[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in February 2022 and has been updated multiple times since.]
Sex on film is nothing new, and yet unsimulated intercourse in non-pornographic movies continues to raise eyebrows and draw eyeballs.
From Vincent Gallo’s controversial directing for “Brown Bunny” to Robert Pattinson’s masturbatory method acting in”Little Ashes,” genuine intimate encounters captured on film — however staged they may be — can pull audiences into the bigger stories their writers and directors are trying to tell.
Catherine Breillat’s first film in 1976, “A Real Young Girl,” adapts her own controversial novel about a 14-year-old exploring her newfound sexuality. (The lead actress Charlotte Alexandra was 20 during production, and the film wasn’t released in theaters in the U.S. for more than two decades.) Breillat’s later work, 1999’s “Romance,” tells the story of a woman desperately seeking human connection and featured similar scenes, including sadomasochistic sex play.
“Actors are prostitutes because they’re asked to play other feelings,” Breillat told IndieWire. “This prostitution is not profane; it’s a sacred act that we give them.”
John Cameron Mitchell set out to “honor” sex as a pastime for real people, much like art, music, or cuisine, in his second feature film, 2006’s “Shortbus.”
Mitchell told IndieWire about filming the cult classic, “Certainly, a lot of films had used sex, but they were pretty grim, and I wanted something more fun and funny, but still emotionally deep. And so I said, ‘I never want you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I do want you to challenge yourselves so we can challenge the audience.’”
Mitchell continued, “‘Shortbus’ isn’t about sex. It uses sex as a medium, as a delivery system for ideas and characters and emotions, just like ‘Hedwig [and the Angry Itch]’ uses music. Sex is our music in ‘Shortbus.’ We really only did one sexual rehearsal. I just went with what they wanted to do.”
The depiction of unsimulated sex on screen has taken many forms across decades, continents, and political landscapes. Still, the taboo’s controversial nature remains at the forefront of mind for artists willing to admit their interest in and seriously consider the artistic merit of showing real sex.
“In terms of sex being presented on film, mainstream or even independent, film has foresworn it,” Mitchell summarized. “They’ve given it up, because it’s too scary.”
Directed by filmmakers from Lars von Trier to Vincent Gallo, William Friedkin, Abel Ferrera, and Bruce LaBruce, here are 38 films that feature real sex scenes.
“No Skin Off My Ass” (1991)
“I don’t mind being considered a queer filmmaker, or a pornographer, or a provocateur,” Bruce LaBruce wrote in 2015, ahead of a retrospective of his work at the MoMA. “But I’ve always tried to consider myself a filmmaker first, and to develop an aesthetic and personal style, which is probably why so may of my films, even though they have radically queer and/or pornographic content, have played so heavily on the international film circuit.”
LaBruce’s feature debut “No Skin Off My Ass,” which he also stars in, includes pornographic scenes and is considered a pioneering piece of New Queer Cinema.
“My film is a kind of underground punk remake of Robert Altman’s film ‘That Cold Day in the Park,'” LaBruce wrote. “It’s about a hairdresser who falls in love with a neo-Nazi skinhead and thereby loses his interest in hair! It’s that kind of irony that runs through all my work. But ultimately, it’s also a story about redemption, because the sister of the skinhead joins forces with the hairdresser to reform the misguided skinhead and make him into a loving human being. How romantic can you get?”
“The Raspberry Reich” (2004)
Unsimulated sex scenes would play a prominent role in many (but not all) of LaBruce’s future films. In the same article from 2015, LaBruce praised his frequent collaborators and singled out an explicit acting performance in his 2004 film “The Raspberry Reich.”
“My most luminous muse, Susanne Sachsse, who’s starred in three of my films and four of my theatrical productions, is an artist I’ve learned so much from and
who has challenged me to do thinks out of my comfort zone (if I’ve ever had a comfort zone),” he wrote. “She was fearless in doing sexually explicit scenes in my film ‘The Raspberry Reich,’ even though as an established actor in Germany she got a lot of flack for it.”
LaBruce’s other works include “Hustler White,” “L.A. Zombie,” and “Gerontophilia” among others.
“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”
When a history teacher’s (Katia Pascariu) sex tape is accidentally leaked by her husband, the middle school where she works demands answers. This 2021 Romanian dramedy kicks off by showing the scandalous artifact in question — an explicit but sweet display of exuberant penetrative and oral sex from the couple — but you won’t be able to see it on most streaming services. In censored versions of the project, such as the one on Hulu as of January 2023, you’ll see a fluorescent text box describing the acts instead of displaying them.
