Is Reality-TV Sex Safe?
After weeks and weeks of rose ceremonies, one-on-one dates, competitions, and getting to know each other in fleeting moments, the stars of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette narrow down all of the remaining contestants to their three favorite people. Then they take turns spending the night together in what the ABC franchise calls fantasy suites, an opportunity for couples to be alone and intimate off camera. This is a staple of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, a moment viewers and cast members have anticipated each season since the concept was implemented on the popular reality series. Just like every other aspect of the show, producers are the ones behind the scenes who are tasked with making sure all parties involved feel comfortable in this intimate, overnight scenario.
“At some point we’re not shooting them doing anything, but as producers we sit outside and we listen in case something were to happen,” one former producer on The Bachelor, who preferred not to be named out of fear of reprisals, says.
According to the ex-Bachelor producer, they would have individual discussions with each contestant and with the lead of the show before heading into the fantasy suites and come up with a code word or phrase for them to use if they felt uncomfortable during the overnight and wanted it to end. “But just because it’s not captured on film,” the producer adds, “doesn’t mean you’re not putting people in predicaments.”
“They each know something they can say, like, ‘Oh my god, I love red roses,’ and that wouldn’t be obvious to another person to necessarily pick up on, but it means they want out,” the former producer says. “And then we go into the room and get them out of the situation. We don’t make it awkward. Each person has their individual room in the suite just in case, so we go in and say, ‘OK guys, thank you for filming, this has been fun,’ and maybe we’ll interview them but then they go to their separate rooms and that’s that.”
In the last five years, there’s been an uptick in intimacy coordinators present on the sets of scripted television and film projects in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo movement in Hollywood inspired conversations about the importance of this role in productions to ensure the safety and well-being of talent involved in sex scenes or other intimate moments. Coordinators will review scripts with talent, directors, and writers, have conversations about how to sustain everyone’s comfort levels, and act as a liaison between actors and everyone else on set to ensure their safety. SAG-AFTRA has even opened up their membership to intimacy coordinators. There’s also a complete guide of developed standards and protocol for intimacy coordinators and filmmakers to follow on their site.
Reality-TV producers, on the other hand, don’t usually have dedicated intimacy coordinators. It’s just another part of the job for field producers and others on set, according to four sources who spoke with Rolling Stone.
Until recently “in the unscripted world, it [was] a free-for-all,” the former Bachelor producer says, specifically on dating shows where the chances of intimacy are high and there aren’t always standard rules, regulations, and protocols in place to protect both producers and cast members. In 2017, a producer on Bachelor in Paradise filed a complaint saying contestants who engaged in a sexual encounter on camera were too drunk to give their consent, causing the show to halt filming. Cast member Corinne Olympios said she was a “victim” in the incident and DeMario Jackson said these were “false claims and malicious allegations.” (An internal investigation found no evidence of misconduct; Jackson was separately accused of sexual assault by two women in 2022, which he denied.)
After this incident, The Bachelor instituted a new rule about alcohol consumption: cast members can only have two drinks per hour. But the former Bachelor producer who spoke with Rolling Stone says they “cannot believe it took that long” to put that rule in place, calling the situation “horrific.”
“On reality TV, we’re putting people in situations that could lead into intimacy and we should ask, ‘Is it something they wanted to do, or were they led to do it by manipulation, alcohol, and other factors?’” they say. “We should have an intimacy coordinator so we’re not leaving people in those predicaments.”
ABC, Netflix, TLC, and MTV didn’t return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.
One former Ex on the Beach producer, who preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation in the industry, tells Rolling Stone they’ve been in positions where they were told they needed to hear cast members give their verbal consent if they saw something sexual happening during filming.
“If we see something sexual happening or we see them moving to the bedroom, we need to step into the scene or walk into the room and say, ‘We need to hear consent,’” the former producer of the MTV reality series says. “It was incredibly uncomfortable, but we had to do it because sometimes in the middle of filming, things are moving quickly.”
The former producer adds, “Once we realized this might be going down we realized these two look like they’re going to be very intimate, we have to get consent from these people. Anytime we realize that any of them were going to be sexual in any kind of way or we noticed they were branching off on their own, we have to interrupt and say, ‘We need to hear consent before you guys move forward.’”
