Eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex are elements of human behavior we all share. The difference with sex is that it has been deemed taboo for centuries. That moral standard has been loosening for decades now, and sex has become a more significant part of mainstream entertainment.
But just because we CAN show sex in movies doesn’t mean we SHOULD. And if we do, it needs to be handled tastefully. When is it appropriate to include a sex scene in your movie? How can you make sure the scene adds value to the story without becoming gratuitous? If you’re wondering how to write a tasteful love scene, look no further.
We’ve come up with some guidelines that will help you find that balance when writing sex scenes. Let’s take a look at some of the best movie sex scenes and see what works and what doesn’t.
Table of Contents
Everything you need to know about sex scenes.
- Approaching a Sex Scene
- Best Written Movie Sex Scenes
- Best Directed Movie Sex Scenes
Do It Right: Filming Sex Scenes
approaching the sex scene
sex scene overview
1.1 sex scenes in movies
Does sex belong in your story?
The first question to ask yourself is whether sexuality belongs in your story at all. Certain stories answer that question immediately.
An animated Disney film? No.
A drama about the porn industry? Probably.
The inclusion of sex makes more sense for some genres than others. The Slasher film has a built-in reputation for sexuality. But sexuality in a Western or Gangster film becomes less of a given.
The problematic cases are films that don't fit neatly into expected categories. These middle-ground stories make up a considerable majority of storytelling.
Consider the story when you're writing sex scenes. Would an audience expect a sex scene or not? If not, it becomes your responsibility to weave that scene into the narrative naturally and tastefully.
how to write Sex Scenes
Best Written Sex scene movie examples
2.1 how to write a sex scene
Top Gun (1986)
Let's take a look at a film that has an iconic but, perhaps, inappropriate sex scene: Top Gun.
The film is about the Navy's combat pilot program and follows Maverick (Tom Cruise) in competition for the Top Gun trophy. Along the way, he develops a relationship with his instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis).
Their initial hostilities are pushed aside, and they make love. The scene is a stylish, almost abstract, study in blue light and soundtracked with the gloriously '80s track, "Take My Breath Away."
It's an iconic scene but is it appropriate for a story about Navy combat pilots? It does add some dimension to Maverick's character, but his relationship with Charlie barely qualifies as a subplot.
The hyper-stylized sex scene tries to make this romance more epic than it actually is. That is a tell-tale sign that it has no real dramatic value to the story or the characters.
2.2 best sex scenes in film
Stealing Beauty (1996)
Now, let's look at a story that puts the sexuality front and center. Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty is about Lucy (Liv Tyler) and a summer she spends with family friends in Tuscany. She is 19 and still a virgin, which is more than character backstory--it is the spine of the story.
Lucy is trying to reconnect with a crush she made years ago (Niccolo) so she can finally become a woman. In her pursuit, Lucy is surrounded by sexuality in its many forms. The movie is about love, sex, and the complications that come with it all.
In other words, when the film ends with Lucy losing her virginity, it is an appropriate conclusion. The scene isn’t gratuitous because it is directly tied to the theme of the story.
Once you've established whether sexuality belongs in your story at all, you can move on to the characters.
2.3 writing sex scenes
Using sex for character developmentThe best movie sex scenes need to make sense for the story, but what that really means is that it needs to make sense for the characters.
It needs to be motivated.
Are the characters in love with each other? If so, the scene becomes a large part of their character development.
Does sex matter to your character? Will it change them for better or worse? If the answer to these questions is no, there is no reason to include it in the story.
We've established why sex is essential for the character, but here comes another tough question.
Does the audience need to witness to this consummation? Why can't you show them "the next morning" with a quick line of dialogue confirming what happened?
This is where the decision gets even more difficult.
It all comes down to emotional value and character identification. If we "share" that moment with a character, our identification with them is much higher. Seeing a character in such vulnerable and private moments creates an intimacy with them.
We become emotionally connected.
If we skip that scene, we've missed that opportunity. But, sometimes, that can be the better option. It all depends on what your ultimate goal with the character is.
2.4 movies with great sex scenes
In Barry Jenkins' Best Picture winner, Moonlight, we have a tender and powerfully intimate scene. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has been dealing with his sexuality for years. His encounter with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) on the beach becomes the most important moment in the entire film.
Writing sex scenes becomes much easier and more natural when you consider them as milestones during their character arc.
2.5 how to write a sex scene
The Notebook (2004)
In The Notebook, we follow the unrequited love story of Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams). It is 80 minutes into the film (and years of waiting for the characters) before they finally make love.
The entire story has built to this moment, and it is what the characters have wanted all along. To skip over this scene would be disastrous.
This moment is meaningful for the characters and, therefore, meaningful for the audience. If the criteria for writing sex scenes is met from a story and character perspective, there's no immediate reason not to include it in the film.
We've covered the "why" behind some of the best movie sex scenes so let's move on to how you go about writing one.
2.6 writing a great sex scene
Descriptions vs Actions
Unlike traditional fiction writing, the rule of thumb with screenwriting is "less is more." There doesn't need to be an abundance of text on the page. The images of the finished film will fill in the gaps.
