Thomas Edison's (1847–1931) first ventures into motion pictures already included representations of sexuality. Hoping to woo viewers to his kinetoscope parlors, Edison's company made short film loops that had sexual appeal: "cooch" dancers, pillow fights in a girls' dormitory, a close-up of an actor and actress in full embrace. Watching these loops through the kinetoscope created a "peep show" experience. While it seems these snippets were mainly aimed at arousing heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men may have derived pleasure at the kinetoscope of Eugen Sandow bulging and rippling his muscles—and gay historians have pointed out the possible pleasures of the clip of two men holding each other and dancing. While not all early filmmakers focused on sexuality, many did. The French film Le Bain (1896) followed in the peep show tradition by letting audiences watch a woman strip nude before bathing. Many early uses of shot/reverse shot, such as British "Brighton School" filmmaker G. A. Smith's As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), have characters looking surreptitiously at women in dishabille or couples en flagrante . The prevalence of such displays of sexuality indicate that they were popular with some customers, yet others were aghast. Such alarm extended beyond the screen, as reformers criticized the opportunities that the low-lit environments of nickelodeon theaters created, even asserting that unaccompanied female patrons were likely to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution.
The clamor against nickelodeons grew so dense that the New York City police department closed down all of the city's theaters in December 1908. A number of obscenity laws and court decisions were also handed down that reformers and local police could use to shut down theaters and arrest exhibitors (and sometimes even audiences). County councils in Great Britain and city and state censor boards in the United States were given legal authority to edit salacious content from films or to ban them altogether. In the United States, the Supreme Court judged that film was a business and not an art form in 1915, and thus not protected by the Freedom of Speech provision of the Constitution. Similar actions occurred throughout much of the world by the end of the 1910s, such as the establishment of federal censorship bureaus in Denmark (1913) and in Egypt (1914), and the passage of New Zealand's Cinematograph-Film Censorship Act in 1916.
While such events may make it seem as if filmmakers were sex radicals needing to be kept under strict surveillance, most in the industry tended to endorse mainstream concepts of sexual desire. Such an assumption is borne out in the prevalence of narrative features that focus solely on patriarchal heterosexuality. The clichéd formula of "boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl" became endemic in films from Hollywood to Bombay quite early in film history. Whether explicit sexual attraction or heavily muted romantic courtship, every film industry has been dominated by stories of male/female coupling. Such emphasis often created a sense that heterosexuality was the only "natural" sexual desire—if not the only desire at all. As theorist Laura Mulvey would point out in the 1970s, mainstream narrative motion pictures also tend to support a patriarchal heterosexuality by presenting women as sexual objects for men (in the narrative as well as in the audience) to ogle.
Yet cinema also could provide access to contested or "inappropriate" sexualities—demonizing them but acknowledging their existence in the process. For example, a number of US silent pictures, including Ramona (1910), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Broken Blossoms (all directed by D. W. Griffith, 1919), dealt with interracial desires. Almost exclusively such stories told of the tragic, and often horrifying, consequences of these desires. Similarly, early Indian cinema often dramatized the harrowing outcomes of people loving across caste lines. In a similar vein, German cinema during the Nazi era included lurid anti-Semitic tales of Jews lusting for Aryan beauties. Motion pictures also emerged during a period of shifting roles for women in the United States and in western Europe. When women began entering the workplace in greater numbers and demanding the right to vote, these male-dominated cultures were now forced to acknowledge that women had their own sexual desires—often evidenced through rampant adoration of male motion picture stars. As a recognition of female (hetero) sexuality, the figure of the vamp—a highly eroticized female who lured men to their doom with her charms—became popular in motion pictures during the 1910s and 1920s. Actresses such as Theda Bara (1885–1955), Pola Negri (1894–1987) and Greta Garbo (1905–1990) became international stars by playing vamps. Often, sweet Victorian wives or virginal ingénues played counterpoint to the treacherous vamps—and actresses such as Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Lillian Gish (1893–1993) became stars embodying what was considered a more appropriate female role model.
In addition to interracial (or intercaste) sexuality, and challenges to previous understandings of female sexuality, there grew a greater awareness of what the medical profession had recently termed homosexuality. At the turn of the century, concepts of homosexuality were strongly linked to concepts of gender. Consequently, homosexuals were commonly thought of as a "third sex"—men who wanted to be women, and vice versa. When homosexuality was depicted on screen at this time, filmmakers employed stereotypes of feminine men (often called "pansies") or what were termed "mannish women." Because of this definition, same-sex affection between two conventionally masculine men or two conventionally feminine women was often not regarded as homosexual. Thus same-sex characters in silent cinema sometimes embrace in a manner that would likely be regarded as suspect to today's Western audiences. When Hollywood films included homosexuals, they were minor characters, often held up for ridicule. However, a small circle of European films tried to address the topic more centrally and sympathetically—including Vingarne ( Wings , 1916, Sweden), Anders als die Anderen ( Different from the Others , 1919, Germany), and Die Büsche der Pandora ( Pandora's Box , 1929, Germany). German films in particular were able to discuss homosexuality (and other sexual matters) more forthrightly after World War I because, for a short while, censorship laws were abolished. If such films managed to get imported to more restrictive countries, they were heavily cut.