The Certification Question: A Response

Oct 26, 2022

By Jessica Steinrock

In June of 2021, Chelsea Pace, the Co-Founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE), released the article, “The Certification Question,” detailing her and her organization’s stance against certification for intimacy professionals. Over the last year, and in the wake of this publication, I have watched this discussion continue within our community, framed more and more often as a binary debate. In my time as an intimacy professional and change advocate, I have learned that omitting nuance closes the door to open dialogue. Because of this, I felt it was important to share a different perspective. In writing this piece, I aim to move away from a debate towards an ongoing dialogue where the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives within the intimacy community can bring richness to a topic that goes beyond black-and-white thinking.

Many of the ideas Pace outlines in her piece have sparked important conversations related to power, equity, and the foundational ideas that are central to intimacy work. Certification, or gatekeeping in general, has historically been a powerful tool in many contexts to prevent access and maintain the status quo; but what if we can harness this powerful tool to bring about change in oppressive systems? What if, by applying certification with a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can utilize existing frameworks to build external confidence in those newly certified and influence those in this industry who are skeptical of intimacy work? I firmly believe that certification can create positive change in this industry when the processes for obtaining certification are accessible and equitable. 

As you read this piece, there will, of course, be bias, just as there is unavoidable bias in the piece to which I am responding. Pace and I both run intimacy training organizations that operate under different theories of change. And, we both benefit financially and otherwise from our theories of change being perceived as “effective.” That said, we both offer unique perspectives as to how these theories were developed, and I am confident that we are both ultimately after the same goal: To create a consent-forward entertainment culture in which intimate stories can be told with safety and artistry. 


Blog Highlights

  • At IDC, Certification is the recognition that an individual has demonstrated understanding and proficiency in the knowledge and skills required to be an effective intimacy professional (much like a university degree or First Aid Certification).
  • Certifications can disrupt homogeneous networks that prioritize personal references and informal networks.
  • Employers are responsible for engaging in ethical hiring practices. This requires that employers utilize an expansive definition of qualifications that includes both certification and comparable professional experience.
  • IDC actively addresses four key barriers that prevent individuals from accessing certification and advanced training: Information barriers, Financial barriers, Systemic barriers, and Nepotistic barriers.
  • Because certification is already a widely accepted practice across virtually all industries, by understanding how it works, we can leverage it within our current systems to create opportunities for change, elevate new voices, and build a more equitable, diverse, and accessible pipeline into a previously inaccessible industry.


What does “Certification” mean?

I see the term certification being used in a few different ways, and I want to clarify what we at IDC mean when we say that someone is a “Certified Intimacy Professional.” Our certification is not meant to be a singular, industry-wide standard. It is a credential that indicates a level of training and program completion within our institution and signifies that the certified intimacy professional has experience with an industry-approved set of standards that promote safe and effective workplaces. Additionally, all certified professionals at IDC are accountable to a set of professional and ethical agreements.

IDC does not and will never advocate for certification as the only or even best standard of qualification in this work. We offer certification to those who complete our program so that they can more easily demonstrate to external hiring bodies that they have the skills necessary for this position. 

Within our organization, we have built our program upon a clear set of expectations, learning outcomes, and objectives that are defined and evidenced to the community at large. In this way, we build transparency in the skillset and qualifications of those certified with the organization. This process is similar to how degree programs work at universities. When someone holds a certificate or degree from that institution, employers understand the level of education that the student received.

The existence of scaffolded certification programs does not inherently negate the validity of other forms of training. For example, not all actors need an MFA in acting to find career success as an actor, but many find that the process of going through an MFA program affords them excellent training that can be professionally leveraged to support multiple career paths. Degrees from these programs signify the type of training that the actor has had, who they worked with, and indicate the level of assessment that person has undergone. Whether someone chooses to go through this kind of program is a personal choice, and each individual can select the path that best fits their needs, experience, or learning style.

