Sex and violence are two things that have come to pervade our society, especially through film.
During the Pre-Hays Code (a code regulating "decency" in film) and Studio Eras of Hollywood, directors were dissuaded from using sexual or violent images and themes. However, as time wore on, people grew more open and restless. Writers started pushing the limits with dialogue including things like the famous double entendres of Mae West (Mae West Quotes) and emerging gore and violence of B movies.
After the mid-50s, a “moral decline” ensued around the globe. The Code faded away. Overseas, filmmaking started to pick up. Auteurs of the French New Wave began using nudity, violence, and sexuality, among other things, as elements in their films. A film like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) was controversial at the time for its intimate love scene. Jean-Luc Godard is famous for gratuitous sex and violence. In Pierrot le fou (1965) he uses nudity in the opening scene for no significant reason to the plot. One of his most famous films, Weekend (1967), features a scene in which the leading lady talks about a very strange ménage a trois in great detail, a camp of cannibals, and an off screen killing complete with, literally, buckets of fake blood splashing into frame.
The 60s “free love” generation would, of course, bring about much more sex in films. Those like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) feature beautiful women parading around on screen and a sex scene with multiple partners. A Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), was banned in the US upon its release in 1967 for its depiction of full frontal nudity of both sexes and scenes of simulated intercourse. Americans must have been privately coming to terms with the taboo of sex by this time because it soon became the highest grossing foreign film for decades. American filmmakers began to get more adventurous. An early film that tested the waters (and was later remade in 1997) was Stanley Kubrick’s version of the Vladimir Nabokov tale Lolita (1962). The film gained a great deal of negative press for the way it portrayed the relationship between a young girl and an older man. Kubrick was actually forced to re-edit the film a number of times to prevent it from receiving an X-rating. Midnight Cowboy (1969) was a film that garnered controversy as well for its representation of male prostitution, sex, and homosexuality, but it was the first X-rated film (later downgraded to R) to be voted Best Picture.
Peter Bogdanovich made waves with his The Last Picture Show (1971) that many considered obscene (a nude teen pool party among the reasons), although it was nominated for 8 Oscars (won 2). And films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) took fetishism, decency, and sexuality to a whole new frontier.
Violence came to the forefront as well during the 60s and 70s. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was controversial for its romanticism of violence and crime. Kubrick again made a splash in 1971 with his famous A Clockwork Orange based on the Anthony Burgess novel. It clearly portrayed a dystopia devoid of morals and openly displayed phallic images, nudity, extreme acts violence, and rape (famously performed while crooning “Singin’ in the Rain”). The emergence of horror films, grindhouse flicks, and slasher movies started like 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre glorified violence and presented an immense amount of gore. Many other popular films of the time explored sexuality and violence, for example, Taxi Driver, Scarface, and Dirty Harry.
The 80s brought on films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Risky Business (1983), and Fatal Attraction (1987). Nudity became less taboo – and worked its way much more into the teen comedy, an emerging genre - and a film like sex, lies, and videotape (1989) (which contained no nudity) talked about sex explicitly. (Won the Palme d’Or at Cannes)
David Lynch’s memorable Blue Velvet (1986) showed that times had changed by the late 80s. The story starts with a severed ear. From there it delves into heightened sexuality and extreme depictions of violence clashing against a “typical middle American town”. Kyle McLachlan (now of Sex and the City fame) is forced to undress at knifepoint. He is then instructed to hit Isabella Rossellini for sadomasochistic pleasure. Dennis Hopper’s disturbing character (although many think he is just playing himself) physically and sexually abuses Rossellini, as well. She shows up naked on his front lawn towards the end of the film covered in black and blues.
Tarantino came on the scene in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs (1992) which showed criminals at work. One scene included the detaching of an ear (apparently a common theme during this period – see also The Big Lebowski) to the tune of Stealers Wheel’s hit “Stuck in the Middle With You”. Tarantino also gave us Pulp Fiction (1994) with extreme violence, sex, and the rape of Ving Rhames. The 1995 film Kids drew heat for showing simulated sex scenes between underage actors, but this new generation of filmmakers was determined to portray blossoming sexuality. Boogie Nights (1997) touched on the porn industry of a few decades prior with simulated sex/masturbation scenes. 1998 brought the world Happiness, which was considered repulsive by critics for its depiction of perversion, pedophilia, and masturbation. Kubrick’s last film (yes, he loves taboos), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) showed a group of masked elite who participate in many different sexual encounters with each other including orgys, various sexual positions, and an off screen gang rape.
The 2001 film L.I.E. (Paul Dano’s debut) touched on the topics of homosexuality and pedophilia. That same year Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) contained several sexual scenes, many explicit. A threesome with 2 heterosexual males is presented delving into the realm of sexual identity. The Brown Bunny (2003) has been one of the most controversial films regarding sex in recent years. It tests the boundary between art film and pornography with its unsimulated sexual scenes. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) looked at sexuality in teens and pre-teens. 2 boys (12 and 14) and 2 girls (mid-late teens) learn about the world of sex through different means. It also explored love and sexuality in the internet age (for a different take on this - see also Hard Candy)
And (this film deserves a separate category) John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) covered just about every sexual topic you could think of in this film. It tells the tale of emotionally-challenged post 9/11 New Yorkers looking for a connection. The use of extended unsimulated sex scenes, among other elements, led to it being described as the “most explicit” film ever screened in the history of the Cannes film festival.
The taboos of the past century have been exploited and exhibited by film. Many say this has desensitized our culture to them, but they educate (and sometimes over-educate) the world to things that are really out there. Maybe not as extreme as presented in films, but it opens the public's eyes to the world around them.