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The 101 best sex scenes of all time

Here are cinema's most innovative, groundbreaking movie sex scenes, from controversial classics to daring silent films

The Dreamers

Sex. Watching it can sometimes come close to having it—and once in a while, it's superior. Putting on our serious hats for a second, sex is also a bedrock of cinema, the undercurrent of all romantic movies. By charting the history of movie sex scenes, one can trace a culture's hang-ups, along with the worldwide audience's evolving appetites. We put together the 101 most groundbreaking sex scenes of all time (not unpleasurable work). Have we forgotten your own personal obsession? Are we missing any controversial movies? Let us know in the comments below. A love note (or sticky-note confession) would be nice, but something naughtier will also suffice.

RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time

101 best sex scenes

1

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Floorfellows: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider

The film
Bertolucci’s steamy tale of two strangers meeting in a Paris flat for impersonal sex remains a byword for confrontational coupling onscreen.

The sex scene
Brando pins Schneider facedown on a hardwood floor and indulges his fondness for dairy products in an unforgettable fashion. You’ll never look at cinema sex—or read the word “unsalted”—the way same again.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
When Last Tango in Paris was first released, it was a cause célèbre: Never before had sex onscreen been so raw and emotionless. In the age of Tinder, the film has lost some of its impact, and there’s a streak of misogyny that feels undeniably ugly. But with its two powerhouse performances, Last Tango still, um, stands up.—Tom Huddleston

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2

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Bedfellows: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland

The film
Working with a Daphne du Maurier short story, Roeg gives us Laura (Christie) and John (Sutherland), a married couple who travel from Britain to Venice for his job after losing their young daughter in a drowning accident.

The sex scene
It’s a simple predinner sex scene in a hotel room, but the way Roeg shoots and edits it, and the manner in which the actors perform it, makes it extremely powerful.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
It just feels so real. It’s also a rare sex scene that chimes in perfect harmony with the film around it. Their sex feels like both an expression of grief and a welcome respite from it. Most of all, the actors just look like they know what they’re doing. No wonder they’ve been denying the sex was real ever since.—Dave Calhoun

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3

Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Bedfellows: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann

The film
After the catatonic breakdown of stage star Elisabet (Ullmann), she and nurse Alma (Andersson) enter into a fluid, mesmerizing power struggle, also a meeting of the minds.

The sex scene
In a semidarkened room, Alma relates a tale of sex on the beach with her girlfriend and a pair of underage boys, an incident with dire consequences.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
A classic sex scene with no actual sex in it? That's expert-level, folks. It helps to be Ingmar Bergman, the master director who could wring a heartbreaking monologue out of a shoe. Andersson's matter-of-fact relation of graphic acts makes the scene unbearably hot. The moment was often cut from prints by concerned censors. Famously, Roger Ebert wrote, “The imagery of this monologue is so powerful that I have heard people describe the scene as if they actually saw it in the film.”—Joshua Rothkopf

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4

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Director: Ang Lee
Tentfellows: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal

The film
Based on Annie Proulx’s story about the love affair between two cowboys, Ang Lee’s beautiful, swooning film starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as range hands who fall in love. 

The sex scene
It gets mighty cold up there in the hills of Wyoming. After a night drinking whiskey, the ranchers huddle up for warmth, and then…

Why is it so groundbreaking?
Ang Lee put gay sex in the mainstream. Conservatives accused the film of promoting a gay agenda, but don’t they always? Brokeback Mountain picked up three Oscars from eight nominations in 2006, but not Best Picture (which went to Crash). Some critics, including Roger Ebert, believed homophobia factored in the voting.—Cath Clarke

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5

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Bedfellows: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux

The film
This undeniably erotic but also deeply sensitive French film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for its free and frank portrayal of two young women, Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a schoolgirl, and Emma (Seydoux), an art student. They fall in love and face the challenge of sharing something in the long term other than sex.

The sex scene
When Adèle and Emma first hit the bedsheets, Kechiche shows their lovemaking in intimate detail: a long, no-holds-barred sex scene.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
On paper, six minutes doesn’t sound long. But when you’re sitting through kissing, sucking, licking and slapping, six minutes feels very long indeed. Audiences who thought they’d seen it all suddenly realized they hadn’t.—Dave Calhoun

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6

“The Kiss” (1896)

Director: William Heise
Bedfellows: May Irwin, John Rice

The film
At just 18 seconds long, “The Kiss” (sometimes known as “The May Irwin Kiss”) is one of the earliest films to be shown to the public. Directed by William Heise for Thomas Edison, it recreates a kiss from a popular musical of the time, The Widow Jones.

The sex scene
To be honest, it’s barely a kiss; there’s definitely no tongues or bodily fluids exchanged as actor John Rice tweezes his moustache in preparation before he goes in for what is more of a peck. 

Why is it so groundbreaking?
Officially the first ever film to feature two people kissing, it caused an uproar, with one commentator writing that it was “beastly enough in life size on the stage, but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over, it is absolutely disgusting.” Sounds like a film critic to us.—Cath Clarke

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7

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Bedfellows: Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda

The film
Oshima’s 1976 masterpiece—the crown jewel of a career hell-bent on upsetting the establishment—recounts the true story of the all-consuming sexual obsession that blossomed between a hotel owner and his new employee in 1936 Tokyo.