Writing sex scenes, especially if you won't be directing the film, is a tricky proposition. You want to make sure to describe the emotional beats. The director and actors will work out the physical beats later.
If your description is focused on the emotions and characters, the director will understand how best to capture them visually.
2.7 examples froom the past
In Persona, Ingmar Bergman uses dialogue to describe a sexual encounter, and we never see it. This is a rather experimental way to write/direct a sex scene, but it can be just as effective, if not more.
Alma (Liv Ullmann) describes a moment on the beach when she and her friend Katarina engage in a tryst with two anonymous boys. The scene is described in great detail, and our imagination visualizes it.
Persona includes one of the best movie sex scenes using only dialogue. It activates the imagination which can often be more effective.
2.8 writing a great sex scene
The Counselor (2013)
Consider another film that takes a similar approach with much less success. In The Counselor, Reiner (Javier Bardem) describes his sexual encounter with Malkina (Cameron Diaz).
Like Persona, Reiner goes into descriptive detail of the scene, beat by beat. The difference with this scene is that we the actions exactly as described.
Instead of "show not tell," The Counselor falls into the trap of "show AND tell." Granted, the scene is meant to be shocking and far from romantic. But the scene would have worked just as well with either the dialogue or the images alone.
If your goal is to write/direct one of the best movie sex scenes, emulate Persona, not The Counselor.
directing sex scenes
The Best Directed Movie Sex Scenes
3.1 how to direct a sex scene
Tone is a difficult element to maintain in any story. Sex and violence are the most disruptive to this consistency.
Think of tone in music. If a song begins with a soothing acoustic guitar, but it switches abruptly to heavy metal distortion, the tone shatters.
There can be a shift in tone directly tied to how "cinematic" you make your sex scene. Is it shot in slow-motion with a romantic score dominating the soundtrack? Or is it a single take with no music--a more realistic presentation?
How you choose to direct with these formal techniques will have a significant impact on the tone of the scene.
There are many formal techniques you can use to create the romantic mood you're after. In fact, a cinematic sex scene needs ALL the filmmaking elements available.
Editing, cinematography, music, and production design can work in combination to produce the desired effect.
For production design, everything from the decorations on the walls to the bedding makes a difference. Are there lit candles scattered around the room? Of course there are.
Music will do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting for any scene. A romantic sex scene is no different. This could be a swooning non-diegetic score, or perhaps the characters turn on a radio.
What kinds of shots do we need? Sex scenes will often include insert shots of naked skin or hands softly caressing. But close-ups of the characters’ faces are the one shot you can’t skip in these moments.
We need to see the character's face because we need to understand how they feel during this crucial, emotional moment.
Finally, editing. There are two editing techniques for any cliche romantic sex scene: slow motion and dissolves.
Slow motion is all about EMPHASIS. If we see an action scene in slow motion, that action is imbued with an increased sense of importance. With a romantic sex scene, each kiss or caress is emphasized with slow motion.
It is a way to amplify the emotions in the scene.
Dissolves create an impressionistic and seamless scene. It gives the scene an uninterrupted and gentle flow from one moment to the next. Time stretches out, and the specifics of each moment fuse together.
When deciding what kind of presentation your sex scene should have, there are two distinct filmmaking approaches.
Stylistic or realistic. Each approach gives your scene a different tone and meaning. The best movie sex scenes don’t need to follow one strategy or the other. Each has its merits and value.
3.2 how to direct a sex scene
Presenting sex stylistically
It goes without saying: a romantic movie should present a sex scene romantically.
But how do "produce" romance on screen?
Again, if we recall that the purpose of these sex scenes is to share an intimate moment with these characters. We need to connect with them emotionally; otherwise, the scene becomes gratuitous.
Let’s look at two examples of stylistic presentations of sex scenes.
3.3 directing a sex scene
Out of Sight (1998)
The sexual tension between Karen (Jennifer Lopez) and Jack (George Clooney) has been building up to this moment. She is a federal agent, and he is a criminal. Their potential romance is complicated, to say the least.
When they meet in a hotel bar, they try to role-play as different people to make this situation viable. As they flirt, the scene begins intercutting with images of them in a hotel room, undressing.
Do we see Jack's fantasy, Karen's, or both? Or is it a flash-forward. We find out eventually that it is the latter option, but it doesn't matter.
The effect of using superficial dialogue as voiceover and imagery as subtext is masterful. Flirting is all about subtext and the differences between what we “say” and what we “think” when we’re romantically interested in someone.
The scene is an excellent example of how to capture that subtext to craft a great, romantic sex scene.
3.4 how to direct a sex scene
The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator is a sci-fi action film about man's battle with the machines that have taken over the world. You wouldn't expect a sex scene in a movie with that description. But there is, and it has much more to do with plot than character.
Kyle (Michael Biehn) has been sent back in time to protect Sarah (Linda Hamilton) against assassination. John Connor, Sarah's son, sent him. Eagle-eyed audiences will spot Kyle and Sarah's romance a mile away.
