And then in the early '80s, two very different films — both from straight male directors — hit American theaters, and the standard for lesbian sex scenes in movies changed for good. The first, released in 1982, was a glossy mainstream film from director-screenwriter Robert Towne. Personal Best starred Mariel Hemingway as Chris Cahill, a young athlete who falls in love with teammate Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly).
The second, which came out a few months later, was a very different kind of film. Made by indie darling John Sayles, it was the story of an unhappily married faculty wife at a small American college who leaves her husband after she falls in love with another woman. That film was Lianna, and the year was 1983.
Although the sex scenes in both films are tame by today's standards, they clearly and overtly showed women having sex with each other on-screen — something even most of those arty foreign films only hinted at.
We're going to take a look at the most important sex scenes between women in movie history — not always the best or the hottest (although we've got those, too), but those that broke new ground in their depictions of women having sex with other women. We'll start with a sort of golden age of lesbian sex that began in 1996, come up to the present, and then take a look at groundbreaking films of the early '80s, and even the roots of lesbian sex in films going back to 1929.
These are films that, for the most part, had a major American theatrical release, even if it was of limited scope, with a few groundbreaking foreign, art house, cable and LGBT film festival movies as well. These criteria are admittedly somewhat subjective, so if you feel we've missed a film that did something new or important with its depiction of sex between women, let us know.
The Golden Age: 1996 to the Present
The mid-1990s marked a period that could well be described as a golden age of hot lesbian sex in film — an age that isn't over yet. And it all started when Larry (now Lana) and Andy Wachowski, who later went on to make the Matrix movies as well as V for Vendetta, convinced Dino De Laurentiis to finance a slick noir thriller called Bound. After that, nothing in the movies would ever be the same.
There may be more tender sex scenes. There may be more explicit sex scenes. But in 1996, there had never been a hotter sex scene between two women than the one between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilley in Bound. Marking the directorial debut of the Wachowski siblings — and with lesbian sex consultancy provided by famed sexpert Susie Bright (who also has a small part in the film) — Bound did the film festival circuit, including Frameline in San Francisco, before going on to a major theatrical release, Roger Ebert's top 10 list and its current cult status.
After her character's big lesbian tease in 1995's truly terrible Showgirls, Gershon pulled out all the stops as Corky, a soft butch with a labrys tattooed on her upper arm and a sweet-talking mobster's girlfriend named Violet (Jennifer Tilley) purring in her ear. The erotic tension between Corky and Violet begins when they first lay eyes on each other, continues through Violet's breathless seduction of a slightly uncertain Corky, and then explodes when Violet decides to prove that she's been thinking about Corky all day.
Bound tops — or at least appears on — most lesbian "best sex scene" lists, although the dark and violent film itself didn't appeal to everyone. Nonetheless, it set off a landslide of cinematic lesbian sex that continues to this day.
Gia was actually made for HBO, although it looks and feels like a theatrical release. It starred Angelina Jolie as the bisexual model Gia Carangi, who died of AIDS in 1986 when she was only 26 years old. Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, ER) plays her lover, Linda, and the two steamed up HBO's screens to such an extent that when the film was released on video, Jolie reportedly pressured them into deleting around six minutes of nudity. The full, "unrated" version is now available on DVD. It is still an exceptionally explicit sex scene by today's standards, and even more so for cable TV a decade ago.
High Art (1998)
It's not the first lesbian drug addict movie; Gia snuck in just before High Art was released. But it still belongs in the golden age of lesbian film sex. In the film, former brat packer Ally Sheedy plays a drug-addicted former photographer who has an affair with her new neighbor, Syd, also a photographer, played by Radha Mitchell.
Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the sex scene is actually one of the most realistically awkward first times ever filmed, all fumbling and too much emotion, powered by excellent performances by both Mitchell and Sheedy. It's not an easy film, or a happy one, but not many movies manage to reveal so much about their characters in a single sex scene.
Wild Things (1998)
Wild Things stars '90s teen favorites Neve Campbell and Denise Richards as scheming, conniving bad seeds who cheerfully lie, cheat, steal and kill to get their sultry, pout-lipped, Sapphic schoolgirl way. But unlike other cinematic bad girls before them, these two go way, way past gazing suggestively at each other over the heads of their victims, and actually do the deed in pretty explicit detail.
Those scenes, both the infamous nude make-out session in the swimming pool and a long, slow, three-way seduction with their male guidance counselor (that's considerably more disturbing given they're celebrating getting away with murder), are definitely a teenage exploitation flick first.
