go to content
LGBT

These Women Are Behind Some Of Your Favorite Lesbian Sex Scenes On TV

Lesbian sex on the small screen has a reputation for lazy, pornographic shots tailor-made for men. Queer female writers and directors behind shows like Transparent, The L Word, and Orange is the New Black are determined to change that.

Posted on

In September, writer, director and Transparent creator Jill Soloway delivered a passionate speech at the Toronto International Film Festival about the male versus female gaze. She said that viewers of cinema, television, and other media are bombarded with depictions of women and sexuality from a very specific, patriarchal view that audiences have come to accept: how men see the world, and how they see women.

“My favorite male gaze staple, was like, a shot that you’d see a lot on Love Boat,” Soloway said. “Scene starts, open on: a pair of perfect tits. A bartender adds the flourish to two piña coladas, said tits place the drinks on the tray, carries the tray to a table where two people are talking. Tits sets down the drinks and — scene begins. Classic male gaze.”

The male gaze has been so persistent in modern culture that even women directors have had to confront themselves when they are quick to stage similar shots in a scene, especially if it’s one that is focused on not just one female body, but two — together. Directors employing the male gaze often shoot lesbian sex scenes cropped to specifically show what is happening with the two women's body parts (specifically genitals and breasts), or lengthy voyeuristic depictions of every position imaginable, or both.

“When you start to break down a sex scene that you’re gonna direct, you start realizing how much of what’s in your head is the male gaze,” said director Nisha Ganatra, who has worked on shows like Transparent, during a recent phone interview. “You almost can’t even imagine a shot that’s not the male gaze. You have to go through your memory and scrub all that shit out. … Luckily being a lesbian filmmaker, I can say ‘OK, how do I see these things?’ and it will inherently be the female gaze — once you free yourself from everything that has co-opted your own vision.”

What we might call the female gaze involves showing what a female character sees from her own perspective — she’s a subject, rather than an object. The female gaze is less about the body parts involved, and more about how the sex feels. "I take the camera and I say, 'Hey, audience, I’m not just showing you this thing, I want you to really feel with me," Soloway said in her speech. "Things maybe that you watch where you say, I can tell a woman wrote and directed it."

What makes a "good" sex scene ultimately has less to do with something tangible — the way limbs are posed or moved or touched — and more about the story on screen. It's the telling of that story, how it's told, and who it's being told by. When so many viewers are used to the kind of lesbian sex presented in porn — which almost always involves fetishistic shots of very feminine people having the kind of sex that's unrecognizable to most actual queer women — mainstream television has the opportunity to show something rawer and realer.

Queer-identified women writers and directors tend to be more conscious of the camera’s gaze, which could be one of the reasons why same-sex love scenes on women-helmed shows like Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, and The L Word are ultimately more celebrated by LGBT viewers. While being a woman — or a lesbian — isn't enough to create a successful sex scene, the creators and writers of newer, more inclusive shows are making concerted efforts to challenge the status quo of Sapphic sex on screen, giving viewers more realistic depictions of queer characters’ lives.

The first lesbian sex scene on American television was, of course, on premium cable. Showtime’s Queer as Folk, an adaptation from the original British version, boasted many firsts in the realm of queer sex on TV. Its lesbian couple, Melanie and Lindsey, were shown using a black vibrator together in Season 2, which aired in the United States and Canada in 2002. The following year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became the first broadcast network to show a lesbian love scene as part of a montage included with other characters also engaging in sex acts with their respective partners. Still, these scenarios were anomalies. Shows like E.R., with singular lesbian characters like Dr. Laura Weaver, a first on network television, were prone to skip over any intimacy between two women and instead show them in a bed together to insinuate something had happened there, without showing exactly what — despite the large amounts of sex being had on screen by their heterosexual counterparts, including illicit hospital-room romps and George Clooney's pleasuring Julianna Margulies in a bubble bath.

It wasn’t until 2004 that The L Word premiered, giving lesbian and bisexual women regular depictions of themselves and their sex lives on the small screen. The Showtime series was ripe with beautiful women sharing more than just subtext or innuendo — sex was a huge part of the show and every character would eventually partake in some sort of Sapphicly-engaged scenario, some in almost every episode. Queer women crowded into bars and the couches of their friends with the premium cable network to watch the drama about a group of well-off L.A.-based lesbian and bisexual women unfold every Sunday night. (Of course, this wasn't ideal for Showtime, who was hoping to get more individual subscribers from the salacious soap.)

