The History of Sex on Film

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“Think of the children!” someone inevitably cried every time a movie dared to present a moment of sexuality for public consumption. Sex, nudity, and even stealing a smooch have been touchy subjects in the world of film since savvy scientists first rolled cameras in the late 1800s. And yet, the defiant acts and evolution of on-screen intimacy are the reason we understand sex today. No, we’ll never look as hot as George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, but we’ll still try because we’ve seen it. Taboos are rarely broken in real life until they’re broken on screen. Censorship has tried their hardest to make movies good, clean fun, but the artistically minded (and sexually curious) danced around for 100 years to help us get where we are today.

Take a ride on the wayback machine for a look at the history of sex on film:

The First Kiss

The first public screening of cinematic lip locking dates all the way back to 1836. The man behind the camera? None other than Thomas Edison, who shot a filmed scene from the 1835 musical The Widow Jones. Actors May Irwin and John C. Rice were asked to recreate their stage kiss, which sent audiences and critics into states of shock when projected for the first time. Famed Chicago publisher Herbert Stone took to the papers to lambast the effort. “Manifested to gargantuan proportions and repeted three times over, it is absolutely disgusting. Such things call for police interference,” he said.

Porn Saves the Day Again

VHS vs. Betamax. DVD vs. Blu-ray. The emergence of streaming video. The pornography industry has often been the final factor in the film world’s technological evolution (which is why cheaper, faster, easier formats have always won out). And looking back, porn might be the reason film artistry and all of moviemaking exists today. “Stag films,” the label for early pornography, were just as prevalent (and more widely seen) than “films” of the ’10s and ’20s. The earliest known stag film was A Free Ride, which film scholars believe was shot in the woods of New Jersey sometime around 1915. The movie doesn’t skimp on the sexuality — aside from the costuming, it’s got everything a modern porn would have: a dash of story and lots of sex. Stag films weren’t released in theaters, but they circulated under the eye of censors. In comparison, nudity in mainstream films was extremely tempered. The 1915 film Inspiration made headlines for featuring a nude woman posing as a model. Gasp!

Hinting at Sex Paves the Road to Censorship

In the early days of his career, Cleopatra and Greatest Show on Earth filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille pushed buttons. His 1922 film Manslaughter is famous for featuring some of the first depictions of orgies and lesbianism (courtesy of demonic hallucinations). That didn’t sit well with the people in Washington. A few years after Manslaughter‘s release, political pressure forced movie studios to reconsider their image and embrace censorship. Piggybacking off the Supreme Court decision that movies weren’t privileged to the right of free speech, Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays was hired to lead the Motion Picture Association of America. Hays enacted a code of to ethics which Hollywood filmmakers had to adhere. The MPAA still exists today, handing out ratings R and NC-17 ratings for movies deemed “too explicit.”

Sex in Cartoons

Ralph Bakshi is considered a pioneer for helping “mature” animation reach theatrical audiences. His 1972 film Fritz the Cat, based on a comic by Robert Crumb, was steeped in hedonism and pointed political themes. It was the first animated film to earn an X-Rating (apparently a cartoon cat having group sex in a bathroom doesn’t fly in Disney’s G-rated magic lands).

But like live-action, fringe artists had been utilizing the format of animation for sex-filled cinema decades before Bakshi’s taboo-breaking feature.

1929’s Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure looks like a Popeye cartoon — if Popeye dared to cop a feel from Olive Oyl. While undercover production leaves the film without an author, the dirty short still floats around the Internet today.

Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (1929).mp4 from François Melodia on Vimeo.

The First Act of Intercourse

In a surprise to no one, Europeans were decades ahead of the United States in terms of what was and wasn’t acceptable in the movies. The first film credited with showcasing sexual relations on screen was the 1933 Czech drama Ecstasy. There’s a fuzzy line between implicit and explicit sex in movies — a moral challenge that’s allowed movies to creep further and further into the “explicit” column — but Ecstasy solidified its place in history by having Hedy Lamarr simulate an orgasm. Although we only see Lamarr’s face during the scene, it’s clear: We are watching a woman have sex (note, the original version didn’t feature Australian alternative rock band Died Pretty jamming over the footage).

Hitchcock Had Balls

Meanwhile, the U.S. was just learning how to kiss for longer than three seconds at a time. That was the limit placed on filmmakers by the Hays Code, focring legendary director Alfred Hitchcock to do everything in his power to break the rules. Hitchcock had a long history of suggestive sexual themes in his film. Many read 1940’s Rebecca has an exploration of a lesbian relationship, while many critics cite the 1948 film Rope as an influential piece of queer cinema. With 1946’s Notorious, Hitch decided he was going to send a loud and clear message to the censor boards. In this scene, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant talk in seductive voices, technically keep to the three-second kissing limit, and deliver one of the sexiest moments in film history.