Robert Pattinson routinely lies to the press, by his own admission. Still, it’s widely accepted as fact that Pattinson orgasmed for real in “Little Ashes”: Paul Morrison’s 2008 drama about surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and playwright/director Federico García Lorca. In a 2020 interview with a German outlet (h/t Far Out), the actor said, “I once decided to quit acting. It was when I did ‘Little Ashes.’ I played Salvador Dali and had to do a lot of scenes where I was naked, and I also had to masturbate. I mean really. My orgasm face is recorded for eternity…. [Faking it] just doesn’t work, so I pleasured myself in front of the camera.”
Paul Verhoeven sets an especially sexed-up love triangle (well, square) against the dangerous world of dirt-bike racing for “Spetters”: a controversial flick from 1980 that nearly cost the eventual “RoboCop” director his career. The film features a lot of nudity, with some pornographic material intercut throughout.
“James Joyce’s Women”
Fionnula Flanagan delivers a menagerie of striking performances in “James Joyce’s Women”: director Michael Pearce’s 1985 adaptation of Flanagan’s play. The writer/actress plays Joyce’s wife Nora in addition to other real women in Joyce’s life, as well as some of the novelist’s famous characters. The film includes considerable nudity and extended masturbation scenes.
Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film is widely credited for destigmatizing unsimulated sex scenes in arthouse cinema. “Romance” follows Marie (Caroline Ducey) as she searches for sexual fulfillment outside of her monogamous relationship.
The 1979 film starring Helen Mirren includes necrophiliac incest, which is thankfully simulated. But the montage of sex scenes is very much so unsimulated, thanks to Penthouse founder Bob Guccione serving as a producer on the film.
“A Real Young Girl”
Catherine Breillat’s “A Real Young Girl” centers on the coming-of-age sexual awakening of a 14-year-old girl (Charlotte Alexandra). The actors were of age while filming, with Alexandra 20 at the time of production.
“In the Realm of Senses”
Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of Senses” is based on the true story of Sada Abe, a Japanese woman who erotically asphyxiated her lover then cut off his penis and kept it in her handbag. While the mutiliation and murder aren’t real, the sex very much is.
William Friedkin’s “Cruising” — set in NYC’s leather community during a string of homicides — features murder scenes that are cut with (and, inherently, compared to) actual footage of unsimulated sex.
Co-written and directed by Leos Carax, “Pola X” features a pair of long-lost siblings turned lovers in the adaptation of a Herman Melville novel. Body doubles for stars Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubera were reportedly used for the more explicit scenes.
Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots” encourages letting out the “inner idiot” inside. Turns out, most of our idiotic and most primal tendencies include orgies. Most sex scense in the film are simulated, but there is one scene that is definitely real.
“Baise-Moi,” which translates to “Rape Me,” is co-written and co-directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi. The rape revenge thriller has real sex, but not real violence. It was still widely controversial.
Portuguese film “O Fantasma,” or as translated, “The Phantom,” is about Sergio (Ricardo Meneses) who explores love interests in Lisbon. It’s not porn, but it sure does have a lot of sex.
“The Brown Bunny”
Written and directed by Vincent Gallo, “The Brown Bunny” famously features an unsimulated oral sex scene with Chloe Sevigny. Gallo himself is the receiver, and the scene continues until he orgasms.
Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox) are two strangers who have weekly, not-so-anonymous sex, until they develop an emotional relationship. Likened to “Last Tango in Paris,” “Intimacy” entirely features unsimulated sex scenes. “Intimacy” is the first film in the history of Britain to feature hardcore sex scenes and be passed by the BBFC without cuts. Kerry Fox’s real life partner Alexander Linklater wrote a column for The Guardian in 2001 detailing his own experience watching his lover have real sex with another man in a film.
Lead stars Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley engage in unsimulated sex intercut with real footage of concert performances by Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs.” (In Mexico, the film’s title translates to “9 Orgasms.”) Stilley and O’Brien met for the first time only two days before having to have unsimulated sex for the film. Stilley originally had requested to go uncredited in the final film, but remains billed as the lead star.
“Anatomy of Hell”
Catherine Breillat continues to document unsimulated sex by way of art. Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi performs in “Anatomy of Hell,” which delves into the darker side of sexuality.
Iconic film “Shortbus” captured unsimulated sex in a variety of ways while following a group of people in New York navigating love and sex.