Writer Alex Kondrake worked on The L Word from 2007 to 2009, where she said the largely lesbian writers room didn’t necessarily try to be “all things to all lesbians, not that you could ever be.” The show was largely focused on upper middle class, white, feminine cisgender women — and its attempts at diversity, specifically introducing a trans character, were misguided at best and harmful at worst. But it was the only show that regularly showed women engaging in romantic and sexual relationships with one another, and that kind of representation was something lesbians enjoyed hate-watching almost as much as they did tuning in because they actually liked the content.

Bette and Tina (Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman) were the show's main couple — an interracial pair trying to have a baby together in the series premiere, which also shows them visiting with a sex therapist and lamenting that sex hasn't been much of a priority for them as of late. They were the Ross and Rachel of The L Word — the couple that most fans wanted to be together despite their consistent struggles.

Meanwhile, Shane (Kate Moennig) was the lothario — the original Ruby Rose who had straight women rethinking their sexual orientations after seeing how Shane pleasured just about every woman in West Hollywood. An impossibly cool hairdresser rumored to be based loosely off Sally Hershberger, a celebrity hairstylist, Shane's swagger once scored her three women from the same family at a wedding.

“You wanted some romance, and then you also wanted some hot fantasy sex,” Kondrake said during a recent phone interview. “There are people who are in a relationship and have been forever and ever fantasizing about ‘Wow, I wish I could be Shane and hook up with all kinds of fantasy chicks,’ and then the other people who are not in a relationship and desperately want someone to love them can fantasize about Bette and Tina, and what a great pair they are and how they love each other.”

The L Word, like its predecessor Queer as Folk, was hypersexual in nature, with sensual and saucy hook-ups in every hour. Still, Kondrake said it was always “character motivated” and that the sex has to be about something other than sex.

“A lot of times [sex is] about power and so there has to be some kind of subtext or something else that you’re seeing, or some story reason why these two people hook up. Or what is it about their relationship that you’re using sex to depict?” Kondrake said. “There needs to be a reason why they’re having sex. It’s also illustrative of personality and what’s going on in their life — like what is the reason behind what they’re doing? … What is the reason these two people are getting into this relationship? What is this person giving that person? What is the dynamic that is happening here?”

On The L Word, people were watching for the sex as much as anything else. While there were many different kinds of sex scenes, most often they are focused on the whole of the experience. There were surely some voyeurs looking to see how lesbians "do it," but lesbians themselves enjoyed the one show where they could unabashedly see some kind of representation of women making each other cum.

Ten years later, mainstream media has slowly been improving its bisexual and trans representation — and no show has tried to do more than Transparent. Amazon's Emmy-award winning series about the Pfefferman family discovering themselves in the wake of their parent's transition was inspired by Jill Soloway's own parent coming out to her. Her sister, Faith Soloway, is also a writer on the show and an out lesbian.

“Sex is so part of this show," Faith Soloway said during a phone interview. "It’s not about the sex scenes; it’s about the expression of sex — and it’s great to know that we’re not having to answer to producers who want to see ‘You have to have this amount of sex scenes per each episode’ or ‘Toplessness here.' There’s never a formula. It just really has to really work hand in hand with the actors and the characters.”

The first lesbian sex scene that occurs in Transparent transpires between Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin) in Season 1. Tammy and Sarah are former college girlfriends who reconnected after they were both married and had kids, who coincidentally attend the same elementary school. Tammy and Sarah's secret affair is found out, and in this scene, they are professing how happy they are to be alone together, finally, while hungrily loving all over one another. Tammy is wearing a white tank top and boy shorts, fucking Sarah with her hands, stopping to kiss her gingerly before grabbing her tits and going down on her. "All I'm thinking about is you," Tammy says before Sarah says, "Get the dick out. Get the dick, get the dick, get the dick!" Sarah turns over on all fours as Tammy cleans off the dildo and begins pushing it into Sarah from behind. They're ultimately interrupted by a phone call; thwarted again.

“We had two queer women on set who were saying ‘This is how it goes down,’” Ganatra said. She directed the scene and episode writer Ali Liebegott was also on hand. “Then we had to realize ‘Oh, we’re very different, too.’"

The reality of sex is that even for two women, there is not a right or wrong way to be having it — which is why arguments over the authenticity of lesbian sex acts onscreen can get so heated. One woman's refusing to acknowledge scissoring as a viable sex act is another's tremendous appreciation for tribbing.

"One thing we did agree on was there was a moment where Melora Hardin took the dildo and was kind of smacking Sarah around with it," Ganatra said. "It was hilarious and she was going for the comedy but we were like ‘I don’t think I would slap a person with a dildo.’ Amy was like ‘Good, because I did not enjoy that.’ Ali was like “I don’t know, guys — I’m a little twisted. I might do that.’ We were just like dying. Like ‘OK, well, let’s figure out what’s right for these characters.’”