Stars in the Flesh

Eventually, the Western world did wake up to the fact that nudity and sexuality was a part of normal peoples’ lives. British director Michael Powell’s spine-tingling voyeur thriller Peeping Tom made waves for being the first to show a topless woman in a movie. The first wholly American film to try the same thing was 1963’s Promises! Promises!, which saw former Playboy playmate Jayne Mansfield make the jump to Hollywood. With censors dizzy, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup decided to tiptope further into uncharted territory. Known for its sex, drugs, and lively jazz score, Blowup is also the first film to feature a shot of a woman’s pubic hair.

And if you think the tantalizing evolution of the mainstream was all about the ladies… that’s mostly true. Even today, an actor can’t go full frontal in a movie without making headlines (see: the notorious Michael Fassbender fassmember shots in the NC-17 Shame). Thankfully, there were filmmakers pioneering male nudity back in the day, building a foundation for today’s “risque” material. Ken Russell’s 1969 romantic drama Women in Love overflows with sexuality, thanks to a complex script by Larry Kramer, and also sports a nude wrestling match between two men.

Even amid the obvious controversy, Women in Love went on to be nominated for five Oscars, including a win for actress Glenda Jackson.

Gay Pride

If heterosexual sex had a turbulent flight to mainstream acceptance, one can imagine why the depiction of homosexual intimacy took forever to even pull away from the gate. There are early films with central gay relationships: A 1924 German silent film, Michael, chronicles the relationship between a painter and his model, a love affair that ends in painful admissions that are all too late. Another German picture, 1931’s Girls in Uniform, is credited as featuring the first lesbian couple.

It took nearly 30 years after those landmark films for America to openly embrace homosexual characters and situations. The Oscar-nominated 1965 drama Inside Daisy Clover was influential for being the first Hollywood movie to weave in a gay character (played by Robert Redford). But this was still the age of the Hays Code, under which homosexual content was strictly banned. The result was a de-emphasis of the film’s gay themes, branding Redford’s character as a bisexual who still had interest in women. The independent sensibilities of the ’70s helped break down this wall. William Friedkin’s 1970 film The Boys in the Band revolved around a handful of gay characters. A decade later, his film Cruising would take heat for explicit homosexual sex. Al Pacino stars as a cop investigating a serial killer who targets gay men. He goes undercover in S&M clubs to hunt down the murderer and, to be faithful to the scene, Friedkin surrounded him with graphic sex. To push the psychedelic nature of Cruising, the director even spliced frames of gay pornography into the film.

Real Sex

Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film The Brown Bunny gained attention for a scene in which Chloë Sevigny performs unsimulated oral sex on Gallo, who also starred. 30 years later, the precedent was set for such an act. Deep Throat started as an overly plotted, 60-minute pornography starring Linda Lovelace, but it went on to become a full-blown mainstream phenomenon, attracting the support of Hollywood types who heralded it as camp. The film is even credited as establishing fellatio as part of the American consciousness.

While most sex we see on screen filmmakers have dared to dabble in pornographic imagery for authenticity and shock value. Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Blaxploitation picture Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song flaunted its unsimulated sex scenes, only to see the director/actor apply for worker’s compensation after contracting gonorrhea on the job. In 1972, John Waters’s unleashed his transgressive comedy Pink Flamingos, a frank look at fringe sexuality that includes crossdressing star Divine performing oral sex and a scene involving chickens that… can’t be described here.

Later this year, provocateur Lars von Trier (who previously used unsimulated sex in his film The Idiots) will debut the first half of his double feature Nymphomaniac. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman, Stellan Skarsgård and Christian Slater, von Trier’s selling point is that movie will use body doubles and high-tech face replacement to film his cast having actual sex. Finally, special effects used for a purpose we can all get behind.

On the Horizon

With 100 years of cinema in the can, filmmakers have explored a majority of sexuality’s facets. Where does it go from here? In the last two decades, it’s been less about what can be shown that who can be shown doing it. 1995’s Kids came under fire for portraying underage teenagers as sexually active. The 1997 remake of Lolita was delayed and restricted, thanks to accusations that the suggestion of underage sex could be considered child pornography. And at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche debuted his teen coming-of-age drama Blue Is the Warmest Color. Clocking it at over three hours, the film features a 10 minute lesbian sex scene between a high school senior and her college age girlfriend. Fingers were pointed. Questions were raised. Think pieces were rattled off. Clearly, the timeline for sex on film still has a few milestones left to hit.

Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino. He continues to love Groundhog Day.