What Ever Happened To The X-Rating?

by Coleen Singer at Sssh.com

Being ensconced in the adult entertainment industry which continually faces censorship attempts, attacks by conservative groups like Morality in Media, and is generally shunned by mainstream media outlets, the thought occurred to me, “Hey! where did the X-rated rating go”?  It seemed like a handy enough little flag to alert viewers of the level of sexuality in any given film and was a pretty dandy way of self-labeling and self-regulation for the film industry.

Read on…

But, before we dig into this a bit deeper, let’s look at Hollywood movies that skirt the edge of what used to get an X Rating…
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Once a pariah among concerned parents and a source of snickers among schoolchildren, the dreaded X-rating has all but vanished. What made this formerly MPAA-sanctioned rating go away? After a bit of digging, here’s is what occurred in the history of this X-rated film rating…


Since the 1920s, the Hollywood film industry developed and enforced a system of self-regulation to avoid government meddling.  By 1922, the studios had formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, which was trimmed down to the simpler “Motion Picture Association of America” (MPAA) in 1945.  Over the next few years under the leadership of Jack Valenti, the modern rating system we have to this day evolved.

In 1968, public and theater owner demands for a more complex system took shape with a four-tier system –  G, M, R and X. An “X” rating was meant to signal for “adults only,” with no one under 18 admitted. The age cut-off was lowered to 17 the following year.

The system has always been voluntary for studios to submit for a rating. Well with a catch.  Any studio that releases an “unrated” film stands very little chance of theatrical distribution.  To receive a rating, a producer submitted the completed movie for review by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), comprised entirely of parents with no ties to the entertainment industry. If this film contained extreme sexual or violent content, then it would receive an X rating.

Now one would think that getting an X rating would spell the kiss of death for any film seeking mainstream theatrical distribution, but it being the 1960s and early 1970s at the height of the sexual revolution, many X-Rated films did make it into main street theaters and a few of them did VERY well with Oscar awards and nominations.  Notable are:

  • Midnight Cowboy (1969), the story of a young hustler in New York City, received six Academy Award nominations and won three, including the award for Best Picture, despite its X rating;
  • Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which received four nominations from the Academy;
  • Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, released in 1972. The film’s adult content shocked critics and audiences alike, but could hardly be considered pornographic. Like its X-rated peers, Last Tango in Paris was nominated for two Academy Awards.

But then as the 1970s progressed, the film industry essentially stopped putting out X-rated movies, sending a film back to the cutting room until it could be rated R. So what happened?


It would be easy to blame the porn industry boom of the 1970s, but the X’s demise can be pinned on a simpler culprit: trademark.

X-Rated MoviesIn an excellent article published on MentalFloss.com by Laura Turner Garrison in 2011, she explains….

When creating its new system, the MPAA failed to copyright it. Ratings like the G did not suffer from the oversight, but it may have single-handedly caused the demise of the X. With no registered trademark, the X could legally be self-applied to any film—a loophole pornography happily exploited. For example, the notorious 1972 porn Deep Throat gave itself a tongue-in-cheek “X,” and many other adult films followed suit.

Soon one X wasn’t enough. Films like Debbie Does Dallas boasted a self-designated rating of XXX, promising three times the adult material. While the arbitrary XXX rating has since become standard for the adult film industry, the damage was done to the singular X. An X rating became synonymous with “hardcore,” and mainstream advertisers and distributors would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.

CARA became the moral litmus for films, leading to outcries of artistic censorship. When George Romero submitted his seminal zombie film Dawn of the Dead to the MPAA, it was returned to him with an X. Refusing the rating, he instead released his film unrated. But for the most part, filmmakers were forced to return to their editing suites and cut any content deemed unfit by a board of parents.

In 1990, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Miramax took the ratings system to court. They filed a civil suit over the X-rating given to their film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Though Almodovar & co. ultimately lost, the MPAA would eliminate the X-rating altogether only a few months later, replacing it with the freshly trademarked NC-17 rating.

Henry & June became the first NC-17 film, narrowly escaping the X curse. NC-17 may still carry a stigma, but one thing is for certain: you won’t be seeing a Triple NC-17 film any time soon, unless of course it’s a porn parody of a Hollywood NC-17!


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