Book Review – Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s

Review of Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s by Elena Gorfinkel. University of Minnesota Press. 2017. [HB/PB]. 320pp.

Review by Darshana Sreedhar Mini, University of Southern California, USA.

Elena Gorfinkel’s Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s maps the visual and industrial cultures of 1960s and 1970s American sexploitation cinema. Gorfinkel’s intervention follows the historical trajectory of exploitation films laid out by scholars such as Eric Schaefer in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. To create this historical palimpsest, Gorfinkel investigates the structural and cultural factors that allowed for the exchange of motifs, tropes and production strategies in sexploitation film culture. She focus on the time period of 1959-1972 to argue how sexploitation filmmakers self-reflexively made use of the ‘conditions of looking at erotic spectacle’ to promote these films at a time when American film culture was transitioning from ‘restriction to license’ (11). The boom in sexploitation film culture emerged at the interstices of changing definitions of obscenity, the import of art films from Europe that dealt explicitly with sexuality and shortage of fare produced from the mainstream studios (11).

Each of the book’s four chapters engage with the way sexploitation films negotiated their status as cultural objects that were marginal due to threat of censorship but simultaneously used this status as a way of consolidating their market value. The first chapter historically situates the regulatory frameworks that varied across states and between federal and local levels, allowing for different iterations of obscenity to come to the fore. The contestation against the legality of sexploitation films, coupled with the pressure tactics used by religious and civic groups, mobilised the figure of an ‘unintended spectator’: one whose rights were curtailed upon, being forced to encounter lewd images in public spaces. Gorfinkel maps the strategies used by producers and exhibitors to bypass exhibition regulations by both circulating multiple prints with different levels of explicitness and by leaving self-imposed censorship at the hands of the exhibitor, who was elevated to perform the role of the censor. This ‘creative accommodation’ utilised the lure of the forbidden spectacle to market the film as a prurient commodity.

The second and the third chapters give a detailed analysis of some of the films to explore how, what Gorfinkel calls ‘guilty expenditure’ — the dependence of sexual explicitness on narrative frameworks of ‘moral, emotional and financial ruin’ (97) — becomes an integral part of sexploitation films’ mode of address. Even when the narrative resolutions of some of these films might come across as regressive, their plot construction and character development offered enough space to explore varied sexual practices, orientations and identities that were outside the institutional setting of marriage. Another crucial point Gorfinkel discusses is the thematisation of the act of looking in sexploitation films through the metaphor of the ‘gawker in the text’ (98). Whether relating to the figure of ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘leering voyeur’, or ‘curious female’, sexploitation films were imbued with a consciousness that was aware of the limits of its own conditions of production. The last chapter addresses the historical reception of sexploitation films by locating the adult film spectator, who appears in various accounts as ‘dirty old men’ or ‘desperate loners’ (197). Gorfinkel’s discursive account of the figure of the spectator examines how such categories intersect with debates about taste and connoisseurship, anxiety and boredom.

Lewd Looks offers a window into the different players in the sexploitation film business such as Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman. Gorfinkel’s blending of film history, archival methods and reception studies paradigms visibilises artefacts of a film-culture that has eluded institutional attention because of its underground and marginal nature. In many cases, the films are not stable objects and have to be sourced from many sites including bootleg copies. This, coupled with the films’ perceived status as ‘low’ cultural objects, give them an ephemeral and fragmented quality and poses challenges in terms of preservation and archiving. In that sense, Gorfinkel’s collation of material related to specific films through visual images and archival extracts serves as a form of curation. But Lewd Looks is something more than a mere showcase, or museum of sexploitation curiosities. Gorfinkel’s thick account of the legal, spectatorial and institutional processes is tied together by her theoretical focus on cultures of looking. ‘Looking’ remains a running metaphor both in Gorfinkel’s examination of the ‘Peeping Tom’ that exists in the diegetic world of the film, and the ‘peeping’ audience that partakes in the surreptitious pleasures of watching erotic films. Gorfinkel’s own theoretical ‘look’ back into sexploitation’s past creates a mise-en-abyme that exposes the secret histories of cinema’s past, making Lewd Looks an important supplement to existing histories of American cinema.


Darshana Mini is a PhD Candidate at the Cinema and Media Division at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation project looks at Indian cinema’s relationship to sexuality, import policy and censorship by tracking the emergence of the South Indian state of Kerala as a hub of soft-core pornography. She examines how the genre of soft-porn cinema emerged as a subversive form in the late 90s by contravening Government prohibition on the circulation of sexual content. Using multi-sited ethnography, she seeks to examine the ways in which soft-porn films negotiated debates on sexuality and obscenity in India’s contentious mediascape.

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