“[Director John Cameron Mitchell] front loaded a lot of the sex to kind of break the audience, shock people at first, weed out the really squeamish people, and kind of get people comfortable for what they’re gonna be seeing,” lead star Paul Dawson told Pride Source in 2006. In the film, Dawson is shown performing oral sex on himself multiple times.
Lars von Trier takes on unsimulated sex again in “Antichrist,” about a couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who lose a child to a horrible accident while having sex in the shower. The scene is real, but uses body doubles: a decision von Trier supposedly attributed to Dafoe’s penis being “too big” for the film.
“Lie With Me”
Stars Eric Balfour and Lauren Lee Smith take part in unsimulated sex in yet another “Last Tango in Paris” type film, directed by Clément Virgo.
Originally titled “The Velvet Side of Hell,” “8MM 2” was rebranded as a sequel to the Nicolas Cage snuff film thriller (it’s not). However, “8MM 2” does feature unsimulated sex, as well as snippets from porn films.
Living up to its title, “Nymphomaniac” and its sequel have a lot of sex. But, is they unsimulated or not? The love scenes in the film were allegedly created by digitally adding porn star’s genitals to actor’s bodies for a head-scratching simulated vs. unsimulated debate for this Lars von Trier set of films.
In David Wnendt’s German drama, most of the sex scenes involving Helen (Carla Juri) are simulated. But a sequence with men masturbating onto a pizza is…not.
Willem Dafoe stars as Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in the 2014 biopic directed by Abel Ferrara. The sex scenes are largely unsimulated, portraying Pasolini’s relationship with lust, love, and the body.
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé, “Love” is shot in 3D to get the full (ejaculate) experience. Noé first pitched the film to Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel while making “Irreversible.” The script was rumored to be only seven pages long, with Noé letting the actors improvise and figure out their own blocking during sex scenes.
“I Am Curious (Yellow)”
Swedish director Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was originally billed as porn in the U.S. However, Roger Ebert’s criticism of the movie cited that it was “anti-erotic” in nature, as reported by Vulture. State and federal claims against the film for being obscene went to the Supreme Court.
Filmmaker Sjöman said at the time, via Entertainment Weekly, “If you’re speculating with sex and have nothing to say artistically, you’re going to have a bad film. But if you have something to say, you’re on safe ground.”
Jess Franco’s 1975 film can be seen in three different versions: a straight vampire film called “La comtesse noire,” an erotic horror film entitled “La Comtesse aux seins nus,” and a hardcore version, “Les avaleuses.” The film premiered in France under the title “La Comtesse noire.”
“It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine”
The 2007 film, directed by David Brothers and Crispin Glover, contains actual penetration.
“Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy”
The 1976 erotic musical comedy version of “Alice in Wonderland” includes an unsimulated lesbian sex scene between Kristine DeBell and Juliet Graham. The movie was originally produced as a softcore film, but later re-edited as a hardcore pornographic film, using footage not filmed during the original production, including a sequence of De Bell performing oral sex on the film’s producer, Bill Osco, which was edited into the film’s Mad Hatter sequence.
Split into three stories, “Immoral Woman” is directed by Walerian Borowczyk and follows a trio of women: Margherita, Marceline, and Marie. The first story with Margherita has an unsimulated intercourse scene.
Norwegian film “Pornopung” is directed by Johan Kaos and includes a long fellatio scene.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” briefly includes real sex to “establish the unusual and dysfunctional lifestyle that results from the isolation orchestrated by the dictatorial father, including incest,” per the British Board of Film Classification.
John Waters’ 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” was banned in Australia due to “close-up real depictions of actual fellatio….which unambiguously contravene R classification guidelines.” The scene in question features drag queen Divine, who performs real oral sex on the actor playing her son in the film.
“Stranger by the Lake”
Also known as “L’Inconnu du lac,” the French thriller premiered iat the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Director Alain Guiraudie won Best Director, and the film also took home the Queer Palm award. While there is nudity aplenty, “Stranger by the Lake” also contains scenes of unsimulated sex that were shot using body doubles.
“All About Anna”
The 2005 film, directed by Jessica Nilsson, features intercourse between Eileen Daly and Gry Bay and additional male actors, as well as fellatio with ejaculation performed by Daly on Mark Stevens, and cunnilingus performed by Ovidie on Bay. The famous scene was shot in lead actress Bay’s actual apartment.
Sean S. Baker’s “Starlet” contains a scene of penetration while set in the porn capital of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.
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