Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene: Before ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and ‘Challengers’ There Was ‘Personal Best’

Welcome to Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene, a series by Drew Burnett Gregory and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about queer sex scenes in film. This week, we revisit Robert Towne’s 1982 lesbian classic Personal Best.

Kayla: Let’s do it! Personal Best.

Drew: We actually just watched this movie together in person. And I do think our desire to rewatch was born out of the delicious sweaty eroticism of Love Lies Bleeding and Challengers. It was an easy jump to go back 40 years to this original sweaty gay movie.

Kayla: Yes, it really is one of the best gay sports movies of all time! And one in which perspiration is prominent, so that automatically links it to this sweaty cinema moment we’re having between Love Lies Bleeding and Challengers. It also does the same thing Challengers does in that it makes the sport itself erotic. Much like tennis, track and field is SEX.

Drew: Yes! Even the sex scene itself which we’re here to talk about… the most exciting part is the athletic challenge before even any kissing starts.

Kayla: Yes, because (I assume due to it coming out in 1982) we don’t really get the act of sex itself. We get the foreplay and the aftercare (literal tickling!), but that foreplay is thrilling, even if clothes are on and only hands are touching.

Drew: I also forgot how early in the film the sex happens. So many lesbian movies especially pre-2010 really built up to their lesbianism but this kind of works the opposite way. Early on our two leads are brought together by their shared love of track and it gets sexual quickly.

Kayla: Very quickly! The first night they meet!

Drew: Teenager Chris (Mariel Hemingway) has just choked in the qualifiers and seasoned track star Tory (Patrice Donnelly) very kindly… comforts her.

I love the cut from Chris crying to Chris laughing. A similar thing happens in mostly hetero fave Lady Bird and I find it to be such a satisfying sonic device since inevitably tears and laughter will sound similar.

They’re drinking beer and smoking weed and… watching track. Because yeah everything for them comes back to track, back to competition.

Tory and Chris lounge smoking pot.

Kayla: It is definitely their biggest love and also the thing they’re constantly butting up against in their clandestine (but also lol everyone around them seemingly knows) relationship: Do they choose each other or do they choose track?

There’s a real goofing off vibe at first, but like the crying into laughing, that mixed signal nature is so true to early queer crushes, too. They’re sort of almost bro-ing out. But also there’s a spark. Even when Chris does eventually challenge Tory to an arm wrestle, it’s a mix of tones at first.

Personal Best sex scene: Tory and Chris arm wrestle

Drew: Yes! Bro-ing out is associated with gay guy eroticism, but lesbians do it too! Especially sporty ones!

I just overall feel very seen by this portrayal of lesbianism and lesbian flirting. It’s tender and combative when often we only get tender or seductive. I love sparring as flirting! Not literally, I’m not a boxer, but verbal sparring? The best.

Kayla: Yes! Chris wants to beat her so badly!

Drew: Yeah the arm wrestling begins as genuine competition. And doesn’t let up per se. But there’s a moment where the audience realizes and I think Tory and Chris realize the intensity of the physical connection.

Arm wrestling does require you to be holding hands.

a close up of Tory as she arm wrestles Chris

Kayla: Early on in my relationship with my now wife, I kept challenging her to thumb wars. I never beat her, not even once lol

Maybe all this tennis training will lead me to being able to beat my wife at a thumb war

Drew: Omg Elise and I love a thumb war!

Kayla: Okay, it’s official. With our sample size of two couples, I’m ready to declare thumb wars as lesbian flirtation canon.

Drew: Now that I think about it this is why we play cards. We’re not board game gays per se but it’s fun to compete.

A close up of Chris as she arm wrestles Tory

Kayla: I knew a girl in college who was deeply closeted, much like myself at the time, and in fact the two of us had a lot of unspoken sexual tension. But she was literally ALWAYS challenging people to arm wrestling. I was instantly thinking about how she always did that at college parties when we were rewatching Personal Best.

Drew: Oh my God I love that

For Tory and Chris, it literally starts because Tory claims Chris isn’t as competitive as her. They’re not even being competitive about strength — they’re being competitive ABOUT BEING COMPETITIVE.

