The Five Pillars of Intimacy Direction
Intimacy Directors and Coordinators is an international organization that provides guidelines for the ways in which scenes of intimate relationships or intimate violence (sex, sexual assault, sexual touch, etc.) are conducted in live performance. They frame them in five pillars, listed on a handout that fell out of my journal and onto the adjacent Amtrak on my return trip to Boston from New York. They read as follows:
Before any choreography can be considered, there must ﬁrst be an understanding of the story and the given circumstances surrounding a scene of intimacy. All parties must be aware of how the scene of intimacy meets the needs of the story and must also understand the story within the intimacy itself. This not only creates a sense of safety, but also eliminates the unexpected and ensures that the intimacy is always in service of the story.
Before I left for New York, Dan and I had been on four dates. On the first, we met at a bar and he showed me his Grindr nudes folder right there in front of everyone. He was wearing a harness underneath a white t-shirt because he had planned to go to a fetish night if I had flaked, which he says that boys in college always seem to. He has a well-kept beard and a swath of chest hair bursting over the top of his shirt. His hands are surprisingly soft; his voice sensuous and light. He has a series of tattoos of woodland creatures that run up one arm, starting with water creatures (an otter, a chipmunk, a bumblebee on a thistle) and ending with a soaring heron at his shoulder. He makes that intense and disquieting eye contact that only bearded blue-eyed psychiatrists in their late 20's seem to be able to, where they stare directly through your head into your innermost thoughts about how badly you want them to rail you in the bathroom at this dive bar. We talked about his psychiatric practice. His interests, his passions, his wife.
He asked about my writing, and my theatre. My previous relationships. I told him about Sully. I tried to make it seem like it had been a little bit longer since we broke up because I didn’t want it to seem like I was on a rebound, which I totally was. We kissed greedily in the parking lot before he bought me an Uber home.
On our second date he came to my house. It was the first time I had ever had a *boy* over in that way, I hadn't since I left Sully. I dragged him past my squawking roommates and into my closet bedroom at the back of the house, where we fucked, hard. He spanked me until I was on the verge of tears, then slapped me in the face and spit on me before wrapping me in the warmest and most hospitable hold I could have imagined. I made him watch a silly horror movie and he accidentally broke one of my wine glasses (which he cleaned up, apologizing profusely the whole time). He had to leave when his wife called, she had locked herself out of their house. I distinctly remember wondering if he had texted her to make up an excuse for him to leave, but he still insists that he didn’t. I don’t know if I believe him.
On our third date we discussed our personal traumas over Cambodian food and had sex in his Honda Pilot.
On our fourth date we canoodled in a corner at an expensive restaurant in Cambridge where we made friends with our waitress. She came into my bar the following week and we talked about him. She thought he seemed quiet. I remember that date so specifically because he came over to my house afterwards and we didn't have sex. The more gay first dates that I go on, the more I realize the bizarre rarity of that scenario. We fooled around a little, but he just held me. Long and tender. His chest is hairy, but slight. His hands are almost smaller than mine, and he's a little shorter. But the intimacy is indescribable. To be held and felt by hands seemingly made for holding and feeling is a pleasure and a pain that's almost beyond reason. Pleasurable because you feel so safe in that moment, so seen, so removed from the painful choices you've made to get there, and finally able to bask in the glow of your freedom. Painful, however, because after you doze off nose to nose and drunk on each other's smell, his alarm rings and he has to go home. One of his wife's personal boundaries is apparently that she doesn’t want him to sleep over with people, that’s reserved for her. The curse of the ethical slut, I suppose, is ethics. Going from waking up next to Sully every day to sitting alone in my underwear with my sheets smelling of foreign cologne was painful in a way I didn’t expect. This was why I had left him the month before: to see other people. So why does it hurt so goddamn much?
