31 Movies Where the Sex Scenes Are Essential

31 Movies Where the Sex Scenes Are Essential

Modern movie audiences are as prudish as ever when it comes to sex on the big screen. Online discourse frequently runs to the tiresome topic of whether or not sex scenes are strictly “necessary” to the plot of any particular film. I’m not nearly convinced that movies ought to be so laser-focused on plot that anything extraneous needs to be tossed in the bin—reducing a Shakespeare play to just the dialogue that advances “plot” would have us in and out of a theater in around 20 minutes.

The past year has been rife with this discourse, as explicit sex scenes in Beau is Afraid, All of Us Strangers, Infinity Pool, Passages, and Saltburn have apparently been traumatizing unwary theatergoers. 2024 is off to a similarly scandalizing start with Oscar-front-runner Poor Things—the Frankenstein-inspired dark comedy follows Bella Baxter, a young woman resurrected following her death by suicide, who begins a journey of liberation and sexual exploration in Victorian London. Some of it’s racier scenes have drawn controversy and criticism, particularly in the U.K., where only a censored version has been released.

Leaving aside whether I personally find this discussion worthwhile, there certainly are films for which we can draw a straight line between sex scene and plot, or which use sex to reveal character (no pun intended). Consider these 31 movies, and see if you come away feeling any better about the existence of characters who fuck.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Though the sex isn’t wildly explicit, it would be altogether silly for a film set in and around the world of 1970s cinematic porn to skip the sex scenes entirely. One moment in particular comes at the outset of Dirk Diggler/Eddie Adams’ career, as he’s filming his first explicit scene with Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves/Maggie. The moment captures Eddie’s nervousness as well as his sexual charisma, while also making clear that this is a job for everyone involved. The crew looks on while Maggie gently guides her co-star through his first on-screen orgasm. It’s not an overwhelmingly passionate scene, but it is a surprisingly tender one.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

OK, granted, the impromptu sex scene at the center of Brokeback Mountain was clearly choreographed and performed by people with only the vaguest notions of what sex between two men can look like—as if there exists not a single queer in Hollywood who might have been consulted. The moment pays off sexual tension that has been building between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) from the first frame. It’s significant that the filmmakers choose to make clear that sex is a component of the attraction here, beyond the cutesy stuff.

Oldboy (2003)

Park Chan-wook’s action classic is not for the faint of heart on any level, and that includes the sex scene between Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). It’s not that the moment is itself wildly explicit, but the movie’s last-act reveal of Mi-do’s true identity is genuinely shocking in context, and brings the 15-year timeline of revenge and counter-revenge full circle.

Beau is Afraid (2023)

A nearly three-hour journey into the headspace of the deeply anxious title character (Joaquin Phoenix), Beau is Afraid was one of the last year’s most polarizing films—and it’s probably my favorite of 2023. Many of Beau’s troubles stem from the vaguely psychosexual manipulations of his mother, Mona (Patti Lupone), who made sure to describe to the young Beau the mid-coitus death of his father in excruciating detail. Sexual phobias aren’t the entirety of Beau’s problems, but they’re a key component of his inability to connect with other people. When he does finally have sex, at the movie’s climax (ahem), it only makes things so, so much worse for a guy who cannot catch a break.

Saltburn (2023)

Another of the year’s most hotly debated films, Saltburn transports The Talented Mr. Ripley to Northamptonshire, England, with mixed results. Scholarship student Oliver (Barry Keoghan) has pursued Felix (Jacob Elordi) from Oxford all the way to the guy’s ancestral home, only for Oliver to find (*major spoilers coming*) that his plans of getting in with the posh crowd are going to need to involve murder. His dreams of sex with Felix having gone down the drain (somewhat literally), Oliver instead fucks Felix’s fresh grave. The scene is there for shock value, sure, but also makes clear that Oliver’s machinations to that point were never purely strategic, and that his lust/obsession with Felix was very real.

Terminator (1984)

The love scene between Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is neither particularly hot nor explicit, but it is essential to the film, and the franchise as a whole. Without the sex-on-the-run between the two, John Connor will never be born to save humanity, and won’t be around to send Kyle Reese back in time to train Sarah. Very timey-wimey. The moment makes the great Terminator 2 possible, but also a series of largely forgettable sequels—so it’s not all good news for humanity.

