10 Essential Documentaries About Sex and Sexuality

These films lay bare certain taboos and then run over those taboos with a truck.

Sex is still a taboo topic, to one degree or another, in most parts of the world. Historically, art has played a tremendous role in rolling back such taboos and getting people to speak openly about sex and sexuality. Documentary cinema is no different in this regard. It is an incredibly intimate art form, and it perhaps never gets more intimate with its subjects than when dealing with the topic of sex. These films feature people laid bare (often literally) before the viewer, to the cause of opening dialogues about sex. Taboos are broken when silence is broken, and each of these documentaries explores a different aspect of sex or sexuality.


Love Meetings (1965)

Always the provocateur, director Pier Paolo Pasolini sat down with as many of his fellow Italians as he could in order to throw questions about sex and sexual practice their way. Pasolini himself is front and center, acting as the interviewer in every scene, meaning that the whole film is a proudly gay man challenging people about their sexual mores. He gathers interviewees from every class strata and finds a common thread of ignorance and repression running through them. We can look at it as a snapshot of a bygone age, although one wonders how much more enlightened we’d find people if similar interviews were conducted today.


Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (1985)

Kirby Dick made his feature debut with this film, which follows the work of Maureen Sullivan, professional sexual surrogate. Surrogates help those experiencing sexual dysfunction by providing a safe environment in which to discuss and sometimes practice acting out their anxieties. Sullivan’s patients, a 25 year old with little experience and a 45 year old divorcee plagued by confidence issues, have already embarked on a significant trust fall, and Dick respects their vulnerability. The camera remains at a mute distance as Sullivan works them through their myriad body issues and interpersonal anxieties. It’s an emotional film about the blocks to intimacy we can suffer.


Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys (1994)

For good reason, pedophilia is a charged topic, in and outside of documentary spheres. Even including it within discussions of “sexuality” may prove controversial, and anyone who argues that it doesn’t belong on this list isn’t necessarily wrong. To watch Chicken Hawk, in which members of NAMBLA (The North American Man/Boy Love Association) openly discuss their love for prepubescent boys and their efforts to push age of consent “reform,” is an experience in profound discomfort. But while you’re under no obligation to understand the mindset of pedophiles any deeper than you wish to, the doc makes for a riveting look into this world, and it certainly never defends its characters’ arguments.


Fetishes (1996)

Nick Broomfield takes viewers inside Pandora’s Box, one of New York City’s most infamous fetish clubs. Divided into eight sections that each address a different fetish, it’s practitioners and its enthusiasts, the film explores what it’s like to get off on stuff that’s outside the norm. There’s master and slave play, sadomasochism, infantilism and more. Fetishists are often either the butt of jokes or victims held up for morbid titillation in episodes of CSI, but Broomfield and his crew treat them with nonjudgmental curiosity. Who knows — maybe you’ll see something you want to try.

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)

Already featured on our list of docs about death and dying, Sick is equally deserving of a spot here. Sex and death are intertwined, with the former being the only way we have of defeating the latter, whether it’s through reproduction or the temporary suspension of time that comes with intense pleasure. Bob Flanagan, who survived far longer than anyone suffering cystic fibrosis is supposed to, claimed that his indulgence in BDSM was a major factor. Director Kirby Dick (showing up here again) even observes Bob engaging in such acts with his partner Sheree, with a frame that’s graphic but never voyeuristic.


Inside Deep Throat (2005)

No discussion of sex would be complete without acknowledging the role that pornography plays in our sex lives. There are multiple docs on the subject, but this better than any other looks at how porn affects both its audience and its participants. Deep Throat remains the most influential pornographic film ever made, and this doc does an excellent job of contextualizing the culture of its time period, explaining the process of creating it and the seismic effect it had on America. If you want to understand how a single porno could gross tens of millions of dollars in theaters, look no further.


The Education of Shelby Knox (2005)

One of America’s many absurdities when it comes to sex is its woefully spotty educational curriculum on the subject. Many school systems across the country get away with teaching abstinence-only lessons, even though this does nothing to curtail teen sexual activity and does a lot to increase STD and pregnancy rates. Student Shelby Knox, a hero after any feminist’s heart, began an impassioned campaign for sex education reform in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. It’s a Hollywood-worth coming-of-age arc that’s all the better for being true.


Zoo (2007)

In case you thought including Chicken Hawk was too extreme, here’s a film about a man who died from internal injuries after having sex with a horse. Unlike pedophiles, zoophiles don’t even have a significant advocation arm, so deeply underground is their perversion. Sheltered by appearing as disembodied voices, two associates of the dead man talk about their “activities” and how they were part of a zoophile club. Much of Zoo is re-creation, and beautifully-filmed re-creation at that. It almost completely avoids graphic depiction of the subject at hand, making it palatable for processing through elision. This is one of the best-looking, most artful films about depravity ever made. It is troubling, unshakable and brilliant.


Scarlet Road (2011)

Australian Rachel Wotton describes herself as a “whore,” but she’s performing a service not unlike that of Maureen Sullivan. Where Sullivan helps men who are psychologically hobbled in regards to sex, Rachel helps those who face physical difficulties in the act. Realizing that the disabled have just as much a right to intimacy as anyone else, she founded Touching Base, an organization devoted to educating people about the sexual needs of disabled people. Scarlet Road is loaded with emotional resonance, as men describe feeling alive again after finally being able to touch someone. It speaks to how sex is a function of being a human being, plain and simple.


Whore’s Glory (2011)

In brothels in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico, director Michael Glawogger probes the lives of those who sell their bodies for a living. Like any other aspect of living, sex is commodified, and prostitution is the purest form of this commodification there is. The “fair” price of a human being is discussed. Women are called by numbers, not names. Whore’s Glory is dispassionate and on the opposite end of the spectrum from most docs about “regular” sex. But it’d be remiss to make such a list without including the darker side of its topic.


Bonus: LGBT Docs

Due to the nature of their subject matter, a lot of docs about non-heteronormative culture and history will, whether incidentally or as a major focus, address the particulars of its characters’ sexuality. In fact, because of this, there are more prominent documentaries that deal with non-straight sexuality than there are those that do. Thus, they get lumped together here. Most of the docs on our list of docs about LGBT culture are excellent examples. Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives is particularly essential. Paris is Burning and Tongues Untied both deal wonderfully with more specific LGBT cultures. And The Celluloid Closet explores sexuality as it is dealt with in cinema in an intelligent, edifying manner.

This list was originally published on October 9, 2014.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/