Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene: “Desert Hearts” Celebrates Lesbian Patience and Persistence

Welcome to Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene, a series by Drew Burnett Gregory and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about queer sex scenes in film. Today Drew writes about Donna Deitch’s romantic lesbian classic, Desert Hearts.

By the time Donna Deitch released Desert Hearts in 1985, lesbians had been on-screen for over half a century. They were maids, teachers, bosses, sidekicks, prisoners, prison guards, and vampires. They were, almost always, predatory.

The trope of the predatory lesbian lingers in every queer woman afraid to make a move, because she doesn’t want to be creepy. It’s felt today and it was certainly felt in 1985. It would have been easy for Deitch, fighting to make a lesbian film unlike any seen before — at least in English — to over-correct, to make sure her spritely love interest Cay Rivvers could never be confused with the women of this trope.

Thank God she did the opposite.

I’m a lesbian. I’m also a trans woman. When it comes to social messaging that I’m a predatory creep, this is, as the kids say, double homicide. When I first started dating as a queer woman, I had to push past this messaging. I had to realize there’s a difference between being consent-conscious (good! necessary!) and being passive (bad! not necessary!).

While the straight world may view queer women as predatory, the queer women world can sometimes view other queer women as infallible. So it’s important to state what will be obvious only to some: Queer women can violate boundaries of consent, commit acts of sexual assault, and be abusive in the same ways as any other human being. But these instances of violence don’t need to be on the forefront of a lesbian’s mind every time she wants to kiss someone. It’s possible — important! — to understand when it’s appropriate and not appropriate to make a move.

This brings us back to Desert Hearts, the most romantic movie of all time. Repressed literature professor Vivian Bell is hanging around Reno while she waits for her divorce to be finalized when voilà she encounters sexy, lesbian cowgirl Cay Rivvers. There’s an immediate spark, a gradual friendship, and, soon enough, they’re kissing in the rain. This grand moment of romance is followed by Cay’s ex-stepmom chastising the two women and kicking Vivian out of her house. But their separation won’t be long.

Vivian is sitting in her hotel room waiting for word from Cay. The phone rings. It’s her lawyer. The disappointment on Vivian’s face is evident. But then Cay shows up at her door and suddenly Vivian wants her to go away.

Cay stands at Vivian's door.

Vivian cowers in the corner holding her hotel door shut.

It’s the 1950’s and, hell, it doesn’t have to be the 1950’s for a baby queer — of any age — to be panicked about getting what they want. Cay persists.

Cay: I want you to open the door.
Vivian: And I want you to leave me alone.
Cay: I can’t! Honest.

The door opens. Vivian lets Cay in. No, Cay just walks in. But Vivian opened the door.Cay looks at Vivian through the door

Vivian looks at Cay at her door

Vivian: Alright, Cay. We’ll talk.
Cay: You start.

Vivian brings up the kiss. She admits it was mutual. She also emphasizes that she enjoys order. Cay doesn’t speak. She just smiles. But then Vivian calls the kiss innocent and Cay can’t help herself. She pushes more. How does Vivian really feel? Cay sits down on the bed with a casual dyke body language, a seduction from many feet away. Vivian stands up.

Vivian sits and talks to Cay

Cay stands and talks to Vivian

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay sits on the bed with legs spread

Vivian explains that the humiliation of Cay’s ex-stepmom was too much. And she pours herself a drink.

Vivian: When I retire I will simply write a short story for my revenge. About this town, these people, these gamblers. [takes a sip] My only clear memory is arriving. The rest is a blur. An absolute blur. 

The camera holds on Vivian during this short speech only to pan over and reveal Cay, in bed, topless.

Vivian fixes herself a drink

Desert Hearts sex scene: Vivian turns her head to see Cay in bed topless (a black rectangle is censoring her chest)

Before we continue, let’s talk about power. Vivian is older than Cay. She has more money than Cay. It’s the 1950’s so she even has the law on her side. Cay isn’t just taking an emotional risk. If Vivian felt this was harassment or nefarious in any way, she would have the power to enact serious consequences.

But, it’s true, Cay is more experienced. And that, too, is a point of power among queer people. This isn’t a math equation. It’s important to acknowledge the specifics of a situation without believing you can add up the variables of a sexual encounter to equal “good” or “bad.” Here Cay is taking a chance that Vivian’s reluctance is a result of internalized homophobia. She continues to take that chance.

Vivian: What do you think you’re doing?
Cay: Waiting for you.
Vivian: [picking up Cay’s clothes and reaching them toward her] I want you to put on your clothes and leave.
Cay: No, you don’t.
Vivian: Yes, I do.
Cay: No, you don’t.
Vivian: I, uh, I wouldn’t know what to do.
Cay: You can start by putting the “do not disturb” sign on the door.

Watching this film in 2024, it would be easy to dismiss this exchange as a product of its time — either the 1950’s setting or 1980’s when it was made. But I find it far more interesting to acknowledge that while a no should always be taken as a no, there’s still a truth to this moment. Many queer people need a push — whether it’s someone being sexually forward or someone giving an unprompted nickname or, in my case, a queer woman suggesting I try her lipstick long before I was ready.

Vivian looks at Cay

A close up of Cay looking at Vivian

Vivian talks to Cay closer

Cay watches Vivian put the sign on the door

While some experienced queers refuse to be with inexperienced queers and others prey on them, most of us end up in an encounter with someone less experienced by chance. We are people who meet another person and we happen to be at different places in our lives. I don’t approve of Cay’s insistence, but I do approve of her patience and understanding.

