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A Brief History of Sex in Cinema

April 21 2022 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

This week’s blog takes inspiration from the most recent season of the You Must Remember This podcast, hosted by Karina Longworth where Longworth explores the era of ‘80s erotic movies and thrillers. 

Sex politics- the general ideas and activities concerned with power dynamics between the sexes- and sex in cinema go hand in hand. In early Hollywood, what was deemed ‘appropriate’ was mostly determined by straight, European men who truly had no idea about the undercurrent of sexual exploration happening behind closed doors. Nonetheless, the movies they produced pushed, challenged norms, and in turn, influenced the way society thought about sex. Sex in movies is truly overlooked; it’s not just about the pleasurable images flashing on the screen, but rather what these scenes tell us about  the sexual dynamics of the times, and society’s relationship with sexual behaviour. 

Though we still have a ways to go for sex in movies to be representative of today’s sexual landscape. But nonetheless, we’ve made it far enough that we are afforded the luxury of looking back at history to understand this overlooked convergence of sex and society. 

1920’s: America v. Sex 


The earliest known adult films first began to appear in France in the early part of the century, and began to flourish in the 1920's. They were known as ‘risque’ or 'stag' films. These films, distributed within the black market, mainly featured heterosexual and lesbian couples. In terms of subject matter, these films ranged from outdoor sexual escapades between women, to naked couples doing the laundry for ten minutes straight. Let’s just say it was an era of experimentation.

Dorothy Mackaill plays a secretary turned prostitute in the 1931 film, Safe in Hell.
Dorothy Mackaill plays a secretary turned prostitute in the 1931 film, Safe in Hell.


Meanwhile in America, Hollywood’s take on sex was about ten steps behind the sexual exploration of its European counterparts. D.W Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), featured a seduction scene wherein the film’s star, Lillian Gish is seduced by a snobby playboy. In a pretty vanilla effort to insinuate the initiation of sex, the camera faded as the two headed for the bedroom. By today’s standards this effort might seem dangerously puritanical, but back then, this was about as sexy as it would get. Hurrah to the not so roaring ‘20s. 

1930’s: Censorship and Rule Curbing

As Hollywood entered a new decade so did its ideas of what should be permitted in its movies. Enter: The Hays Code, a self-imposed industry set of guidelines for all motion pictures that were released between 1934 and 1968. It prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence and sexual persuasions. 

The Hays Code forced Hollywood to get creative about how to address sex. This creativity led to some of the most iconic scripts in Hollywood history, that teetered between flirtatious, sexual and just enough punch to get the audience excited in the absence of sex scenes. 

Before the code, 1930s films allowed for producers to dip their toes in what would be considered ‘risque’ in North America, as exemplified by movies like King Vidor’s 1932 film Birds of Paradise. Some of the controversial scenes include actress Dolores Del Rio dancing with only two flower leis covering her chest.
Dolores Del Rio dancing in 1932’s Birds of Paradise

Dolores Del Rio dancing in 1932’s Birds of Paradise.

1940’s: Kiss Kiss (No Bang)

War era films were much more subdued in terms of their experimentation, but one that broke the mold was Casablanca, filmed in 1942.  To this day it is remembered as one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. It changed the way that producers approached sex and love. In a passionate embrace, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman kiss one another and the scene fades to black. While this may appear as a step back, this passionate kiss set to inspire a trend of other passionate kisses that would also mark the era.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in 1942’s Casablanca.

1953, From Here to Eternity, also following Casablanca’s lead with a passionate kiss that excited audiences and pushed more boundaries because of the physical contact

1953, From Here to Eternity, also following Casablanca’s lead with a passionate kiss that excited audiences and pushed more boundaries because of the physical contact.

1950’s: The Birth of the Sex Symbol 

It is popular belief that the 1950’s was the era when Hollywood relied on the sex symbol more than ever to excite audiences, lure them into feelings of pleasure, while adhering to the rules. One example? Marilyn Monroe. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, sex symbols Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s performances changed the game in terms of how to exude ‘sex’ without actually displaying any acts of sex. This meant shorter dresses, lower necklines, and lustier voices.

Monroe and Russell in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Monroe and Russell in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Then, Hugh Hefner practically did the unthinkable. In 1953, Hefner’s first Playboy issue hit the stands featuring a nude Marilyn Monroe and this initiated the first call to loosen morale in the film industry. The 1950’s is defined by the snowball rollout of movies that kept pushing (and pushing) the envelope until the explosion of the 60’s sexual revolution. Audiences were outgrowing passionate kisses and those stodgy fade to blacks.  

