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Real Sex Reels: the rise and fall of real sex in movies; a brief history

It may seem hard to believe now, but back in the sixties, which was of course the era of free love, movie goers and some film makers alike felt that sex should be more realistic in the movies. Following nearly 50 years of reasonably stringent censorship in Britain and the USA, mostly following from the Arbuckle debacle, it was now time for a change. The post war free love generation felt that a combination of liberalism and realism was needed. After all, why should movies continue with those silly, faux love scenes; what was wrong with showing the real thing?


At the time, some people thought that the future world might be an amoral one. A world where free love and moving between sexual partners would replace the strong, and sometimes repressive, societal constraints of marriage. In the cinema people wanted to see sex acts done for real and thought that faking it was no longer necessary. That may seem odd in today’s context, where pornography is ubiquitous on the internet; so why would you need it in movies? Well, there was no internet back then and audiences felt they weren’t being treated fairly as adults. Adults who could watch a sex scene and, somehow go home without becoming depraved and criminal with lust. Enough was enough. Something had to break.

The undercurrent of desire for a more adult form of cinema built like a wave. It started with the pornographic pseudo-documentaries such as, The Raw Ones (1965), I Am Curious Yellow (1967) and Censorship in Denmark; a new approach (1970). Obviously, the documentary style was intended to skirt around the censor, who had been known to cut kissing scenes, and up to a point it worked. By 1970 ‘He and She’, another of these pseudo-documentaries, was the first explicit movie to gain nationwide distribution. Added to this there came Andy Warhol’s ‘Blue Movie’ (1969), an expose of real life that featured real sex. Blue Movie, because of its acceptability as a theatrical release, may have been the key that opened the gates for others to follow.  

Blue Movie was quickly followed by the more widespread release of ‘Mona The Virgin Nymph’ (1970), an explicit erotic movie. But the real breaking wave, and one to contest to the status quo, came in 1972 with the release of Deep Throat. Its release was timely; somehow Deep Throat managed to connect with the zeitgeist, and it became a culturally popular and iconic movie, like no ‘stag movie’ had ever done before.  Although Deep Throat was not, in the true sense, a mainstream movie, it was cleverly marketed as though it was. 

The fact that the explicit sex scene was novel - it had never been openly screened before as the subject of a popular full-length and ostensibly mainstream movie - really got people’s attention. Curiosity was peaked and the people in the lines to watch Deep Throat at theaters were therefore somewhat surprising. Instead of the stereotyped grey men in grey coats, the lines for this movie had wives, couples, mothers and grandmothers from respectable backgrounds, some with and some without male company. Suddenly Mom and Pop were watching porn.

If you needed any proof that any and all walks of life were going into cinemas to watch these movies, then bear in mind: according to some sources, the box office receipts showed that Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, another porn classic, were respectively number 4 and number 5 at the box office for the year 1972, not that far behind The Godfather, which was of course, number 1. In 1973 another porn movie, ‘The Devil in Miss Jones’, was the seventh top grossing movie in North America.

For a time, it looked as though explicit sex in movies and pornography might become an acceptable part of the mainstream movie culture, but attitudes are hard to change. Some of the actors in pornographic films thought they might get the break into the big time. Marilyn Chambers, porn star of the very successful ‘Behind the Green Door’, tried hard to make a successful career out of acting, but the only mainstream movie she made it into was the sci-fi/horror Rabid (1977), directed by David Cronenberg, auteur of the ‘body-horror’, and she eventually went back to porn. Traci Lords, one time ‘enfant terrible’ porn star of the eighties, has probably had the greatest success in crossover to mainstream. Lords won roles in both movies and television and even starred alongside Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake in Cry Baby (1990).

However, most porn stars weren’t that lucky and making a porn movie tended to blackball you for mainstream rather than provide a way in. In part, this may have been due to the fact the porn movies, even the successful ones, were very low budget and not connected to the big studios. But it was also probably due to stereotyping the actors.

Did explicit sex make it into mainstream? That might depend on how you look at it. The theatrical release of pornographic movies such as Deep Throat opened the door to more explicit nudity in movies. For example, Capone (1975) arguably contained the first ‘legs open’ nude shot, brief though it was, and who can forget that leg crossing moment in Basic Instinct (1992). And perhaps it opened the door to movies that had erotic stories to tell, for instance, The Happy Hooker (1975). But the more sexualised erotic movies became, the more they became classified as soft porn or hard-core porn. And if they weren’t either and they contained explicit sex, they were usually ‘foreign’ or ‘art-house’, and often both, for instance, In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and The Brown Bunny (2003).

As always, there are one or two exceptions to the rule. The first mainstream movie, but one not out of Hollywood, that featured an explicit sex scene rumoured to be real, was Don’t Look Now (1973), a British-Italian production starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. But that rumour was later squashed by Sutherland himself. The second, Caligula (1979) was an Italian-American production. It was not a true Hollywood studio movie, but it was the first and possibly the last, mainstream theater release to actually feature real explicit sex scenes and have well-known stars in the movie. Caligula’s cast included Malcolm McDowell, Sir John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren. Caligula was poorly received by critics, many of whom expressed their absolute disgust and horror.


In the history of sex in film, Caligula was pivotal. It not only marked the beginning of mainstream movies containing truly explicit sex scenes; it simultaneously marked the end. It seems that porn is porn and proper movies are proper movies and never the twain shall meet.

By the late seventies and eighties, the increasing popularity of video formats, especially VHS, changed the game considerably. They provided the perfect format for porn movies and allowed discretionary viewing from home. But these formats also allowed for mass produced, often very low budget movies that would make it increasingly unlikely to provide a door from porn into mainstream.

As the proliferation of cheap porn films increased, the need for real sex scenes in mainstream movies decreased.  In the end, explicit sex never really made it into mainstream Hollywood movies, but perhaps it paved the way for more nudity and helped sexual realism and the erotic movie to come of age. Today, if a person wants to watch others engaging in sex acts, there is the internet. As far as mainstream movies go, you might still need sex scenes for context some of the time, but the need for them to be truly explicit has long since gone and in the mainstream, perhaps, it was never really there.

Stephen Vega

February 2019