How Intimacy Coordinators Brought This Experimental Documentary on Campus Sexual Assault to Life

Tulane students recreate their own sexual assaults in theater form, and director Katie Mathews documents it in the new film Roleplay.

How Intimacy Coordinators Brought This Experimental Documentary on Campus Sexual Assault to Life

Director Katie Mathews’ documentary Roleplay begins with a blurry scene of two Tulane students at a party, as the male student attempts to pressure the female student to leave the party, presumably for a sexual encounter. Roleplay, which premiered at South by Southwest last week, evokes a new genre of documentary about the gray areas of campus sexual assault, and follows the creation of an immersive play of the same name created by college students to perform and examine their own experiences with sexual violence. This opening scene occurs within the play itself; it was staged and scripted with the guidance of an intimacy coordinator, who helped the students feel comfortable recreating these traumatic experiences.

Mathews said that, while filming Roleplay, she prioritized student survivors’ feelings of comfort and safety, which relied on the support and expertise of trained intimacy coordinators. (Intimacy coordinators facilitate and shape scenes depicting sex or physical intimacy in accordance with performers’ comfort and boundaries.) Throughout, the film shows students rehearsing scenes that include tense a conversation between someone who doesn’t remember a sexual encounter and their maybe-assailant, as well as student survivors grappling with their past assaults as they try to explore intimacy again. In some scenes, we hear the voice of an intimacy coordinator asking the student performers whether they’re comfortable with what’s being filmed, as well as each act of physical contact entailed. 

This was something Mathews intentionally drew focus to: Sprinkled throughout the film, she noted that “there’s intimate moments between members of the cast, where you can hear in the background, ‘OK, be easy, OK, 3-2-1,’ and glimpse this coded language of intimacy coordination.”

She noted that she’s “proud” of the way this played out, “because this was before conversations in Hollywood about the importance of intimacy coordinators on set.”

Intimacy coordinators aren’t the focus of the documentary—but their work to help student survivors feel comfortable performing their own stories is integral to both the play and film. At different points, Roleplay offers compelling glimpses at how they conduct their work, at a time when some of the biggest voices in Hollywood are calling for them to become a more regular presence on sets.


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In one particular moment in Roleplay, an intimacy coordinator works with two students who are depicting a new couple exploring their boundaries. One of them is a survivor of sexual violence, and with each act of physical contact, from hugging and touching to kissing, the performers are asked if they’re comfortable before making this contact and give their consent. “We tried to model the consent we were advocating for outside of the filming and rehearsal process within the filming process,” Mathews told Jezebel.

As intimacy coordinators have previously told Jezebel, a feeling of safety is vital to creating meaningful art. “When we’re inviting agreement and consent in all these areas, it means we can all work openly, creatively, feeling empowered. That place of feeling safe and thus free creates really beautiful, intimate content,” Ita O’Brien, an intimacy coordinator who founded Intimacy On Set, told me last year.

Mathews’ documentary is also interspersed with revealing, unfiltered interviews with students about their experiences with or proximity to sexual violence on campus. She says these on-camera interviews were innately “intimate spaces,” where students spoke openly about their traumas, even questioning the fullness of their memories about what they experienced, or whether they could be capable of hurting others. “The way I approached that was always—it should feel like a conversation, and I’m always open to answer whatever they want to know about me,” she said. “Knowing that for students gave them a sense of safety and space, that then helped them to be vulnerable.”


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Mathews told Jezebel she was inspired to make Roleplay by her own undergrad experience at Tulane, as well as a 2018 report that showed approximately two in five female students at Tulane reported being sexually assaulted—nearly double the national college campus average. Mathews herself experienced sexual violence as a student.

In Mathews’ documentary, students say that most people they know have experienced campus sexual assault but don’t come forward; they reflect on whether they’ve ever witnessed the beginning of an assault and failed to intervene; they describe struggles to be touched after experiencing sexual violence. 

“In the absence of institutions doing what they should be doing, there’s a real feeling that we have to create our own futures and our own solutions,” Mathews said. The students in Mathews’ documentary, who have since graduated, are currently preparing to take the play to colleges and high schools across the country, hoping their vulnerable storytelling will inspire meaningful conversations. Their play offers one avenue for challenging campus rape culture—and, as Mathews’ film shows, intimacy coordinators were vital to ensuring they felt safe while creating this work.

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