Aimée and Jaguar (1999)
Though it is not the first Holocaust-themed lesbian film (that would be 1984's November Moon), Aimée and Jaguar is the better one, and the sexual relationship between the two women plays a crucial role in the plot. Based on a true story and set in Nazi Berlin, the film isn't a romance so much as a historical drama.
The love story of Lilly Wust (Juliane Köhler), a German woman married to a Nazi soldier, and her Jewish lover, Felice Schragenheim (Maria Schrader), who is a spy for the resistance, Aimée and Jaguar was directed by Max Färberböck and based on the book by Erica Fischer. Of course the relationship is doomed; the setting and period made that a foregone conclusion, and the two women are actually discovered in bed together by Lilly's husband, which precipitates a crisis in her marriage and her life.
Though their love story ends tragically, their relationship gives audiences a framework in which to view that period of history, as well as a glimpse at the lives of women who loved women in a different — and very dangerous — time.
Better Than Chocolate (1999)
This Canadian feel-good flick from director Anne Wheeler is all about bringing the happy. It's far from a great film, but its sheer exuberant joy is probably responsible for its status as the ultimate lesbian date movie and frequent appearance on lesbian "favorite films" lists.
It stars Karyn Dwyer as Maggie, who works at a lesbian bookstore, and Christina Cox (Blood Ties) as Kim, a vagabond artist. Complications ensue, although of the comedic rather than tragic variety.
And then there's the sex. The sex scene where the two women paint each other with chocolate? A first, last and only in North American cinema history.
Chutney Popcorn (1999)
Nisha Ganatra's Chutney Popcorn isn't necessarily groundbreaking in the sense of its depictions of lesbian sex, but it's one of the few lesbian films with an Indian-American lead. Ganatra co-stars in her first film with Jill Hennessy ( Law & Order, Crossing Jordan ) as an Indian-American lesbian carrying a baby for her infertile sister.
It also has some of the sexiest behind-the-scenes material. Hennessy told the Advocate at the time that she encouraged Ganatra to play the part when the original actress backed out. She told her: "Nish, we've got chemistry, babe. Don't fight it."
Hennessy also remembered inadvertently running her foot up and down the boom operator's thigh during the filming of the sex scene, when interestingly everyone in the mostly female crew "managed to show up for work and was crammed in the bedroom watching."
If These Walls Could Talk II (2000)
If These Walls Could Talk II is another made-for-HBO film that's found a home on many, many lists of best lesbian sex scenes — and quite a few lists of "most over-rated lesbian sex scenes," too. The scene in question features Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone, and was directed by Anne Heche. Is it hot? Not? Either way, it was the lesbian nation's most-discussed sex scene that year, and still talked about today.
But there's another sex scene in the film that touched on a dynamic rarely seen in lesbian movies: the butch/femme sexual relationship between Amy (Chloe Sevigny) and Linda (Michelle Williams). Amy and Linda met in 1972 when lesbians were supposed to have gotten past all that sex role stuff, and Linda and her friends had trouble dealing with what they perceived as Amy's lack of political correctness.
With something much sweeter and far less self-aware than the very stylized butch/femme dynamic in Bound, this sex scene in If Walls Could Talk II transformed the politically charged tension between the two women into erotic tension. And that's always something to talk about.
Stranger Inside (2001)
Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, 1996) made this prison drama for HBO after years of research in the Minnesota prison system. One of the few films that has both many characters of color and a lesbian sex scene, it's the story of Treasure (Yolonda Ross), a young African-American woman who deliberately gets sent to prison to try to make contact with her incarcerated mother, whom she has never met.
The story has a thousand twists and turns as the girl gets deeper and deeper into a life of crime, and has an affair with Kit, played by Rain Phoenix. It's the lesbian Oz, not-very-pretty prison sex included.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive wasn't the first lesbian-themed cult film, but it was probably the most critically lauded. And it doesn't just break new ground; it basically breaks all the expectations anyone in the audience might have about what the film is about, and then stomps them into dust.
It's hard, though, to know if the lesbian sex scenes actually attempt something new in the way they reflect on or integrate with the film's meaning, because the film's meaning would have to be clear in order to know that. It's all a big hallucinogenic nightmare about guilt and death and possession and thwarted love, played out under the Hollywood sign. With lesbian sex. Audiences will have to decide what it all means.