Director James Cameron presents the sex scene stylistically. On the soundtrack, we hear a piano rendition of the movie's central theme, played for maximum dramatic effect. The moonlight outside brings a blue tint into the room.
The editing uses jump cuts to fragment the action, giving it a more expressionistic or romantic edge. Cameron doesn't use slow motion until the very last shot: Kyle and Sarah's clasped hands release.
It takes up only a minute of screen time but the importance of this moment is communicated with expressive film language. Stylistic romance needs these formal flourishes.
Without them, your sex scene becomes more realistic and that completely changes the tone and meaning.
3.5 directing the best sex scene
Presenting sex realistically
Sex is not always romantic. Sometimes the inclusion of a sex scene is less about romance and more about some other aspect of a character’s development.
Romantic sex scenes are presented with formal techniques that tend to push them past “real” and into less tangible emotional territory.
This creates a distance between audience and scene that perhaps makes these scenes more palatable.
But as sexual mores regarding sex have matured, the range of presentation has expanded. Now it is more acceptable to make sex scenes “more real.” In theory, the emotional and cathartic potential increases because there is less artistic license involved.
Let’s look at two examples of films that present their sex scenes with a realism that is mostly independent of formal techniques.
3.6 directing great sex scenes
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
There is almost nothing cinematic about the presentation of this scene from Brokeback Mountain. As Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) fumble through their first sexual encounter, there’s nothing to suggest we’re watching a “movie;” we’re watching a “moment.”
There are no embellishments to the scene. There are only two shots from the same general vantage point and the scene is approx. ninety seconds long. There is no music, only the sounds of the men's clothing and their heavy breathing.
Jack and Ennis have not yet developed their romantic relationship. That will come later, and the cinematic techniques used in those later moments reflect that. This moment is not about romance; it is about the physical and raw emotions they're feeling.
To achieve "realism" in your sex scenes, the less cinematic they are, the better.
3.7 how to direct a sex scene
Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird is another example where the sex scene is played realistically. Our eponymous heroine (Saoirse Ronan) loses her virginity to Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) in a rather underwhelming way.
There's very little romance to the presentation. Missing is the slow-motion, dissolves and romantic soundtrack.
The formal techniques are downplayed because the moment is underwhelming for Lady Bird. We experience the scene through her and we recognize just how much of a let down it is.
We've uploaded the Ladybird screenplay into StudioBinder so you can read the scene (or the entire script). Notice how writer/director Greta Gerwig describes the scene in the script.
"They're sort of having sex now. She's still on top. It goes on for a little bit. Then he stops moving."
That's it. The moment is written in the same minimal and underwhelming style as the finished scene. There is no romance in this moment, so it makes sense that the formal techniques remain "real."
3.8 sex and comedy
There is a lot of comedy to be mined from the best movie sex scenes. It can be awkward to watch people have sex on-screen-- there's a built-in quotient for nervous laughter.
So, it doesn't take much to unleash that nervous laughter with some visual gags and exaggerated performances.
And that's often what comedic sex scenes come down to: the performances. Which is why so many of these scenes focus on close-ups of the participants.
3.9 directing a comedic sex scene
This scene opens the movie, and it's a smart way to introduce our lead character, Annie (Kristen Wiig). What we get is a short montage of a sexual encounter she has with Ted (Jon Hamm).
Each shot is a different set-up and sexual position, with Ted clearly misreading Annie's signals. She's trying to steer these moments into something they can both enjoy, but Ted is only concerned with his own experience.
This engenders not just humor but character as well. Sexuality can be a huge part of character development, even in comedies.
We see almost nothing in the way of nudity, which should be a consideration when filming a comedic sex scene.
Nudity can change the tone of the scene, and it can interrupt the comedy. The humor comes from both their exaggerated performances and dialogue. Anything else will only distract the audience, and it will lose its comedic potential.
3.10 funny sex scenes
The 40-Year-Old-Virgin (2005)
The 40-year-old Virgin has many sexual scenes, and they are all played for comedy. But the last scene, when Andy (Steve Carrell) finally crosses the finish line, it is played for character.
We have waited the entire movie for this moment, and the scene could follow the same formula as the other scenes. But that would diminish Andy's character arc. We've had our laughs at his expense but now is not the time to crack more jokes.
This restraint and focus on character are what gives films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin depth and value.
The music in the scene is soft and gentle, and the camera holds on a two-shot. It is important to share this moment between Andy and Trish (Catherine Keener). We watch the scene in two basic camera set-ups, a profile of the two lying in bed and an overhead shot.
The profile shot allows us to see the characters together in this intimate moment. They look into each other's eyes, and the connection between them is clear.
The overhead shot plays more for humor, but it is still character-based. After a title card informing that only a minute has passed, we see Andy and Trish together again. Andy is wide-eyed and speechless while Trish is underwhelmed.
Having them both in the same frame still keeps them emotionally connected. But it also allows us the humor of their performances.
Using Internal and External Conflict
The best movie sex scenes are directly tied to a character’s relationship with conflict. What will it mean for a character to have sex at this moment? Will it change them? Conflict is an integral element in any story and the more you understand it, the better it will make your characters. Read on!