In a world without certifications, nearly all of the power for determining qualification and eligibility for hiring is centralized with those who already hold an exorbitant amount of influence  - in our industry, this is largely producers. Historically, we see over and over again that those in power are not always willing to make that determination from an equity-based perspective. While it is important to continue educating hiring producers on ways to more equitably determine an individual's qualifications, certification programs designed by and for intimacy professionals re-distribute some of the power of determining who is qualified back to the community.


The Relationship between Certification and Equitable Hiring Practices 

In her article, Pace argues that “In an ecosystem where certification exists at all, qualified people will be overlooked because they have not invested time and money into paying for access to a certification that they do not need to effectively do their work.” This argument creates a false and unrealistic binary in which any form of credentialing eliminates the possibility of equitable hiring practices - and this is simply not the case. 

Equitable hiring practices are the responsibility of companies seeking to hire Intimacy Professionals. It is possible (and encouraged) to value both credentialing programs and more expansive ideas of training and proof of qualification.

To illustrate this point, we can look at broader hiring trends in the United States. According to the Harvard Business Review, more and more companies are forgoing degree requirements as they limit candidate pools and affect the eligibility of candidates who hold similar skills but no degree. This study finds that “when employers drop degrees, they become more specific about skills in job postings, spelling out the soft skills that may have been assumed to come with a college education, such as writing, communication, and being detail-oriented.” Because of this, we are seeing a growing number of companies utilize a qualification listing that indicates “Undergraduate Degree or Comparable Industry Experience.” 

When engaging in our most recent hiring process, IDC modeled this practice by explicitly stating in our Teaching Artist job posting that we do NOT require certification. Instead, we listed the many ways in which someone can prove qualification in this discipline and make an effective educator. Our instructors hold certifications from us, from other organizations, or no certifications at all, and we support every pathway! It is an important part of our ethical operational practices to model the kinds of hiring processes that match our values.   

All IDC job postings that require advanced knowledge of intimacy work are listed as “certification or comparable professional experience.” This has opened up our organization to a diverse range of voices and approaches to the work, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have every single one of our teaching artists on our team. We believe that the expansion of what it takes to be “qualified” to include certification and comparable industry experience is paramount to ensuring certification does not become a barrier to employment for qualified candidates in this discipline. 


Certification as a Tool for Creating Industry Change

The entertainment industry is known for being built on homogenous networks that prioritize “who you know.” Many of us have seen, or maybe even been part of, a “word of mouth reference chain” in which a production company doesn’t perform a full search for a position, but rather exclusively offers the job to a friend of a friend. Reliance on personal references as the primary method for vetting qualifications exacerbates a decades-old power dynamic that has been detrimental to many in this industry.

There are multiple examples of industry individuals having large and unchecked power over their colleagues as references- and when these individuals are offered a job that they cannot take, it is advantageous to be on their reference list. This dynamic where personal references are prioritized shows up amongst intimacy professionals - making it difficult to say “no” or set boundaries amongst colleagues, for fear that they won’t say your name later or co-sign your qualifications and quality of work to a future employer. 

The emphasis our industry places on informal networks is then exacerbated by homogenous social groupings in which much of the aforementioned networking takes place. In fact, these are two of the key reasons sexual harassment is so rampant in the entertainment industry and contributes to the erasure of marginalized groups who are often kept out of these homogenous social networks. 

At IDC, we believe that certifications can disrupt homogeneous networks that prioritize personal references and informal networks. 

When we created our certification program, we did so because we saw an industry need for access to advanced and scaffolded training that could support someone entering the entertainment industry, regardless of industry connections. Individual and one-off workshops are a great way to expand knowledge and build skills - but this type of training is often more easily leveraged to actual career growth by someone who already has connections or other credentials. 

For some, individual courses over time have been enough to generate the necessary skills to be successful in this work. For many others, the only access to mentorship may be through cold calling or personal connections - which do not have associated accountability or guarantee of longevity. 

