Some of the scenes on this list are seminal moments in film history (for better and for worse). Some are flash points that wound up changing our culture in interesting ways. Some came to represent nefarious, exploitative trends. And some are just unforgettable scenes that informed what came after them:
  1. Don’t Look Now: Donald Sutherland would claim in later years that he and Julie Christie were actually doing it during the passionate, intimate and groundbreaking sex scene nestled in Nicolas Roeg’s absurdly terrifying chiller about a couple in Venice who begin to have ghostly visions of their dead daughter.
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  2. Out of Sight: Steven Soderbergh's film of Elmore Leonard's crime thriller exudes cool. And that extends to its much-beloved sex scene, with its elliptical cutting and playful approach to time, not to mention the sheer fun that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez appear to be having together.
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  3. Last Tango in Paris: Like several of the films on this list, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 cause célèbre has several sex scenes that could qualify as important. But for sheer shock and cultural conversation value, it's hard to top the scene where Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider explore the lubricant possibilities of butter.
  4. Coming Home: This powerful 1978 drama about the affair between a paraplegic, radical vet (Jon Voight) and a conservative housewife (Jane Fonda) married to a marine captain (Bruce Dern) was a pivotal film in the depiction of onscreen sex. It shows Fonda's character having an orgasm for the first time, a revolutionary notion for cinema at the time.
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  5. Bound: The Wachowskis’ 1996 stylized neo-noir got everybody’s tongues wagging thanks to its sex scene between burgeoning outlaw-lovers Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.
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  6. Y Tu Mama Tambien: In Alfonso Cuarón’s seminal road movie, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal play two wild best friends who go on a road trip with a married, alluring beauty played by Maribel Verdu. Lots of frank talk about sex, love, and friendship, and it all comes to a head in a beautiful, startling scene where the three engage in a threesome.
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  7. Love & Basketball: The love scene from Gina Prince-Bythewood’s romantic masterpiece may not be the most influential or controversial, but it is one of the more honest, and it has stood the test of time for that very reason. The camera focuses on their reactions to one another, resulting in a scene that actually has some real drama and humor to it.
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  8. In the Realm of the Senses: Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 cause célèbre, about the destructive relationship between a former prostitute and the owner of a hotel, will probably never lose its ability to shock, mostly thanks to its intensely disturbing sex scenes showing the characters’ growing possessiveness and abusiveness.
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  9. Brokeback Mountain: It’s not explicit, but the sight of two male movie stars going at it came as quite a shock to audiences in 2005 — even though everybody already knew what the film would be about. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both give the performances of their careers in this Ang Lee masterpiece.
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  10. Do the Right Thing: "Thank God for the lips. Thank God for the neck. Thank God for kneecaps … " Technically speaking, it may not even be a sex scene. But it’s hard not to find something insanely sexy and poignant about the scene where Mookie (Spike Lee) rubs ice cubes all over his girlfriend Tina’s (Rose Perez) body on a sweltering Brooklyn day.
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  11. Team America: World Police: Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet movie satire of action movies features a sex scene that starts off as a satire of Hollywood sex scenes before becoming something entirely different and more gruesome, as the puppet characters get increasingly freaky and nasty. Watch the uncut version, but be sure to bring a barf bag.
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  12. Boogie Nights: In the film’s pivotal sex scene, as Julianne Moore's character Amber Waves and Mark Wahlberg’s comically hung Dirk Diggler get it on before the cameras for the first time, she gently, hilariously guides the young, clueless star.
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  13. The Last Temptation of Christ: Martin Scorsese’s controversial project features a scene of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having sex (complete with a Jesus butt shot!). That infuriated many, and the film was protested all over the world. Last Temptation would become one of the first salvos in America’s modern culture wars.
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  14. Top Gun: The silhouetted “blue light” sex scene was a staple of action/thriller movies in the '80s/'90s, an excuse to watch beautiful people get down in the most generic ways imaginable; undistinguished sex was one of the perks of being a hero in an '80s movie. What better scene to represent this than the one between Kelly MacGillis and Tom Cruise?
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  15. A Clockwork Orange: The sped-up, long-take threesome set to the William Tell Overture is one of the great extended sight gags in Kubrick’s oeuvre, and scenes like this helped fuel the film’s controversy. The sex scene is one of the few non-disturbing elements in this dystopian masterpiece that is otherwise steeped in cruelty, rape, and violence.