Then Dan got COVID, so I didn't see him for a week, and then he had to leave for a psychiatry conference in New York: Tuesday to Sunday. He offered to pay for me to take a train down for the weekend, and before I knew it I was sitting on that train. I knew it probably would hurt. I almost wanted it to. There’s some masochism required for the sexual freedom of non-monogamy, knowing that no matter how much love I felt in his bed that he would send me home with a slap on the ass and a promise to text me the following week that he may or may not keep.
There must be open and continuous communication between the intimacy director and the actors. The communication includes but is not limited to: discussion of the scene, understanding of the choreography, continued discussion throughout the rehearsal period, frequent check-ins during the run and an openness to dissent any actions in the process. Avenues for reporting harassment must be made available to the entire ensemble.
On our first night in New York, over a gluten free pizza, he was quiet. I offered a penny for his thoughts. He, in turn, bucked up some courage and asked me how I was feeling about the problematic and tenebrous us. I distinctly remember offering him a heavy sigh and situating myself back in my seat. What does one say here?
"I think I'm falling in love with you, I hope your wife doesn't mind."
"It feels like a knife in the gut every time I look over and see you scrolling on Grindr, even though that’s the reason I’m sitting here as well, and I understand that the established rules of engagement in our connection means that you, in no way, owe me chastity outside of our situationship."
"I really like hanging out with you and want to keep seeing you, but am actively conscious of my inexperience with non-monogamous relationships and what I need out of our connection as a result."
I settled for the third. He's a therapist by trade, so our conversation was almost annoyingly productive. I guided him along some of the walls I was actively putting up and said that I was conscious of protecting my heart from the pain of occupying the #2 spot in your #1's life. He said he understood. He asked if I wanted the connection that he and his wife had. I said no. Because I don't. I'm not ready to be a husband nor a wife, and have no intention of becoming ready anytime soon. It's why I left Sully. I left Sully to be like Dan, and to be with people like Dan. Right?
I volleyed the question back to him, as is the duty of any good snarky bottom. If I have to express vulnerability at the dinner table the least you can do is offer me a sullen "good?" before changing the subject and footing the bill, as is generally standard in my previous relationships with men. Instead, he started to tear up. He said that he was scared of the idea of me moving away, as I'd been talking about earlier in the day. That he could see our connection continuing and blossoming, an ongoing journey of intimacy until I moved on, or he moved on, or both, or neither. I didn't know what to say to that. I think that I blubbered something about not knowing whether or not he would ever be my boyfriend (a wretched word that I've come to despise). In his convoluted answer that I block out most of, he quoted a Hippo Campus song back to me: "I don't care what we are, it just has to work." I don't think men I like should be allowed to listen to music, let alone quote song lyrics at me to break my fucking heart. It's simply not fair. The song is called Understand, which is funny because I don't. I think that I do care what we are, more than I had maybe believed.
I think I want to be a boyfriend (a wretched word that I deeply and irresponsibly adore), as inane and selfish as that sounds to me at the moment. I left a boyfriend that unreasonably loved every fucking inch of me because I felt like I would explode if I was a boyfriend for another second. Only to sit across the table from Dan and want nothing more in the world than to have him softly kiss me on the head and tell me that he loves me every night before going to bed. And then he did. We left the gluten free pizza restaurant and returned to his hotel, where he pounded my brains out and I dozed off on his chest. Just like I used to do on Sully's. Dan didn't include the I Love You part, but the gentle kisses. And every night of our trip he'd kiss me on the head and say "goodnight beautiful boy" before he fell asleep with one arm looped over my ribs. I wish he'd told me that he loved me. He tells his wife that he loves her every time he hangs up the phone. His wife doesn't know I'm there. I listened to the phone calls quietly and tried to infer what was going on in her day. Sully used to tell me that he loved me when he hung up the phone.
Each scene of intimacy must be choreographed, and that choreography will be adhered to for the entire production. Any changes to the choreography must ﬁrst be approved by the intimacy choreographer.