Certification programs have an opportunity to support individuals in their pursuit of a career in intimacy work, and a responsibility to do this ethically and equitably. At IDC, we have policies in place concerning job inquiries and referrals to mitigate the impacts of the power dynamics found within our organization. For example, any inquiry from a production that is looking to hire an intimacy professional is pointed to our hiring page and encouraged to reach out to individuals individually. We include extensive bio and contact information to encourage the hiring party to research each individual to find the best fit.

In her article, Pace argues that “[in intimacy work] experience matters and is legitimate whether or not you choose to seek certification to make it legible and easier to digest for the powerful.” I couldn't agree more, and we also must recognize that the choice to ignore or go against these systems is one that many do not have. At IDC, we have heard from a number of our community members of color that certification has been a powerful tool for creating access to rooms that were otherwise inaccessible - promoting job security, higher pay, and more.

In a recent blog post, intimacy professional Lormarev Jones shared how this has played out in her own career and journey as an intimacy professional:

“As an African-American woman - with the added baggage of working in academia, institutions and organizations do not "take chances" on me.  I have to have a co-sign from someone (usually a white person) that verifies that I am qualified for the work I do. I chose the certification pathway because I wanted to continue gathering knowledge about this craft AND so that I would be taken seriously in every room I enter. IDC is one of the leaders of this work - and association with the brand and reputation can only work in my favor.” - Lormarev Jones

In this blog post, you can also read how the choice to certify or not certify has affected the career paths of intimacy professionals Cha Ramos and Marcus Watson. All three share a range of perspectives on this topic and offer nuance and individualism to this conversation.  

It is clear that the current unethical hiring practices are unacceptable, and at IDC, we are dedicated to changing them and educating institutions away from discriminatory practices. While that work is being done, it is just as important to create accessible credentialing that supports change internally as well as externally. There is an opportunity to support those who are faced with the prospect of needing to work within pre-established structures by creating safe, accountable, and equitable training that results in leverageable certification.


Creating an Equitable and Accessible Certification Program

So - what does it mean to create an equitable and accessible certification?

We’ve had many internal discussions about “accessibility” and what that means in our industry's context. Does accessibility mean that anyone who wants to attend any training can and should be allowed access to that training whenever they want? I think it’s easy to see how that definition is impractical for many reasons- including the need for a manageable student-to-teacher ratio, infrastructure challenges, legal requirements, and a commitment to pay teachers, administrators, and staff for their work. 

Building equity and access into our program is ongoing and imperfect work. Over the last two years, we have been working diligently as a team to build more equity and access into our program by examining and taking actions to mitigate four key barriers:

Information Barriers

The Problem: When intimacy work was beginning to professionalize in 2016, information was spread predominantly via word of mouth and on social media, which means that those informal networks and homogenous social groupings often prevented information from being shared to diverse audiences. Beyond this, the way in which the information is framed and how it is disseminated (i.e. videos vs journal articles) will impact both its accessibility and who can see themselves as belonging in this career or this community. 

Our Efforts: Our team of diverse and qualified content creators and curriculum developers have diligently worked to create and share information that is accessible to a variety of audiences and artists. Creating equitable access to information requires that the same information be published in a variety of ways and across a variety of platforms. Because of this, our website contains extensive downloadable PDFs as well as video explainers. We have also recently begun hosting free webinars and Q+A sessions to discuss our application and review process, helping to provide information about our program to individuals who are considering a pathway within our program. 

Financial Barriers

The Problem: Training in any discipline requires an investment, whether in a comprehensive certification program or a one-off class. That investment may be time, energy, money, or some combination of the three. Some may be able to trade services or education in kind, but more often than not, access to education requires money. And this makes sense - instructors deserve to be paid for their time and energy, curriculum development should be compensated, and businesses have all sorts of operating expenses such as website maintenance, PayPal fees, and taxes. But the capitalist economy of the United States creates barriers and scarcity with regard to money, disproportionately harming some more than others.

