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7 Hollywood Films That Show What Sex is Really Like

By Sara Kloepfer

By now you know what a typical sex scene looks like in the movies — a couple comes crashing in the front door of a darkened apartment, kissing passionately, going at it half-clothed against the wall, only to simultaneously orgasm approximately ten seconds later. I have never had sex like that, and I’m willing to bet that most of you haven’t either. Sex on film tends to not only speed up the process, but also eliminate certain elements altogether, i.e. foreplay, consent, and condoms. Also, the range of individuals pictured having sex on film is quite narrow, usually focusing on thin, heterosexual, white couples. If you’re as tired of these unrealistic depictions as I am, here are seven films you can watch that actually get sex (mostly) right, subverting the typical portrayals that leave you feeling less than sexy.

1) Coming Home (1978, directed by Hal Ashby)

Sally (Jane Fonda) is a conservative housewife whose husband is a Marine captain fighting in Vietnam. While volunteering at a veterans’ hospital, she connects with a former classmate, Luke (Jon Voigt), who returned from Vietnam a paraplegic. Sally and Luke fall in love and eventually have sex, with Luke giving Sally her first-ever orgasm via oral sex. Women’s orgasms — let alone orgasms achieved outside of penetrative sex — were not portrayed in film in the 1970s. The fact that Sally is finally able to find sexual pleasure with a disabled man is even more radical for the time. Coming Home is one of the first films (and to this day, one of the few) dealing openly with sex between an able-bodied person and a disabled one. The film does not shy away from Luke’s disability, but rather highlights it by prominently displaying the scar on Luke’s back while he pleasures Sally.

2) Love & Basketball (2000, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are neighbors who share a love of basketball, a playful rivalry, and a mutual crush. When they finally profess their feelings for each other on prom night, Monica loses her virginity to Quincy in a scene that shows how awkward, exciting, and even painful, your first time can be. Latham and Epps were actually dating during filming, making the chemistry and attraction between the characters even more palpable.

Monica is visibly shy and nervous undressing in front of Quincy, and he responds by being gentle and attentive. Unprompted, he grabs a condom and unwraps it. The appearance of the condom is important in not only emphasizing safe sex, but also in resisting the trope of unplanned black teenage pregnancy. Quincy checks in with Monica, asking if she wants him to stop. From the look on Monica’s face, we can tell that she is uncomfortable, if not in pain. Prince-Bythewood was told to edit the scene because the studio did not think Monica was enjoying it enough. To which she responded, “it’s the first time and despite what the male fantasy might be, it’s not that great.”

3) Blue Valentine (2010, directed by Derek Cianfrance)

Blue Valentine chronicles the relationship between David (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), from a whirlwind romance to an unhappy marriage. One scene of the young couple shows David going down on Cindy. Both are fully clothed, leaving the focus on body language: Cindy grinds her hips while she pulls at David’s hair, both of them moaning in delight. The short shots bookending the scene — David slowly pulling down Cindy’s underwear, the couple laughing together — highlight the sweet intimacy of their relationship. Their sex is for the sake of Cindy’s pleasure, not a means to an end, but an end in itself. This scene almost earned the film an NC-17 rating, which Gosling himself resisted, criticizing the MPAA for their double standards and pointing out that the scene received the rating not because it was graphic, but because it was authentic.

4) Weekend (2011, directed by Andrew Haigh) 

Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) have a one-night stand that turns into an intimate weekend. The couple openly discusses sex throughout the film, but it is their final sexual encounter that is the most candid and intimate. They leave the lights on, allowing the viewer to linger on their tender glances. After Russell goes down on Glen, the two have anal sex for the first time. The previous day, Glen had asked Russell if he didn’t want to be on bottom because it made him feel “too gay,” a question bound up in Russell’s unease with being open about his sexuality in general. The fact that Russell wants Glen to make love to him shows that he trusts Glen and feels comfortable enacting his sexuality. Rather than the stereotypical doggy-style sex shown in most gay male sex scenes, Russell and Glen face each other, their faces inches apart. After eliding or cutting short the previous sex scenes, the length and nature of this encounter confirms the deepened intimacy between the two, rather than serving as a simply salacious or gratuitous moment.

5) Don Jon (2013, directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a playboy whose girlfriend recently dumped him after discovering his porn addiction. Jon begins a sexual relationship with Esther (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged woman from his community college class. Esther encourages Jon to watch more realistic porn, or to masturbate without it. She reasons that he enjoys porn more than sex is because it is a one-sided relationship, and calls him out for being disconnected when they had sex. Their next sex scene is slow and sensual, quite the departure from his previous jackhammering. They kiss while Esther straddles him, remaining in her nightgown. She pauses to put on a condom (honestly, bonus points for any film that bothers to show this) before they continue, this time holding each other close and looking into one another’s eyes. The reason this scene is so affecting is because it shows how Jon has learned to focus on his partner’s pleasure, not just his own.

6) The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, directed by Marielle Heller)

In 1970s San Francisco, fifteen-year old Minnie (Bel Powley) becomes sexually active by initiating an affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). From the film’s opening line (“I had sex today. Holy shit.”), Minnie candidly and earnestly narrates her sexual desires. The film does not actually show Minnie lose her virginity to Monroe, just the before (kissing) and after (lying in bed, still dressed from the waist up).

When the viewer first sees Minnie and Monroe having sex, it is not a single scene, but rather a montage — in the shower, on the floor, on the couch, in a variety of positions. Through Heller’s direction, the viewer is aligned with the female gaze for once. The camera focuses on Minnie’s visible enjoyment while she narrates (“All I can think about is the fucking”). These scenes, like the rest of the film, highlight Minnie’s perspective, and therefore her agency in exploring her sexual power. However inappropriate (and even illegal) they may be, the film does not judge Minnie for her choices or paint her as a victim, instead celebrating her sexuality as her own.  

7) Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker)

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine follows two black trans sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), as they search for Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend/pimp. After a long day following Sin-Dee around town, Alexandra runs into one of her regulars, a taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Alexandra and Razmik are equally relieved to see each other, finding comfort in the other’s presence. Alexandra gets into his taxi and they head into their regular spot, a car wash. The whole scene occurs in one long take, with the viewer getting a backseat view of Razmik fellating Alexandra while soapy brushes encase the taxi. The sequence is surprisingly intimate, emphasizing the customer’s enjoyment in pleasuring the sex worker, rather than the other way around. The viewer can read the scene as both a banal transaction and as a moment of solace in which both parties can find satisfaction, either in enacting desire or in being desired.

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