1960s: Sexual Revolution = Sex is More than Sex

The early ‘60s was briefly marked with the explosion of ‘nudie-cutie’ films, which were basically nudist exploitation films that were defined by funny plot-lines, incompetent men, and oblivious women, all running around naked, happy and well… naked. 

By the late sixties, however, America was facing a slew of external shocks including the Vietnam War, civil rights movements and student protests. Nudies were too shallow, and young filmmakers were taking an activist approach behind the camera. Hollywood was brushing the dust off of conversations that it once refused to discuss. Such themes included infidelity, older women with younger men, the difficulties of monogamy, interracial couples and so much more. 

Some films that defined the era include 1967’s, The Graduate, which was about a young misguided student who has an affair with an older woman, and ends up falling in love with her daughter.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 1967’s The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 1967’s The Graduate.

​​Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was the first major studio movie to centre around an interracial couple while addressing the very issue of race. Though there’s no insinuation of sex between the two, the film dared to challenge the audience’s perception of American racial relations both inside and outside Hollywood, and that in itself was extremely risque given the era. 

Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

1970’s: No Longer Between the Sheets 

Now, Hollywood is no longer operating under the censorship of the Code, and to put it bluntly: Clothes were optional for most of this era. Remember, this is the era of hippies, rock ‘n roll and drugs. Lots of it. Experimentation was at an all time high, and the youth were tired of the sexual norms displayed on screen. 

Now, ‘sex movies’ are on the mainstream, and Hollywood wants in on it before it’s too late. Movies like 1970’s He and She, became the first hard-core adult film to receive national distribution, and to give you an idea of the level of experimentation happening, there was also an X-rated version of Cinderella released in 1977. 

Sex also once again became a great basis for comedies, like 1979’s 10 which features sex symbol Bo Derek in this famous scene.

Bo Derek in 1979’s rom-com 10

Bo Derek in 1979’s, rom-com 10

1980’s: Erotic Thrillers Begin and Women’s Complexities Open Up 

By this decade, happy naked women and men just weren’t good enough. Thrillers, such as 1984’s Body Double marked one of the most polarizing uses of sex in a movie. Body Double played on the idea that that sexual behaviour can be dangerous, horrifying and entertaining too.

Theatrical release poster for 1984’s Body Double

Theatrical release poster for 1984’s Body Double.

Another mainstream favourite was Fatal Attraction, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, which closed the era of the 1980’s and opened the door for more exploration of the femme fatale archetype. Why was this important? Because during this era, Hollywood’s major power player was Sherry Lansing, who was President of 20th Century Fox. She used her power to produce movies that not only had sexy women, but complex women, whose bodies and sexual prowess were secondary elements to their mental struggles and issues, as seen with Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in 1987’s Fatal Attraction

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in 1987’s Fatal Attraction

1990’s and beyond: The End? 

Sharon Stone in an iconic scene from 1992’s Basic Instinct

Sharon Stone in an iconic scene from 1992’s Basic Instinct 

The unfortunate truth is that the 1990s may or may not have marked the ending of sex in cinema as it was once known. Should we blame Julia Roberts and the rise of vanilla rom-coms? Perhaps, but that’s just not fair. Society became disenchanted with the portrayal of female bodies and sexual encounters. 

While the era is still marked by Hollywood’s more famous femme fatale’s Sharon Stone, who was in that famous and x-rated scene, but there seemed to be a drought toward the last leg of the ‘90s and beyond. 

Perhaps it was the lack of diversity on all fronts including race and sexual orientation. Perhaps women were tired of always being perceived as the ‘crazy’ and ‘sexual’ culprit in every movie. The list is endless, really. 

Today, many say that the days of ‘sex in cinema’ is over, but let’s not forget that we just got off the 50 Shades wave not so long ago. In non-cinematic realms, sex is still a popular theme explored in T.V. shows like Fleabag, Sex Education and even Euphoria. In fact, these shows rip the veil between audience and screen to create a less than glamorous reality of what sex really is. Absent in many of today’s sex scenes are unrealistic sounds and movements, pageantry, perfect bodies and white heterosexual couples. 

Perhaps picking up where much of the 1990s left off, is a total re-examination of sexual dynamics. What does it mean to be a ‘sexual’ person? What does it take? 

Though we still have far to go, I say we should be very thankful that we’ve graduated from the days when we were forced to believe that sex was merely a cut to ‘fade to black’.