According to the former Ex on the Beach producer, there’s typically a house meeting that takes place after the cast moves in when producers go over “the do’s and don’ts of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.” But the only conversations about sex and intimacy that this former producer has seen addressed in these meetings before filming have been related to what production is allowed to film if and when cast members are being intimate. They say cast members are told that if they’re underneath the sheets, production has full reign to film the entire thing, but if intercourse or sexual activity is happening above the sheets then the network can’t use any of that footage on television.
But aside from a discussion about this technicality, the former Ex on the Beach producer says there aren’t any overarching conversations, directions, or guidelines about expectations around consent or intimacy.
There have been a number of issues regarding sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct on the sets of reality series that have been publicly reported on in the past. In 2021, Gianna Hammer, a contestant on MTV’s Are You the One? Season Five, said she was drugged by producers and sexually assaulted by a cast member when she filmed the show in 2016. At the time, MTV told the Daily Beast, who first reported the story, “We take these issues very seriously and have paused production/casting to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, the third party production company and further review our internal safety protocols.”
On Season 39 of CBS’ Survivor in 2019, a female contestant repeatedly complained about their fellow contestant Dan Spilo for making her feel uncomfortable when he gave her massages, stroked her hair, cuddled them, and touched them inappropriately. Spilo was ultimately removed from the show in the middle of filming the season and later apologized for his actions.
These are just a few major incidents of alleged assault, harassment, and misconduct on reality television that have made their way into the news cycle.
Oluwatoyin Salami, who’s worked on shows like Love is Blind, Real Housewives of Atlanta and Married to Medicine, tells Rolling Stone she’s never worked with an intimacy coordinator on set because as a field producer, “I’m expected to produce that kind of stuff. I am the intimacy coordinator. That’s a part of my job.”
Not only would intimacy coordinators benefit talent and cast on the sets of reality shows, but it would also be an extra layer of support for producers. While Salami says she’s comfortable working with talent in that way and navigating intimate spaces when production calls for it, every producer and situation is different; some might benefit from having an intimacy coordinator more than others, especially if they’re uncomfortable or ambivalent when it comes to sexual moments on set.
“I know what my limits are, but there are producers who don’t,” Salami says. “I don’t like to produce anybody outside of what they told me they’re comfortable with. I think it becomes a slippery slope for a producer who may not be as confident or wants to keep their job and please the network. That type of person may find themselves in hot water because they’re not able to draw the line.”
She says instead of only receiving harassment training related to their fellow colleagues and the workplace, it would be helpful for reality television producers to have some kind of training about consent and intimacy before heading into production, especially field producers. In certain scenarios, especially on a larger scale, Salami thinks there’s a need for this role to exist in the unscripted world.
“I think there could be space for some dedicated conversations about sex and intimacy so people just kind of know what to expect and know the parameters of what they can and cannot do and what’s encouraged,” she says. “We’re put into very uncharted and ungoverned territory, so it’s really, really important that no matter what the people above you are asking that you’re comfortable with it, you consider all perspectives, and you consider everything that can possibly happen.”
Field producers say they wear a lot of hats and that a lot is expected of them during filming. They’re responsible for executing the network’s vision and keeping them happy while also ensuring talent and cast are within their own comfort zones. Monitoring and paying attention to scenes involving sex, intimacy, and consent are just one category of their many responsibilities. Oftentimes, they do this without any formal training or guidance from their superiors.
The major difference between intimate scenes on scripted and unscripted projects is that most of the time when it comes to unscripted, producers and talent don’t necessarily anticipate those moments. “Every situation happens and you don’t know it until it’s happening,” the former Ex on the Beach producer says. “But some of it can be very uncomfortable. You have these moments when you’re like, ‘What the fuck is my life? What am I doing right now? Is this really happening?’ When people are pushed to their limits, you don’t know what anyone is capable of.”
Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien has been working with filmmakers in Hollywood since 2017. She boasts a long list of credits including scripted series like I May Destroy You, Normal People, Sex Education, Watchmen, Conversations with Friends, and Master of None. O’Brien, a leader at the forefront of her industry, says she hasn’t heard much of anything about her role translating onto unscripted productions, but that the possibilities for improvement could be “endless.”
