusts of the animal that help drive characterisation the most. Pellinkhof thinks for a second as she takes a sip of water.
“It’s also about keeping your personal and private stuff, personal and private.” Pellinkhof speaks thoughtfully. Having actors associate with an animal means that they aren’t obligated to discuss their personal sex lives in a professional environment.
Intimacy coordination is still a relatively new thing. It first came to light during the 2017 #MeToo movement. Both Katherine O’Keefe and Leah Pellinkhof are aware that the most important part of their jobs isn’t about representation, but the safety and comfortability of actors.
Pellinkhof uses both of her hands to point at herself. “I mean, I am the lesbian intimacy coordinator.” She grins. Because of this, she has been lucky enough to choreograph the majority of queer shows she has worked on. Leah knows that the best way in creating comfortability is clear communication. She informed me that consent is the key to ensuring the safety of actors. Before a scene is choreographed, she invites the actors that are involved in the scene to stand opposite each other. One actor will ask their scene partner:
“Is it okay if I touch your shoulder?”.
And if they consent, the other actor would reply with: “Yes”.
This exercise continues until both parties are comfortable with touch. The actors then better understand each other’s boundaries, and Pellinkhof can then choreograph with confidence.
Katherine O’Keefe’s process is different. She smiles, saying she knows that she has done a good job when people on set wonder why she is even there. But it is a hefty process to achieve this. In the United States, there are guidelines enforced by the Screen Actors Guild to ensure the safety of actors. For O’Keefe, the process of keeping actors safe comes in the form of paperwork and meetings. Prior to stepping foot on set, she meets with the director to discuss their vision of the scene. “In as much detail as possible”, she accentuates. From there, she sits with the actors individually to gain an understanding of their previous experiences with intimacy and walk them through the plan for the scene.
This is to make sure that everyone is on the same page. “And then there’s the least exciting part which is doing all the paperwork,” Katherine says, letting out a breath. This comes in the form of simulated sex waivers that need approval from legal teams and agents. When on set, O’Keefe is a firm believer that if there’s time to check a lighting position, there’s time to check in with those involved in an intimate scene. She always emphasises to actors that there is nothing wrong with saying “stop”.
Katherine believes that when she works on intimate scenes involving LGBTQ+ characters, people do not deliberately foster an uncomfortable environment, but they often do so unintentionally. “It’s the jokes. That kind of thing,” she points out. She says that although people are not purposely being homophobic, these actions make actors feel objectified and uncomfortable. O’Keefe advocates that teaching students in film school about approaching intimacy appropriately on set will ensure the safety and comfortability of performers. She hopes that by teaching this in schools, the practice will filter into the industry.
I ask O’Keefe about how we can gain a more accurate depiction of LGBTQ+ people on screen. Thinking for a second, she smiles. She then proposes that in order to move forward with both the safety and representation of LGBTQ+ people, casts and writer’s rooms need more diversity. She maintains that even if straight people have friends who are LGBTQ+, they still don’t necessary understand how queer people have sex. Diversifying the screen industry in all departments can also remove the ‘male gaze’ trope that queer sex scenes tend to have. O’Keefe believes that it is important to have LGBTQ+ people helping in creating these stories because it brings authenticity to a new level.
Pellinkhof’s eyes brighten as I ask her to share her thoughts about achieving authentic representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media. Leah firmly stands by casting queer actors in queer roles. “It’s about creating heroes,” she says, before asking me if I’d ever Googled an actress who played a lesbian to see if they were queer, only to discover that they have a husband. “It’s like, ‘damn!’, right?” she asks in a mock disappointed tone, still grinning. We share a laugh as I admit that finding queer actors who play queer characters is like striking gold. Pellinkhof pauses to think for a second, before laughing again as she describes a time when she experimented with choreographing a ‘straight’ sex scene. “I straddled my best friend, as you would with a woman. Between their legs. And he was like - you’re about to knee me in the testicles!”
Pellinkhof’s expression changes as she makes a realisation. She says that both she and her friend were very uncomfortable. So she could only imagine that this is what an actor experiences when a heterosexual person choreographs a queer sex scene. Leah stops and takes another sip of water. She says that at this point, it’s better to have an intimacy coordinator of any sexual orientation, than none at all. Leah and I both agree that Australia needs to learn to embrace intimacy coordination in the entertainment industry, before the authentic representation of sex can even be discussed.
Sitting with Katherine, we move back to the topic about sex as a storytelling tool. I learn that the accurate representation of sex doesn’t start with an intimacy coordinator. It starts with the writing. To learn more about this, I participated in a Zoom class co-run by O’Keefe about writing intimate scenes. The class broke down the stereotypes of sex on screen. We also discussed the tropes of LGBTQ+ sex scenes, that tend to do more harm on representation, than good. ‘Coming’ several times during lesbian sex was a cliché that saw many nods and noises of agreement from every student. These young and passionate writers were all determined to change the way intimacy is currently written, which gives me high hopes for a better depiction of sex onscreen in the future.
As I wrap up my questions, I ask O’Keefe what her favourite part of intimacy coordination is. Her lips widen into a full smile as she confesses that of all her jobs, the most favourite ones she works on involve young people straight out of film school who are not forced to hire her. “They’re so thankful that you’re there,” Katherine beams. “They think that intimacy coordination is important, and they are implementing that early in their career which is the most amazing feeling. They’re the next generation. They care.”