“We’re always just wanting to do the real and what isn’t seen a lot — those two things,” Soloway said. “The sex scenes really have to answer a lot of questions and open new questions — they can’t just be there like ‘I want to see this happen!’ They have to have emotional payoffs and emotional risk.”

Sex scenes require a lot of careful plotting and planning so that they don't end up coming off as pornographic. The L Word was generous with the amounts of nudity and time devoted to hot moments of love and lust. Kondrake cited a specific episode (Season 5, Episode 10 "Lifecycle") where a dildo was used, and the kinds of questions it brought up on set and with Showtime.

In the scene, girlfriends Nikki (Kate French) and Jenny (Mia Kirshner) take turns filming each other taking their clothes off with a handheld camera and dressing up in role-playing scenarios (actor/director) before Nikki straps a harness on and tells Jenny she's going to "fuck her like a man." It's a long, drawn-out scenario set to The Cure's "Just Like Heaven," and despite the fact it's directed by a lesbian (Angela Robinson), it's uncomfortable to watch as any suggestion of sexiness is tempered by its fantastical bizarreness, and the fact that it doesn't offer any other information about the characters or their relationship. It felt forced.

“My sister, who is not a lesbian but was watching every single episode, calls me up after that scene and goes ‘OK, now you guys crossed the line. That was just porn,’” Kondrake said.

“I remember thinking there’s a strange thing about that scene and there’s a strange thing about cable. There’s these weird rules they have like how many thrusts are you allowed," Kondrake added. "I think it came into play in that scene because there was a dildo and there was a question of ‘Well, OK but nobody’s a man and does it matter if it’s a dildo?’ So we had some discussion with the network all about ‘Is this acceptable because does this follow the same thrusting rule?’ I remember at the time being like ‘I cannot believe that we’re getting away with this. This is just so racy.’” (A Showtime representative told BuzzFeed News that "Showtime has an internal standards and practices process where we review our content for sex, nudity, language, and violence to assign a parental rating.")

Not long after The L Word writers navigated sexual content guidelines, something similar was happening at Nickelodeon’s teen offshoot The N (Now Teen Nick) which debuted its own show about lesbians in 2008, although their characters were 16-year-old girls. Writer/producer Nancylee Myatt served as co-executive producer on South of Nowhere in its first two years, and said she was continually having to fight the network for any kind of physical connection between her two young leads.

“We weren’t allowed to do anything,” Myatt said. “The courtship, the suffering fans will remember, took us a very long time to consummate. ... What is the difference between two young girls falling in love and a guy and a girl falling in love? I knew what the answer was gonna be. It’s too controversial.”

"I want to be clear that there were no 'special rules for [girl/girl] vs. [girl/boy] intimacy," said Matt Welton, former executive for The N, via email when asked about the network’s content guidelines. He indicated that standards for what the characters could do in bed, like "one foot on the floor" and "wake-up alone," “were because we had a responsibility to the large % of 11, 12, and 13 year olds watching, not because of any fear of showing gay or [girl/girl] intimacy.” Over four years, while their audience aged along with the show, Welton said, “The network grew more confident with what we were doing.”

"The conversations were indeed more intense and important, because any controversy was dangerous to the health of the show, and we were discussing situations that had never been explored on a Nickelodeon network,” Welton added.

The eventual compromise with The N came in an episode that was very strategically staged, and directed by a woman: Spencer and Ashley in bed together, though they couldn’t be lying down; “they could sort kneel,” said Myatt.

But the all too brief moment is interrupted when Spencer's homophobic mother (Maeve Quinlan) bursts in the room and pulls Ashley by the hair, down the stairs and away from her daughter.

Myatt laments that that's as far as Ashley and Spencer could go. "It's like, what did they actually get caught doing before the chaos?”


Things have changed in the seven years since The L Word and South of Nowhere went off air, as several shows — broadcast, cable, and streaming alike — have created roles for lesbian and bisexual women, and more frequently give them a chance to get it on with a woman (or two or three).

“I think all bets are off now in terms of what you can see,” Myatt said. “Go to Freeform or The CW and they are just sexy and doing things that other broadcast networks are doing.”

Series like Pretty Little Liars and The 100 have improved in parity, although heterosexual love scenes still outnumber those of the same sex. (According to GLAAD's 2015/16 Where We Are on TV report, 95.4% of television characters are heterosexual.) Unfortunately, these shows — like many others before them — have problems with queer women also being killed off not long after they participate in lovemaking sessions, a trend that sullies the progress basic cable has made. This year marked a boiling point for viewers, who were so tired of seeing the few representations of themselves on screen end up dead that they staged a social media campaign called LGBT Fans Deserve Better, asking TV writers and networks to stop participating in the Bury Your Gays stereotype, as well as raising thousands of dollars to donate to the Trevor Project.