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  16. Body Heat: It’s hard to pick one particular sex scene, but we’ll go with the mostly clothed one in which Kathleen Turner, playing vulnerable but never taking her eyes off William Hurt, strangely seduces him into breaking into her own house. After 1981, whenever anyone referred to a "steamy legal thriller," visions of Body Heat came up.
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  17. Shortbus: John Cameron Mitchell's notorious celebration of NY's outsider/alternate sexual culture — a world of changing partners, mutating genders, and fluid sexual preferences — is a libertine cri de coeur, full of scenes that thumb their noses at propriety and conservatism. We can’t pick one scene; the whole film kind of qualifies for this list.
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  18. Blue Is the Warmest Color" Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour tale of sexual awakening won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and at first, it seemed like a bit of a breakthrough: Here was an expansive tale of two young women falling in love, with extended scenes of fairly explicit lesbian sex — playful, intimate, and, yes, pretty exciting.
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  19. The Big Easy: As a mildly corrupt but fundamentally decent New Orleans cop and the repressed district attorney investigating him, Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin were the last word in romantic chemistry in the 1980s, thanks to the intensely erotic sex scene in Jim McBride’s wild, atmospheric crime thriller.
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  20. Blue Valentine: Derek Cianfrance’s tormented indie romance starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is passionate and tragic, intercutting the highs of young love with the pathetic despair of divorce. Even though nothing in this movie is explicit, the film was originally slapped with an NC-17 for a scene of Gosling going down on Williams.
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  21. The Terminator: This huge hit spawned a decades-old franchise and a fairly elaborate, time-hopping mythology. Most of the mythology involves John Connor, leader of the human resistance against the machines in the future. This sex scene turns out to be the moment of John Connor’s conception. The entire Terminator universe somehow revolves around it.
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  22. Monster’s Ball: This drama about the relationship between a tough deputy prison warden (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of a convict whose execution he oversaw is steeped in fear and tragedy. The two characters are brought together by profound grief. That's why the controversial, drunken sex scene might be its most powerful moment.
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  23. 9 ½ Weeks: Let’s face it, this is a terrible movie. But the infamous “food scene” — in which Mickey Rourke makes Kim Basinger close her eyes and makes her taste various suggestive foodstuffs, strawberries, honey, etc. — is kind of unforgettable. And totally devoid of nudity. So, is it a sex scene? Well, ask yourself this: Could it be anything else?
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  24. Henry & June: Philip Kaufman's erotic, literary drama about the love affair between Henry Miller (a comically bald-capped Fred Ward), his wife June (Uma Thurman), and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) isn’t exactly one of the director’s strongest films. But its historical significance cannot be denied: This film earned the MPAA’s first NC-17.
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  25. Eyes Wide Shut: True, much of the controversy over Stanley Kubrick’s final film centered on the infamous orgy sequence. But it could be argued that the early, looking-in-the-mirror sex scene between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was more significant. It’s beautiful, and it elegantly captures the film’s through-the-looking-glass atmosphere.
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  26. I Am Curious (Yellow): This politically engaged, borderline experimental Swedish film seems rather tame by today’s standards. But in the late '60s, it became the biggest foreign hit on U.S. shores, thanks to its somewhat explicit scenes featuring the film’s protagonist, Lena Nyman, a sexually liberated student.
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  27. Cruising: William Friedkin’s 1980 crime thriller, in which undercover cop Al Pacino infiltrates New York’s underground S&M scene to uncover a serial killer and — being Al Pacino — goes in too far, generated a lot of controversy. Many in the gay community felt the film was homophobic and were worried about the portrait of homosexuals in the film.
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  28. The Brown Bunny: Vincent Gallo’s arthouse provocation was known for two things: Being blasted at Cannes by critics and for its allegedly unsimulated, lengthy scene of fellatio by Chloë Sevigny. Was it unsimulated? Who can say. Some say Gallo was using a prosthetic; Gallo (of course) claims he was not.
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  29. Little Vera: This 1988 film, released at the height of perestroika, made waves in both the USSR and the West for being (reportedly) the first Soviet film to feature a naked sex scene. It’s a drab little melodrama of two star-crossed young lovers whose families do not approve of their relationship.
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  30. Ecstasy: In this 1933 Czech film, the great Hedy Lamarr plays a young, frustrated bride who flees her marriage to a wealthy, impotent older man and finds love and lust in the arms of a virile engineer. This may have been the first documented sex scene in cinema.
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