Lost and Delirious (2001)
Director Léa Pool's Lost and Delirious might seem at first glance like a fallback to older, doomed boarding school lesbian romances, and given the way it ends, that's an understandable impression. But the lesbianism in the film isn't a metaphor, as it is in films like 1931's Maedchen in Uniform, and the social force that dooms it is not some symbolic societal evil but homophobia.
The sex between Paulie (Piper Perabo) and Tory (Jessica Paré) is the aching, glorious, over-the-top, no-one-has-ever-felt-it-before sex of first love and sexual awakening. It's full of the kind of desperate love only teenagers believe in, and in the intensity of that emotion, it blows calculated teen sex dramas like Wild Things right out of the water. Lost and Delirious is a totally conventional tragic teen drama, but with more heart. And of course, with lesbians.
Unlike an earlier BBC adaptation of a Sarah Waters' Victorian-era costume drama (Tipping the Velvet), Fingersmith comes close to bringing the novel to life, particularly the lesbian relationship at its heart. And again unlike Tipping the Velvet, the sex scene has a feeling of realism mixed with romanticism that's extremely compelling.
The chemistry between Sue, a former pickpocket turned maid, and Maud, an heiress being courted by Mr. Rivers, a man with things to hide, is the real star of their scenes together. It fuels the long, slow sex scene that brings the two together for one night. After that, the two begin to spin apart as Sue's complicity in Mr. Rivers' scheme finally is revealed.
There are some things the BBC does really well, and apparently lesbian costume dramas are one of them. And at least in Fingersmith, they got the sex scene right, too.
Spider Lilies (2006)
Soft-core porn starring pop stars Isabella Leong of Hong Kong and Rainie Yang of Taiwan, or a lyrical art film that won the award for best LGBT feature at the Berlin Film Festival? How about both?
Whichever way you decide to approach it, Spider Lilies is loaded with extremely erotic sex scenes between its two female leads, and was made by Taiwanese lesbian director Zero Chou. It's also one of the only films featuring two Asian actresses in a sex scene together on screen. (At least a sex scene you can see; India's Fire is a lesbian love story between two Asian women, but the sex scenes are all but blacked-out on film.)
Spider Lilies has an edgy, modern feel to it, almost like a music video, and struck box-office gold in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This story of the impact of trauma on people's lives played the LGBT film festival circuit in the U.S. in the summer of 2007. Reviews have been mixed, and some of the sex was cut from the final version, but the complete film is available on DVD. Tattoos, sexy women, webcam porn sites, family tragedies, a police investigation and more tattoos: That's Spider Lilies.
Loving Annabelle (2006)
Loving Annabelle is the story of a doomed boarding school romance between a student and her teacher, inspired by 1931's Maedchen in Uniform. Filmmaker Katherine Brooks deliberately made the film erotic and included explicit sex between the lovers, posting on the film's IMDb.com discussion forum: "Truth be known, I wanted to make a lesbian film that had great sexual tension with a good sex scene and was realistic to the situation. And I was tired of watching movies where they build up the sexual tension only to give me a KISS and nothing more."
Brooks got what she wanted; the relationship between teacher and student at a California boarding school is a sexual one, with little left to the imagination. Although Loving Annabelle stays true to its roots and ends with sorrow and betrayal, at least the heroines got laid first. And that's a first.
Where it Began: The Early 1980s
Personal Best (1982)
The '70s were a long dry spell for lesbian sex in cinema. After 1968's French art film Therese and Isabelle, pretty much the only places to find lesbians on-screen were at gay film festivals, in the occasional vampire flick or sexploitation film, or in art films that were about as far from mainstream as possible (such as Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant).
That history goes a long way to explain just what was so groundbreaking about the sex scenes in Personal Best. The women weren't exotic European hothouse flowers, trailing their neuroses and their metaphorical wardrobes everywhere they went. They were wholesome, fresh-faced athletes in shorts and running shoes, and their sex scenes were suffused with the sweetness of first love and sexual discovery.
For audiences hungry for well-produced, big-budget depictions of non-allegorical lesbian lovemaking, Personal Best was a first. Amusingly, one review at the time contained a perplexed comment that the reviewer couldn't understand how the film avoided an X-rating. The film also got a fair amount of criticism for its extensive use of female nudity, in both the bedroom and the locker room.
Lianna was an altogether different kind of film from Personal Best. What the earlier film brought was Hollywood production values and mainstream stars; what Lianna brought was the critical respectability of the small independent American film.
