13 Sex Movies that Changed Film History

Personal Best (1982)
Personal Best (1982)
This movie made history by exploring a lesbian relationship between two Olympic track stars (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly). The relationship was incorporated into the struggles of training for the games. The scenes were considered explicit at the time but they helped pave the way for other high profile lesbian scenes like the famous scenes in Bound and Mulholland Drive.
Everett Collection
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
Before Fifty Shades of Grey was on everyone’s mind, this story of sexual games and an intense relationship shocked audiences. Mickey Rourke played John, an enigmatic businessman who seduces art assistant Elizabeth (Kim Basinger). The film explored risqué themes of sexual dominance and shows some fairly kinky scenes. It also has a memorable scene involving a refrigerator. It cemented Basinger and Rourke’s place as sex symbols for a time. It also opened up audiences to the idea of high profile erotic films like Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence.
MGM via Everett Collection
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s film was not the first to include sex scenes between two men, but its casting of high profile heartthrobs like Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as street hustlers in a homosexual relationship was pretty major. The film was heavily inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and helped pave the way for movies like Brokeback Mountain. It also helped establish more fair representations of gay men in cinema and did explore the issues facing homeless teens in the Pacific Northwest.
Fine Line Features via Everett Collection
The Piano (1993)
The Piano (1993)
European films are renowned for being able to push the envelope. However, this independent film brought that sexual freedom to American audiences. Holly Hunter plays a mute woman who engages in a romantic relationship with a local worker (Harvey Keitel). The film did not shy away from nudity of both Hunter and Keitel and also uses the vehicle of sex to explore their relationship. After all, she can’t talk (giving new meaning to "show don’t tell"). The film did work for audiences as it won three Oscars including, one for Hunter and one for a young Anna Paquin.
Miramax via Everett Collection
Showgirls (1995)
Showgirls (1995)
Some say this movie is the best bad movie ever, some say it’s one of the worst movies in history. Regardless of opinions, this film changed the way we see sex and nudity in films. It was notable for being released under the controversial NC-17 rating but that only boosted interest in the film. It also features the squeaky clean TV favorite Elizabeth Berkley getting into some very graphic sexual exploits. Since then many actors have taken sexually graphic or “edgy” roles to help change their pristine images. The film helped to establish the commercial viability for films rated NC-17.
United Artists via Everett Collection
The Doom Generation (1995)
The Doom Generation (1995)
This indie film by Gregg Araki broke barriers a while after it release, finding a cult following and a ton more fans once stars Rose McGowan, Jonathon Schaech, and James Duval reached more notoriety. This film follows a young couple (McGowan and Duval) that meets a mysterious, violent drifter (Schaech) who drags them on the run. Along the way, they end up in a bizarre three-way relationship. This film pushed the envelope by exploring more of a fluid sexuality and the complexities of polyamorous relationships. It also was one of the first films to explore group sex along with a pretty graphic scene involving Schaech and a “piece of himself.”
Trimark Pictures via Everett Collection
Crash (1996)
Crash (1996)
Often confused with the like-titled Oscar winning picture that dealt with race, this David Cronenberg film explores the world of fetishes. In the movie, a group of car crash survivors develop a sexual fetish for cars and crashes. It includes high profile actors like James Spader, Holy Hunter, and Rosanna Arquette. It also included scenes of a graphic nature that pushed buttons with their level of violence, fluid sexuality, and just downright graphic nature. Despite slightly sensationalizing fetishes, it did establish a precedent for exploring the subject matter in film.
Fine Line Features via Everett Collection
The Brown Bunny (2003)
The Brown Bunny (2003)
This art film, which may forever be known as the Chloë Sevigny blowjob movie, found a ton of controversy both for the graphic fellatio scene. Director/writer/star Vincent Gallo’s choice to incorporate a real sex scene did change the face of film. It was not the first time real sex had been incorporated in film but it was the first time it featured high profile actors. It definitely opened up a whole new realm of films.
Wellspring via Everett Collection
Lie With Me (2005)
Lie With Me (2005)
This Canadian film pushed even further than The Brown Bunny. It incorporated real sex into the plot. It also featured notable B-List actors Eric Balfour and Lauren Lee Smith. It not only shocked audiences with real sex but also incorporated it fairly seamlessly into the narrative. It’s meant to punctuate the relationships in the film and reveal the characters. It was also very risky on Balfour’s part to go full frontal given his career as a child actor. Luckily, the film’s explicit scenes did not hinder Balfour's career.
Think Film via Everett Collection
Shortbus (2006)
Shortbus (2006)
This picture by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell was workshopped and written around sex. Mitchell cast his actors and then established how they would use unsimulated sex to tell the story. However, the film does not feel gratuitous because it’s incorporated into the plot. The movie tells the story of a group of New Yorkers of various sexual orientations and interests engaged in romantic and sexual relationships. Shortbus did help give the use of real sex in cinema legitimacy.
Think Film via Everett Collection
Bridesmaids (2011)
Bridesmaids (2011)
While most of the films on this list lean dramatic, Bridesmaids used comedy in a transformative way. The opening sequence of this comedy features a very realistic, yet humorous sex scene between Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm. This scene does a lot in making sex scenes feel less precious than most Hollywood films do, and show that the act can be humorous without relying on the broad comedy of films like American Pie.
Universal
Shame (2011)
Shame (2011)
This film might be most memorable for Michael Fassbender’s member, but Steve McQueen's NC-17 feature delivered an exemplary, painful story about sex addiction. The nonstop barrage of sex was meant to feel less titillating and more excessive to illustrate the main character's struggle. Even the famed frontal by Fassbender is meant to show a moment of vulnerability. This film helped establish that sex scenes do not need to be ostensibly disturbing or violent to show a strong negative emotion.
Fox Searchlight via Everett Collection
Nymphomaniac (2013)
Nymphomaniac (2013)
Lars von Trier’s new film not only features a high profile cast, including Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, and Willem Dafoe, but it also involves a ton of graphic sex (real sex and CGI were used alike in this dark, captivating film). Like Shame, Nymphomaniac has helped to bring darker ideas about sex, and the portrayal thereof, closer to the mainstream and further away from the taboo in our modern society.
Magnolia Pictures via Everett Collection

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