Photo courtesy of Olivia Troy
Note: This interview is published in conjunction with the release of TBS issue 53.3-4, Edgeplay: Black Radical Pleasure II.
Olivia Troy is a certified intimacy coordinator, screenwriter, and consulting producer. She is also the founder of Reps on Set, a consultancy and advocacy group dedicated to better representation of underrepresented and historically marginalized groups in film and television. In what follows, she discusses her dedication to authentic, accurate representation, her experience working on Netflix’s Bonding and HBO’s Billions, and her thoughts on credit, consent, and Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial Broadway hit, Slave Play.
ANNA ZIERING (AZ): You work as, among other things, an intimacy coordinator. That position has made some headlines lately, but it’s a relatively new field. Could you begin by describing your work, both as an intimacy coordinator and more broadly?
OLIVIA TROY (OT): My work is focused on supporting accurate on-screen representations of my communities and my areas of expertise. These include kink, BDSM, and sex work, which are often misrepresented by creatives—used as sexy or scintillating plot devices, but not portrayed authentically. As a certified intimacy coordinator, screenwriter, and consulting producer, I work to make that representation more recognizable and realistic. I’m also the founder of Reps On Set, a consultancy and advocacy group that supports improved representation of and works to create safer spaces for historically marginalized groups in film and television.
“Intimacy coordinator” became a recognized role on television sets in 2018 and now almost any project with nudity, simulated sex, or even scenes with non-sexual intimacy are made with the support of an IC. Intimacy coordinators are like stunt or fight coordinators, but for scenes of nudity and simulated sex—which, by the way, is all the sex you see on screen outside of pornography. We are there to ensure that the visions and goals of the creative piece are realized in a way that keeps everyone safe. We help with the choreography of scenes, and serve as liaisons between directors, actors, and crew members. We work to ensure that what we see on camera is intentional and germane to the story—that it’s not gratuitous. And we ensure that everything that’s happening is consensual. We operate using the FRIES model of consent: “Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.” Actors should understand what they’re saying yes to and be comfortable with it. Everything should be anticipated and executed according to plan. And there should be safeguards in place to make sure that no one is overstepping those bounds or making any last-minute changes.
AZ: Kink and BDSM communities have consent models like “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (SSC) and “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” (RACK). Do you see the FRIES consent model, and the focus on consent in your work more broadly, as in conversation with or developing from those kink discourses? Do you feel that the kink and sex worker communities have gotten credit for their discursive contributions to and their broader role in this shift?
OT: Kink communities, sex work communities, marginalized communities—we started this language. We’ve been practicing it, and we are very accustomed to it. It’s great to see mainstream society and mainstream entertainment finally catch up with both the language and the practices that are involved. But it’s been slow going—especially given how many examples we’ve seen of what goes wrong when you don’t have consent, or when people are not acknowledging and consciously navigating power imbalances.
I believe that the kink and sex worker communities are being acknowledged, yes, but are they getting credit? That’s trickier. Both those communities are still so stigmatized that it can be difficult to give individuals credit, because attaching their names to projects can be dangerous. It makes them publicly available for criticism or criminalization. It’s hard to take credit when credit creates vulnerability.
AZ: Your qualifications include experience as a BDSM professional, a freelancer, and a feature writer. Some of those kinds of labor are more valued and respected than others; there’s a cultural fascination with film and television, but a stigma against sex work. Can you talk a bit about how your work differs across fields, and about how the response to your work differs by field?
OT: When I first started exploring the kink world, I—like many people—saw it as something very other. And a significant portion of the kink community wants to stay other, to preserve the alt-/freak/pervert energy of that scene. But the more I journey back and forth between worlds—from the actual BDSM community to its representations in television—the more it becomes obvious that it’s really all the same. Each world has different vocabularies, but at the end of the day, we’re doing very similar things.
The labor, then, is similar in both fields; my work is always about navigating consent and creating safe spaces. As an intimacy coordinator, I focus on public, creative work. As a BDSM professional, I focus on private, creative work. And people tend to be curious about both kinds of work, but beyond that, the responses are very different. I can talk about my work as intimacy coordinator in any setting. People think that putting Paul Giamatti in face-down suspension, like I did in Billions, is exciting and fun. People are impressed, and they want to know more. There’s a fascination with celebrity that outweighs any judgment of deviance. But doing that same work with a person who is not Emmy- or Oscar-nominated, someone who doesn’t have the same kind of name recognition—that’s considered weird. It gives people pause. There’s a stigma there that doesn’t attach to my work in film and television. So I have to be careful about when, where, and how I discuss my BDSM work.
