Lesbian Sex Scenes that Made Movie History

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 (1983)

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.

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