The best game-changing sex scenes on screen: from Industry to Normal People

Katie Rosseinsky and Jessie Thompson
·6-min read
<p>Banging and banking is the order of the day in Industry</p> (BBC/Bad Wolf Productions)

Banging and banking is the order of the day in Industry

(BBC/Bad Wolf Productions)

Stop making us blush, 2020. From Industry to Normal People, it’s been the year of the game-changing sex scene.

As long as you didn’t move back in with your parents for lockdown, steamy boundary-pushing scenes have been one of the most thrilling things about this year’s telly. We’ve taken a look back at some of the most iconic ever committed to screen…

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don’t look now, they said. But oh, we looked. Who could blame us, when Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s tryst was so steamy and raw that it has gone down in history as one of the most discussed sex scenes ever made? Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novella about a couple mourning their daughter, the film is intercut with calm, quiet shots of the pair getting dressed for dinner. It’s beautifully shot, we know, but many were more interested in talking about whether Sutherland and Christie's romp was real (they roundly deny it). JT

Available to rent/download via Amazon Prime

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

They may be fully clothed and sitting down for lunch, but the diner scene deserves its place as one of the most game-changing sex scenes ever. In Nora Ephron’s film - arguably the greatest romcom of all time - Meg Ryan’s Sally schools Billy Crystal’s Harry on the fact that his ladyfriends may not be enjoying themselves quite as much as he thinks they are. Will we have what she’s having? Only after he’s properly educating himself on female pleasure. JT

Available to rent/download via Amazon Prime

Basic Instinct (1992)

The sex scenes in Paul Verhoeven’s controversial erotic thriller took days and days to shoot, and were so carefully choreographed that Sharon Stone branded herself and co-star Michael Douglas “the horizontal Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the Nineties.” Most iconic of all is that interrogation scene, when Stone’s character uncrosses and re-crosses her legs in front of a group of male cops. The film was praised on its debut for pushing untrammelled sexuality into mainstream cinema, but it’s obviously a product of pre-#MeToo Hollywood, when the concept of an intimacy coordinator would have had filmmakers scratching their heads: in the years since its release, Stone has said she never consented to the shot (Verhoeven, she claims, told her “we won’t see anything”). KR

Available to rent/download via Amazon Prime

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

<p>Adele Exarchopoulis and Lea Seydoux star in Blue is the Warmest Colour</p>Handout

Adele Exarchopoulis and Lea Seydoux star in Blue is the Warmest Colour


One way to make sure people don’t just watch your arty French film for its long, steamy lesbian sex scenes is to make it over three hours long. Despite its epic running time, Blue is the Warmest Colour has still become infamous for the eye-wateringly erotic sessions between artist Emma and shy teen Adele (played by Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulis). Focusing on desire between women is still rare – and one scene clocks in at over six minutes – but, it’s hard to see them as a total liberation: both actresses expressed discomfort at the lengths director Abdellatif Kechiche went to for the scenes. “When you have to fake your orgasm for six hours... I can't say that it was nothing,” said Seydoux. JT

Available to rent/download via Amazon Prime Video

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

<p>Timothee and Armie having a peachy time</p>Handout

Timothee and Armie having a peachy time


The film adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel features one of the most talked about and, erm, really quite unusual (no judgement) solo sex scenes in the history of film. After finally sleeping with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the graduate student he has fallen for over the course of an idyllic Italian summer, the teenage Elio (Timothée Chalamet) heads off for some alone time, aided by a peach plucked from the garden orchard. A lesser director than Luca Guadagnino might have been tempted to play this for laughs (American Pie, anyone?) - instead, it becomes part of the film’s sensitive exploration of Elio’s self-discovery. You’ll probably never look at soft fruit in the same way again, though (Chalamet says he can still each peaches, “but not without thinking about it.”) KR

Available to rent/download via Amazon Prime Video

Fleabag (2019)

<p>A holy union that stayed mostly off camera</p>BBC

A holy union that stayed mostly off camera


Normally when Fleabag has sex, she disarmingly stares down the camera and makes a droll comment about how inadequate the situation is. Understandable, given that, in her words, “I’ve spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” Her feelings about sex are complicated and often guilty. But that all changes in the second series when she finally spends one holy night with the Hot Priest, who she is dangerously in love with. The sexiest thing about this scene? We didn’t even see it. JT

On BBC iPlayer

Normal People (2020)

<p>Connell and Marianne helped heat up the first lockdown </p>BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Connell and Marianne helped heat up the first lockdown

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

The BBC’s take on Sally Rooney’s hit novel certainly helped to heat up Lockdown 1. On-off lovers Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones)’s first time was much less awkward than the average teen couple, but was roundly praised for its depiction of enthusiastic consent (and making men in necklaces look sexy). Spare a thought, though, for all the misguided millennials quarantining in their family homes, who ended up having to sit in painful silence with their parents as hours and hours of artistically-lit shagging played out on screen. KR

On BBC iPlayer

I May Destroy You (2020)

<p>I May Destroy You featured one of the best sex scenes of the modern period</p>BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery

I May Destroy You featured one of the best sex scenes of the modern period

BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA/Natalie Seery

Michaela Coel’s game-changing show put the issue of consent under the microscope: her frank portrayal of insidious practices like stealthing caused many viewers to reassess past sexual encounters. Some of I May Destroy You’s sex scenes, then, inevitably made for difficult viewing - but one unproblematic moment prompted celebration on social media for its no-fuss attitude to period sex. Before protagonist Arabella sleeps with Italian drug dealer Biagio, she apologetically tells him she’s menstruating, clearly expecting him to make his excuses and do a runner. He’s undeterred – cue what’s probably the first ever post-coitial discussion of a period blood clot on British telly. “How could a period be taboo?” Coel said of the scene. “It’s like saying oxygen is taboo.” KR

On BBC iPlayer

I Hate Suzie (2020)

<p>Suzie’s self-pleasure sesh made TV history</p>Sky Atlantic

Suzie’s self-pleasure sesh made TV history

Sky Atlantic

Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble’s brilliant Sky drama set the record for the longest solo sex scene in TV history with an odyssey of self-pleasure clocking in at seven minutes and four seconds. It’s enough to make that Obama moment in Fleabag look positively prudish, but what really felt revolutionary wasn’t the scene’s length but seeing Suzie, a washed-up TV star who’s just been hit with a nude photo hack, reclaim her sexuality. As her friend and manager Leila puts it: “Everything you think is sexy is based on what men have told you is sexy for thousands of years. What part of that do you think is about your desire?” KR

On Now TV

Industry (2020)

<p>Industry is the horniest show of 2020</p>BBC/Bad Wolf Productions

Industry is the horniest show of 2020

BBC/Bad Wolf Productions

Banging and banking go hand in hand in this show about a set of young grads trying to break into the cut-throat world of finance. Is it talking about money all day that makes them so aroused? Whatever the reason, their conjugal relations are always ridiculously filthy, from a sweaty quickie in a night club toilet to a session on the kitchen worktop. And – hallelujah – we’ve never seen so many female characters being beneficiaries of foreplay. In a crowded field, Industry is almost certainly the horniest TV show of 2020. JT

On BBC Two and BBC iPlayer