If someone less experienced has explicitly expressed their fear and internalized homophobia, it’s okay to encourage them to live a life beyond a decades-later short story. It’s possible to keep your top on, but still create this same opportunity. I’m grateful for the people who were patient with me while still respecting my consent and I’m grateful for the people I was patient with. I’ve also had experiences with queer women who just weren’t ready and that’s okay too. I wished them well from across the room and we parted ways. I hope they met someone else someday when they were ready.

It’s about kindness. It’s a dance where the goal is not to get a notch on your belt but to give someone the opportunity to embrace a life our world has deemed wrong. Cay understands that Vivian is just scared, that she just doesn’t know what to do. But Vivian puts the sign on the door and lets it close.

Vivian: Well, that part went smoothly. [a smile]
Cay: So take your hands out of your pockets and come here.

She does. Cay lets Vivian come to her.

Vivian: I’m not taking off my robe.
Cay: Well, everyone draws the line somewhere.

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay talks to Vivian

Vivian laughs talking to Cay

They laugh. Cay slowly puts her hands on Vivian’s face. Vivian slowly starts to lean in. Cay kisses her.

Everything moves slowly. Vivian’s whole body quivers with nerves and lust. She puts her own hands on Cay’s face, because she wants to touch more of her, because it’s a move Cay has already demonstrated.

Desert Hearts sex scene: Vivian and Cay look at each other

Cay puts a hand on Vivian's cheek

Vivian and Cay kiss.

It starts to heat up. And then Vivian appears to get overwhelmed. So Cay stops. They let their hands touch. Cay slows down again.

Vivian: I don’t usually… feel this way at 11 o’clock in the morning. [laughs] I don’t know if I’ve ever felt… this way before.

Vivian leans in to keep kissing Cay. Cay holds her. Cay sets the pace. Cay keeps it slow.

Vivian pulls away with a shudder

Cay looks at Vivian

Cay holds Vivian

Vivian’s robe starts to open up and she smiles. Cay follows this cue and helps her take it off.

Vivian looks at the side of Cay's head Vivian lets her robe fall

Then Deitch takes us into a close-up. Cay continues to kiss Vivian. They kiss for a long time and we hold, watching. There’s no rush. The kissing gets wetter. Cay licks Vivian’s lip. Spit hangs between their mouths. Cay lets her chest touch Vivian’s chest, their nipples grazing against each other.

Desert Hearts sex scene: a close up of Vivian's face

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay and Vivian kiss in a closeup

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay licks Vivian's lips in a closeup

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay kisses Vivian's chin

Cay slowly makes her way down Vivian’s chest to lick one of her nipples and Vivian exhales in pleasure. Or maybe she’s overwhelmed? Cay stops and goes back up to check in.

Desert Hearts sex scene: Cay kisses Vivian's breast (a black square is over her nipple)

Vivian moans in pleasure

Vivian smiles as Cay looks at her while on top of her

Vivian: I’m sorry.

But there’s nothing to be sorry about. Cay lets Vivian feel her feelings. And then she lets Vivian be the one to decide to continue. And they do. Vivian kisses her and then rolls her over to get on top.

Desert Hearts sex scene: Vivian is now on top and kisses down Cay's chest

Vivian’s hunger takes over. Cay has let her take control and that established trust frees her to do so. She rubs herself against Cay and then moans in pleasure. This time it’s undeniable.

Vivian lifts her head up on pleasure

Desert Hearts is known for its wipe transitions, but here there is just a slow fade to black. And after the sex scene there isn’t a denouement in bed — there’s another sex scene.

Days have passed and all they’ve done is fuck. Cay says they need to go outside at some point, but Vivian has been converted. She wants to have lesbian sex — lesbian sex with Cay — for the rest of time.

Cay is now in a chair, she holds Vivian in her arms, it's dark outside.

I’m grateful the queer community has talked more about consent in recent years. I know one of the challenges I faced when I started dating as a queer person was learning how to say no. And, unfortunately, I encountered more experienced people who took advantage of that inability. But I also know that’s just one type of encounter. The movie fantasy of Desert Hearts doesn’t give queer people a carte blanche to ignore verbal cues — I just think we can learn something from Cay Rivvers and this scene.

When I watch Desert Hearts now, I think of a few people. I think of the (older) baby queer I matched with on Tinder who disappeared and who I followed up with a month later anyway. I think about how, because of that follow-up, we spent a night together where, following her lead, we stopped at making out with clothes on. I think about how that person is now so much more settled in their queerness — with their sexuality and their gender.

I also think of the married mom I met in a small midwestern city. I think about how she secretly identified as a lesbian even though she was trapped in a marriage to a shitty man. I think about our two nights together and how she grasped at me like a life source even as she expressed her guilt and doubts. I think about how I hope there are more women in her future, more opportunities to be herself that are less fleeting.

And I think about my Cays. I think about the queer woman who offered me the lipstick. I think about the queers I hooked up with when I was new to queer dating. I think about the ones who kissed me when I was too scared to kiss them, of the ones who touched me in ways I wouldn’t know how to ask for, and who stopped when they could tell I wasn’t ready. I think about the ones kept going when they knew I was.

Sex isn’t the only way to encourage people to be themselves. But, hey, with someone like Cay, it sure can be convincing.

Desert Hearts is streaming on The Criterion Channel. The Desert Hearts sex scene begins at 1:02:43 and ends at 1:13:42.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 515 articles for us.


Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!