From the first night, the vast majority of our time together was spent in the bed in the hotel room. Not (always) fucking, but mostly just existing. Together. Intimately. Usually in our underwear or naked, but always intimately. Touching, kissing, holding, maybe just my feet over his legs or his head sprawled over my lap. Sometimes, if we were deep in conversation, we'd both put our feet up on the wall next to each other like school children trying to stay awake at a sleepover and talk about the ways in which people do and don't exist. Or the ways we wished they did. He's smart, and knows that I’m smart. We have a lot of interests in common, and I ask him to explain his psychoanalysis to me and he does. It's kind of easy, in a strange way (at least, when he says it). We get a lot of the same references about culture and society, and true crime. He listens to me when I talk, and I keep up with him when he does. I ask him questions that he answers.
I make him laugh a lot. He told me that he was thinking about shaving his chest and I told him that that would be my own personal Hindenburg disaster. Oh, the humanity, indeed. He laughed so hard that he started to cry again, like he did over the gluten free pizza.
I like sleeping next to him. He snores a little bit, like Sully used to do. Not a lot, just enough to remind me that he's there. I slept really well the first night, partially because we split two bottles of Soju at the Korean restaurant he took me to (where they didn't have any Gluten Free options even though he said he checked online, a fact that deeply embarrassed him ((I told him that it was okay, which it was. It takes practice. (((Sully used to call every restaurant we went to to ask what their gluten free options were and how serious they were about cross contamination)))). The second night I slept less well, but it was okay. I laid there and watched him sleep for a little bit. His beard rustles when he breathes too hard, like a wave lapping onto or receding from a beach. He has a little outcrop of gray hair at the front of his forehead and a few gray drops in his beard. I think he's insecure about it, he certainly fears getting older (as men in their late 20s do). Sully always used to talk about how much he was looking forward to going just a little bit gray, a silver fox-y type of gray. They each have a preoccupation with fixing their hair every time they look in a mirror.
I can't help but think of the similarities between them sometimes. Hairy scientists, 28 year old bisexuals, gentle men with sweet pets and gray streaks in their hair. They have hands smaller than you might expect, but both soft and strong. They both like paying for dinner and calling me beautiful. There’s differences, too, though. Dan is a dog person; Sully's cat is the love of his life. Dan is kinkier than Sully; Sully was softer to cuddle with. Dan likes soft rock; Sully likes EDM (regardless, I like folk.) Dan revels in his non-monogamy; Sully couldn't handle ours. Dan is married; Sully wanted to be. To me. Dan doesn’t tell me that he loves me, while Sully did on every breath. I know he meant it, too.
Before any scene of intimacy can be addressed, consent must be established between the actors. Permission may be given by a director, script, or choreographer; however, consent can only be given from the person receiving the action. Starting choreography from a place of understanding consent ensures that all parties are clear about to which actions they are consenting, and it provides actors with the agency to remove consent at any time.
I lost my virginity to sexual assault. My first boyfriend started having sex with me without asking me, and didn't stop when I made it clear that I wanted to. I was 17 and he was 21. I stayed with him for two more years anyway. It's sad but it's true, and an inevitable story to get out of the way in engaging in new sexual relationships. I told Dan that story at the Korean restaurant, when we had to return to get his credit card that he had left behind (see: soju). I told it in the context of another story, so I moved on pretty immediately, but he touched me differently after that. He was less grabby and less pushy (not that I had minded the grabby and the pushy, mind you, being a submissive little bitch is part of why I was there in the first place.) He made sure to kiss me before and after he did anything, and asked me softly if it was okay when he wanted to get rough with me. When my mouth was otherwise occupied (don't act like you don't know, we're all adults here) he put his wrist in my hand and told me to squeeze him if I needed to stop. And I did, and he did. And then he'd kiss me again. All of these things are simple, baseline expectations, but I was still overwhelmed in that moment with the sundering power of delicate handling to peel back layers and layers of baggage and make it possible to feel utterly and radically safe in your body, even if just for a moment. He always let me choose where to get dinner, and try the bottles of wine first when they got to the table. He let me pick what we did and where we went. He always navigated, though, and I let him.
