These Are the Most Sexually Provocative Movies of All Time

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The number of explicit sex scenes in mainstream movies are on the decline. Even as violence remains ever-present across all types of media, sensuality has been relegated to televisions shows and books, intimacy usually alluded to rather than shown.

And yet sex that surprises audiences, disturbs them, and even pushes the limits of taste has a robust cinematic history. Sometimes unfamiliar or boundary-pushing sexual acts—involving a threesome, alone time with a ripe piece of fruit, or pornography about octopi—serve essential elements of the story and work to elucidate an aspect of human nature. Sometimes, particularly before the #MeToo movement, sex scenes pushed the bounds of propriety and exploited the actors involved. Those incidents have driven directors away from showing the most intimate—and, in many ways, important—parts of our lives. Sometimes these scenes are deemed provocative by audiences, in other instances, the ratings assigned by governing bodies have made them infamous.

But sex that breaks new barriers in movies, when done right, can jumpstart conversations about how we connect with one another. Here are the most sexually provocative movies of all time.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in ParisCourtesy Everett Collection

The Franco-Italian romance starring Marlon Brando centered on a couple that conducts an anonymous sexual relationship in an unfurnished apartment in Paris. The film’s intense portrayal of an affair included elements sexual violence—including the use of butter as a lubricant—that sparked controversy, even earning a TIME cover story. And in a 2007 interview, actor Maria Schneider said she felt humiliated by the scene, which hadn't been in the script and was improvised by Brando. Years later, in the #MeToo era, her experiences were re-examined as an instance of assault on camera.

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Risky Business (1983)

Risky Business
Risky Business.Courtesy Everett Collection

A young Tom Cruise burst onto the movie scene by having sex on an abandoned Chicago “L” train with a call girl as a high schooler in this movie.

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9 1/ 2 Weeks (1986)

9 1/2 Weeks
9 1/2 WeeksCourtesy Everett Collection

This Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger film featured BDSM long before Fifty Shades ever did. Some of the scenes border on assault, and at one point the couple even has sex after stabbing another man in the buttocks.

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Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

From left: Peter Gallagher, Laura San Ciacomo, Andie MacDowell, and James Spader, in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, 1989.
From left: Peter Gallagher, Laura San Ciacomo, Andie MacDowell, and James Spader, in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, 1989. Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

The film starring James Spader centers on a man who gets off on filming women discussing their sexual fantasies was somehow all about sex while showing no nudity or sex. The movie was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival and launched Steven Soderbergh’s career.

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Henry & June (1990)

Henry & June
Henry & JuneCourtesy Everett Collection

Henry & June was the first film to receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (which had recently replaced an X rating). The movie was based on the real-life sexual relationships among Anaïs Nin, famed author Henry Miller, and his wife June Miller.

Read More: 15 of the Sexiest Movies You’ve (Probably) Never Seen

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct
Basic InstinctCourtesy Everett Collection

Sharon Stone’s infamous leg-crossing scene has gone down in cinema history as one of the most provocative shots ever filmed. Over the years, Stone has said she was misled about what was actually happening on set. In her 2021 memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, she wrote that she watched the film for the first time in a room full of “agents and lawyers:” “That was how I saw my vagina shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything – I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.’”

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Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights
Boogie NightsCourtesy Everett Collection

Back when he was still widely known as underwear model Marky Mark, Mark Wahlberg took on the role of a porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s matter-of-fact look at the mechanics of porn.

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Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide ShutCourtesy Everett Collection

Stanley Kubrick’s last film, starring real couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, included several sex scenes (real and fantasy) as well as an orgy scene that had to be altered to earn an R rating for the American release.

Read More: All Eyes on Them

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Y Tu Mama También (2001)

Y Tu Mama También
Y Tu Mama También.Courtesy Everett Collection

Two friends spontaneously decide to engage in a sexual relationship with an older woman while on a road trip.

