Lesbian Sex Scenes that Made Movie History

It’s hard to believe today, when women argue for and against their favorite lesbian films and compile rival top 10 lists, that not long ago there were no LGBT film festivals, no lesbian and gay sections at the video store, and no books cataloguing queer-themed films. Lesbian sex scenes outside of the porn industry only rarely made it onto the big screen, and when they did, it was likely in some obscure foreign film that played for one weekend at a small art house in New York City.

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.

Bound (1996)

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.

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