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Long before the creation of SlutWalks and Cindy Gallop’s, there was feminist porn pioneer Candida Royalle. Royalle, who passed away from ovarian cancer at age 64 in 2015, was a performer-turned-entrepreneur who turned the typically male gaze of porn on its head by directing and producing erotic films for women.
Born Candice Marion Vadala on October 15, 1950, in Brooklyn, NY, Royalle moved to San Francisco in 1971 for its thriving performance art scene, and soon joined gender-bending theater troupe the Cockettes. Before long, she was dipping her toes in the adult industry with performances in X-rated movies including Kinky Tricks (1977) and Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls (1978), eventually racking up over two dozen performances with a variety of directors. Royalle also became fast friends with other actresses of that celebrated era, such as Veronica Vera, Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Hart, and Gloria Leonard; together, they formed a support group dubbed Club 90, the first of its kind.
In her 2004 book, How To Tell a Naked Man What To Do: Sex Advice From a Woman Who Knows, Royalle wrote, “I was an active feminist and reasoned that it was my body to do with what I wanted. After all, the women’s movement was all about choice: Some women may choose to cast off their aprons and don a suit and join the corporate world. Others may keep their aprons and work at home. I choose to cast off everything and use my looks, my body, my open attitude toward sex, and my healthy sexual appetite to make a living.”

In 1984, the savvy businesswoman created Femme Productions in New York with the goal of making adult films for female viewers and couples. “Yes, women were essential to the creation and sales of commercial porn, and yet their sexuality was completely ignored and misrepresented,” wrote Royalle of her vision. “I wondered what it would be like to create explicit movies that give us good information about sex while entertaining and inspiring us.”

Royalle’s films eschewed clinical, up-close-and-personal shots in favor of steamier vibes; she also focused on aesthetics and character development. Plus, Royalle gave her fellow Club 90 friends the opportunity to get behind the camera themselves with her Star Director’s Series. Then in 2007, she launched Femme Chocolat, a series that showcased women of color both in front of and behind the camera, an idea that’s still ahead of its time in many ways.

“The men in the industry laughed at her at first,” Royalle’s friend Vera told BUST. “They thought she was insane to insist that ejaculations should be inside the body and with condoms (unless the performers were a committed couple). Until Candida came along, the thought was that the male viewer had to see the ejaculation in order to believe it. Contributing to women’s options for pleasure was her prime motivation. Often she said that she wanted to make movies that she could be proud to show her friends. She didn’t feel that way about many of the movies in which she performed.”

In addition to her impressive producing and directing career, Royalle was also a respected advocate and educator. She was a founding member of the nonprofit group Feminists For Free Expression, which defended erotica as free speech, and she had a thriving public speaking career. “Sexual desire is one of our most primary and wonderful gifts, yet we are still fighting over what kind of sex is acceptable, where, why, and with whom,” she wrote of her activist work. “We use sex to sell anything and everything possible, from computers to cars to kitchen appliances, yet it is still considered immoral to look at humans engaging in real, honest-to-goodness sex.”

Royalle’s influence now reaches far beyond the adult industry. She was partly the inspiration for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Candy on HBO’s The Deuce, and female pornographers working today proudly follow in her footsteps. “Candida believed in encouraging a new generation of female directors such as Petra Joy and Abiola Abrams,” says Vera. “Now there are so many, many more. Candida has become the pioneer of the whole feminist porn genre.”


By Jessica Wakeman

Top photo: Candida Royalle (then Candice Vadala) performing with the San Francisco Cockettes, Winter 1975 

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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