Hedy Lamarr’s Orgasm in Ecstasy (Gustav Machaty, 1933)
This notorious Czechoslovakian production wasn’t the first non-pornographic film to depict sexual intercourse, but it is considered the first theatrically released movie to feature an actress (Hedy Lamarr, in her star-making role) simulating an orgasm onscreen. Censorship, bans and denouncements of the film from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Adolph Hitler and Pope Pius XII were partly due to Lamarr’s infamous non-sexual nude scene, but the close-ups on the actress’ face as she expresses sexual pleasure were certainly as objectionable, if not more so, for the time.
The “Rape of the Christ” in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
A film so controversial that it’s still very difficult to see it in its (existing) entirety, Ken Russell’s The Devils initially had such blasphemous sequences as the infamous “Rape of Christ,” which features possessed nuns masturbating with crucifixes and effigies of Jesus. Yes, we can count masturbation as sex, though in this film and in The Exorcist, which also includes masturbation with a cross, we might better classify the acts as rape. But the difficulty of distinction only adds to its controversial nature, doesn’t it?
Sweetback Loses His Virginity in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)
Considering Melvin Van Peebles actually performed most of the sex acts he’s seen engaged in in this seminal Blaxploitation film, it’s quite possible that young Mario Van Peebles’ sex scene was similarly unsimulated. Of course, that would have been illegal, since Mario was only 13. Even if there was no actual intercourse occurring, though, the scene is controversial for the boy’s nudity and energetic performance during the title character’s moment of sexual awakening with a prostitute.
Sex with Chickens in Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)
Bestiality scenes can be quite controversial (see the cat rape in Leolo, for example), but animal rights groups have less to protest with a film that merely simulates animal cruelty than a film like Pink Flamingos, which definitely appears to be exploiting and harming a live chicken during an infamous moment of lovemaking between two characters who crush the fowl between them. It may not be the most disturbing moment of the film, but it is one of the more contentious.
Fisting Scene in Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980)
Long before Brokeback Mountain and Milk were protested for their tasteful depictions of homosexual lovemaking (Christian groups predictably slammed them for being gay propaganda), Cruising was controversial for depicting gay sex as fetishistic, depraved and violent (gay groups slammed it for being anti-gay). The film originally opened with a disclaimer stating that it portrays only “one segment” of the “homosexual world” and is “not meant to be representative of the whole,” but it didn’t help matters. The film was still considered homophobic, failed at the box office, and worst of all, led to copycat crimes against gays.
The Introduction of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Like most erotic films made by respected arthouse filmmakers, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet polarized critics and audiences and was met with both Oscar recognition and protests. Most of the controversy concerned the film’s most infamous scene, criticized for being misogynistic as well as depraved, in which Dennis Hopper inhales oxygen and engages in abusive sexual activity with Isabella Rosellini while being watched by Kyle Maclachlan. David Cronenberg would be met with a similar mix of praise and disgust ten years later, with the controversial auto-accident-fetish film Crash.
Jesus Has Sex in The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
Obviously Christian groups would get upset with a film that depicts Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in a sex scene with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), and so it was no surprise that protests began many months prior to the release of The Last Temptation of Christ when such a scene was first reported to exist. Never mind that the scene is only part of a dream/vision Jesus has while being tempted by Satan and is not exploitive. Many would continue to slam the film without even watching it. One French Catholic group famously went to see it, but only to throw a Molotov cocktail at the screen.
The Opening Scene in Kids (Larry Clark, 1995)
Though controversial for many, many reasons and scenes, particularly the tragic rape scene at the end, Kids was met with protest from the very first shot, which features a depiction of a 17-year-old boy (Leo Fitzpatrick) deflowering a 12-year-old girl (Sarah Henderson). Many viewers questioned the legality or morality of employing this seemingly age-appropriate actress, critics called it borderline kiddy porn, and the filmmakers constantly had to assure audiences that she was in fact 18. The film had its share of protests and distribution problems, but fortunately for the filmmakers, it was made and released before the signing of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, unlike…
Humbert and Lolita Play a Game in Lolita (Adrian Lyne, 1997)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel was obviously controversial for its semi-incestuous, pedophilic sex scenes, even though they were only hinted at and occurred off screen. 35 years later, in an era thought to be more progressive and allowing, Adrian Lyne’s version was just as objectionable, if not more so, because it left less to the imagination. One sex scene carefully substituted a 19-year-old body double for 15-year-old actress Dominique Swain, but despite the fact that plenty of movies had employed legal-aged girls portraying underage characters in nude and sex scenes before, Lyne’s Lolita was unfortunately being filmed just as President Clinton signed the Child Pornography Prevention Act. This banned even virtual child pornography, which Lolita’s sex scene might be considered to be, so Lyne videotaped the making of all questionable scenes in case he needed to produce evidence in court that his film falls into the boundaries of the law. Of course, legal or not, the film became a difficult sell to audiences and failed to find proper theatrical distribution. Meanwhile, after five years, the Child Pornography Prevention Act was struck down in 2002 for being too broad.
Nazi Commits Statutory Rape in The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
This wasn’t the first film to depict an underage boy having sex with an older woman, nor was it the first to incite protests regarding the double standard of statutory rape being more acceptable when the minor is male. But due to its added controversy of involving a former Nazi (Kate Winslet), whose humanity is defended through the film’s early lovemaking and romance scenes, The Reader makes it onto this list instead of other titles (which due to the double standard aren’t even seen as that controversial anyway).