As Seen on Screen: How Do Actors Do Sex Scenes?

Ever wondered how they do 'it' on screens? Well we're breaking down the myth and mystery of it all here.

BY THE ROAM TEAM 7 MIN READ

WORDS TO KNOW
Sex scene

A fictional scene in a film or TV programme where actors simulate having any type of sex.

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Absolute scenes

It might be the worst waking nightmare we’ve all faced. You know how it goes: you’re sitting on the sofa spending some quality time with your family, watching an ostensibly innocent drama with the volume nice and loud so everyone can hear. Two characters lean in for a kiss; your blood pressure goes up a notch.

A button gets popped off, and it’s not one on the remote. Suddenly, a top goes flying and by this point your burning retinas are glued to the screen monomaniacally as a blur of nipple, ass cheek, tongue flashes before them, playing split-screen with the movie of your life. An areola seems to take up the entire room. Dad clears his throat, the dog whimpers along, you become one with every hot, sweaty molecule of your leather sofa and you see a near-eternal minute out with sheer stoicism. And may the lord have mercy on you if you have an erection.

You’ve just endured a sex scene, a staple in almost every bit of on-screen entertainment aimed at adults. Of course, they’re a lot less traumatic if you’re alone or with friends, and often pleasurable. But while porn might be relatively real, the same usually can’t be said with film and TV’s raunchier moments. So how do actors do sex scenes? And are they ever legit? First, a quick backstory…

Setting the scene

You might imagine that sex scenes are a relatively new thing, but they’ve actually been around for decades. The very first blue scene in film appeared way back in 1896 in The Kiss; it wasn’t a feature film though, weighing it at just (the joke’s too easy to make) eighteen seconds. And it wasn’t particularly salacious, either, featuring a single nuzzle and kiss between two actors. But it was still enough to cause mass scandal, with a critic at the time describing it as “beastly”.

They really started to gather momentum in the fifties and sixties, when more liberal attitudes allowed for explicit, erotic on-screen sex. The appropriately titled Blue Movie from Andy Warhol in 1969 was literally seminal, showing sex in the cinemas for the first time, but it’s hard to argue that it’s anything short of porn with its lack of plot. It paved the way, though, for on-screen romps in almost any genre, quickly becoming commonplace and with far too many examples to name (bang on any 15+ film and it’ll likely have some form of banging).

More recent developments include the rise of same-sex scenes in mainstream cinema, from the iconic Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) to that peach in Call Me By Your Name (2017). The penis, too, is having a moment right now; while sex scenes have predominantly been shot from the het-cis-male gaze and often problematically focused on the female form for gratification, the virile member has recently appeared in the likes of Pam & Tommy to Euphoria, Sex Education, Normal People and Sex/Life.

A different kind of job

As sex scenes have developed in film over the last few decades, attitudes have changed. Any scene involving intimacy renders its actors highly vulnerable; something glossed-over for years by predatory male directors. Thankfully, the #MeToo movement in Hollywood heralded a new era, with sex scenes being treated with care, legal protection and intense planning. This, in turn, called for an entirely new job - the Intimacy Co-ordinator, directing sex scenes for a living.

In 2016, non-profit organization Intimacy Directors International (IDI) was founded by Alicia Rodis, Tonia Sina, and Siobhan Richardson. Rodis herself is an actor, and had experienced having an on-screen kiss at aged fifteen and having to fake an orgasm at eighteen, naturally causing distress. IDI aimed to make sex scenes safer, advocating for the entire crew to be aware of any intimate moments in the script, written consent and a clear return to ‘normal’ on-stage interaction. A year later, Carey Dodd Associates led a similar campaign, and its founder Ita O’Brien became an industry expert, working since on series like Sex Education, I May Destroy You and Normal People.

Doing a dry run

One of IDI’s main principles is the importance of choreographing, planning and approving every scene. A dry run is now commonplace on set for any sex scene, ensuring that nothing is suddenly sprung upon actors and that everything remains consensual. Before shooting, intimacy co-ordinators go over a ‘nudity rider’ similar to the one that features in the porn industry, meticulously approving and vetoing all angles, movements and interactions. Once done, this is then ‘blocked’ and choreographed in a full private rehearsal, allowing any finer details to be smoothed over for the real shoot. When it comes to shooting, actors are encouraged to signal if uncomfortable and it’ll be reshot or reworked, and it always ends with a kind of happy ending: a psychological return to normality, via anything from a hi-five to a hug, marking the end of the scene.

So, we know how sex scenes work in terms of preparing the actors. But how the hell do they really make it look like Colin Firth is rimming his wife (The Staircase) or, on the theme of staircases, Simon giving toe-curling head to Daphne (Bridgerton)?

Our prosthesis

In short: a bag of wigs, specialist clothing, padding and more that puts anyone’s bottom drawer to shame. The key to ensuring that the actors are actually acting is via a variety of different barriers; think dental dams blown up to huge proportions, plus coverings to hide intimate areas. Here are a few of the classic prosthetics:

The Fake Penis - The full hog, seeing a prosthetic penis worn by the actor. See: Eric Dane in Euphoria

The Pubic Wig - Known as a merkin and likely to give you flashbacks to that moment in The Inbetweeners, it’s a small wig to conceal the pubic area for those with a vulva. See: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Genital Guard - Referred as the vajoga (yoga mat for the vagina) by Intimacy Co-ordinator Yehuda Duenyas, this creates a barrier between two bodies. See: Stretch (or pretty much every contemporary film out there).

The Strapless Thong - Also called a Hibue or a ‘modesty pouch’, featuring a silicone gel adhesive. See: Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Body Double - Likely not to fit in a director’s bag. Many films have featured an adult actor in lieu of the main one for sex scenes. See: Mary Jordan in Game of Thrones.

They’re not faking it

Sex scenes in movies, then, aren’t real. Unless, err, they are. Akin to the more morbid myth of the snuff film, a movie which contains real-life death, other films are claimed to feature actual, sex.

According to this ever-so-long listicle from Marie Claire, there are at least seventy-five of them, but a lot of them are pretty obscure (ever seen 2013 Norwegian film 'Pornopung'? Yeah, we thought not). Some slightly better known ones include The Brown Bunny, seeing it-girl Chloe Sevigny go down on Vincent Gallo; Romance, the first ever mainstream film to show an erect penis released in 1999 and Love, a 2015 unsimulated romp beloved by discerning film critics and art school alumni.

For the most part, though, the answer to how actors do sex scenes is via meticulous choreography, expert consultation and a slew of ingenious prosthetics. Maybe now, next time you’re glued to the sofa watching a sex scene with your family, you’ll have some facts to fill the deafening silence…

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