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Sex and Cinema, the Appetizer

Updated: May 12, 2022

The Early American Film Censorship

Modernisation led to a dichotomy in the representation of sex in Cinema. Firstly, increased leisure time with urbanization and changing cultural values like organized crime and overcrowded tenements favoured venereal sentiments. Further, modernization led to secular viewpoints, conservative Protestants claimed a challenge for social and cultural values due to such discourses prevalent in the society. Entities like American Social Hygiene Association initiated drives for combating sexually transmitted diseases like Syphilis and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Worried by the venereal content of some films Protestants viewed the family as a threat to family values. Nickelodeons, small theatres with nickel for a ticket, progressed with sexual content in small pockets or remote areas but soon their exposition was regulated.

A shot from The Dreamers (2003), © Recorded Picture Company ©Peninsula Films

Films' censorship began in 1907 when Chicago required exhibitors to secure permission from the police before screening films. Jake Block, who owned a chain of nickelodeons, challenged this view by screening The James Boys in Missouri (1908) and Night Riders (1908) after being denied permits. Block v. city of Chicago legitimized local government power to censor films. Six years later, Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) deemed film censorship constitutional. American Sex lives paralleled with the growth of the American film industry. The awareness regarding sexual hygiene, women’s movements regarding birth control and marital life, rising rates of pre-marital sex & divorces affected cinema to a greater extent.

A shot from Dogville (2003), ©Filmek AB ©Zoma Films UK ©Canal+ © France 3 Cinéma

In 1908, New York City mayor George B. McClellan, Jr claimed motion pictures immoral to the interest of the Protestants. Theatre and distributors formed an entity to avoid such governmental censorship ‘The National board of review of the Review of Motion Pictures. But filmmakers sought ways to escape such developments by merging adulterous relationships with a moral message. For Example, The Hypocrites (1915) contains several shots of a nude character called ‘The Naked Truth’. Vice films were based on urban crime syndicates like The Voice of Satan (1915), The House of Bondage (1914), A Mother’s Ordeal (1917) and A Romance of the Underworld (1918).

A shot from Crash (1996), © The Movie Network ©Telefilm Canada

Some superstars like Lillian Gish didn’t challenge traditional sexual norms while Theda bara was projected as a seductress by Fox film corporation. Female characters had set character motifs and types some of the famous ones are a schoolmarm, a Prostitute with a Golden-heart and a flopper. To curb pro=censorship movements the major studios agreed upon a trade association MPPDA (Motion Pictures Production and Distributors Association) to keep checks and balances on moral standardization of films in America. William.H.Hays was the first initiator of the production code for such films initially he ordered a self-regulatory approach for the studios. But Success of films like Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925) made compliance difficult.

A shot from Basic Instinct (1992), ©Carolco Pictures ©Le Studio Canal+

Studio’s failure to comply led to the formation of Studio Relation’s Committee in 1927 and drew up a list of ‘Don’ts and Be Careful’. Production Code was deemed as a code that governed the making of talking and silent feature films. Code drafters exclaimed that ‘undressing scenes should be avoided unless otherwise essential for the plot’. Smart film-makers found their way across these regulations and would set up scenes inside a bedroom. With naked clothes hanging at the edge of the screen.

“Nudity unseen was better than no nudity at all”.

Films like Anna Christie (1930), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933) found their way across the production code. In Films, visual themes can be suggested without directly portraying them. Hence, censorship rules were formed considering such implications in mind. With the burgeoning success of such films, Studio’s bought the rights of novels and books to meet the demands. A major writer who was adapted was Tennessee Williams with movies such as A streetcar named Desire (1951), A cat on a hot tin roof (1958) and Baby Doll (1956). In 1945, Eric Johnston replaced Hays as the head of MPPDA which was renamed MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America).

A shot from Psycho (1960), © Shamley Productions

In U.S v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Induced member companies induced MPAA to give up joint ownership of Theatres and forsake Block Booking, formula deals, master agreements, price-fixing and discrimination with distributors. A legion of Decency was formed which created a rating system for feature films A (morally unobjectionable), B (morally objectionable in part) and C (Condemned). Later these categories will be transmogrified. Distributors and critics identified films with sexuality as Mature and adult. This became a popular feature of the promotional campaigns of films like Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), Indiscreet (1958) and Some Like It Hot (1959). A film with a rating of C (Condemned) enticed the audience even more as it will have sexual content. This implied a divergence of attitudes between production code and audience viewpoints.

A shot from Immoral Tales (1973), © Anatole Dauman

Filmmakers sought ways to veer through the code. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) referred to illicit affairs and challenged the sanctity of marriage along with its suspenseful narrative. It strained the code with such plot points. The changing cultural landscape forced the MPAA to revise the code to acknowledge homosexuality and non-normative human behaviour. This led to films with homosexuality and paedophiliac content like Advice and Consent (1962) and Lolita (1962). In Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964), Thelma Oliver plays a prostitute iterating

“I’m good, pawnbroker. I’m real good. I’ve done things you haven’t even dreamed about before. Just twenty dollars more. I’ll make you happy like you never know.

Producers, directors and Filmmakers became aware of the transformations in the censorships brought on by the Obscenity Law. This led to a greater presence of sex in American Films.


American Censorship in films moved in parallel with the changing cultural landscapes and rigid religious values. Film-makers to portray sexual connotations have worked out ways to manipulate censorship codes and conduct. Elliptical Editing has been one technique used primarily by them. Critics and Scholars over the years have categorized these tropes into genres and identified major themes and motifs. This led to a vast range of studies in cinema and art. Whether film-makers, producers and distributors should mirror the society or take responsibility for their content will always be contentious.

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