The term sex symbol was first used between the 1910s and 1920s to describe the first emerging movie stars of the era. One of the first sex symbols on-screen was Sessue Hayakawa for men and Asta Nielsen for women. Movie studios have relied heavily on the looks and sex appeal of their actors to be able to attract audiences. This concept increased in World War II. As the men were separated from their wives because of the war, many photos of young women posing in suggestive positions were circulating in the armies. It was the birth of pin-ups. Movie stars were no longer the only ones who were seen as a sexual ideal; Betty Grable is an example.
In the 20th century, sex symbols could be male as well as female: actors such as the romantic Sessue Hayakawa and the athletic Douglas Fairbanks were popular in the 1910s and 1920s. Archetypal screen lover Rudolph Valentino's death in 1926 caused mass hysteria among his female fans. In Hollywood, many film stars were seen as sex symbols, such as Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. The "bad boy" image of the 1950s was epitomized by sex symbols such as James Dean and Marlon Brando and women like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were seen as the archetype of the blonde bombshell. 
In his Elvis Presley obituary, Lester Bangs credited him as "the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America," in the 1950s and 1960s, through his overtly suggestive dance moves. While until the 1950s, the sex symbol was just seen as a sexual ideal, in the 1960s it was seen as a symbol of the emancipation of bodies and sexuality with the sexual revolution.  Brigitte Bardot was one of the most famous sex-symbol of the 1960s.
Fictional sex symbols
With regard to fiction, Rotten Tomatoes states that the 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop is "the first and most famous sex symbol on animated screen". Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) from the 1988 live-action/animation crossover film Who Framed Roger Rabbit has been described as a sex symbol as well.
Video games have had a few characters that are considered sex symbols; one example would be Lara Croft, who has had several appearances in mainstream media. Other sex symbols include Rayne, the first video game character that appeared in Playboy, in its October 2004 US issue's article, "Gaming Grows Up"; and Nina Williams, voted "Hottest" Female Fighting Character in Guinness World Records, Gamers Edition 2008.
- "BBC World Service – Witness, The Death of Marilyn Monroe". BBC. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
- Pam Cook, "The trouble with sex: Diana Dors and the Blonde bombshell phenomenon", In: Bruce Babinigton (ed.), British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery, pp. 169–171. Quote: "– the sex symbol is usually defined in terms of her excessive sexuality"
- Williams, Gregory Paul (1990). The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History. B L Press. ISBN 978-0977629923.
- Flexner, Stuart Berg; Soukhanov, Anne H. (1997). Speaking freely: a guided tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley. Oxford University Press. p. 373. ISBN 978-0-19-510692-3.
- Hutchinson, Pamela (22 February 2016). "Last of the red-hot myths: what gossip over Rudolph Valentino's sex life says about the silents". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
- "The Queen at 90: The key events of 1926, in pictures". The DailyTelegraph. 21 April 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
- Weinberg, Thomas S.; Newmahr, Staci, eds. (2014). Selves, Symbols, and Sexualities: An Interactionist Anthology: An Interactionist Anthology. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1483323893.
- King, S. (2019). Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Blurb. ISBN 978-1388059033.
- Rodman, Gilbert B. (1996). Elvis After Elvis, The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend. Routledge. pp. 58–59. ISBN 0-415-11002-5.
- Bourget, Jean-Loup (1998). Hollywood, la norme et la marge. Armand Colin. ISBN 978-2200341763.
- "Betty Boop: Boop Oop a Doop". Rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
- "Amanda Knox Is Like Jessica Rabbit". Sky News. 27 September 2011.
- Barboza, David (19 January 1998). "Video World Is Smitten by a Gun-Toting, Tomb-Raiding Sex Symbol". The New York Times.
- "Channel 4 Top 100 Sex Symbols internet poll". Channel4.com. Retrieved 18 May 2012.
- "Boom Raider". Telegraph. London. 24 June 2001. Retrieved 5 March 2008.
- "AT's Top 10 Video Game Chicks". Actiontrip. Archived from the original on 22 August 2016. Retrieved 2 December 2007.
- Limited, Guinness World Records (2008). Guinness World Records, Gamers Edition 2008. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-904994-20-6.