Network TV, in general, could still use some improvement. In 2008, Fox severely cut down Olivia Wilde's same-sex love scene at the opening of a House episode called "Lucky Thirteen" after premiering it as part of an extended promo online. On its current hit Empire, run by The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, queer women characters allude to sex they've had offscreen but never engage on camera. CBS, the least inclusive LGBT network according to GLAAD's annual Where We Are on TV report, put a love scene between Sarah Shahi and Amy Acker in Person of Interest's final season, but as part of a dream sequence that some viewers felt was somewhat gratuitous and pandering. NBC's most recent lesbian or bi women characters lack in both screentime and intimacy, and shows like Chicago Fire and Blindspot have either killed or written their major ones off. This is an issue with many television shows in the recent past, as proven by the uproar over the Bury Your Gays trend after the death of Lexa on The 100, Denise on The Walking Dead, and Poussey on Orange Is the New Black last spring. Queer women characters are frequently utilized on shows that employ them for diversity’s sake and then don't know what else to do with them, too often murdering them on their respective series.

ABC fares better when it comes to their LGBT representation, mostly due to Shonda Rhimes. Shondaland shows like Grey's Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch have not been afraid to put two women in intimate experiences in beds, showers, and cars. But it's not just that they are given this specific kind of sex to perform — it's that they are also given richer stories and relationships.

Streaming networks are where the sexual diversity, alongside more racial and gender inclusiveness, is not only accepted but encouraged. Like Soloway with Amazon, writer Lauren Morelli of Orange Is the New Black praises Netflix for the ability to do most things they want, including the character of Big Boo’s use of a strap-on in Season 3's "Finger in the Dyke." A feminine woman is sitting on top of Big Boo (played by actress Lea DeLaria), orgasming on top of her before rolling off and revealing she'd been sitting atop her erect dildo.

“I think they try to be respectful of where’s the line from narrative sex versus porn, but they are so open-minded and cool, so that’s really great,” Morelli said. “And in terms of the Big Boo episode, I had actually been thinking a lot, and we had been talking in the room a lot about how lesbian sex is portrayed on TV. And Sara Hess was writing on the show at that point as well, and Sara’s also gay and I think both of us were like ‘We need to have a strap-on scene.’ I think it’s really important to represent the range of lesbian sex as it is in the world.”

Morelli credits Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan for being “open-minded” and asking the writers to push boundaries.

“And I think for me, also just in terms of getting to write it, having that scene be with Lea DeLaria is also so cool and boundary pushing because suddenly it’s not two identifiably straight seeming people having that scene,” Morelli said. “It’s a queer woman doing it.”

Across networks and streaming platforms, these series are not all exclusively written and directed by queer women — but there seems to be a direct correlation in how many of them are on staff and how LGBTQ characters are then portrayed realistically and three-dimensionally onscreen. And when queer women are the ones writing the characters, it’s inevitable that a lot of their real lives will inform their stories.

Faith Soloway said there are scenes in Transparent that are directly “lifted from my experience,” while Kondrake noted L Word writers would come back to the room from weekends off with stories that showrunner Ilene Chaiken would request be written into the show.

One of the first depictions of amazing lesbian sex onscreen was not on television, but film. The 1996 movie Bound was written and directed by the Wachowskis, Lana and Lilly, who would both come out as trans women at different times in the following years. The film was famous for its sex scene between stars Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, which was choreographed by real-life lesbian sex educator Susie Bright. She was specifically brought in to help give a certain authenticity to the way the two women (Gina Gershon's masc-presenting Corky and Jennifer Tilly's uber-femme Violet) gave each other physical pleasure. In the scene, Violet offers to show Corky her tattoo, which is right above her breast. Violet rubs the tattoo slowly, and then takes Corky's hand and has her feel the inked spot. "What are you doing?" Corky asks. "Isn't it obvious?" Violet answers. "I'm trying to seduce you."

She takes Corky's finger in her mouth, wetting it with a quick suck before moving it down between her legs. Corky moves her finger inside Violet, Violet breathing heavily but still relaying how much she's been thinking about Corky, wanting her, craving her. There's no nudity or close-up of Corky's hand inside Violet's vagina, but it's incredibly sensual and undeniably hot. Later, when they writhe together in bed, the focus on Corky's torso responding to the pleasure Violet is giving her, and then her face in ecstasy as Violet's free hand is placed lightly on top of her open mouth, Corky teething at them while Violet kisses her neck.

