Candida Royalle is the kind of sex positive, free-speech-friendly artist and advocate that was once (and is, alas, again) relatively rare in feminist circles. After building a career in the '70s porn scene via such vehicles as Thoroughly Amorous Amy and Fascination, with Ron Jeremy, Royalle—born Candice Vadala—moved on to the writing, producing, and directing side of the adult entertainment industry. Her goal was to give XXX-rated films a woman's perspective and to make erotic movies that couples could watch together.
"She was laughed at for thinking women's perspectives on sexuality were important, but everyone stole that idea from her," said porn actress and sex educator Nina Hartley to Adult Video News (AVN) last week, after it was announced that Royalle, 64, had died from ovarian cancer. "She started the 'couple's porn' phenomenon, which continues to this day."
Whatever you personally think of the kind of erotica Royalle made, there's no denying that she was a trailblazer, a savvy entrepreneur, and something of an iconoclast—a self-avowed feminist willing to push boundaries when it came to then-cherished feminist beliefs. Around the same time Royalle founded her production company, Femme Productions, in 1984, prominent feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon were testifying before legislators that porn was abusive by nature, that it led to violence against women and sexual aggression against children, and that most women in sex industries were products of coercion and sexual abuse.
Meanwhile Royalle was making XXX-rated movies with the likes of sex-industry notables like Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera, and Veronica Hart. This was when the center of the porn industry was in New York City, not Los Angeles. And "it was very taboo for a woman to direct a porn film," Royalle explained to an Australian interviewer in 2004. "I would say that it all changed in the 90s."
Femme Productions put out 18 films between 1984 and 2007, 13 of which were directed by Royalle. She described the Femme film aesthetic as "sensuously explicit," featuring "high production values, non-formulaic eroticism sans the gynecological close-ups and obligatory 'money shots." The sex they featured was explicit, but the films also had story-lines that revolved around more than just contriving a way to get people into a room for sex. The most popular of Femme's features include Three Daughters (1986), which received a perfect rating from AVN, and Sensual Escape (1991), featuring Sprinkle and Hartley. But critical appreciation continued throughout the next few decades: My Surrender (1996) won lead performer Jeanna Fine the AVN's Best Actress award, and Stud Hunters (2002) received five AVN nominations, including best director and best editing. In the '90s, Royalle struck a deal with adult-goods company Adam and Eve to distribute Femme Productions titles, along with a line of vibrators.
In addition to being sexy, some of the films were more comedic, some more romantic, and some more political. Royalle described a 1992 effort, Revelations, as "a very political piece about what life would be like without the freedom to express ourselves creatively and sexually. It was my response to the right-wing attacks on the adult industry and the apathy of consumers buying and renting adult movies but not standing up for their right to do so."
In 1992, Royalle aso founded the (now defunct) nonprofit Feminists for Free Expression (FFE), which described its mission as "working to preserve the individual's right to read, hear, view and produce materials of her choice without the intervention of the state 'for her own good.'"
The group opposed speech-censoring legislation; defended free speech in court cases, on college campuses, and in the media; and opposed the book, movie, and music banning efforts that were popular at the time. Royalle and FFE's other leaders believed that "freedom of expression is especially important for women's rights" and that the suppression of sexist messages "will neither reduce harm to women nor further women's goals." From the group's Facebook page:
Censorship traditionally has been used to silence women and stifle feminist social change. It never has reduced violence; it has led to the imprisonment of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and the suppression of such works as The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Well of Loneliness, and the feminist plays of Holly Hughes. … There is no feminist code about which words and images are dangerous or sexist. Genuine feminism encourages individuals to choose for themselves. A free and vigorous marketplace of ideas is the best guarantee of democratic self-government and a feminist future. (Emphasis mine.)
On her website, Royalle opined that "if we want to live in a world where free expression is allowed, we have to accept that there's going to be imagery we don't like or agree with. The best way to counter it is to get out there and create what you'd like to see yourself. Then let the public choose for themselves." She continued:
You can't force people to choose the positive stuff, but hopefully if it's available, that's what they'll go for. On the other hand, if you try to censor works of art or porn, it just becomes more desirable, like "forbidden fruit." I think it's important to censor and prosecute people who make materials that victimize children and animals. The rest of it—if it's with people who are adults and it's consensual, if someone likes to be spat on and slapped, who are we to forbid them to do it? I have the choice not to look. It does concern me that so many men like to see brutal violating behavior like this, but so do some women. And look at the violence in our mainstream non-sex movies…is it any different? These are the challenges of living in a free society.
Royalle "set the standard for ethical, conscious and ground-breaking adult entertainment," Hartley told AVN. Though she championed uncensored speech and women's participation in pornography, she wasn't blind to the adult-film industry's downsides. She formed the first peer-support group for female form performers, Club 90, and spoke out against exploitation in the industry where she saw it. "She was a stickler for proper treatment of performers before it was trendy," said Hartley, calling Candida "a fierce, proud feminist."
Royalle died last week, after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. Sprinkles told AVN that New York, L.A., and San Francisco memorials for Royalle are being planned for November.