A great sex scene. There’s nothing like it, especially now—when the world outside is full of strife and so many of us long for touch. These days, we’re more likely to binge watch our favorite comfort shows, the ones that wash over us like a warm bath, than to seek out films and t.v. that go directly into us, igniting our deepest needs and desires. But there is something to be said for the specific elixir of escapism and engagement that a great steamy movie scene can inspire in us, whether we’re watching alone or with a partner, in bed or cozied up on the couch with candles lit. We get on a roller coaster of heightened tension and release, up and down, without ever having to leave home. The arts grant us permission for new experiences. Plus, we get a bit of a cheat sheet to jumpstart real-life intimacy if we feel so inclined.
When we enter the onscreen erotic landscape, the fantasy enters us, too. And when we do this with a partner, we can explore the same erotic universe together, fully fleshed out with characters, plot, and setting. When we watch an erotic scene, our system of wanting is triggered—maybe not precisely what they are doing in the scene, but wanting what they are feeling or our version of it.
Our entrance into these worlds often begins before we know it. A glance, touch, or words spoken between characters that indicate some private tension, immediately tickling the voyeur in all of us. Watching intimacy that feels like it isn’t meant for us allows us to see something that might otherwise be forbidden. As a result, it allows us to see parts of our own erotic blueprint that might also be forbidden. It’s part of the reason why people enjoy “Where Should We Begin?” and “How’s Work?” You are allowed into a space and a story that is private, one that is normally behind a closed door because of the vulnerability of what is discussed.
Physiologically, watching erotic scenes triggers arousal, adrenaline, a dopamine rush. It awakens us to our own desires and projections. We identify or idealize those who break out of shame and restraint. Sometimes we imagine ourselves in the situation, which triggers memories and feelings of prior experiences or something we want to try. Sometimes we wonder what it would be like to have someone watch us in the act the way we’re watching the characters on screen. To be gazed upon or to gaze—both deeply sexy. Moreover, sex scenes express the confidence, irresistibility, or sensation of being wanted to which we aspire.
Watching erotic scenes is an act of desire. Desire, as in owning a wanting that is made ever-stronger by not having the very thing we covet, as Plato so well outlined in “The Symposium.” Who can’t relate to that? The sense of deprivation combined with the rush of fulfillment fits squarely within the great sexologist Jack Morin’s erotic formula: attraction plus obstacle equals excitement. A central theme of the erotic crescendo is overcoming the obstacle. They finally are able to meet. They've been able to escape. They've been able to let each other know the secret love they’ve held for their whole lives. The merging of lovers is the victory against forces trying to keep them apart. In some scenes, desire is devouring them to the point that they betray their own moral principles. Giving in to their deepest yearnings, they find themselves with people and in places beyond the scope of their imaginations. In other scenes, it isn’t so much about engaging in the forbidden but in marrying the emotional and sexual—sex and love; sex and grief. Erotic scenes can be light, others dark.
Watching Morin’s erotic formula play out on screen shows us how life’s trajectory can change in a moment. They fuck. They fall in love. They throw the rules out the window. They give in to some greater arc, some irrepressible cosmic force. We know the feeling, don’t we? To connect with the parts of us we never knew existed is an experience of freedom, power, greed, ardor, intensity. When we watch these scenes, we also get to play with the constraints of morality, reality, properness, or good citizenship, without ever having to learn the hard way. Oh, the fantasy of Transgression! Just like our own internal fantasies take us outside of our everyday lives and counter the fears and inhibitions that live inside of us, so too do erotic moments in film.
A partial list of films that contain some of the best erotic scenes
We put out a call on social media for your all-time favorite erotic scenes