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You know it when you see it: Here are some movies that got sex scenes right

It is a happy coincidence that our <a href="https://www.npr.org/2024/04/25/1197964002/what-makes-a-good-sex-scene">"What makes a good sex scene?"</a> episode came out in the same week as <em>Challengers, </em>a film about a romance triangle in the tennis world starring Josh O'Connor, Zendaya and (not pictured) Mike Faist.
Niko Tavernise
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
It is a happy coincidence that our "What makes a good sex scene?" episode came out in the same week as Challengers, a film about a romance triangle in the tennis world starring Josh O'Connor, Zendaya and (not pictured) Mike Faist.

What makes a good sex scene? It can be easier spot bad sex, but Aisha Harris, Christina Tucker, Ronald Young, Jr. and I tried to focus on the good this week on Pop Culture Happy Hour.You can listen to our full conversation here.(We didn't originally plan for this episode to run the same week as our episode about Challengers, which is out in theaters now, but it's a happy coincidence, since that film has gotten a lot of attention — probably too much, relative to its other merits — for the sex scenes involving its three leads. It's really very good.)

It's often very obvious when a sex scene is bad, just like when a sex scene in a book is bad. It can get so uncomfortable to watch that you have to leave the room (and not in a way that feels true to the story). One of my personal tells for a bad sex scene is when all I can think about is how hard the actors are trying to persuade me that the characters are having a good time. For example, there has been much good discussion in recent years about Showgirls being a more interesting and competent project than it originally got credit for, but in that one pool scene (if you know it, you know it), all I can see is the effort.

It's not always as clear which scenes are good. That's partly because they serve so many different functions, all of which look different, and all of which can be effective. Furthermore, you don't want to confuse whether a sex scene is used well in a film with whether it's hot to you personally, despite the fact that there is overlap between those considerations.

Here's what I mean: When Aisha talks about the sequence near the beginning of Magic Mike's Last Dance,it's not irrelevant that the scene is, to her (and to me), hot. But it also makes sense in the context of the film and the franchise, partly because of the way it sets up the power dynamic between Mike (Channing Tatum) and Max (Salma Hayek Pinault). Mike is older now, he knows more, and the way he approaches a lap dance is actually different than in earlier movies.

And not all good sex scenes are hot in the same ways. The one I mentioned in the episode, from the romantic drama Love & Basketball, is sexy, yes. But it's also a scene between young adults (the talented basketball players Monica and Quincy, played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps), and as such, it incorporates a tentativeness that's not present in Magic Mike's Last Dance, to say the least. As Ronald pointed out during our discussion, that sex scene is quite different from one that takes place later in Monica and Quincy's relationship, when they're older and know each other better. That certainly feels true to real life, but it's not always reflected in Hollywood films, where I would tentatively estimate that 90% of on-screen sex is more idealized and thus less intimate than real-life sex, in part because it isn't allowed to change over the course of a relationship.

Even further from the hotness of the lap dance scene is Ronald's pick: the imagination of Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) running wild in Oppenheimer. While her husband (Cillian Murphy) is being interrogated, she pictures him having sex with his mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). It goes by quickly enough that it might seem like a Christopher Nolan flourish for flourish's sake, but it serves the purpose of letting you feel her pain over her husband's affair. Her relationship with Robert doesn't look especially romantic in the film, let alone sexually charged; she finds herself consumed by the idea that he was having hot sex with this other woman, and she locks eyes with her vision of a naked Tatlock and finds herself tormented. It's not really the intent of the scene to titillate the audience, just to give specificity to the shape of Kitty's preoccupation with the affair.

Christina raised another really important point, which is that sex scenes also collide with viewers at very specific moments. Her example from Bound, and the scenes between Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon), touches on (among other things) her own history. It's an underappreciated aspect of the sex-in-movies discourse: representation matters in these scenes as much as anywhere else. I always wish I saw more sex scenes in movies that featured a broader variety of body types; it's still really rare to see ones that feature anybody who is even average sized. This is one of the reasons I'm curious about the upcoming season of Bridgerton, which places its focus on the gorgeous and curvaceous Penelope (Nicola Coughlan).

Good sex scenes are like any other kind of good filmmaking, honestly: it comes down to execution with purpose and care, done relative to whatever the function of the scene might be.

Whether that's spiciness or conflict or relationship growth or (as in the case of Bound) setting up a steamy neo-noir story that wouldn't be the same if it weren't hot as heck, form follows function, ideally.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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