Exploitation movies have been a part of the motion picture industry since its earliest days. The term "exploitation movie" initially referred to any film that required exploitation or ballyhoo over and above the usual posters, trailers, and newspaper advertising. Originally this included films on risqué topics, documentaries, and even religious films. But by the 1930s it referred specifically to low-budget movies that emphasized sex, violence, or some other form of spectacle in favor over coherent narrative.
Exploitation films grew out of a series of sex hygiene films that were made prior to and during World War I in an effort to stave the scourge of venereal diseases. Using movies as a modern educational tool to convey the dangers of the diseases and their potential treatments, movies like Damaged Goods (1914) drove home a moralistic message about remaining clean for family and country. Following the war several films commissioned by the government for use in training camps were released to the general public. Fit to Win (1919) and The End of the Road (1918) did not have the same level of moralizing of pre-war films, but they did include graphic clinical footage in many situations. These elements left the films open to severe cuts or outright bans by state and municipal censorship boards. In 1921 a meeting of top motion picture directors adopted a self-regulatory code, The Thirteen Points and Standards, that condemned the production of movies that were susceptible to censorship. Sex hygiene, white slavery, drug use, vice, and nudity led the list of disapproved topics. The same topics were among the list of forbidden subjects of the MPPDA's "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" when it was approved in 1927 and the Production Code when it was written in 1930. With a collection of salacious topics off-limits to mainstream moviemakers, low-budget entrepreneurs quickly moved in to fill the gap and reap the profits. Just as the bizarre sights of the sideshow had been segregated from the big top in the circus, the subjects of exploitation films were shunted aside by the mainstream movie industry.