ByRicky Derisz, writer at
Staff Writer at MP. "Holy cow, Rick! I didn't know hanging out with you was making me smarter!"
Ricky Derisz

In 1896, The May Irwin Kiss caused unprecedented controversy. Critics denounced the film as shocking and pornographic. The Roman Catholic church called for moral reform and censorship. All of this because the movie showed the very first kiss on screen, at a time when public kissing could lead to persecution.

Fast forward 119 years to the present, and it's fair to say the presentation of sex in cinema is at the other end of the scale. Love, a new film by controversial director Gaspar Noé, features uncompromising scenes of real, unsimulated intercourse. It raises the question: when is the portrayal of sex too much? At what point does a movie change to pornography?

Let's face it, sex still makes us giggle. Throughout Hollywood history, films showing copulation have always raised, erm, eyebrows, to say the least.

From early onscreen kisses to full-on, up close and personal intercourse, sex has always been infused with cinema. The changing dynamic of sexuality, and the public reception of such movies provides a mirror to the historical context of the time.

Let's take a look through the decades, highlighting some of the most impactful moments of sex in cinema, and how attitudes have changed over time:


Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Movie: The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Significance: Audiences were introduced to Hollywood's first true sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino, in The Sheik (1921), who became the biggest star of the era. Tragically, Valentino died suddenly around the premier for the 1926 movie aged just 31, causing 'mass hysteria' amongst his female fans.

Controversy: The silent movie contained a vengeful rape scene. Despite only being alluded to with careful camera angles and lingering glances, even attempting to suggest such an act was deemed 'morally objectionable' at the time.


Mädchen in Uniform depicted lesbian love
Mädchen in Uniform depicted lesbian love

Movie: Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Significance: This German flick, with an all female cast, was notorious as the first movie to portray lesbian love.

Controversy: The film was close to being banned in the US, until Eleanor Roosevelt spoke of her admiration for it. Although prints survived the war, the movie was heavily censored until the 1970s. It wasn't shown again in Germany until 1977, some 46 years after its original run.

Ecstasy (1933)
Ecstasy (1933)

Movie: Ecstasy (1933)

Significance: The Czechoslovakian romance was the first film to depict sexual intercourse. Even more shocking still to prudes at the time, the movie also simulated a female orgasm from oral sex – naughty, very naughty!

She felt a small prick (read below for context)
She felt a small prick (read below for context)

Controversy: Showing a woman climaxing was, at the time, completely unheard of. In true dedication to his craft, director Gustav Machaty pricked actress Hedy Lamarr with a safety pin to achieve her sex face. Ouch.

To read more about Hedy Lamarr's incredible life, click here.


Movie: Outlaw (1943)

Significance: The film was dubbed a 'sex western' due to the prominent exposure of Jane Russell's breasts. The film provided the springboard to her status as a sex symbol. The marketing crew came up with the (completely and utterly NOT pervy) slogan of:

"How would you like to tussle with Russell?"

Controversy: The fictionalized depiction of Billy the Kid was due to lose millions of dollars if banned. Director Howard Hughes orchestrated a public outcry at the banning of the film. It seemed to work – the movie was released, albeit with numerous cuts, in 1946.


The Garden of Eden (1954)
The Garden of Eden (1954)

Movie: The Garden of Eden (1954)

Significance: The movie, centered around nudist beaches, challenged ideas of censorship. Due to the amounts of nudity, the film faced legal battles and was eventually banned for being "obscene."

Controversy: In a landmark ruling, the case ended up in the Court of Appeal. It was decided that nudity in the movie (set in the context of nudist camps) was neither "indecent" or "obscene" and shouldn't be censored, thus redefining the idea of "obscene."


Peeping Tom (1960)
Peeping Tom (1960)

Movie: Peeping Tom (1960)

Significance: This British film by director Michael Powell focused on voyeurism and murder. It caused huge controversy and was completely slaughtered by critics, and even damaged Powell's career.

Controversy: Due to the disgust of viewers, the movie was removed from cinemas for almost two decades. When it was re-released, many scenes were cut completely.


Caligula (1979)
Caligula (1979)

Movie: Caligula (1979)

Significance: The only feature film produced by men's magazine penthouse. Now, if you're not familiar, I'm sure you can guess – yup, there was lots of sex in it. It was Hollywood's first big budget attempt at a 'classy' portrayal of sex and violence.

Controversy: Despite the large budget of $17 million, the movie starring Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren (just drink in that look of love above!) was received poorly by critics and also had to fight legal battles.


Making Love (1982)
Making Love (1982)

Movie: Making Love (1982)

Significance: This breakthrough movie, starring well known actors Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin, was the first Hollywood production that explored issues around homosexuality and coming out, which was aimed at a general audience.

Controversy: The film didn't garner much negative talk around the subject matter, and rightly so. Critics didn't rate the film too highly, although historically the film is viewed as an important depiction of homosexuality.


Uma Thurman in Henry & June
Uma Thurman in Henry & June

Movie: Henry & June (1990)

Significance: This was the first movie to be released with an NC-17 rating, which was created to distinguish 'serious' dramatic films from X-rated pornography.

Controversy: The rating was given because of an explicit scene of simulated lesbian oral sex. That didn't stop moviegoers – the film, starring a young Uma Thurman, was a success. It set the record of the second highest box office gross for an NC-17 movie ($11.6 million) behind Showgirls ($20.3 million).


Irréversible (2002)
Irréversible (2002)

Movie: Irréversible (2002)

Significance: Love director Gaspar Noé's earlier movie was was highly controversial for hard hitting, graphic depictions about rape revenge.

Controversy: One brutal nine minute scene, showing anal rape, caused viewers and critics to recoil.

Movie: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Significance: This love story about two cowboys was the first mainstream gay/bisexual romance film which was both heavily promoted and a critical success. Heavily supported by riveting performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film was nominated for eight Oscars, and won three of them.

Controversy: Some conservative news outlets and religious groups accused the movie of 'promoting a gay agenda.' Because everyone knows you can catch gay from watching a film.


Movie: Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 & 2 (2013/2014)

Significance: Lars von Trier's sex fest of a movie was essentially five and a half hours of lurid, depraved sex acts depicted in graphic detail. For some of the scenes, actors were replaced by porn stars who performed sex for real.

Controversy: Intended to shock, the aim was a success. Early promotional pictures showed each of the main characters' (including A-listers Uma Thurman and Shia LaBeouf) 'orgasm faces.' Critically, though, the film was well received. A long way from public outcries over kissing on film.