“It is really interesting, this question of the duty of care that’s put in place for people who offer themselves up personally in the service of entertainment and how those people are taken care of in that place,” O’Brien tells Rolling Stone. “I know producers do have a duty of care and they do have things put in place, but I do think it would be an exciting place to continue to explore.”
O’Brien emphasizes that film sets are people’s workspaces and should be treated as such. There’s been an incredible shift in the entertainment industry with the development of intimacy guidelines, and she says she’d love to see the same done for reality TV. Sometimes, according to O’Brien, “in the adrenaline of the moment you think everything’s fine,” but the aftermath can feel differently.
“It would help to have someone who brings the fundamental tenets of open communication and transparency and agreement and consent and that journey in, and bookending that journey out and checking in afterward,” O’Brien says. “Those aspects of the intimacy guidelines would be really useful to someone who’s there and going, ‘These are all the things that could possibly happen. Yes, you could end up possibly having intercourse under the covers live in front of the cameras, yes you could agree to be in your bikini and the guy being in his boxer shorts, kissing, being fondled,’ and just going, ‘Have a think, what is OK for you? Most importantly, what isn’t OK for you?’ And then in advance just thinking of your boundaries.”
O’Brien recently worked on Magic Mike’s Last Dance, talking to audience members who appear in the film’s final dance scene about their comfort levels receiving lap dances from actors. She used this as an example of what intimacy coordinating could possibly look like in the unscripted space because in this instance she wasn’t dealing with trained actors, but it was her job to check in with everyone before and after filming to make sure they were on the same page about “the journey to clear transparency on what they might experience.”
“At the end of the day, they have to step away from that program and go back into their personal lives and look at that nugget of what they’ve offered in that time for entertainment and make sure that during that time, they haven’t overstepped their own boundaries so it doesn’t damage them not just physically but emotionally and psychologically,” O’Brien says.
While reality-TV producers say they could benefit from having some version of an intimacy coordinator on set with them, they don’t think it will be an easy road or that the intimacy coordinators would be well-received on set. Most importantly, there’s the issue of budgets. Producers say that budgets and finances are already strict on unscripted projects, so they’re weary that another line item would be approved when it comes to intimacy coordinators.
Mandi Venturino, a producer who’s worked on shows like 90 Day Fiancé and Teen Mom, tells Rolling Stone that it’s “a constant battle between crew and upper management” when it comes to money and budgets. While she thinks it would be important for reality-TV productions to include intimacy coordinators of some kind as well as mental health professionals who can be helpful in ways field producers aren’t trained to be, she’s not confident that production companies and networks would want to spend the money on those roles.
“I’m not a licensed therapist who’s equipped to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with on set before, and these things do absolutely fall on us all the time,” Venturino says. “It’s the wild, wild west on productions and the mentality is, ‘Just do what you have to do to get the job done.’ But things need to change, and the industry overall needs to be part of the change.”
Mia Schachter, an intimacy coordinator who also teaches consent, says they’re not surprised to hear that productions and networks are hesitant to include some iteration of an intimacy coordinator on the set of reality shows, but “if you don’t have that in your budget, your budget is wrong.”
“If there is sex and intimacy there should be a person coordinating that, end of story,” Schachter says. “You have it in your budget, you don’t want to spend it on this because you don’t value it or think it’s important, or you’re afraid you’re going to discover you’ve been doing something wrong.”
Some are also worried that production companies and networks would see this as a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario in which another person joins the crew and dictates rules and regulations. The former Ex on the Beach producer compares the possibility of including intimacy coordinators in productions to when COVID compliance officers were required to join crew members during filming in 2020.
“They probably don’t want another person coming in and, in their eyes, probably disrupting reality or what could possibly happen,” the producer says. “They just want to get what they need to get and move on.”
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But O’Brien says it’s actually the goal of an intimacy coordinator to act as an ally for producers and a liaison between production and talent, helping everyone get what they want out of filming while still maintaining a safe workplace environment. Ideally, the overall project improves when a coordinator is on set because they help “producers get the sensuality and beauty they want while honoring talent’s boundaries.”
“In the early days, the concern was, ‘Oh, you’re going to bring in constraints, you’re going to make it less sexy,’” O’Brien says. “But it does the opposite when you bring in clear structure. When you bring in clear boundaries, someone can feel way more free and way more excited within those boundaries.”