He can be mean sometimes. Never to me, but to others around us. He'll sometimes be mean about his patients or people walking slowly in the train stations. He'll say mean things about men we see on Grindr or men that he’s fucked back in Boston. He was rude to a woman working at H&M, which I didn't like. It makes me wonder if he'd be mean about me someday, say that I was naive or foolish. He'd say that I didn't know what I wanted or how to let go of my feelings for him. I worry that he'd scoff at that. On our first night in New York he made a reference to a guy he used to see and how relieved he was that they never wanted to "buy each other fucking rings," that they could just have fun and let their relationship be what they wanted it to be in a kind of kaleidoscope, something new on each day. I understand what he meant, it's what I had signed up for. But I couldn't help but feel the presence of a burdensome image of wearing a ring someday, maybe one that he gave to me on one knee. Knowing that he could disparage me to his next conquest for feeling that way puts a knot in my stomach. He’d never admit it, though. To me, at least.
On our last night, over a bottle of Montepulciano that I chose, he asked me to give him the "big feelings" about our relationship like my own therapist used to do: what made me happy, what made me sad, what made me scared, and what made me angry.
-I told him that the intimacy made me happy, in fact it made me deeply fucking joyous. The tiny kisses in the morning and the ravenous way that he buries his face into me. The conversations about life and death, psychology and responsible artmaking. I learn a ton from him, and he listens thoughtfully to me. We speak the same language about the world, I find.
-I told him that I was sad that he couldn't sleep over with me back at home, and that it was hard for me that the terms of our relationship were dictated by his ability to work around his existing relationship and not around what we each wanted for our lives and our connection right now. It's sad that the prospect of a life together doesn't exist, even though it's ridiculous to imagine one after knowing each other for barely a month.
- I hesitated before I got to scared, but it spilled out of my mouth before I could stop it. I said that I was scared that I would fall in love with him, and that he wouldn't fall in love with me, and that I'd spend the rest of my life being bitter that he didn't and wondering what I could have changed to make him do so. He asked what would happen if I fell in love with someone else, so that we could revel in our non-monogamous debauchery and indescribable intimacy before going home to other people that love us completely. I know that it's possible, but it's hard to accept when that person isn't around right now. I left that person, remember?
- I couldn't think of something that made me angry. Though now I'm wondering if I'm angry at myself for feeling that way.
At the end of every rehearsal or scene of intimacy, actors are encouraged to develop a closing moment between them to signify the ending of the work. This small moment or simple ritual can be used between takes or runs of the scene, and/or upon the close of rehearsal. We encourage this as a moment to leave our characters, relationships, and actions from the work behind, and walk back into our lives. Likewise, we suggest all parties (including outside eyes) exercise proper self-care during and after the run or filming of intimate projects.
I'm on my way home now, on the 3:00 Amtrak from New York to Boston, train number 88. I managed to find a seat alone near the very end of the train. Dan walked me to Penn station, and left me in line. He was quieter than he had been at breakfast, and we sat with my bag between us waiting for my train's gate to be announced. He kissed me before he left me in line, and told me that he was excited to see me back in Boston. He walked away, back out into the sunlight. It was warmer today than it has been the last two, and we went for a long walk this morning. His flight doesn't leave until later tonight, and he already checked out of his hotel, so I think he might go hook up with another guy, which I get.
It's fun. Him being open about his sexcapades bothers me less than it did at the beginning of the weekend, knowing that I'm more to him than just another one. I think, at least.
But I'll be back in Boston soon, where I'll climb into my unmade double bed and make myself some mac and cheese, do my homework for tomorrow and consider what I want from my life. It's sort of easy, in some ways: I want to love and be loved with everything we can muster. I want to be agile, to be unburdened, to be unstoppable. To be kind, and have others be kind to me. To have a cat named Pyewacket and for him to fall asleep in my lap. To understand myself, and others. I want to be as thoughtful as I can muster. It's hard in others, too, though.
If closure is a ritual, consider this mine. Dan can do his on his own time.