Made by John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus 7, Baby It's You) in the best rough-edged indie tradition, Lianna's sex scenes were more notable for their sincerity than their heat — but still, like Personal Best, they managed to shock audiences and reviewers of the day.
Like many other independent films, Lianna is very much a product of its time, both stylistically and in the life Lianna is forced to lead when her marriage breaks up and her lover doesn't stay with her. But it was also very much ahead of its time in its depiction of its lesbian main character and her emotional and sexual life.
The Hunger (1983)
The '80s also brought a new entry in a long line of lesbian-themed vampire films, Tony Scott's atmospheric The Hunger, starring Catherine Denueve as the exotic, ageless European beauty and Susan Sarandon as the scrub-faced American innocent she preys on.
It departs from the time-honored lesbian vampire movie formula by actually showing the two women having sex, albeit filmed in a sort of high-end music video style that was probably still fresh back in the early '80s but hasn't aged well — unlike Ms. Deneuve (although yes, ladies, that is a body double in some of those shots).
Desert Hearts (1985)
It's not always easy for younger queer audiences to understand just how groundbreaking Desert Hearts was when it was released. Based on Desert of the Heart, a novel by Canadian lesbian writer Jane Rule, written and directed by lesbian director Donna Deitch, and starring the sizzlingly hot Patricia Charbonneau, Desert Hearts is, like Lianna two years earlier, the story of a disaffected academic wife who finds solace in the arms of another woman.
Set in 1950s Reno, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) has come to town to get a divorce. She's living in a guesthouse run by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), when she meets Cay Rivvers (Charbonneau). The two gradually fall in love, fight, kiss in the rain, and make love.
The sex scene reaches a bit too hard for meaningfulness when a little more sizzle might have worked better, but it was the first lesbian sex scene in a lesbian-made movie to have a major American theatrical release. The two women kiss and touch each other, doing the things women do in bed together, while the camera lovingly records each movement and facial expression and neither breaks away nor fades to black.
But Where's the Sex? 1986–96
Unfortunately, lesbian sex in American film definitely faded to black immediately afterward. For more then 10 years, chaste films like I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and Orlando (1993) were among the only lesbian-themed dramas to have any kind of play on mainstream theater screens. Lesbian sex scenes returned once more to the closet of the queer film festival and the art house.
She Must Be Seeing Things (1987)
This film festival fare is about two women in a long-term relationship. One is bisexual, the other a lesbian; this, plus one partner's obsessive jealousy, creates drama and turmoil in the relationship. Although Mariel Hemingway's character in Personal Best was arguably bisexual, She Must Be Seeing Things broke new ground by showing sex scenes between a stated bisexual character and a lesbian.
The Virgin Machine (1988)
It's back to the art house with German lesbian filmmaker Monica Treut's The Virgin Machine, which never quite makes up its mind whether it's a narrative film, a documentary or a stylistic experiment. Audiences at the time loved its sexy punk aesthetic (and sexy punk director, too), and it features Susie Bright, always a plus, but overall it was not a success.
It did, however, break ground in one way: It might have just been one more European Sapphic art house movie, but it was our European Sapphic art house movie. (Treut also made, with Elfi Mikesch, the equally chaotic and stylized art film Seduction: The Cruel Woman, in 1985.)
Go Fish (1994)
In the mid-'90s, a young filmmaker named Rose Troche directed an extremely low-budget black-and-white comedy/drama called Go Fish. Like Desert Hearts nine years before and Lianna more than a decade before, Go Fish was very much a product of its times.
Starring and co-written by Guinevere Turner (Chasing Amy, The L Word), her sex scene with shy butch Ely was sweeter and hotter than anything lesbian audiences had seen in a long, long time. Rose Troche went on to direct the pilot and many episodes of The L Word for Showtime, as well as write an episode of South of Nowhere.
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995)
This very sweet coming-out story focuses on two high school girls, one poor, white, butch and out (played by Laurel Holloman), and the other black, wealthy and falling in love with a girl for the first time (played by Nicole Ari Parker). A simple teenaged romance, somewhat flawed by its low budget and uneven performances, it nonetheless was a huge audience favorite when it was released and is still popular today. Its interracial teen sex scene made it a lesbian movie first.
Wild Side (1995)
Starring Anne Heche in her pre-Ellen days and the always gorgeous Joan Chen as lovers, this stylish and somewhat bewildering crime drama had a troubled history. Its director was fired from the film and later killed himself.
