Sex scenes in movies aren’t supposed to be accurate. Our predilection for cinematic escapism extends to the realm of on-screen romps, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can destroy their house while fighting and then seamlessly slip into sex surrounded by the rubble, or where a cornrowed gangster named Alien can manage a threesome with fluorescent-bikinied ingénues in a swimming pool.
Stuart Heritage at The Guardian argues that we’re actually lucky that Hollywood tends to skirt around realism when it comes to sex. “If sex on screen were in any way representative of what sex is like in real life, it’d be miserable to watch. Films would need to come with sick bags and disclaimers warning viewers against scenes that may cause shame and guilt,” he argues. But not every realistic sex scene in cinematic history has made us search for the theater doors in repulsion. Here’s a list of the most realistic sex scenes — the strange, the short-lived, the passionate, the sweet — that Hollywood has to offer.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
The 1973 Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie occult thriller features one extra-long and graphic sex scene. It’s messy, non-chronological, and vivid. (The urban legend is that they were really doing it while filming.) The only sour note is the tepid background music.
The Woodsman (2004)
Real-life married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon bring that familiarity to this scene from The Woodsman, which is odd, because in the movie this is the first time his character, a convicted but repentant child molester, and Sedgwick’s character have sex. But the soft sounds, the hesitant touches, and the focused intensity of the scene are true to the first time having sex after a long time without, and for the first time having sex with someone of indeterminate character.
Tiny Furniture (2010)
Lena Dunham is best known for her starkly awkward and accurate depictions of human sexuality. And her low budget festival film, Tiny Furniture, is no exception to this rule. Getting used in the middle of a pipe on the street is not something most of us have experienced, but Dunham’s writing and facial expressions bring us all a bit closer to the sidewalk. This could be us. “You don’t have AIDS, do you?” is almost too uncomfortable to bear.
Blue Valentine (2010)
Blue Valentine features some of the most raw, emotionally isolating sex scenes ever on film. In one of the earlier scenes, we see an authentic (and moany) depiction of a woman receiving oral sex. You can hear the traffic in the background and the wet mouth noises. It doesn’t hurt that it’s being performed by Ryan Gosling.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Porn is rarely an accurate representation of sex, but this scene somehow manages to make the act of making pornography both realistic and tender. It’s Mark Wahlberg’s first porn scene, and veteran actress Julianne Moore gently encourages him and spontaneously decides to have him cum inside her. The way they whisper to each other, not for the cameras, is intimate, and their faces show the real, unexpected joy of surprising sexual chemistry. It’s a sweet moment before the terrible things yet to happen.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
To be clear: None of the rest of this movie bears any resemblance to reality. Not all of our everyday sex involves the sweeping piano keys of the Counting Crows and gorgeous backlighting, but there’s something so earnest going on between Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon that this classic scene just gets us. Mostly: the string of spit between their mouths and the slow missionary style. That’s the making of real, tender sex.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Practically anything Jesse Eisenberg touches is bound to get a little awkward. This angsty teen struggles through his parents’ divorce the only way some of us can, through weird sex. Here, in all its realistic simplicity, is the 10-second teenage hand job and all the attendant apologies.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain‘s famous sex scene is notable for its gruff brute force. It’s rough and primal, showing two men operating on pure instinct and gut-level love. They might have needed a little more spit though.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
It’s the weird giggling and the whispering of emotional declarations. Then the sweet offer of, “do you need any help?” when Miles Teller’s character puts on a condom. Nothing captures the awkwardness of adolescent love making quite like this charming scene from indie darling Spectacular Now.
Young Adult (2011)
Referring to his sex scene with Charlize Theron as “a dream that turned into a nightmare,” Patton Oswalt says a lot about sex itself. Sometimes it’s about ugliness, vulnerability, and intoxication.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
This film is practically made of sex. Though it features one of the most iconic threesome scenes to date, the earlier scenes between Luisa, Tenoch, and Julio are filled with both awkward and overexcited sex. I mean, sometimes it’s really hard to get underwear off.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
It’s not often that we see representations of sex involving transgender individuals. Boy Don’t Cry had a few of them, and this one, between female-to-male trans man Brandon and his love interest Lana, is downright hot.
9 Songs (2004)
Known for its unsimulated footage, some of the grittier scenes in 9 Songs include oral sex and ejaculation. It’s raw, explicit, and powerful.
Coming Home (1978)
An often overlooked Jane Fonda and Jon Voight Oscar-winning gem, Coming Home features some real, real sex we rarely get a glimpse of on the silver screen: that of a paraplegic. From the back scar to the close-ups of an orgasm, the scene feels truthful. This sex scene involves the woman being the central focus of pleasure — something we don’t even see in films of today, nevermind in 1978.
There is nothing more real than a shirt half-stuck on your breasts and a fumbling Ben Stiller going down on you. Noah Baumbach’s comedy-drama nails down the haphazard push-and-pull of neurotic love.