Atonement (2007)

Set over the course of, nearly, a lifetime, Atonement kicks off with Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnessing mildly rough sex between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy). Jealous and confused, the young heiress mistakes what she sees for rape, which clouds her judgement when she accuses Robbie after an actual sexual assault occurs shortly thereafter. Briony’s allegation sets in motion a cascade of events that darkens the lives of those around her, allowing the real assailant to go free. As the movie’s title suggests, Briony spends much of her life trying to make amends for her mistake.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance involves love between a deaf custodian and the mysterious fish man with whom she forms a bond. From that premise, del Toro crafts an instant classic that earned him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. When Eliza (Sally Hawkins) makes love to her amphibian companion (Doug Jones), it’s in a bathroom that’s entirely submerged, with an explosive release of water taking the place of a more traditional climax. Eliza later explains the mechanics of the event to a friend—all of this serving to make clear that this love story is both emotional and sensual, and not merely the chaste romance of a Disney movie about mer people.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

Not much of a spoiler here, since the inciting incident occurs within the first 10 minutes of this Stephen King adaptation: Jessie and Gerald Burlingame (Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) arrive at an isolated lake house, where Gerald tries to engage in a rape fantasy that Jessie is deeply uncomfortable with. The interaction makes obvious the rift that has developed in their marriage, but before Gerald can take things further, the two have a fight during which he has a heart attack and dies…leaving her handcuffed to the bed and totally isolated. Stephen King-style shenanigans ensue. The opening is more troubling than explicit, but without it, the movie doesn’t happen.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Nagisa ?shima’s gorgeous art film was wildly controversial upon release, largely for the very realistic sex scenes—realistic, because they were largely unsimulated. It’s based on the true story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a one-time sex worker who begins an obsessive affair with a patron (Tatsuya Fuji) of the hotel where she works. Sada Abe’s refusal to conform to societal expectations of her gender and class don’t make her a hero, exactly, but it does bestow upon her a strange sort of freedom. The impact comes in part from the film’s refusal to undersell Sada Abe’s sexual power—sex is a critical part of her story, in the movie and in real life, and ?shima isn’t afraid to show rather than merely tell.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Analyzing any given David Lynch movie points us immediately toward the problem of determining whether a sex scene is “necessary to the plot,” since figuring out the plot is a trick unto itself. Mulholland Drive is a tiny bit more approachable than most of his output, following “Rita” (Laura Herring), an actress who suffers from amnesia following a Los Angeles car crash, who stumbles into a wholesome midwestern transplant (Naomi Watts), who is setting out to become a star. The two set out to uncover Rita’s true identity, before engaging in some undeniably hot sex. I’m not sure to what extent it impacts the plot, but the sex scene represents a liminal moment between the two characters, each inhabiting multiple potential identities—for those few moments, the characters connect with such intimacy that questions of identity don’t matter in the least.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

The climax (ahem) of Alfonso Cuarón’s instant-classic Mexican road trip film finds the central characters (Luisa, Julio, and Tenoch) engaging in a rather sweet threesome. The trio have been circling one another, emotionally and physically, for the entire film, and this moment flips the script, briefly, on their apparent love triangle—offering the possibility that none of them needs to choose.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Forget about the orgy sequence; let’s focus instead on the earlier sex scene between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that formed the basis of the scandalous teaser trailer (a true tease back when no one knew what the movie was going to be about). She’s mostly focused on looking at herself in the mirror, and while the scene approaches something sweaty, what we mostly feel is the lack of connection between the two. In the context of the film, the sequence makes clear this is a marriage already in the process of disintegrating.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s haunting thriller includes one of the most notorious sex scenes in film history, infamous in part because of rumors (still promulgated and still disputed) that the intimate contact between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland was unsimulated. Whether there’s any truth to that or not, it certainly speaks to the authenticity of the moment, which is hardly gratuitous: The movie follows a couple shattered by the death of their only child, and the sex scene is a major emotional turning point: a moment of clear connection right before things go even more wrong.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Mainstream movies with gay themes are frequently prudish in the extreme—assuming that audiences might accept the existence of queer people, but not that they might also come now and again. During the sweaty Italian summer of 1983, a frustrated 17-year-old Elio (Tomothée Chalamet) makes reasonably good use of a ripe peach, only to be discovered by Oliver (Armie Hammer)…who finds his own use for the bit of fruit. The scenes captures their character dynamic nearly in full, while offering up something a tiny bit kinkier than we’re used to.