“Those are memorable, going down in the lesbian archives as being the best sex scenes,” Faith Soloway said. “For me, it’s the best movie for lesbian sex — one of the best. Good tension. Just really good tension. They’re so free and I think a good 20 years later, since Bound, I think there’s an acceptance of — you can call it lesbian sexuality — women expressing love. It’s interesting to think about why the Wachowskis…brought a lesbian in to really nail it down, because Bound is really about that. The sex scenes…were different. The sex scenes were almost painted like pictures in a certain way. They’re part of the climax of the whole thing — no pun intended. It was sort of this crazy artistry to it.”

"Why shouldn’t we see acts that we’re all out there doing in the real world anyway?" Myatt said. “Let’s take the stigma and the spookiness out of it, and let’s just show everybody we’re all sort of doing the same thing everybody’s doing, we just have different equipment.”


There is a distinct amount of fantasy involved when lesbian sex is portrayed by actors in a show or film. This can be somewhat frustrating for lesbians if it becomes the routine way they are shown engaging with one another, especially if it feels at all gratuitous. In films like last month’s The Handmaiden and 2014's Blue is the Warmest Color, the sexual scenes between two female lovers feel more like a to-do list of all of the acts women could engage in together: scissoring, cunnilingus, analingus, hands, mouths — anything but a dick.

The sea change seemed to come about back with The L Word — for what lacked in subtlety in its sex scenes, it at least made up for it in their creativity. The show's varied kinds of positions and situations ranged from pools to jail cells to Olivia cruise ships. They also employed toys, BDSM, and role playing, elements rarely touched upon for queer women characters on TV, and did most of these with a sense of humor about them. Sex is fun and sometimes even funny. When done correctly, characters and the way they behave in their bedrooms provide intimate understandings of who they are and what they want. Since then, series like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have expanded on those same ideas, playing with the ideas of gender, race, class and other personal and political aspects factoring into the bedroom.

In a film like Bound, it might all be leading to one explosive moment, but on television, there are more hours to fill, and stories to tell, and so having "good" sex scenes inevitably means being able to show the various ways characters relate to each other through sex, and what the sex means to them and about them.

“All sex scenes are not the same,” Kondrake said. “There’s a reason why you should be having a sex scene, have like a story character reason and that has to play into how the actors perform the scene and what the subtext of the scene is and what it’s about. Is it break-up sex? Is it getting-back-together sex? Is it I’m-cheating-on-you sex? Is it anger sex? Some sex scenes are like ‘I hate you and there’s a lot of tension in that.”

On set, Transparent actors are free to define their boundaries while also consulting the writers and directors as to what the scene is about.

“It’s really just expression of love; expression of want; expression of — almost the way we write the dialogue,” Soloway said. “It’s less so specifically choreographed.”

This is also why most lesbians will tell you mainstream “lesbian porn” (as in porn explicitly made for the consumption of cis men) doesn’t do it for them; there needs to be something more than just two female bodies enjoying each other. It needs to feel less mechanical, and more spontaneous. We expect so much more than something carefully composed.

The real gift for lesbian viewers is often not lesbian sex scenes specifically, but the shared intimate moments between two women who are having it, or will be very soon.

For Lauren Morelli, Orange Is the New Black fans tend to gush more about scenes like Alex telling Piper that she “hearts her” while they spoon in full prison garb than the time they spend in between each other's legs.

“It’s just this very quiet, domestic scene almost of the two of them being like ‘You mean something to me,’” Morelli said. “I also wrote the scene where Piper gives Alex a mix. People talk about that a lot. It’s never like ‘Oh, I loved when they were fucking up against the wall.’”

“You can’t just have two girls hooking up,” Kondrake said. “There has to be some kind of chemistry between these two women. If there’s no chemistry — that was the thing about Bette and Tina. Bette and Tina had chemistry. ... And that’s why that show in so many ways such a fantasy for lesbians, because it was emotional, too.”

But that doesn't always mean romance — sometimes a highly-palpable lustful wanting can be just as powerful. Kondrake's favorite sex scene from The L Word is a scene where the two women involved — Bette and the Carpenter — don’t touch each other, but instead touch themselves. That episode from Season 1 was directed by a man, Scandal star Tony Goldwyn — indicating that with some perspective and insight from women, it's possible for men to direct without reifying the male gaze.

Queer women are past the point now where they are asked to be happy about any small scrap of representation that comes our way, largely thanks to the perspectives offered from queer women who finally, rightfully have seats at the table — and what they’re serving is not just two pairs of tits.


Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!

Dismiss