A newly edited version that is probably truer to the film as it was originally envisioned has been released, but it can be hard to locate. As it is, Wild Side features lots of steamy bedroom (and powder room, actually) action between the two women in this interracial bad girl thrill-fest. Don't expect a masterpiece, but it brings the sex.
When Night Is Falling (1995)
Unlike every other film in this category, Patricia Rozema's lesbian film When Night Is Falling was given a great deal of critical attention and even acclaim, probably due to the strength of her earlier film, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing. Night is a much more sexualized coming-out story, starring Pascale Bussières as an aspiring Christian missionary named Camille and Rachael Crawford as a sexy juggler named Petra.
This film was released originally with an NC-17 rating, which is ridiculous; the sex scene is neither explicit nor steamy, just sweet. The film is now available without a rating.
Before Personal Best
Of course Personal Best wasn't the first time two women had sex in the movies. From the merest hint of sexual obsession between Louise Brooks and Alice Roberts in Pandora's Box (1929), to a tuxedo-clad Marlene Dietrich's full-mouthed kiss on a woman's lips in Morocco (1930), to the possessive yearning of Beryl Reid for a young Susannah York in The Killing of Sister George (1968), several films hinted at lesbian sex, and some even showed women in bed together.
Maedchen in Uniform (1931)
Probably the most famous of all early lesbian films, Leontine Sagan's Maedchen in Uniform was the first doomed boarding school lesbian love story, although by the time this film was released in the U.S., most of the lesbianism had been edited out.
It even had two different endings filmed, one in which the schoolgirl kills herself, and one in which her schoolmates save her, and she survives. Guess which one got shown in the United States? Maedchen in Uniform was written, produced and directed entirely by women.
The Pit of Loneliness (1951)
Released as Olivia in France in 1951 and three years later in the United States with lots and lots of cuts, this film was retitled The Pit of Loneliness to cash in on the notoriety of the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. It was actually based on a screenplay by the novelist Colette, and it tells the story of a French boarding school student's lesbian affair — doomed of course — with one of her teachers.
It was directed by a woman, Jacqueline Audry (Gigi). Some of the scenes removed for the American release were cited as being too sexually explicit, although they were little more than kisses and longing glances.
A mental hospital drama, Lilith stars Jean Seberg and Ann Meacham as patients in an institution having yet another doomed lesbian affair. Fortunately, Warren Beatty comes along and saves Seberg from a fate worse than, well, being confined to a mental institution. And in this case, he literally saves her by pulling Meacham off her, and then having sex with her himself.
The Fox (1968)
This adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's novel, starring Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood as doomed lesbian lovers (of course), was actually considered steamy when it was made, although it doesn't have anything you could call a sex scene in it. But The Fox did make the sexual nature of the women's relationship a central focus of the film — more so than the novel, in fact.
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
The Killing of Sister George is an iconic lesbian film starring Beryl Reid as June Buckridge, an actress who plays a beloved character on a British television show, and a luscious young Susannah York as her girl toy, Childie McNaught. Childie is stolen away by sophisticated lesbian lady killer Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), leaving June without job, lover or future.
Filmmaker Robert Aldrich was determined to make the lesbianism in the film as explicit as possible. In the Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo quoted him as saying, "the picture had to play out the betrayal, and the story itself is so genteel, it's possible you could be sitting in Sheboygan and the film could be so 'well done' that nobody would know that the hell you were talking about."
Russo then recounted how infamously homophobic critic Pauline Kael complained at the time that lesbians "don't really do anything, after all," adding, "I always thought that was why lesbians needed sympathy — because there isn't much they can do." Ironically, when she saw the sex scene from Sister George, she entitled her review "Frightening the Horses." Some people are never happy.
The sex scene was cut from the film for its release in a number of American cities, but even with that cut, the film was given the problematic — and new at the time — "X" rating on theme alone; Aldrich's offer to make further cuts to get an "R" rating was rejected. One year later, Midnight Cowboy, also rated "X" for its gay themes, won the Oscar for best picture.
Therese and Isabelle (1968)
Kind of the quintessential French art house film of the '60s, Therese and Isabelle is a black-and-white trip down memory lane to the boarding school where a woman had her first love affair. It's very respectful of its subject matter and shot with all kinds of soft focus, and was actually considered soft-core porn at the time of its release.
The film features lots of gauze everywhere and some bad acting, but it was unquestionably both groundbreaking and influential. It's still one of the most recognizable lesbian film titles in movie history and was based on the memoirs of French lesbian novelist Violette Leduc.
"Persona" should've made the list :(
edited to add pics for all those who wanted 'em.