Sex in the Cinema: War, Moral Panic, and the British Film Industry, 1906-1918 (1)

By Rapp, Dean | Albion, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Sex in the Cinema: War, Moral Panic, and the British Film Industry, 1906-1918 (1)


Rapp, Dean, Albion


The film era in Britain commenced in early 1896, but its moral impact on viewers was not considered very much during its first decade. (2) This was primarily because film was dispersed in a variety of venues like music halls and fairgrounds where other entertainment was provided, or in unused shops and other premises that were temporarily rented. Film thus had no permanent, separate identity as a leisure activity that took place in one particular type of public space, hence it was difficult for moralists to recognize, much less discern and evaluate its moral influence. Moreover, many of the middle class (from whom most moralists came) dismissed the early film industry as a passing, vulgar fad of the working class that need not be taken seriously.

But moralists did begin to notice the impact of the industry when film acquired a conspicuous new identity of its own in the years after 1906 when thousands of purpose-built cinemas were constructed. (3) The tremendous growth of both the cinemas and their mostly working-class, youthful audiences led some middleclass moralists to focus their attention on film for the first time. They soon concluded that the cinemas undermined the morality of their young audiences and launched a crusade against the film industry. The general outlines of the campaign are well known. Moralists charged that the darkened cinemas provided cover for couples to court and for some men to abuse children. They also asserted that many films were sensational ones about sexual indecency, crime, and violence. Such fare, they contended, encouraged immorality and incited juvenile delinquency among youth who imitated the crimes they saw enacted on screen. The moralists therefore demanded censorship of the films, brighter lighting in the cinemas to discourage sexual misbehavior, and police action against indecency. Moreover, Sabbatarians opposed the opening of the cinemas on Sundays as a further desecration of that holy day of rest. (4)

While much of this crusade has been adequately examined, its sexual component has only been sketchily explored and is as yet supported by very little specific evidence. (5) This article employs a considerable amount of new material retrieved from government and police archives and the local and religious press to analyze the three main sexual issues of the crusade: the alleged sexually suggestive contents of some films; sex in the cinemas among adult men and boys and girls; and overly affectionate couples in the cinemas.

The anti-film crusade went through three stages. During its emergence between 1906 and 1914, its leadership was drawn together from sections of the middle class: some clergy and religious periodicals, interdenominational groups such as the Free Church Councils and Sunday School Unions, and morality leagues like the National Vigilance Association. During its first phase, these crusade leaders became convinced that the cinemas were fostering impurity by their exhibition of sexually suggestive films. They thus mobilized to get them removed from the cinemas. In its second stage during the first three years of World War I, the crusade intensified and reached its peak. Moralists now charged that not only were sexually suggestive films being shown but also that sexual indecency was occurring among the film audiences themselves. To these moralists, the cinema had now become a sexually polluted social space that was especially corrupting to the large numbers of film-going children and adolescents. In its final stage ( autumn 1917 through 1918), the crusade receded.

During all three stages of the anti-film crusade its driving force was the social purity movement. This emerged in the 1880s and remained very active through World War I (and beyond). All the leaders of the anti-film crusade were social purists or closely associated with them. Since their anxieties dominated the crusade, these need to be summarized. Social purists came from that section of the middle class that particularly feared the strength of Britain was being undermined by an increase in sexual immorality. …

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