The sex scene
How do we pick just one? A marvel of escalation, In the Realm of the Senses is an almost constant stream of increasingly perverse sex acts. To isolate any moment from the maelstrom of deviant (and unsimulated) behavior would be arbitrary by default. Nevertheless, we’d argue the sequence that most pushes the boundaries occurs when Kichizo (Fuji) inserts a hard-boiled egg into the vagina of his new bride, Sada (Matsuda), in full view of the people serving them dinner. He then instructs Sada to squat like a hen and lay the egg on the floor before he eats it. In most films, the pain that Sada experiences would immediately classify the act as sexual assault, but In the Realm of the Senses renders our judgments irrelevant.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
Even for generations raised on free Internet porn, the acts on display in Oshima’s movie are still taboo. In the Realm of the Senses was the first nonpornographic film to include blow jobs, and there’s a very graphic one prior to the scene of food insertion. But it’s only when you watch that egg disappear that you begin to comprehend the full extent of the film’s transgression.—David Ehrlich

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8

Basic Instinct (1992)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Bedfellows: Sharon Stone, a short skirt, a bunch of drooling detectives

The film
Sharon Stone stars as writer Catherine Tramell, a noirish femme fatale suspected of murdering a music mogul with an ice pick during a bondage sex session.

The sex scene
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know the scene: Stone is being questioned by five cops and she’s eating them alive. Dressed to kill in a slinky white suit, she basically performs a striptease, slipping off her jacket as she bats their questions aside. Finally she uncrosses and recrosses her legs, showing them—and us—that her lips are sealed (sorry).

Why is it so groundbreaking?
The scene is one of the most controversial and iconic of the 1990s. Basic Instinct was championed by feminist critic Camille Paglia, who argued that it features “one of the great performances by a woman in screen history.” Others called it misogynist.—Cath Clarke

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9

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Bedfellows: Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey

The film
Bluntly adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel of the same name, Scorsese’s most controversial film portrays the Son of God as a fallible man, liable to the vices and temptations with which all human beings must contend.

The sex scene
While nailed to the cross, an angel appears to Jesus and leads him on a guided hallucination of the life he might have lead. That life includes Jesus fathering a child with Mary Magdalene, and it turns out that sex is the best way to do that. Sure, it’s all a dream, and thus rather theologically protected, but that didn’t stop people from losing their minds over it.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
It’s Jesus Christ having sex. That’s not exactly what he’s known for.—David Ehrlich

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10

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra
Not-quite-bedfellows: Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable 

The film
A slapstick comedy starring Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress running away to elope with the wrong guy. Clark Gable is the disgraced reporter she meets on the bus to New York City. Her plan changes. 

The sex scene
No sex here, just a tricky situation: Colbert and Gable are forced to spend the night together in a hotel room (pretending to be husband and wife) when their bus breaks down. Gable hangs a sheet between their twin beds for modesty’s sake.

Why is it so groundbreaking?
Because sheet or no sheet, this was the era of Hays Code censorship, intended to stamp any whiff of misbehavior.—Cath Clarke

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Comments

17 comments
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Gary Seven
Gary Seven

And "Last Tango" is arguably a real life rape scene.  Sad that you include it. 

Dan C
Dan C

There was a foreign movie with 12 year olds. I can't remember the name. 

rick t
rick t

Blue is the Warmest Color should be here.

Shirley D
Shirley D

@rick t It is there. I guess you didn't click through the final ten films.

Isadora W
Isadora W

It very sad you picked "The Last Tango in Paris" as Maria Schneider was coerced in that scene - in real life, by Brando and the director. She has repeatedly talked about not even knowing it would turn out as an anal scene.

Apart from confusing sex scene and a rape scene here, as Movie specialists you should know the History of the scene.

angelo c
angelo c

I liked the scenes between Anne Hayward and Keir Dullea in The Fow  1967. I was 15  when it came out It was intense. Even Sandy Dennis and Hayward in a lesbian scene was  good.

angelo c
angelo c

I thought you would include The Fox with some lesbian pairing between sandy Dennis  and Anne Haywood or Hayward with Kier Dullea. The sex scenes were riveting to me as an eighteen year old…intense man.

julio d
julio d

I Think 9 1/2 Weeks should be in the top 10.. it is those movies you can not play in your living room full of people without feeling uncomfortable... thats how sexual tensed it is... 

Carol G
Carol G

Misogyny is not the right word. RAPE is what you ment to say.

No I am not some man hating feminist.

When a women is crying and shouting "no" and you have to pin her down to have sex. It's rape. It's that simple.

Really saddens me that the Last Tango in paris scene would be included as a sex scene.

Rape is not sex. It's violence and overpowering another human being.

Shows us exactly what is wrong with society today.

Shame on you.

mce343 e
mce343 e

I was getting ready to agree with you when I realized you just called me a man hater simply because I'm a feminist. I do agree on everything else but that hurt.