Sex, Ties & Videotape: What Sexploitation Films Say About American Tastes

A new Guardian video (NSFW) about sexploitation films of the 60s and 70s includes some hilarious scenes — and some interesting revelations about sex in American movies.

Apropos of a season of sexploitation films running at London's BFI Southbank, Guardian film writer Xan Brooks interviews Ray Greene, director of SCHLOCK! The Secret History of American Movies. Greene defines the sexploitation genre as films that were "selling sex," and in which filmmakers "had to, had to, had to, whether they wanted to or not, show naked women, and show sexual situations that were very risqué for their day." Greene also says the genre began with a movie called The Immoral Mr. Teas, which, if the Guardian's clips are any guide, showed some pretty ridiculous "sexual situations." The movie apparently made a lot of money, meaning 1959 audiences were turned on by a woman scrubbing a table wearing only an apron, while a guy in a straw hat verrrry sloowwwwwly ate a watermelon.

Less surreal, but maybe more sociologically interesting, were a pair of exploitation subgenres that emerged: "nudie cuties" and "roughies." "Nudie cuties" were set at nudist camps because of a Supreme Court ruling that found these settings "educational," and thus exempt from ordinary nudity laws. Greene describes these films as "bright, sunny, mostly silly films that actually show the trace elements of American burlesque." The "roughies," meanwhile, arrived in the mid-60s when sexploitation films "moved into darker subject matter." Greene says these movies are "very, very disturbing to watch for a lot of people." While they showed less nudity than the "nudie cuties," these movies "substitute violence, usually directed against women [...] for sex." A creepy clip from an example called The Defilers shows a kidnapper saying of his victim, "Look at her. If I don't feed her, she goes hungry. She belongs to me."

The interesting thing about the progression from sex to violence that Greene describes is that it's never really been reversed. It's been well-documented that the MPAA rating system is much more lenient toward violence than towards sex, even in language — a PG-13 movie can include the use of the word "fuck" in anger, but not to refer to actual fucking. But it's somewhat surprising to learn that the "substitution" of violence for sex, as though they were simply interchangeable methods for shocking or thrilling audiences, started in the middle of last century. It's a little played-out to complain about puritanical Americans who let their kids watch shootouts but don't want to see an erect dick, and few people these days think the ratings system is awesome. However, it's still interesting to consider why roughies supplanted nudie cuties, given that nudity laws didn't actually grow more stringent. Did Americans begin to prefer dark sex to "bright, sunny" sex, even if it meant seeing fewer actual boobs? Do they still? What is it about American culture that makes violence against women an easy substitute for sex? And given the fact that these films are currently screening in England, not America, does this substitution have a universal appeal?

Sexploitation Films: 'You Had To Show Naked Women To Make The Exercise Viable' [Guardian]