Sex in the Cinema: An Abbreviated History

By Brian J. Woodman

The Sex in the Cinema exhibit at the gallery of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction emphasizes advertising and publicity materials created by motion picture producers and distributors in the United States through the 1970s. Although several unusual objects are incorporated into the show, the majority of featured items are posters, publicity stills, lobby cards, press books, and other movie industry print materials. Hollywood, independent, exploitation, sexploitation, and adult heterosexual and homosexual films are all included in the exhibit in order to provide an overview of the myriad ways sex has been used throughout the history of motion pictures to titillate audiences and increase box office receipts.

Examples of sex in the cinema are almost as old as the film medium itself. It is rumored that as early as 1896, actress Louise Willy performed the first strip tease onscreen in Le Bain (The Bath), and Thomas Edison caused a scandal with his 20-second film The May Irwin Kiss (1896), which documented a lip lock in close-up. In 1914, Lois Weber’s The Hypocrites brought female nudity to the American screen, and in 1916, Australian swimmer and actress Annette Kellermann became the first female star to appear nude on celluloid in Daughter of the Gods. Throughout the silent period, issues of sex permeated American movies, whether in romances, hygiene films that dealt with sexually transmitted diseases, or in dramas that explored prostitution and the white slave trade.

America's mainstream acceptance of sexual permissiveness onscreen, however, was short-lived. Public outcries against obscenity, threats of censorship, and tabloid coverage of the infamous Fatty Arbuckle case, in which the popular comedian was tried (and acquitted) for the rape and murder of young starlet Virginia Rappe, all tarnished Hollywood’s public image. In order to improve Hollywood’s image and avoid government interference in the entertainment industry, the studios established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922, later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Former Postmaster General William Hays headed this new self-governing Hollywood agency.

In 1927, the "Hays Office" issued its list of "Don’ts and Be Carefuls," the new industry guidelines for motion pictures. Mindful of the film content that most often ran into problems with state and local censors, the new code of conduct prohibited nudity, drugs, profanity, and white slavery, and it required restraint in cinematic representations of violence, criminality, and sexuality. However, filmmakers found that they could easily circumvent these rules. The "Don’ts and Be Carefuls" did not eliminate controversial content from the screen.

In 1930, Hollywood attempted to revise its industry-imposed rules of conduct by establishing the Production Code. The Code picked up where the "Don’ts and Be Carefuls" left off, taking a strict approach to sex and crime in cinema. Under the Code, nudity, profanity, homosexuality, childbirth, prostitution, criminal and lustful acts, explicit adultery, religious blasphemy, and suggestive dance all were forbidden, although exceptions might be made if such obscene behavior was punished within the film. Still, salacious content permeated Hollywood films such as Night Nurse (1931), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Scarface (1932), and the movies of Mae West. Sexy foreign films such as Ecstasy (1933) became smash hits.

In 1934, the Hayes Office, under heavy public pressure, particularly from the Catholic Church, took a drastic step in requiring enforcement of the Code. It established the Production Code Administration (PCA), a new regulatory agency led by conservative Catholic Joseph Breen. Under Breen’s PCA, every film released by Hollywood was required to submit its script for approval before it even started production, and the "Breen Office" would carefully examine the final print of the film before it could be released. The only way to get criminal or sexual material through PCA censors was if the Breen Office decided that a movie had "compensating moral value" that overrode the severity of the offending content. A film deemed offensive could result in large fines or in the re-editing of the film to meet PCA standards. If the filmmakers would not submit to PCA demands, the film would not receive the official Production Code seal of approval and would be unable to screen in the majority of American exhibition sites. The risk of such severe penalties resulted in the whitewashing of sexual content in mainstream Hollywood films for decades to come. During the reign of the PCA, sex in the cinema was forced to hide in shadows of subtle innuendo and suggestion.

Exploitation filmmakers, who worked outside of the Hollywood mainstream, took advantage of the clean respectability of studio films. These exploiteers, many of whom were old road showmen or carnival hands, understood the value of shock and specialized in films that reveled in what could not be shown by Hollywood. Such exploitation films as Sex Maniac (1934), Marihuana (1936), and Smashing the Vice Trust (1937) used forbidden topics such as promiscuity, prostitution, and drug use as their selling points. These films would be shown in small, independent theaters. In many cases, exploiteers would simply hit the road with a film, moving from town to town and setting up exhibition venues along the way. Although the films sometimes would run afoul of local censors, exploitation pictures often were able to circumnavigate local laws by insisting that their films were educational. Sometimes they would claim that the films were made in cooperation with local, state, and federal officials and were a public service that examined the terrible scourges of society. People attended the screenings, however, because the films reveled in their explicit, and socially inappropriate, content.

Exploitation promoters were limited by extremely small advertising budgets and public regulation. Although exploitation pictures sometimes could afford moderately sized newspaper campaigns and the occasional radio spot, these films often either were unable to afford large advertising efforts or they were prevented from advertising their salacious material through such venues. In such an atmosphere, advertising at theaters was of the utmost importance. Thus, movie trailers and posters became essential ingredients in the advertising of exploitation pictures. With images of lustful men and half-dressed women, advertising copy such as "Man’s secret yearnings brought to light" and "Girls ensnared into lives of shame," plus exciting lists of adjectives such as "Sensational! Bold! Startling!", exploitation posters often were more interesting than the poorly-made films they promoted.

Reflecting what had happened in Hollywood, during the 1940s public decency standards for exploitation movies became increasingly strict, resulting in tamer sexual fare. The burlesque film Teaserama (1955) demonstrates these stringent decency requirements. Even though it essentially exists to titillate audiences with erotic dances performed by the likes of Bettie Page and Tempest Storm, the movie shows surprisingly little skin.

