History of Sex in Cinema:
The Greatest and Most Influential
Sexual Films and Scenes

(Illustrated)

Brief Historical Overview


History of Sex in Cinema: The Early Days

Hollywood Seen as Sin City: Scandals Rock the Industry

In the early days of Hollywood shortly after the development of film-making as an industry, moralists objected to the amount of nudity, sexuality, criminality and violence portrayed in films. Censorship boards were set up in various states and controls began to be imposed, often on a voluntary basis, once moving pictures became widespread and available to mass viewing audiences (encouraged by the popularity of nickelodeons, first called "arcade peepshows"). However, the vast complexity of various local, state and national censorship laws added to the problem of enforcement, i.e. in some states an ankle couldn't be displayed, or pregnancy couldn't be mentioned.

To appease various groups worried about the powerful effects of movies on the mainstream and growing resentment of the 'get-rich' quick Hollywood mentality, the film industry made some efforts to self-censor its own production, worried that it might be shut down --- especially after two very publicized cases that made headlines:

The Arbuckle Case: 1921

In this infamous September 1921 Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal (for the rape and murder of young 30 year-old starlet Virginia Rappe in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel), the popular silent comedian was eventually fully acquitted of the eventual manslaughter charge after three trials. The third jury - after a one-minute verdict - stated: "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a great injustice has been done him. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of twelve men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

Arbuckle Scandal
Arbuckle Scandal

Fatty Arbuckle Scandal

Murder of William Desmond Taylor: 1922

Further scandal erupted over the murder of 49 year-old millionaire film director William Desmond Taylor, popular comedian Mabel Normand's lover, in February 1922 - he was shot to death in his LA apartment after spending the early evening with Normand. The murder was never solved, although it appeared that Charlotte Shelby was a major suspect -- the angry "stage mother" of 19 year-old blonde starlet Mary Miles Minter who was seeing Taylor. The situation was further complicated by rumors that Taylor was homosexual.


Already, "America's Sweetheart" star Mary Pickford's marriage to Douglas Fairbanks on March 28, 1920, after they both divorced spouses to marry each other, was another symbol of the erosion of values in Hollywood. Contrary to the scandalous affair, Pickford had always played innocent young women in her films, such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) (the 25 year-old star portrayed a teenager), and in the year of the divorce-remarriage (when she was 28) portrayed a 12 year-old orphan in Pollyanna (1920).

Two other notorious death cases caused serious scandal in the 1920s:

Death of Wallace Reid: 1923

Upright and popular silent film actor Wallace Reid (also an alcoholic) died of a drug overdose in early 1923 at the age of 31 after years of being incurably addicted to narcotics (morphine was secretly administered to him by the studio after an accident on the set during the making of the Lasky film The Valley of the Giants (1919) in Oregon)

Death of Thomas Ince: 1924

Powerful producer Thomas Ince died under mysterious circumstances in November 1924 on The Oneida yacht of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. [Director Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow (2002) recreated the murder and speculated on the case.]

The infamous and unsolved "Black Dahlia" murder case in early 1947, involving the murder and mutilation of 22 year-old Elizabeth Short, was seen as evidence of further major problems in the film capital. [Brian De Palma's noirish The Black Dahlia (2006) was adapted from the James Ellroy novel about the notorious case, with Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as detectives, Scarlett Johansson as Eckhart's sultry girlfriend, and Mia Kirschner as the doomed starlet.]

Early Protest and Censorship Efforts: The Pre-Code Era

Censorship bills were introduced in many states and localities, and in 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed by the studios. Conservative former Postmaster General William H. Hays was appointed to head the organization, to begin efforts to clean up the motion picture industry before the public's anger at declining morality depicted in films hurt the movie business. One of his first acts in 'cleaning-up' Hollywood, due to pressure from Hollywood's top film executives, was to banish the acquitted actor-comedian Arbuckle from film, at least temporarily, in order to distract the public. [Arbuckle would continue to make films as a director under the pseudonym William Goodrich between 1925 and 1932.] Hays also approved the use of morality clauses in the standard actor's contract, to control the conduct of performers, and he also assured state and local censorship boards that he would properly regulate the industry.

Hays CodeOther restrictions were instituted to regulate the content of films and ban potentially objectionable themes (brutality, crime, drunkenness, divorce, nudity and sex), such as those noted in Hays' 1927 list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls". The eleven "Don'ts" included prohibition of profanity, suggestive nudity, use of illegal drugs, sexual perversion, white slavery, miscegenation, sex hygiene and venereal diseases, childbirth, children's sex organs, ridicule of the clergy, and willful offense to any nation, race, or creed. The twenty-six "Be Carefuls" were only cautionary, such as the elimination of the depiction of criminality, excessive brutality, murder and rape, excessive (over 3 seconds) and lustful kissing, and the depiction of men and women sleeping together in the same bed.