AZ: You’re describing how the real-world erotic pleasures offered by BDSM and sex work are met with more discomfort than celebrity representation of those same pleasures. You also noted that some people within the kink community are resistant to representation because it interferes with the underground energy of the scene. This resistance notwithstanding, what value do you see in accurate on-screen representations of kink and BDSM?
OT: As we see more representation of BDSM in mainstream culture, there is a reflexive negative reaction from many in the community who were originally attracted to kink largely because it was outside of or in opposition to mainstream, popular culture. As it becomes more popular and well-known, as it gets more mainstream, there are all these vanilla people being attracted to kink, while all the kinky people are going, “No! Stop it! Get out of my pool.” But representation has always informed individual erotics. I’ve had clients for years who talk about Catwoman, or Batman, or the Avengers informing their erotic interests. And I’m so excited for there to be this new generation of folks whose idea of BDSM comes from the representational work that I’ve done. I’m fighting as hard as I can to give people the vocabulary to determine what they like and what they want. I want people to have sexual agency, to be able to advocate for themselves and their erotic pleasure. I’m not invested in the clothing, costuming, or presentation, like some of those earlier texts were; power does not come from a catsuit. BDSM is more than that.
AZ: Your work, then, is a sort of artistic activism creating new erotic possibilities for viewers and contributing to a project of sexual liberation. It also involves a lot of teaching; you directly educate the creatives you work with, who are often less familiar with kink, BDSM, and sex work, and you indirectly educate the viewers. Do you consider your work a form of sex education?
OT: It’s a form of sex education that comes of visibility: what are the things that we see every day? Where do you see yourself represented in those stories? When do you see something that you can relate to? Submissives, for instance, are often represented in popular media as mewling, obsequious people-pleasers without any real desires of their own. But I think of submission as an active act, a conscious decision. You desire, you decide to surrender your own control, authority, and personal agency to someone else. Choosing someone and giving power over to them is in itself an act of power. That’s important to show, and it’s important for submissive people to see it.
AZ: Do you think that submission can function as a practice of power for members of groups who are traditionally subject to, rather than the subject of, power? That’s a question asked by scholars including Ariane Cruz in the context of ongoing debates over submission by Black women, sometimes but not always in the context of race play.
OT: I think that what distinguishes submission from powerlessness is not just consent but agency. It is one thing to be subjected to power. It is another thing to ask for someone to control you. Agency—the ability to ask—is what makes those experiences of submission possible and empowering. Some of the origins for some people’s kinks can be eroticizing trauma or abuse that they experienced at a young age. In eroticizing it, they can take control of the narrative behind those experiences. That allows them to revisit, actively, an experience where they felt absolutely powerless, absolutely without agency. They can revisit it from a place of control and a place of power in a way that is deeply healing and satisfying. I find that incredible, beautiful, and remarkable.
AZ: Over the past few years, these questions have arisen quite publicly in conversations about Jeremy O. Harris’s Tony-nominated Slave Play. People have complained about Harris’s writing of—and his financial profit from—a play that features a Black woman who desires and engages in masochism and submission on stage. Would you like to share any thoughts on Harris’s representation of BDSM, or on the labor required of the performers? Do you see his representation of kink and BDSM as accurate?
OT: I’m not that familiar with the discourse or negative criticism surrounding the play, but I can talk a bit about the labor. One of the things Reps On Set focuses on is teaching and supporting actors in creating, building, and fostering spaces where they can tell stories rooted in trauma without traumatizing or triggering themselves. I saw the play twice. After one performance, I spoke to the actors playing Dustin and Gary, male characters in an interracial couple. They both talked about the clearing work they had to do before and after each performance so as not to carry these characters, the story, or the energy of those moments home with them. I don’t know how the cast of Slave Play could do that show every night, how they manage to move into those spaces for their characters. It must be a challenge for every single person in that cast. At the same time, the show has brought BDSM into another mainstream space, into the conversation.
