What working as an Intimacy Coordinator has taught me about consent

photo of Jenefer Odell sitting on a bench, wearing a blue coat and smiling

The theme of Sexual Health Week 2021 is Consent: Do You Get It? In this blog we hear from Jenefer Odell about what being an Intimacy Coordinator really entails, and what her work on set has taught her about consent in everyday life. Jenefer has worked as an Intimacy Coordinator since 2019 and her credits include Sex Education series two and three for Netflix, Estuary for Apple TV+ and Hullraisers for Channel 4.

When I think about consent, I picture a landscape. It shifts and it changes, moves and evolves. It requires navigation and sensitivity. A key part of my job as an Intimacy Coordinator is to facilitate conversations around boundaries. The more I have these conversations, the more I value the power of honest communication and the more I also realise that consent is important in all areas of our lives, not just sexual or romantic relationships but within families and friendships, at work, as parents or carers and out in the world. When you take time to really think about it, consent becomes a way of life.

I became an Intimacy Coordinator after having initially trained as a dancer and choreographer. I’ve always been interested in sex and sexuality and I’ve also always felt people open up to me, not just about sex but about all areas of their lives. I can build trust quickly and read people’s feelings – these are invaluable skills for an Intimacy Coordinator and they’re not skills that can be taught. When I heard about the role I just knew in my gut it was meant for me.

It’s safe to say that no two days are ever the same and that is why the job is such a beautiful challenge. An Intimacy Coordinator is there to make something potentially awkward as comfortable as possible.

I wear a bum bag full of breath mints, deodorant and period products, I carry a kit of modesty garments and nipple covers, I’m not afraid to call a vulva a vulva or suggest a sexual position that says something about the characters who are in it.

I’ve had days at work where I’ve run around taping pouches over penises, taught people where to plant their cheek on a thigh and move their head to look like oral sex, taught someone how to spank safely, put ten sets of naked couples into sexual positions in the background of a party, helped costume departments scrub mud off clothes that have rolled passionately on soggy saltmarshes, played music to help a scene find its rhythm and its spark and chucked dildos at walls.

But I’ve also held space for tears, given a firm no on actors’ behalves and navigated upsetting, triggering scenarios. Advocating for actors is so important because they are trained to impress and satisfy other people, to give over themselves for the service of a story. This sometimes means they will go beyond their own personal boundaries. I’m there to help them navigate what is a challenge and what becomes unsafe or inappropriate for them personally. I’m there to help them receive all the information, because how can you consent to anything when you don’t have all the facts?

In guarding others and their right to say no, I’ve found a huge amount of inner strength.

Through finding this role and making it mine, through taking my space in the industry, through advocating for other people, I realise I am also advocating for myself. During my training to become an Intimacy Coordinator I asked myself, when might I violate other people’s boundaries? In what ways do I show respect for them? What are my personal boundaries and when do I feel them change? Do I let people know when I’m not comfortable? Do I ask before I touch people? Can I voice what I’m really feeling? How often do I say yes when I want to say no?* (*A lot). I took this all home with me. I looked at the way I was parenting and partnering, I challenged my own ability to ask for consent and to give consent. I realised that it might be a lifelong journey and that the sensitivity and observation I was learning to apply at work, I needed to apply throughout my own life too.

Often when I ask an actor a question about their personal boundaries they will pause and say “I’ve never thought about it” – not just young actors on their first jobs, but actors who’ve been starring on your screens for decades. My hope is that we do start to think about it.

My hope is also that we all begin to work towards creating a culture of continuous check-in, where we assume nothing and communicate as openly as possible, as often as possible.

A culture where we nurture the tools and language to be able to celebrate a yes as a momentary, fully reversible yes, carefully explore a maybe, and confidently deliver a no. A culture where we see consent as a landscape of shifting human feelings – a landscape we show the utmost love and respect. We want to see stories on our screens that lift, challenge and inspire us. But we want these stories to be told without coercion, pressure, trauma or harm. We need to not only honour these stories but the people that bring them to life.

We can role model honouring consent in all areas of life. We can teach young people that they have choices about their bodies by positively giving them that choice. We can become closer to our partners and friends by expressing our needs. We can respect people’s property and privacy, we can ask before we hug someone, take up their time, touch their pregnancy bump or tell them our problems. We can voice our own boundaries and in doing so, show others that they can do the same.

Consent is fluid, never fixed, in art as it is in life.

An actor might say yes to doing something and when it comes to it on the day, it doesn’t feel right. It’s also my job to observe their body language and dig deeper if I witness discomfort. I don’t just listen to what a person says, I watch what their body tells me. We should never feel we can’t change our minds. There should be no guilt and no shame attached to that. This is part of being human – the moment to moment nature of our feelings. The more we understand that, the more attentive and sensitive we become to each other.

I ended up doing a job that I love, that challenges, exhausts, ignites and inspires me, that allows me to meet the most incredible, talented people and a job that is a lifelong commitment to learning – about the people and the world around me and about myself. I feel passionately about helping people to voice their feelings around their own bodies and boundaries because I realise for most of my life, I did not have that voice. I sacrificed my body, energy and time for other people. Now I’m in a space of reclaiming, for myself and for the people I work with and the people I love.

I’m still working on saying what I want and what I need and most importantly, what I don’t want. It’s easier to do it on behalf of others, it’s harder to do it for myself. I’d love this to be an open invitation for you to explore what consent means to you. Talk about it, and talk about it more. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes positive change. Here’s to our bodies, our work, our sex lives, our families, our friendships, our relationships, our energy and our time. Consent is a conversation that never stops. Consent is the landscape of the future.

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