Although the Production Code tightly clamped down on sexual material through the mid-to-late 1930s, the 1940s, and the early 1950s, the Eisenhower era saw an increase in challenges to Code dominance. In 1953, director Otto Preminger released his film The Moon is Blue without a Production Code seal, despite the film’s condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency for using such forbidden words as "virgin," "pregnant," and "seduce." Preminger did the same thing again with his 1955 drama dealing with drug addiction, The Man with the Golden Arm. Films such as Tea and Sympathy (1956) managed to get released even though it contained strong homosexual undercurrents in its story of troubled youth. Marilyn Monroe became a national sex symbol in such suggestive films as The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959). The 1950s also saw the weakening of Hollywood’s monopoly on film exhibition after the studios were divested of their theater interests in the landmark Paramount Case (1948), a ruling that encouraged the spread of smaller, independent cinemas that could show films with increased adult content. Soon art house theaters were reaping large profits from their screenings of increasingly explicit foreign films such as Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1957) and Fredrico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960).

Outside of Hollywood, the continual challenges to decency standards set the stage for the rise of sexploitation films, a new type of exploitation cinema that did not deem it necessary to claim that it had any redeeming social or educational value. Pictures such as the exotic Pagan Island (1960) and the nudist novelty film Nude on the Moon (1962) featured women’s bare breasts. The first film by sexploitation legend Russ Meyer, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), broke adult box office records, grossing over a million dollars, with its busty women and lewd and silly humor. The successful formula of bawdy comedy, voyeurism, and soft core sexuality became the template for many films to come, and it helped to establish a new subgenre of film, the "nudie-cutie." Another nudie cutie, Kiss Me, Quick (1964), similarly blends shots of attractive, well-endowed women with zany humor, which inexplicably involves campy go-go dancing and visits from the likes of the Wolfman and the Frankenstein monster.

The tone of sexploitation films began shifting in the mid-1960s from the absurdity of nudie cuties to the darker, sometimes violent sexuality of "roughies" such as Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho! (1965) and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966). Some exploiteers also bought soft-core foreign films, which reflected more liberal sexual attitudes, and distributed them on the American sexploitation circuit.

Hollywood Production Code standards continued to be tested as well. Youthful sexuality became the centerpiece of Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, and Stanley Kubrick brought Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous Lolita to the screen in 1962. The years 1967 and 1968 proved to be pivotal. In 1967, new MPAA president Jack Valenti abolished the Production Code and, the following year, instituted the voluntary Hollywood ratings system, which allowed almost any Hollywood film to be released, provided that each film receive an age-appropriateness designation. In 1968, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) was picked up by U.S. customs officials, resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that further freed films from restrictive obscenity laws. Also in 1968, films with lesbian characters and themes were released, including Robert Aldrich’s X-Rated The Killing of Sister George and Radley Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle. John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), a movie that featured male prostitution and homosexuality, made history by being the first X-rated film to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1970, a year after the Stonewall rebellion that kick started the modern gay rights movement, the first independent gay-friendly film, The Song of the Loon, was released, providing audiences with new, increasingly respectful representations of homosexuality. That same year, United Artists released The Christine Jorgensen Story, Hollywood’s first attempt at exploring transgender issues in a respectful, if not altogether successful, manner. Sexuality on celluloid was more on display than ever.

In the newly permissive environment that followed the elimination of the Production Code in 1968, sexploitation films subsequently could show full frontal female nudity as well as simulated sex. As a result, sexploitation films, which now had to compete against increasingly racy Hollywood fare, became much more graphic in such soft-core features as the Nazi torture camp-inspired Love Camp 7 (1968) and the western Ride a Wild Stud (1969).

In 1972, Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat helped to bring acceptance of hardcore pornography to the mainstream. After finally winning its hotly contested court battle to gain mainstream release, Deep Throat became a phenomenal success, setting box office records for a pornographic film. The film, along with such porn classics as Behind the Green Door (1972), paved the way for X-rated heterosexual pornography’s penetration of mainstream American culture. Gone were the days of all male, trench coat-adorned audiences. Deep Throat showed in mainstream theaters, and both men and women attended its screenings. The widespread appeal of this new "porn chic" was most evident in the ballooning of film star Linda Lovelace into the nation’s first porn super star. Where headlining a hardcore movie once would have been a horrible secret, Linda Lovelace was celebrated, making her way into magazines and onto talk shows. With this film began the adult film star system that still dominates the industry today. Around the same time, the world of gay male erotica experienced an explosion in popularity due to the efforts of such highly successful companies as Jack Deveau’s Hand in Hand films and the directing talents of men such as Toby Ross, Joe Gage, Peter de Rome, and J. Brian.

Since hardcore pornography made explicit sexual material more readily available than ever before, sexploitation producers needed new ideas to compete in the marketplace. Not only were the resulting films increasingly sexually explicit; they also had larger budgets (although still modest compared to Hollywood) and began playing more and more within popular film genres. Such films attempted to be sexploitation blockbusters with romance, comedy, adventure, and, of course, lots of sex. The mainstreaming of sex in both Hollywood and hardcore, however, finally overwhelmed the soft-core sexploitation picture by the early 1980s.

Works Consulted

Bijou Video: Gay Video Experts website,

Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).

Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Sam Frank, Sex in the Movies (New York: Citadel Press, 1986).

"Incredibly Strange Films," Re/Search 10 (1986), guest ed. Jim Morton.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB), various entries,

Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, Sleazoid Express (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne, The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry (New York: Regan Books, 2005).

Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris, Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996).

Raymond Murray, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video (New York: Plume, 1996).

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ed., The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Jenni Olson, The Queer Movie Poster Book (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004).

Eric Schaefer, "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

"Sexual or Erotic Films in Cinema" website: