Films about sexuality across American history

Vivian Conger's picture

Hi all,

I have just rejoined HistSex after several years away.  In the fall I am teaching my 200-level course on the history of sexuality in America--it covers from the 17th to the 20th century.  For texts I use Major Problems in the HIstory of American Sexuality and American Sexual Histories.  I assign four additional books:  Revolutionary, Charity and Sylvia, Strange Fruit, and Sex and the Single Girl.  I assign my students (in groups) to watch a film dealing with sexuality set in different time periods.  They are to analyze the message and the historical accuracy of the film based on their assigned readings as well as additional outside research.  I pick the films--by choice they are all Hollywood films, not documentaries.  In the past I have used the following films, but I would relish some suggestions for other films.  I'm thinking about adding The Scarlet Letter and putting back in Kinsey.

Waterloo Bridge (1931)—set in World War I

Splendor in the Grass (1961)—set in the late 1920s and early 1930s

Imitation of Life (either 1938 or 1951 but I prefer the 1938 version)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Where the Boys Are (1960)

The Children’s Hour (1961)

Philadelphia (1993) 

Transamerica (2005)




Vivian Bruce Conger, Professor

Department of History

Ithaca College


Picnic (1956)

Hi Vivian - Some other challenging films... Larry Clark's Kids, Cruising, Dog Day Afternoon (two Pacinos)! Also, there are other genres of film, which are neither documentary or Hollywood: health films and sex ed films. For example, Easy to Get (1947), a film about venereal disease made by the U.S. military for African American soldiers. Uses the techniques of Hollywood films (scripted story lines, and features the actor Wendell Corey and Paul Robeson). That film is available online, along with a short framing essay, at the National Library of Medicine's Medical Movies website

Mike Sappol
Uppsala University, Sweden

Dear Vivian,

Here’s a few films that I can think of off the top of my head in chronological order by release date.

A Florida Enchantment (1914) – A young woman takes a magic seed that transforms her into the opposite gender. It’s a good film to explore gender roles at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) – Racist propaganda that depicted freed slaves as rapers of white women and the KKK as the defenders of white womenhood. Nevertheless, it’s probably one of the most influential and culturally significant films. You can use it to discuss racial stereotypes on the screen. It might do well when paired with an excerpt from Crystal Feimster’s Southern Horrors.

As you know, the period of 1930 to 1934 (pre-code) and 1934 – 1968 is the era of the Motion Picture Production Code so the filmmakers had to depict sex in a stereotypical manner. During the code, filmmakers had to punish criminals. Therefore, in Waterloo Bridge, Mae Clark had to be killed because she was a sex worker. Therefore, the bomb dropped on her head right after she got engaged. Extra-marital sex and female sexuality were also considered sinful so in Female and Baby Face, both women had to settle down and find themselves a man. Yet, the films makers depicted them as sympathetic characters and the audience often reacted negatively to such ending. After 1934, movies adopted codes to indicate sex: e.g. a women smoking a cigarette or two people walk into a room, the lights go out, two clothed people walk out. Therefore, what the audience wanted to happen or fantasized about happening is just as important as what actually happened. It's the era of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.

Female (1933) – Alison, the female head of an automotive factory, has casual affairs with her male employers and transfers them to Montreal when they try to get too serious.

Baby Face (1933) – A young woman literally sleeps her way to the top. Forbidden Hollywood 1 has both the censored and the recently rediscovered uncensored version. It might be a way to start a conversation about how censorship subtly alters messages. The film also helped to galvanize popular opposition to sex on the silver screen.

The Outlaw (1943) – Challenged the production code.

Double Indemnity – One of the great Femme Fatale films.

A Place in the Sun (1951) – Out of wed-lock pregnancy and abortion

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – It’s another good film to look at how censorship changes film. Compare the director’s cut from 1993 to the 1951 cut.

From Here to Eternity (1953) – Noted for its controversial kiss under the pounding waves. Otherwise, I might skip it.

Glen or Glenda (1953) (aka I Changed My Sex, I Led Two Lives, The Transvestite, or He or She) – Exploitation film about a transwoman

The Wild One (1953) – Helped define the leather SM culture.

Rear Window (1954) – Voyeurism

The Seven Year Itch (1955) – About marital infideliety. Due to the Hay’s Code Tom Ewell never sleeps with Marilyn Monroe even though that’s what Billy Wilder wanted.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Barbarella (1968) – Technically made in France, but in English and starring Jane Fonda. The film depicts a sexually liberated future.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) – First major gay film – The recent Criterion restoration has poor color gradation.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971) – Probably, the first film to explicitly tackle rape in male prisons. It’s not an exploitation film. The film depicts sexual violence in prison, the strategy of exchanging sex for protection against rape by multiple individuals, and imprisonment of transsexuals.

Women in Cages (1971), The Big Doll House (1971) – Two sexploitation, women-in prison films that have the same basic plot: a young white girl is busted for drugs in a foreign country and sexually exploited by savage non-whites in prison for the viewer’s titillation. Along side with Naziplotation films, such as Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) which transformed Concentration Camps into sites of kinky sex, such films helped define the sexual culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Ilsa is a particularly important film.

Pretty Baby (1978) – A historical film about prostitution in New Orleans. Brooke Shield depicts a 12-year-old sex worker. An extremely controversial film because of Shield’s nude scenes.

Hair (1979) – Depicts the changing sexual and cultural mores of the 1960s. Based on a play from 1967.

Cruising (1980) – I have to second Michael’s recommendation. It’s part of the turn towards the dangers of SM. However, the film is notably for its extensive usage of actual SM practitioners and filming in real gay bars/cruising areas. In other words, the stuff in the background is just as important as or even more important than the film itself.

Videodrome (1983) – Strictly speaking, a Canadian film that depicts the danger or viewing pornography and SM. Part of the moral panic of the 1980s. Inspired by Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. If you want an American film on the dangers of SM, you can try Demme’s Something Wild.

Desert Hearts (1985) – Early Lesbian Film that doesn’t have a tragic ending like Thelma and Louise.

My Own Private Idaho (1991) – Landmark of New Queer Cinema. It’s a good film for taking about a range of issues: youth prostitution, gay for hire, and male friendship

Kids – Once again, I have to second Michael’s recommendation.

In the 1960s, due to the production code, American cinemas began importing foreign films to satisfy their viewers demand for more sexually explicit films. There are several notable, foreign films from the 1960s – 1970s that helped to define American views on sex. You can even due a segment on the films tried by the Supreme Court

L'Amore [Italy 1948] - Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952) overturned Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) and ruled that films were entitled to First Amendment protection.

Les Amants (Louise Malle) [1958 France] - Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) – The birth of Justice Potter’s famous “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography.

I am Curious (Yellow) [Sweden 1967] - Byrne v. Karalexis (1971) – Imported by Evergreen Films for the express purpose of challenging censorship in the US. SCOTUS ruled that a film was not pornographic as long as no actual penetration occurred. The film ended censorship of movies. The Criterion extra The Battle for "I Am Curious—Yellow” gives a succinct overview of this battle.

Carnal Knowledge (1971 US) - Jenkins v. Georgia (1974). – SCOTUS ruled that the film contained no obscene material. A follow up to Miller v. California, the SCOTUS signaled that it was done trying movies.

Films about the Rape of Women

I’d use these films to explore how the depiction of rape has changed over the course of American cinema. Who is responsible and how do victims react to rape? What should be done about rape? Sexual violence is always a difficult and sensitive topic to teach, but I believe that it’s important.

Westward the Women - Wellman film about bringing women west to marry lonely cowboys. Depicts female strength, arranged marriage, rape, and the execution of rapists. The film is a bit unusual because the trope that male protection of women makes rapists legitimate targets for killing largely vanished because of the Code's ban on rape. Under the Code, women had to consent to their rape to avoid running afoul of the Code.

Private Property (1960) – A film about rape banned because the rapists were too disturbing for the audience.

Straw Dogs (1971) – Based on the trope that women want to be raped and rape awakens a women’s repressed sexuality. The interview with Sam Peckinpah in the Criterion booklet is quite insightful. In it, he says, you know all women want to be raped.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) – Depicts the rape-and-revenge trope. A young women goes to CT to write her book and is brutally raped. She then kills her rapists in a brutal fashion.

The Accused (1988) – Rape goes on trial. Explore how the US justice system treats rape victims.

Casualties of War (1989) – Depicts the rape of a young Vietnamese women by US soldiers and the subsequent cover up.

Deliverance (1972) - Depicts male rape.

You can also include some semi-documentary films from the 1960s:

Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger) - landmark of gay film. Depicts the biker culture.

Chelsea Girl or Blow Job by Andy Warhol

Deep Throat – First pornographic film to have a widespread release in American cinema.

Rodion Kosovsky
Ph.D Candidate
Yale University