Most studios basically ignored the regulatory restrictions, because there was no enforcement that was effective, and they knew that film-going audiences wanted to see the kinds of things (sex and crime) that were being blacklisted. Also, some of these illicit behaviors could be exhibited -- if later punished within the film. A number of notable and successful films produced in the early 30s before the Code was strictly enforced -- so-called "bad girl" movies -- showed women using their sexuality to get ahead, such as in the taboo-breaking comedy Red Headed Woman (1932) starring Jean Harlow.


Additional Resources for the Pre-Code Era:

A number of excellent books have been written on the subject of films in Hollywood's pre-Code era (1930-1934) before the period of formal censorship began, and thereafter during the studio era, including these selections:

  • Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mick LaSalle, St. Martin's Press, 2001
  • Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mark Viera, Harry N Abrams Publisher, 1999
  • Pre-Code Hollywood, by Thomas Doherty, Columbia University Press, 1999
  • Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, Cambridge University Press, 1996
  • Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, by Matthew Bernstein, Rutgers University Press, (Depth of Field Series), 2000

History of Sex in Cinema: The Hays Code and Censorship

The Legion of Decency and The Hays Code: An Era of Censorship After Mid-1934

Three factors forced Hays and the studios to change: mounting pressure from the Catholic Church aided by support from other religious groups, economic hardships during the Depression, and the threat of federal censorship. In 1934, the American Catholic church announced the creation of the Legion of Decency, which encouraged the production of moral films and promptly condemned any film with an immoral message. The threat of movie boycotts by the Catholic Legion of Decency led the industry's trade association in mid-1934 to establish a stronger Production Code Administration (PCA) Office, headed by appointee Joseph Breen, to regulate films.

As a result of the "Hays" Code being formalized, film scripts had to be approved before production, and films had to be granted a PCA 'seal of approval' - otherwise studios were heavily fined ($25,000) and non-compliant films were prohibited from being released. Theatres were not allowed to exhibit films that had not been granted a seal.

Interestingly, the Code forced film producers to creatively sublimate sex and violence, to reinvent themselves, and to find other alternatives to attract patrons. Exploitation filmmakers made a number of "shock" or "educational" independent films with socially inappropriate content (in the guise of providing a public service), such as Sex Madness (1937), The Birth of a Baby (1938), and Child Bride (1938) - the latter was typical of an exploitation film designed to circumvent the Production Code restrictions with its plot that warned against underage marriage. It was taken on road-shows enhanced by sensational advertising and taglines ("Where Lust Was Called Just") by legendary roadshowman Kroger Babb, although it was banned in many locations by local censors due to its infamous underage nudity. Other 'forbidden' films were usually screened in theatres that came to be known as 'grindhouses' - since they often served as burlesque strip joints. In the early 1950s (during a period of very stringent decency standards), pin-up queen Bettie Page and other burlesque stars appeared in a "burlesque trilogy" of vintage erotica, tauted as documentaries: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955) -- these were extremely tame although they were designed to titillate.

The Landmark Miracle Supreme Court Decision: 1952

The Miracle - 1952

Eventually, the strict censorship and regulation system started to go into gradual decline after World War II and as the 50s arrived. By the mid-50s, the Production Code was partially rewritten to allow, when "treated within the careful limits of good taste", such previously banned topics as drug addiction, prostitution and childbirth. A landmark Miracle Supreme Court decision of the early 50s declared that films were protected as 'free speech' by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and most censorship was ruled unconstitutional.

Court Ends 'Miracle' Ban - 1952The cornerstone decision came about regarding the showing of Italian neorealist director/producer Roberto Rossellini's 43-minute film The Miracle (1948, It.) (aka Il Miracolo). [It was part of a longer 69 minute anthology film entitled L'Amore (1948, It.) (aka Ways of Love)]. The short film, with a story scripted by Federico Fellini, starred Anna Magnani as a dim-witted, unwed young peasant girl named Nanni whose child (she was impregnated by a vagabond she thought was St. Joseph, a role played by young screenwriter Fellini!) she believed was the new Christ child. It was exhibited at the 1948 Venice Film Festival, but was basically a flop in Italy after Catholic officials denounced it as "an abominable profanation." The film was imported into the US in 1949 by Polish-Jewish immigrant Joseph Burstyn, and in late 1950 opened at the Paris Theater in Manhattan. The short film was challenged by the New York Board of Regents in 1951, after being pressured by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese (and Catholic leader Francis Cardinal Spellman, who attacked The Miracle as "a despicable affront to every Christian" and "a vicious insult to Italian womanhood") to revoke the film's license on the grounds that the work was blasphemous and "sacrilegious." The film was subsequently banned by the New York State Board of Regents under 30 year-old censorship regulations barring 'sacrilegious' films. The film lost its license and the film's distributor, Joseph Burstyn, appealed the decision. The New York Appeals Court backed the Board of Regents decision.

In a remarkable 9-0 unanimous decision in 1952 in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson, the Supreme Court decided that the New York Board of Regents could not ban the film, declaring movies a form of free speech. The Court declared "sacrilege" too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. (This decision overruled the 1915 Supreme Court decision in Mutual Film Corp. v. the Industrial Commission of Ohio that since moviemaking was a business, films didn't qualify for the same First Amendment rights as other forms of expression.) Film was finally freed from federal censorship, although local censorship boards could still ban a film deemed 'objectionable'.