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Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback MountainCourtesy Everett Collection

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain was one of the first mainstream motion pictures to feature a love story and sex scenes between two gay characters played by two famous actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Lust, Caution (2007)

Wei Tang (right) in Lust, Caution, 2007.
Wei Tang (right) in Lust, Caution, 2007.Focus Features/Everett Collection

Ang Lee's sensual espionage story centers on a honeypot plot to seduce and assassinate an official who works for the Japanese puppet government in Shanghai during World War II. Upon release, it became the highest-grossing NC-17 movie of all time. The movie’s star Tang Wei was banned in the Chinese media because of the sexual nature of her performance in the film.

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Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan
Black SwanCourtesy Everett Collection

Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her role in Black Swan, but what created the most buzz was a hallucinatory sex scene between her and Mila Kunis and a botched-masturbation sequence.

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Shame (2012)

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame, 2011.
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame, 2011. Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

In Steve McQueen's Shame, Michael Fassbender goes full frontal—a rarity in movies—as a struggling sex addict who engages in graphic sex and consumes plenty of pornography.

Read More: Shame Director Steve McQueen on Sex and Silence

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Nymphomaniac (2013)

NymphomaniacCourtesy Everett Collection

The two-part Lars von Trier movie about a self-described nymphomaniac was released in two formats: the original hardcore version, and an edited softcore one. While some dismissed it as porn, most critics embraced the film as an engaging exploration of a woman’s sexuality.

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Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Blue Is the Warmest Color
Blue Is the Warmest ColorCourtesy Everett Collection

This French romance film made a splash first at the Cannes Film Festival and then in theaters for its explicit lesbian sex scenes between two teenage girls. Some critics questioned whether the film's gaze is exploitative, especially after film's young stars called out the director for poor working conditions.

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Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl
Gone GirlCourtesy Everett Collection

Just a few months before Fifty Shades of Grey's release, Gone Girl shocked audiences with a brutal and bloody sex scene.

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Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of GreyCourtesy Everett Collection

Audiences were curious about how the popular book filled with BDSM would translate to the big screen. Fandango reports that it has sold more pre-sale tickets for Fifty Shades of Grey than any other R-rated film at that point.

Read More: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Christian Grey?

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The Handmaiden (2016)

Kim Min-hee (left) in The Handmaiden, 2016.
Kim Min-hee (left) in The Handmaiden, 2016. Amazon Studios/Everett Collection

Park Chan-wook's erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea is a story of antique pornography, bondage, sexualized trapeze performances, straight and queer sex scenes, and—yes—octopus sex.

Call Me By Your Name (2018)

Chalamet and Hammer in Call Me by Your Name: the feeling is mutualSony Pictures Classics

Though Luca Guadagnino's movie controversially shied away from depicting explicit gay sex, another scene has firmly planted itself in the cultural firmament: Timothée Chalamet sensually playing with a peach has become a meme though some say the scene didn’t go far enough.

Read More: Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water Fearlessly Display Love

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Midsommar (2019)

Florence Pugh in 'Midsommar'
Florence Pugh in 'Midsommar', 2019.A24/Everett Collection

Ari Aster's horror movie involves a character cheating on his girlfriend during a ritualistic sex scene in which he drinks a cup spiked with period blood. He then performs the act surrounded by a group of old women who chant along to each thrust.

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Titane (2021)

Agatha Rousselle in Titane, 2021.
Agatha Rousselle in Titane, 2021. Neon/Everett Collection

When Julia Ducournau's body horror drama premiered at Cannes, it quickly became known as the movie in which the protagonist has sex with—and gets impregnated by—a car.

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Passages (2023)

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in PassagesCourtesy of MUBI

The MPA ratings board gave this love triangle drama an NC-17 rating, which some critics have contended had more to do with the fact that a queer sex scene in the movie is filmed in one long, unbroken take than the explicitness of that sexual content.

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Fair Play (2023)

Fair Play. (L to R) Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play. Cr.  Courtesy of Netflix
Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair PlayCourtesy of Netflix

Chloe Dumont's Fair Play is a film about a woman and her fiancé competing for the same high-stress finance job. It became the talk of Sundance when it opened with an oral sex scene during which the protagonist gets her period.

Read More: The Director of Fair Play Breaks Down Those Sex Scenes and Talks Male Fragility

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