I didn’t see anything inappropriate about the use of kink in the play. I loved the choreography for the boot-licking scene. It resonated; it conveyed clear eroticism without the typical tropes of what we think of as sexy or sexual. I was less fond of the pegging scene. Pegging is so often presented as necessarily a form of feminization or humiliation, when really, it just feels good physically. It’s not inherently humiliating. It’s just sex.
AZ: Let’s turn back now to your own work. In the first “Black Radical Pleasure” issue from The Black Scholar, the much-mourned Mistress Velvet referenced—though not by name—the Netflix show Bonding. Mistress Velvet, like many other members of the kink and sex worker communities, took issue with the show, which was then in Season One. There was sweeping concern not with the fact of representation, but with its many inaccuracies. There was also anger about Netflix’s advertising strategy, which included Twitter posts made to look like they belong to the protagonist, a white sex worker named Mistress May (aka Tiff). These posts were published just after the one-year anniversary of FOSTA-SESTA, a law that effectively silenced sex workers, including many sex workers of color, on online platforms—including Twitter. You joined the show for Season Two. Could you talk about how and why you were brought into Bonding, and about your contributions to Season Two—which was very, very different?
OT: The kink and BDSM communities excoriated Bonding. So did sex work communities. The creator Rightor Doyle wrote that season based on his own one-off experience years earlier. Season One was already shot and finished when Netflix bought the show. When they asked about a second season, someone on Rightor’s team put us in touch. When Netflix renewed Bonding for Season Two, I was probably the second person, after Nana Mensah, that he called. Nana played the new character of Mistress Mira. Nana, Rightor, and I made up the writers’ room for Season Two.
AZ: Season One had an almost entirely white cast. In Season Two, the show began to honor, recognize, and celebrate Black feminist sexuality and Black women’s labor as sex workers, care workers, and educators. It did so in large part through Mensah’s character Mistress Mira, a Black pro-domme who owns a professional dungeon in New York. We learn that Mistress Mira had been a mentor to Tiff/Mistress May, the white protagonist who was widely critiqued by viewers of Season One as a dangerous, irresponsible domme. In direct response to those critiques, the show gives Mistress Mira the task of re-educating Tiff in Season Two. How involved were you with Mistress Mira’s storylines?
OT: Rightor read all that criticism, and he and Nana had a very specific idea for the Mistress Mira character before I even got into the room. Rightor knew she was going to be a mentor figure and dungeon owner who would teach May how to actually be a good domme. In her introductory scene, Mistress Mira summarizes all the problems with what Tiff and Pete did in Season One. It was a direct response to the backlash from the kink and sex worker communities.
I didn’t write Mira’s character, but I did write some of her scenes, which probably reflected my own thoughts, energy, and perspective. We weren’t intentionally talking about feminism or Black feminism in the room, per se. But I advocated for Mira both to be in control and to be allowed to show her own vulnerability onscreen. That was important to me.
I also gave Rightor and Nana background on dommes and mentorship in the community: the systems that exist for domme training, who goes in for training, who does workshops and participates in them. I tried to honor an important, real-world legacy of dommes training other dommes and bringing each other up. Mistress Mira is a composite of the many women of color who are trailblazers, pioneers, and dungeon owners in the New York domme community. Almost all the most prominent independent houses in New York have been owned and operated by women of color. That’s relatively uncommon, and I was excited for Bonding to reflect it. I was also excited for the story to reflect the work of that—the different challenges that these women have faced in trying to survive under capitalism and patriarchy. It is rough.
AZ: When older Black women mentor and care for younger white women on screen, there is a danger of retrenching the “mammy” trope. I don’t see Mira’s character falling into that trap. Is that something you consciously tried to avoid?
