Unsimulated Sex Scenes in Film: ‘Nymphomaniac,’ ‘The Brown Bunny,’ ‘Little Ashes,’ and More

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in February 2022 and has been updated multiple times since.]

Sex on film is nothing new, and yet unsimulated intercourse in non-pornographic movies has raised eyebrows and drawn eyeballs for decades. From Vincent Gallo’s controversial directing for “The Brown Bunny” to Robert Pattinson’s masturbatory method acting in “Little Ashes,” genuine intimate encounters captured on film — however staged they may be — can pull audiences into the bigger stories their writers and directors are trying to tell.

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Catherine Breillat’s first film in 1976, “A Real Young Girl,” adapts her own controversial novel about a 14-year-old exploring her newfound sexuality. (The lead actress Charlotte Alexandra was 20 during production, and the film wasn’t released in theaters in the U.S. for more than two decades.) Breillat’s later work, 1999’s “Romance,” tells the story of a woman desperately seeking human connection and featured similar scenes, including sadomasochistic sex play.

“Actors are prostitutes because they’re asked to play other feelings,” Breillat told IndieWire. “This prostitution is not profane; it’s a sacred act that we give them.”

John Cameron Mitchell set out to “honor” sex as a pastime for real people, much like art, music, or cuisine, in his second feature film, 2006’s “Shortbus.”

Mitchell told IndieWire about filming the cult classic, “Certainly, a lot of films had used sex, but they were pretty grim, and I wanted something more fun and funny, but still emotionally deep. And so I said, ‘I never want you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I do want you to challenge yourselves so we can challenge the audience.’”

Mitchell continued, “‘Shortbus’ isn’t about sex. It uses sex as a medium, as a delivery system for ideas and characters and emotions, just like ‘Hedwig [and the Angry Itch]’ uses music. Sex is our music in ‘Shortbus.’ We really only did one sexual rehearsal. I just went with what they wanted to do.”

The depiction of unsimulated sex on screen has taken many forms across decades, continents, and political landscapes. Still, the taboo’s controversial nature is at the forefront of mind for artists willing to admit their interest in and seriously consider the artistic merit of showing real sex.

“In terms of sex being presented on film, mainstream or even independent, film has foresworn it,” Mitchell summarized. “They’ve given it up, because it’s too scary.”

While unsimulated sex has never been particularly “common” unscreen, its presence on film has steadily declined over the years. Cannes, once a bastion for cinema that wasn’t afraid to be graphic, has cooled on unsimulated sex following controversies over several films like “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo.” The 2024 film festival featured the steamy Brazilian erotic thriller “Motel Destino,” but director Karim Aïnouz faked all of the sexual acts with the help of an intimacy coordinator. The ethics of real sex on scene are up to your own interpretation, and we’re not to make calls on the morality of it either way. At the same time, looking at the films that do dare to showcase unsimulated sex offers a fascinating window into the way standards of sensuality onscreen have evolved, and how the culture has shifted and reacted to the use of sex in art.

Directed by filmmakers from Lars von Trier to Vincent Gallo, William Friedkin to Abel Ferrera, and Larry Charles to Bruce LaBruce, here are 43 films that feature real sex scenes. Entries are listed in chronological order.

With editorial contributions from Samantha Bergeson and Alison Foreman.

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