Kayla: Yes they really are trying to see who can be the best at trying to be the best.

Personal best sex scene: A super close up on Tory's mouth as they arm wrestle

Drew: Also Tory takes her shirt off to do it. She’s wearing a tank top but still. And Chris takes off her watch. They are undressing for this “sex.” It goes on for awhile and their breathing and moaning is so erotic.

Kayla: Yes! It’s very clearly intended to be a sexual moment, much like some of the sounds and movements on the tennis court in Challengers.

Chris also starts sweating profusely

Super close up on Chris' eyes as they arm wrestle

Drew: Oh yeah once we go to the close ups it’s like INTENSE

I was almost concerned it would end like the arm wrestling in The Fly when fly Jeff Goldblum rips a guy’s arm off lol

It’s not just sexual here it’s a specific type of intense sex.

Personal best sex scene: Tory and Chris pant after finishing their arm wrestling

Kayla: Sex where both people are trying to “win”

Drew: Yes and then afterward Tory immediately goes into pitching her coach to Chris. Back to track!

Kayla: Everything goes back to track!

Personal best sex scene: Tory rests her head next to Chris' chest

Drew: She’s even talking about Chris’ natural talent when she falls into the breathy “Oh fuck… I’m very fucking scared right now… Very scared…” followed by her kissing Chris.

Kayla: It’s a really good kiss! Not in a Challengers way where we’re lingering with a bunch of tongue, but the blocking is really memorable to me, and it all just feels very real.

Personal Best sex scene: Tory and Chris kiss

Drew: Yes! Especially how Tory giggles after and is like “what did you think of that?” and Chris giggles with “I don’t know.”

So many first moves in older lesbian cinema are SO FRAUGHT and this is extremely casual.

Kayla: You get the impression that Tory has done this before, though not much. And Chris hasn’t but has, perhaps, thought about it. But like you said, it ends up being pretty chill. No one is freaking out or spiraling. That same ease with which they were watching track and shooting the shit has returned.

Personal Best Sex scene: Chris and Tory lie next to each other naked after sex

Drew: Yeah and then like you said after the kiss we cut to after. But then there’s some tickling and they start kissing again and it seems like the start of more sex.

That’s also when we see the amazing pelican lamp.

Chris sits up naked (censored) next to a glowing pelican lamp.

Kayla: Obsessed with the pelican lamp

Also full bush because it’s the 80s!!!!!!

Drew: Yes!!

And yet the nudity here feels secondary to those close-ups on the sweaty faces during the arm wrestling.

Kayla: Definitely, that’s when everyone feels way more exposed. The characters, us as the viewers. We’re seeing such a deeply vulnerable part of them during the arm wrestling. The nudity almost then has the same feel as when we get nudity throughout the film in the steam room. It’s just sort of natural, organic. Nothing to blush about.

Personal best sex scene: Tory lies on top of Chris completely naked.

Drew: Exactly.

I love a detailed, graphic sex scene, but I do think Personal Best and Challengers and even Love Lies Bleeding are great examples of eroticism outside of sex acts. There’s plenty of room for that too. Especially when done this well.

Sports are kind of inherently erotic! It’s why even the straightest sports teams feel gay.

Kayla: Yes! Sports are so much about physicality and physical exertion and bodies. And then there’s so much about chemistry usually involved in team sports. How people fit together or interact together. It’s hard not to see the eroticism of it all.

There’s a whole sequence in the film where women are doing the high jump and it’s just so many closeups of their crotches, and in a lesser film it would come off as sort of 70s sexploitation camp, but it doesn’t here.

Drew: There’s a real respect for their athleticism. So even if Robert Towne is horny for them, he’s also valuing what they value and therefore seeing their humanity first.

And, hey, I’m horny for them too. And they’re horny for each other!

Kayla: To bring up another recent film: Drive-Away Dolls was basically poking fun at this exact thing with the soccer team make out party.

Drew: Yes! I’ve never been on a girls soccer team, but I assume that was a documentary.

Kayla: Cinéma vérité for sure.

Personal Best is available to rent.

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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 534 articles for us.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 837 articles for us.

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