OT: There was something that Mira said repeatedly to Mistress May—something like, “I see something in you—something good, something special.” I recall pushing back against that. I didn’t think Mira needed to give May that much credit. I wasn’t sure why Mira was even bothering with her. But in the story, Mira was a mentor to Tiff, who sees her as a mother figure. And I did want to acknowledge that, particularly in these marginalized and queer communities, there is value to creating your own family. Particularly when your biological family rejects you or has serious conflicts, you can create your own family—whether it’s the sisterhood of sex workers or dominatrices, or the intimate relationships that dommes have with their clients. The mistress may see sides and know parts of her client that nobody else knows—that none of his loved ones or “real life” intimates know about. Because you see this being performed, in the case of Mistress Mira and some of the other dommes, by Black women in Bonding, you can certainly perform a Black feminist reading of the text. But again, that wasn’t explicitly intentional.
One thing that was very intentional was the diverse cast of sex workers in Season Two, almost all of whom were played by actual sex workers from the New York City BDSM community. Another was Mira’s relationship with MJP, her longtime white male submissive. Mira and MJP have a unique relationship. MJP is a white married man; Mira is married to a Black man. It took her husband a while to understand her job, but by the time we meet them, he’s grown more comfortable with it. She can have all these relationships with clients and still have a husband and a family. Showing that was really important to me. Mira is out to her family as a pro-domme and has integrated it into her life. MJP hasn’t managed that yet—although, in Season Two, he’s trying. Season Two also shifts from treating the submissive characters as the butts of the joke to investing in them and giving them room to grow.
When I started in kink, I was a journalist at the peak of the Gawker era: lots of anonymous sex blogs, a lot of snark. That was my plan, too—to write about it that way. But ultimately, I couldn’t. That kind of writing seemed to demean the people, the relationships, and my own presence in that world. And really, I saw such privilege in being able to witness, participate in, and celebrate these desires. When I created my BDSM studio, I wanted it to be a space that made people feel good about being there, about having these experiences—a space that makes the expression of these desires something to be proud of and joyful in. That was and continues to be the goal. I love to celebrate—to say, “Come here. We’re going to have an amazing time. All of your fantasies will come through in a way that honors all the time and energy you put into building them.”
AZ: Season Two did a beautiful job of demonstrating the reality of that intimacy without losing sight of the fact that it is also, as sex work, a form of labor and exchange.
OT: Yes. Some of it is performative, for sure. And a lot of it is work. But that doesn’t deny its authenticity and sincerity—the genuineness of it.
AZ: You’ve spoken today about being invested in representation at the intersection of a set of underrepresented groups: sex workers, people of color, women, BDSM practitioners, and of all the people who overlap those groups. In your mission statement for Reps On Set, you say, “Responsible representation is not an obligation but an opportunity.” Could you elaborate on that?
OT: In film and television now, diversity is being treated as an obligation. I have never seen so many interracial couples on TV, but there’s this sense that “we’ve got to have a Black guy, we’ve got to make this diverse.” That sense of obligation shows! It’s more about optics than about the story. Those characters rarely get to be fully fleshed-out; there’s just a person of color on screen so that when you all are at the Sundance Film Festival, not everyone on the red carpet is white. But it should not be an obligation! It is an opportunity to tell richer, more textured, more interesting stories. If you’re going to have a Black kinkster in your story, don’t just have him in there because you “need” a Black guy. Use it as an opportunity to make this character and your story more dynamic! Say something that hasn’t been said!
AZ: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?
OT: I’m really proud of what Season Two of Bonding did, and of my work assisting with representation in other shows like Billions—where, by the way, the character of Mistress Troy was named after me! I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to tell some of these stories. I’m even more grateful that more of us in general—queer people, sex workers, people of color—are being brought in to participate in these narratives in a meaningful way. I’m so excited about this work. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do it.
Anna Ziering is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Oglethorpe University, where she is also affiliated with African American Studies. Her research into queer and multi-ethnic literature focuses on masochism as a site of and tool for anti-racist theorizing and activism. Her work has been published in MELUS and The Black Scholar, and is forthcoming with Arizona Quarterly.
Olivia Troy, known as Troy (she/her), has spent the past decade helping film, television, and theater productions use intimacy to tell more accurate and authentic stories. Her services include: intimacy coordinating, actor guidance, story development, scene choreography, bondage rigging, and support. With credits including Billions (Showtime) and Bonding (S2, Netflix), Troy’s IC and consulting work is grounded by more than 15 years of experience as a BDSM professional. She is deeply invested in bringing her expertise in intersectional, consensual, communication-driven intimacy to film and television productions.