North by Northwest (1959)

OK, maybe it’s not entirely essential to the plot, and the sex here is only strongly implied—but Hitchcock’s classic caper gets extra credit for being so brazen about it, considering when it was produced. As Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint begin making out in the top bunk of their train berth, Hitch cuts away (as the censors would have surely demanded) and we watch the train plowing into a tunnel. What plays like a juvenile joke now was a clear middle finger directed at the Hollywood production code.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Fairly chaste as sex scenes go, but the backroom tumble involving Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke is important, in part, because it is so low-key. There’s drama around this same-sex, interracial relationship…but on the folding table in the back of the laundromat, it’s just desire.

Happy Together (1997)

This Wong Kar-wai film stars Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung as a pair of desperately mismatched lovers whose passion nonetheless keeps bringing them back together. Happy Together opens with the two in their underwear, on a bed in South America. Their kissing turns to tussling, then to wrestling, then to sex, and back again, their entire dynamic laid out in one impressively intense scene.

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

Lena Nyman stars in this wildly controversial (in 1967, anyway) Swedish film that uses documentary style to tell the story of a 20-year-old exploring the world as an adult for the first time, and finding her own passion for social justice challenged and expanded. Sex goes right alongside politics for Lena (also her character’s name), and one of the key, ostensibly shocking scenes finds her gently kissing her boyfriend’s flaccid penis. It’s a moment in Lena’s growth as a young activist and as a sexual being, but it’s also a rare instance of male nudity on the movie screen—particularly way back in the 1960s.

It Follows (2015)

It Follows isn’t about just one thing, but there’s certainly a pervasive air of tension around young sexuality and its potential consequences, both physical and emotional. Fear of sexually transmitted infections is certainly a lens through which to view the movie’s horror conceit—a curse that literally follows its subjects to their deaths, unless (and until) they’re willing to pass it along to someone else via sex. Pairing sex and existential dread is a choice, but a choice worth exploring.

Halloween (1978)

Best not to hold Halloween responsible for the many, many imitators that got it all wrong: The slasher genre that this film helped to solidify quickly became laughably sexually conservative in a “sex = death” kinda way, but that wasn’t this movie’s message. Director John Carpenter wrote most of the scary stuff, but late, great producer Debra Hill wrote everything involving Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. When Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Bob (John Michael Graham) have sex and get killed, the only intent was to show teens doing normal teen stuff. They were meant to be relatable, not sinners getting what was coming to them.

Bound (1996)

The sex scenes between ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) and Mafia moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly) are as sensual and erotic as they come, sidestepping then- and still-common cinematic lesbian tropes in favor of genuine sexiness. Nothing here feels like it’s strictly intended for the straight white gaze, even though the movie toys with that notion in the ways the relationship between the two women eggs on the very straight male insecurities of mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). The Wachowskis hired feminist author and sex educator Susie Bright (who has a cameo in the movie) as an intimacy coordinator before that job even had a name. The finished product makes a very strong case that having someone around who understands sex and intimacy does’t put a damper on things; quite the opposite.

The Living End (1992)

Gregg Araki’s New Queer Cinema masterpiece is as angry as it is jubilant. In an era where queer people were either invisible in cinema, or victims, Araki crafted a narrative about a couple of gay, HIV+ drifters who kill a homophobic cop and a couple of gay bashers before setting out on an uninhibited road trip. Their shower sex scene isn’t particularly graphic, but the explicit non-use of a condom and the light choking involved outraged audiences from across the political spectrum—though the movie’s dedication to: ”The hundreds of thousands who’ve died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big white house full of Republican Fuckheads” was more on-the-nose about its intention to offend the wrong type of people.