History of Sex in Cinema: Greater Permissiveness and Expression

New Expressionism and Auteurism:

The American CinemaAspiring French filmmakers in the New Wave 1950s proposed the auteur theory (it was first advocated by François Truffaut in 1954). This was the idea that film was an art form and a means of personal expression by a film's director. Explicit foreign imports, such as Roger Vadim's flirtatious, sex-oriented And God Created Woman (1957), the star-making hit for French/international "sex kitten" Brigitte Bardot (Vadim's wife at the time), caused waves of protest for being indecent, but further pushed back the walls of censorship.

Andrew Sarris, the influential American film critic for the Village Voice, who later served as editor of the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, was a champion for the auteur approach, first in his newspaper column with "Notes on the Auteur Theory" (1962) and then in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, the unofficial Bible of auteurism. Other liberal European directors in the 1970s (such as Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris) brought about greater changes in cinema.

Greater Permissiveness and Tolerance:

These court decisions and attitudes reflected society's increasing tolerance of mature themes in books, plays, and other forms of mass entertainment, and the belief that censorship was becoming obsolete. Challenges to the system, changing cultural attitudes and liberalized, permissive morals brought about more evidences of nudity and sexuality in Hollywood's films as a result. Also, once the theatres were forced to be sold off by the studios (due in part to a 1948 ruling which forced the separation of the studios from their theatre chains), the owners had more choice in the selection of films, and the burgeoning growth of television brought further competition. Expressive 'art-house' films from Europe brought the realization that sex in films meant greater profits.

History of Sex in Cinema: Ratings Systems

The Development of Ratings Systems:

More and more, with the loosening of standards and laissez-faire controls, graphic sexual scenes, criminality and violence, and coarse language were integrated into mainstream erotic films and dramas (although it has often been demonstrated that erotica in films doesn't necessarily guarantee greater box-office returns), although they ran the risk of being challenged. The motion picture industry officially abandoned the Hays Code in 1968. New voluntary ratings systems were proposed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), followed by age-based classification of films (i.e., G, M, R, X) to protect children. Originally, the X-rating wasn't trademarked or copyrighted, so adult film producers started self-applying the X rating to their films on purpose (which led to the invention of XX and XXX ratings for marketing purposes). In 1990, the MPAA replaced X with NC-17 in an attempt to create a non-stigmatized version of the adult rating.

Although relatively unchanged, various permutations of ratings systems have evolved to the present day. For example, M (or "Suggested for Mature Audiences") was replaced by the GP (soon replaced with PG) rating in 1970, and the PG-13 rating appeared in 1984. Some critics have called the ratings system a failure due to its subjective and arbitrary nature. Many studios have circumvented the system by self-censorship - lowering the rating of proposed films as much as possible (by slicing out explicit sex and violence to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating), in order to bring in larger audiences.

History of Sex in Cinema: Today

Sex in Films Today:

Sexy and erotic images in film scenes can be displayed in many varieties and kinds of films. Sexual scenes may appear in art-house films, horror/slasher films, erotic dramas, foreign-language films and mainstream films. They may be 'old-fashioned,' risque, blatant, mature, PG-13, excessive, suggestive, cheap, exploitative, outrageous, innovative, infantile, soft-hued and soft-focused, campy, voyeuristic, trashy, sensual, highly-charged, symbolic or visually metaphoric, carnal, highly-choreographed and artsy, prurient or soft-core NC-17. Erotic films, unlike pornography, do not have as their sole purpose the explicit and graphic display of sex and nudity. Erotica sometimes is explicit, but can often be teasing, intriguing, sylized, unique and imaginative. However, trends in recent art-house films (that are unrated) suggest that simulated sex is becoming more explicit, unsimulated sex - bordering on pornographic! Although most theatrical releases are often edited to obtain an R-rating, the DVD releases include the 'director's cut', with unrated, explicit extras material.


Sex in Cinematic History
History Overview | Reference Intro | Pre-1920s | 1920-26 | 1927-29 | 1930-1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934-37 | 1938-39
1940-44 | 1945-49 | 1950-54 | 1955-56 | 1957-59 | 1960-61 | 1962-63 | 1964 | 1965-66 | 1967 | 1968 | 1969

1970 | 1971 | 1972 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 | 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989
1990 | 1991 | 1992-1 | 1992-2 | 1993 | 1994-1 | 1994-2 | 1995-1 | 1995-2 | 1996-1 | 1996-2 | 1997-1 | 1997-2 | 1998-1 | 1998-2 | 1999-1 | 1999-2
2000-1 | 2000-2 | 2001-1 | 2001-2 | 2002-1 | 2002-2 | 2003-1 | 2003-2 | 2004-1 | 2004-2 | 2005-1 | 2005-2 | 2006-1 | 2006-2
2007-1 | 2007-2 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Index to All Decades, Years and Features


Previous Page Next Page