The Sex Edition

A quick history of frisky films

After watching Leonardo DiCaprio snort cocaine off the bare backside of a prostitute in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it could seem Hollywood has finally reached its limit with sex in films. However, if history has anything to teach us, it’s likely movies will continue shocking audiences with new and unusual portrayals of what goes on in the bedroom (or the office, or a moving vehicle… thanks again, Leo).

Modern films are undeniably more explicit in their presentations of sexual behavior than ever before, but movies have been making jaws drop since the early twentieth century. After the first projected motion picture ran in 1896, it didn’t take long for the movie industry to begin testing the waters of what it could get away with. Subtle implications of sex were enough to outrage parents, whose children were being exposed to a visual form of sexual material for the first time.

Breaking boundaries over time

In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not protected by the First Amendment as a form of expression. The ruling stood for 37 years until it was overturned in 1952, setting the foundation for the first true regulation of motion pictures in 1934 with the Hays Code.

Named after former President Warren Harding’s postmaster general, the Hays Code declared that movies were “responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” It prohibited portrayals of nudity, suggestive dances, sexual “perversity” and interracial relationships, among other “immoral” behaviors. Above all, it stated that movies should not lead the audience to sympathize with the side of “crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.”

The Hays Code had no “teeth” when it was first implemented in 1930, according to communication professor Garth Jowett, and it wasn’t until 1934 that regulations were enforced with a $30,000 fine for any studio distributing a film without a seal of approval from the Hays Office.

This notorious four-year period became known as the pre-Code era, when films blatantly ignored all restraints and guidelines in the Code. America was thrust into Great Depression, and the film industry was struggling to find content that would attract audiences.


“Baby Face” is an iconic film from the pre-Code era that shocked audiences with a main character who used her body to get what she never had. | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“There is an old adage that says, ‘When you’re losing money, go to sex and violence,’” Jowett said.

The industry did just that.

The result was films such as “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933), a Gothic horror film that depicted rape and sexual slavery, and “Red Headed Woman” (1932), which included a scene where a woman clearly gains sexual pleasure from her husband beating her, screaming, “Do it again! I like it!”

“The main concern of those films (during the pre-Code era) was open sexuality, by which I mean the flaunting of sexual attitudes; (for example,) women who decided to divorce their husbands and have flings with other guys,” Jowett said. “You don’t actually see the sex at all, but it was the implication of a woman being divorced and being happy.”

Retaining shock value

As the popularity of television grew exponentially in the 1950s, the film industry looked desperately for a way to compete. Its answer: show material that couldn’t be shown on TV. Once again, the public grew concerned.

In 1968, Jack Valenti, namesake of UH’s College of Communication and then-president of the Motion Picture Association of America, threw out the censorship system and created the movie rating system that many are familiar with today, which places movies in categories such as PG, PG-13 and R.

Because films are no longer fined for portraying explicit sexual material and only face an R or NC-17 rating (which could limit their audience and box office success), today’s movies continue to push limits that still offend the more traditional American population.

“There tends to be a sense of desensitization where you have to shock people again back into paying attention,” said director of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication Beth Olson.

The following films were shockingly progressive for their time in terms of sexual content as well as violence and language:

  • Baby Face (1933)

When discussing pre-Code era Hollywood films, “Baby Face” will come up every time as a film that led to true censorship under the Code in 1934. Starring Barbara Stanwyck and undergoing drastic edits before it was allowed to run in theatres, the film depicts a young woman named Lily who climbs her way up the social ladder at her job by sleeping with every man there. The pre-edited “Baby Face” had no moral or sentimentality, and even after the Hays Office did its work on the film, audiences were still shocked by a woman using her sexuality to get what she wanted.

  • Some Like It Hot (1959)

Starring sex icon Marilyn Monroe, this risqué film was the highest-grossing comedy ever at that time and was advertised as being “too HOT for words.” It was game-changing for its inclusion of unprecedented innuendo, reversed sex roles and cross-dressing, so much so that the Catholic League of Decency protested the film for being “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency.”

  • Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Before the NC-17 rating was trademarked by the MPAA in 1990, films with explicit sex and violence received an “X” rating, meaning that no one under 18 could be admitted.  “Midnight Cowboy” is historically significant for being the first and only X-rated film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. With a main character that aims to be a male prostitute and many disturbing scenes of sexual abuse, the fact that this film won an Oscar so soon after the Hays Office disintegrated showed how quickly the film industry was progressing.

  • In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

This French-Japanese film is considered the first non-pornographic film that shows fellatio (a sex act involving mouth-to-penis contact) on the screen. Critics saw it straddling the line between porn and art, but was ultimately shown at the New York Film Festival in defense of art.


“Fifty Shades of Grey” opens this Friday. | Courtesy of Focus Features

  • Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick was no stranger to his films being thrown an adult rating, but many protested the MPAA’s initial NC-17 rating for “Eyes Wide Shut,” which stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The MPAA requested that Warner Brothers digitally edit the film’s minute-long orgy scene with images that partially concealed the sexual activity taking place. Critics complained that the MPAA’s rating showed a flaw in the system by placing a film that artfully explored the bonds of sex in the same category as “crude frat-boy jokes.”

  • Secretary (2002)

This film was called “groundbreaking” by The New York Times for its portrayal of an office relationship founded in built-up erotic energy and masochism. Called anti-feminist by some for putting Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of a secretary being dominated by her boss, the film actually showcases a woman who understands what she wants and goes out of her way to get it – “it” being a spanking from her boss anytime she makes a typo in a newsletter. “Secretary” explores the freedom felt after shame is laid aside in favor of personal pleasure and satisfaction.

  • Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

It’s the “most hyped sex movie of the millennium,” and it will hit theaters nationwide this Friday. Based off the best-selling book trilogy by E.L. James, “Fifty Shades of Grey” originated as “Twilight” fan fiction and faces criticism from the BDSM community as being a distortion of the sexual practice it imitates – one that includes bondage, dominance and masochism. According to sexuality experts and readers who practice BDSM in real life, the film could present a glamorization of violence that is harmful and unhealthy, leaving out aspects of BDSM that emphasize consent and boundaries. The film will likely face more controversy as it takes over the box office this weekend.

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