Lesbian Sex Scenes that Made Movie History


The Hunger (1983)

The ’80s also brought a new entry in a long line of lesbian-themed vampire films, Tony Scott’s atmospheric The Hunger, starring Catherine Denueve as the exotic, ageless European beauty and Susan Sarandon as the scrub-faced American innocent she preys on.

It departs from the time-honored lesbian vampire movie formula by actually showing the two women having sex, albeit filmed in a sort of high-end music video style that was probably still fresh back in the early ’80s but hasn’t aged well – unlike Ms. Deneuve (although yes, ladies, that is a body double in some of those shots).

Desert Hearts (1985)

It’s not always easy for younger queer audiences to understand just how groundbreaking Desert Hearts was when it was released. Based on Desert of the Heart, a novel by Canadian lesbian writer Jane Rule, written and directed by lesbian director Donna Deitch, and starring the sizzlingly hot Patricia Charbonneau, Desert Hearts is, like Lianna two years earlier, the story of a disaffected academic wife who finds solace in the arms of another woman.

Set in 1950s Reno, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) has come to town to get a divorce. She’s living in a guesthouse run by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), when she meets Cay Rivvers (Charbonneau). The two gradually fall in love, fight, kiss in the rain, and make love.

The sex scene reaches a bit too hard for meaningfulness when a little more sizzle might have worked better, but it was the first lesbian sex scene in a lesbian-made movie to have a major American theatrical release. The two women kiss and touch each other, doing the things women do in bed together, while the camera lovingly records each movement and facial expression and neither breaks away nor fades to black.

But Where’s the Sex? 1986—96

Unfortunately, lesbian sex in American film definitely faded to black immediately afterward. For more then 10 years, chaste films like I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and Orlando (1993) were among the only lesbian-themed dramas to have any kind of play on mainstream theater screens. Lesbian sex scenes returned once more to the closet of the queer film festival and the art house.

She Must Be Seeing Things (1987)

This film festival fare is about two women in a long-term relationship. One is bisexual, the other a lesbian; this, plus one partner’s obsessive jealousy, creates drama and turmoil in the relationship. Although Mariel Hemingway’s character in Personal Best was arguably bisexual, She Must Be Seeing Things broke new ground by showing sex scenes between a stated bisexual character and a lesbian.

The Virgin Machine (1988)

It’s back to the art house with German lesbian filmmaker Monica Treut’s The Virgin Machine, which never quite makes up its mind whether it’s a narrative film, a documentary or a stylistic experiment. Audiences at the time loved its sexy punk aesthetic (and sexy punk director, too), and it features Susie Bright, always a plus, but overall it was not a success.

It did, however, break ground in one way: It might have just been one more European Sapphic art house movie, but it was our European Sapphic art house movie. (Treut also made, with Elfi Mikesch, the equally chaotic and stylized art film Seduction: The Cruel Woman, in 1985.)

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