How did the term x come to be associated with pornography?

2023 Jul 27

The letter “X” as a marker for explicit and adult content, including pornography, has a history tied to the movie rating system. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced a rating system to provide viewers with information about the content of films. The “X” rating was given to films deemed suitable for viewers aged 17 and older.

However, the MPAA never trademarked the “X” rating, unlike its other ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R). This led to adult film producers using the “X” rating for their movies to signify explicit sexual content. Over time, some films even began to use multiple X’s (such as “XXX”) as a marketing tool to emphasize the explicitness of their content.

This practice led to the cultural association of “X” with adult and explicit content, including pornography. In 1990, the MPAA replaced the “X” rating with “NC-17” to regain control over their rating system and to differentiate mainstream films from pornography. Despite this, the association of “X” with explicit adult content persists.

To paint a narrative picture, let’s consider the life of the letter “X” as though it were a protagonist in a book.

Once upon a time, the letter “X” was just a simple character, the 24th letter of the alphabet, a placeholder in algebra, and a symbol for kisses in a letter. However, its innocent existence was forever changed in 1968 when the MPAA, seeking a symbol for movies not suitable for children, chose “X” to stand for the explicit and the forbidden.

With the advent of the adult film industry and its appropriation of “X”, this letter was thrust into the seedy underbelly of society, becoming the scarlet letter of the cinematic world. Its use became so pervasive that it was seen not just singly, but in duplicates and triplicates, each repetition heightening its illicit connotations.

The MPAA, in a desperate attempt to disassociate from this unexpected development, tried to erase “X” from its lexicon in 1990, substituting it with “NC-17”. But it was too late. The letter “X”, now the symbol of the adult industry, had a life of its own. Despite attempts to restore its former neutrality, “X” had been forever branded with the mark of explicit content. Today, the legacy of “X” serves as a compelling tale of cultural evolution and the unintended consequences of symbolic assignments.