The Ice Storm (1997)

Director Ann Lee caps the incredibly awkward, instantly regrettable car sex scene between Elena (Joan Allen) and Jim (Jamie Sheridan) with him admitting, “That was awful.” In a movie that’s all about awkward and ill-conceived sexual encounters, Jim sums it up nicely.

Body Heat (1981)

Kathleen Turner stars in Lawrence Kasdan’s essential neo-noir as one of cinema’s ultimate femmes fatale—matching the energy of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, on which this is loosely based, but wearing much less clothing. As in the best noir films, the sex here is all part of the game that she’s playing with William Hurt, even as he thinks that he’s the one toying with her. When he finally smashes a window just to be with her again, it’s clear who’s in charge.

Ecstasy (1933)

As the title of this Hedy Lamar film might suggest, sexual and romantic passion are very much our subjects. Lamar (credited as Hedy Kiesler) plays Eva, a woman in a loveless, passionless (at least on her part) marriage to a rich older man. A nude swim draws the attention of Adam (Aribert Mog), with whom she soon commences an affair. The love scene, which eschews the bare flesh that can be found elsewhere in the film, focuses almost entirely on Eva’s face, and shows us she’s finally experiencing the passion missing from her marriage. Aside from being central to the movie’s plot and themes, it was also shockingly ahead of its time in emphasizing female sexuality.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

OK, there is no actual sex here, but there is a wildly memorable scene centered around a full-throated discussion of a woman’s orgasm. Which was not something that was spoken of in polite company circa 1989! Writer/director Nora Ephron didn’t care, and Meg Ryan played it to the hilt. So iconic was the scene that “I’ll have what she’s having…” became a catchphrase, and Miss Piggy offered up her own climax on an episode of Muppets Tonight. If we still have a long way to go, this scene certainly opened some doors for more transparent discussions of women’s sexuality.

Female Trouble (1974)

Following a Christmas celebration gone horribly awry (they shoulda gotten her them cha-cha heels!), young Dawn Davenport (Divine) strikes out on her own, hitchhiking and then immediately having an unprotected, and unhinged sexual encounter with a lecherous creep on an old mattress at the dump. Not only is the scene itself one of the most memorably repellant bits in the entire movie, it also sets in motion everything to come: Dawn isn’t entirely cut out to be a single mother, and trying to raise Taffy (Mink Stole) only sends her further down the road to depravity. The sex scenes in basically any Waters movie are similarly obscene, which is entirely the point, and entirely necessary.

Law of Desire (1987)

Antonio Banderas becomes both an object of terror, and a muse, following a gentle, lighthearted sex scene between porn-director-on-the-rebound Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) and same-sex virgin Antonio (Banderas). The cute, frank love scene sets up, and helps to subvert, everything that comes after—with director Pedro Almodóvar peppering his thriller with comedy and subverting expectations, as is his usual MO.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese’s oft-banned portrait of the final days of Christ (Willem Dafoe) pissed off a lot of people for its hallucinatory sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). The scene itself isn’t even PG-13 level, but the very idea sent scolds into apoplexy and fanatics off to firebomb theaters. Unsurprisingly, they’d missed the point entirely: In context, the scene is part of a ploy by Satan—the titular last temptation. He’s showing Jesus what his reward might be if he turned away from mankind: a long and normal life instead of an agonizing death on the cross. That moment of lovemaking is central to the sequence, and helps to make clear everything he’s sacrificing for humanity.

Tangerine (2015)

Sean Baker’s brilliant, ultra-low-budget comedy-drama follows a Christmas Eve in the life of trans sex workers Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). The sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking film rides high on gritty realism, and it wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t give us a sense of their work lives. A central scene finds Alexandra taking refuge from a bad day in the car of a cab-driver client. He’s happy about giving her a blowjob while they go through a car wash, and she’s happy to earn a few extra dollars from a friendly, trustworthy client. As car wash blowjobs go, it’s genuinely sweet, while also making clear that sex workers, too, have their good and bad days on the job.

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