Our Efforts: At IDC, we are committed to paying our instructors and staff a strong and livable wage, and the profits of our workshops are reinvested into research and development (read more here). Because of this, we work to increase financial accessibility by providing sliding-scale pricing on many of our offerings. This allows the organization to make the necessary revenue by asking those in the community who have more to pay more, making it possible for others to pay less. When a sliding scale is not an option, we have created payment plans that are easily implementable and shame-free. Instructions for accessing these payment plans are readily available on our website and require no justification or explanation. Even with these efforts, many are not in a financial position to invest in this training. Because of this, we have begun to offer free foundational workshops and a free community forum to build access to this work. 

Systemic Barriers

The Problem: Historical and ingrained systems of white supremacy have created a network of systemic barriers that disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, POC, and Transgender artists from accessing career-changing education. These barriers manifest financially, socially, referentially, and more. 

Our Efforts: For training to be accessible, it must be culturally competent, trauma-informed, and reflective of a wide variety of learning styles. At IDC, our diverse and qualified team of teaching artists, content creators, and curriculum developers have diligently collaborated to build a curriculum in which students can see themselves in this work, and where their learning needs can be met and supported. 

Structurally, we have created early registration opportunities for artists who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC). This ensures that BIPOC artists have time to consider which class and instructors may best meet their learning and safety needs. We have also created and internally funded a scholarship program to support underrepresented artists in their pursuit of a career in intimacy work. This scholarship program is designed specifically to address systemic inequities and is currently accessible to BIPOC and Transgender artists regardless of their financial status. This program is available at every level of training along our certification pathway. Internally, we continue to assess and reassess the eligibility requirements of this program to ensure the greatest impact for underrepresented artists. Since our origins in 2020, IDC has allocated over 15% of our potential revenue towards these programs. 


Nepotism Barriers

The Problem: Historically, advanced intimacy training was most accessible through individual mentorship, which was secured through network connections. Open-training organizations are limited in their ability to support a pipeline of diverse and qualified artists entering this work. As mentioned above, this creates strong power dynamics where reputation is traded as currency and can prevent new professionals from accessing advanced mentorship without first making personal connections. 

Our Efforts: When creating our advanced training program (Level 3), our goal was to identify the top candidates based on merit and their unique ability to positively impact this industry. When selecting each cohort, we assemble a team of 5-9 diverse and qualified reviewers who assess every application and identify the top candidates for the program based on a predefined and regularly re-evaluated set of criteria to ensure it is not perpetuating harmful industry standards but is instead looking holistically at the individual. We check for conflicts of interest and ensure multiple eyes are on each application. It is in this way that we aim to subvert the “who you know'' dynamic and allow each individual to receive an equitable opportunity to be admitted into the program. Individuals are also provided with feedback if they are denied to a particular cohort. This thorough review process takes hundreds of hours per cohort, with well over 80 applicants for each session, and is all paid time on the part of our review team. This process reflects our commitment to creating equitable opportunities for those who wish to enter this discipline. 


Closing Thoughts

When it comes to certification, I find myself stuck in a complex cycle of realism and a desire for radical, revolutionary change. When I pause to imagine a world in which all certifications disappear tomorrow, I don’t see a world with greater equity and diversity. What I see is the perpetuation of homogenous and informal networks in which nepotism and structural oppressions continue to consolidate power among the same individuals, year after year. 

Certification is not the only solution, but it can be a powerful tool. As Financial Feminist Podcast host, Tori Dunlap points out, “we won’t have the power to change the system from within until we understand how it works, create opportunity for underserved populations, and leverage that power to make real change.” This quote deeply resonates with me when thinking about how to make a real impact on this industry. Making systemic change is like slowly turning a cruise ship. But, because certification is already a widely accepted practice across virtually all industries, by understanding how it works, we can leverage it within our current systems to create opportunities for change, elevate new voices, and build a more equitable, diverse, and accessible pipeline into a previously inaccessible industry. 


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