1968-75: How 'X-Rated' Became Synonymous With 'Porn'

by Tony Comstock

Where moviemaking is concerned, the word, "adult" has fallen on rather hard times, having become code for works that are sexually garish, possibly exploitative, and amateurish in execution. But it wasn't always that way.

Before going any further, it will probably help if you look through the photo gallery below. It has movie poster artwork for films starting with The Outlaw (1943) and ending with my own Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story (released 2003, rated in 2007). In between there are films that are more or less famous, made by filmmakers who are more or less famous, and with a variety of hopes as to how they would affect their audience. But what every single one of these films has in common, is that they were made with the intention that they be viewed exclusively by adults.


The Outlaw might be campy, but it was made to the highest production standards of the day, and played in movie palaces across the country. Duel in the Sun is unarguably lurid, but it was produced by David O. Selznick, a follow-up to his triumph Gone With the Wind; something akin to James Cameron following up Titanic by producing an "adult film."

Does something feel dissonant there? If David O. Selznick produced Duel in the Sun as an adults-only film, why does the idea of James Cameron producing an "adult film" seem preposterous? How did we get to the point where "adult film" became code for prurient, puerile depictions of sex?

When the MPAA introduced the X-rating in 1968, there was no conception of it having a pejorative meaning. In fact, if you refer back to the movie poster for Starlet! (slide #6), a film released the same year the MPAA's four-tiered system was introduced, you can see that the producers actually reject the X-rating, substituting their own "XXX" in a faux MPAA-style ratings box, along with the tag line, "So adult one X isn't enough!"

The implication is clear. At this point in time the X-rating is understood to simply denote Adults Only, with no suggestion that the content of a movie carrying that rating will be especially titillating or explicit.

The producers of Starlet! leverage the market's understanding of what the X rating means by describing their own offering as XXX, borrowed from the old practice of using X, XX, or XXX to denote the strength of beer. (Leave it to the Aussies to give us XXXX beer!)

The following year sees the release of Midnight Cowboy with an X-rating. The film is nominated for six Academy Awards and wins three, including Best Picture. In fact, it has been suggested that out of concern over the impact of the depictions of drug use and sexual content in the film on children, United Artists studio boss Arthur Krim self-applied the X-rating to Midnight Cowboy over and above the R-rating the MPAA planned to give it; and this is supported by the fact that the MPAA granted an R-rating to the film, without cuts, only one year later.

During this time it's still relatively easy to find "sexploitation" films that are avoiding any reference to the X-rating at all. Midnight Cowboy maybe be frank, award-winning even, but it's hardly titillating. Sexploitation producers often favored a simple "Adults Only" on their posters with artwork that make the content of the film obvious.

Whatever forces and pressures caused United Artists to take Midnight Cowboy back to the MPAA for the restoration of its R-rating in 1970, it's not enough to dissuade Stanley Kurbrick and company from accepting the adults-only rating for their own work. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange is released with an X-rating, and goes on to receive four Oscar nominations.

I don't mean to suggest that the meaning of X isn't already becoming compromised. Take another look at the POV shot for the sandwich board for the fictional X-rated Cycle Sluts 35 seconds into the clip from Owl and the Pussycat (1970) posted yesterday.

1971 will also see the release of Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, with the provocative tag line "Rated X by an all-white jury." This is by far the most cunning use of the X-rating, playing off its increasingly dubious status as a defiant badge of honor, and generating hype around the film.

It's also not true. The MPAA never gave Sweet Sweetback an X-rating. The X was self-applied, with the provocative headline placed inside a faux-ratings box. And for a time, the provocation worked. But in 1974, caving to the same pressures that were causing other producers to abandon the X-rating, the producers of Sweet Sweetback submitted the film to the MPAA, where it received an R.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In