This week, the sex education community lost a beloved member, Candida Royalle. A true pioneer and leader in the field, Candida was also a dear friend and inspiring mentor for many of us.
We, The Pleasure Mechanics, owe everything we do to the legacy of Candida Royalle and the other pioneers of sex positive feminism.
It is essential to understand the history of the sex positive feminist movement to fully grasp Royalle’s contribution to sex culture as we know it.
In the 1970’s, a debate began brewing amongst feminist thinkers and activists. This debate escalated into what is known as the feminist sex wars or porn wars. On one side were anti-porn feminists and on the other, sex positive feminists.
For many years, most feminist theory took a decidedly anti-sex stance on issues of pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism and even private sexual relationships. In response to thousands of years of sexual oppression, the first feminist response was to shut down sexuality all together, especially commercial sexuality like the pornography industry. It was suggested that celibacy and androgyny were logical solutions to the exploitation of sexuality. The U.S. anti-pornography movement was formalized with the founding of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media in 1977 and the first Take Back The Night march in 1978. Feminist thinkers Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted several documents calling for the criminalization of pornography. Robin Morgan stated the core belief as “”pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” and many anti-porn feminists declared that all sex was based on male violence.
In the late 1970’s another voice began to rise and assert that sexuality could be a positive force for women’s liberation. This camp, which included the pioneers of the sex positive movement, focused on the importance of free speech and expression for all women, including those who wanted to express themselves as sexual beings. Sex positive feminism arose from the idea that women’s bodies and choices belonged to women themselves and shouldn’t be controlled by the morality of anyone else, including other women.
When it came to pornography, sex positive feminists boldly claimed that the solution was not no pornography but rather better porn. They challenged the idea that all sexuality was patriarchal and violent by nature, and instead started talking about female pleasure, orgasm and masturbation. They began educational circles where women discussed sexuality and learned about sexual pleasure. Betty Dodson spearheaded teaching women about masturbating, while other women took up activism around lesbianism and sadomasochism. In the early 80’s a group of women in New York City started thinking about how to bring their feminist and sex positive values to the pornography industry. These women included Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle.
The clash between these two groups were intense. Anti-porn feminists would stage demonstrations and protests outside of feminist conferences and theaters showing pornography, and the attacks often got deeply personal.
Clearly, we here at Pleasure Mechanics identify more with the sex positive feminist camp, and are in a direct lineage with these early pioneers. But all of the questions about the role of porn, prostitution and commercial sexuality are just as relevant today and there are no easy answers. We must continue to have conversations and explore what the future of these industries might look like with the highest good of all humans in the forefront of our minds.
Candida Royalle was part of that small group of women who began exploring the notion of feminist pornography in the 80’s. She performed in about 25 films over five years before retiring from performing and taking her place behind the camera as a producer and director. Her goal was to create couple’s friendly porn that women would enjoy watching. Remember, she was the first to explore this genre, which today is a huge industry. The industry at the time laughed at her, and she struggled to find distribution for her films. Yet she persisted, creating films that emphasized foreplay, romance, women’s pleasure and authentic depictions of female orgasm. In 1984 Royalle started Femme Productions, considered by many to be the first feminist porn production studio. Later, she turned her gaze on the sex toy industry and created the first line of sex toys designed to be ergonomic and women friendly, called Natural Contours. Both her couple’s pornography and ergonomic sex toys are now widely copied throughout the industry. In 1992 she was a founding member of Feminists for Free Expression.
Candida Royalle was a visionary and it is only because her ideas have been so widely adopted that we can easily forget her contributions. The core ideas of porn that couples can enjoy together, porn that depicts authentic women’s pleasure, films that take time to build up to a climax other than the “money shot” are all Candida’s contributions to the sex positive media movement. Meanwhile, her writing and educational efforts contributed just as much to the efforts to teach about female sexual pleasure and emphasize sexuality as a positive, healthy force in our lives. For her contributions we all must be grateful.
One of Candida Royalle’s best friends and collaborators is Annie Sprinkle. They were both part of Club 90, a feminist porn star support group that brought together the core group of sex positive feminists in friendship and mutual support.
Annie’s story is the subject of an entire discussion, but for us personally is important to mention here. I met Annie through my sex positive work at Vassar College, and she generously invited me to come work with her in San Francisco. So I eagerly drove cross country and rang her doorbell. She welcomed me with open arms, and eventually introduced me to her dear friend Joseph Kramer, who gave me my first job after college. Joe was the founder of the Body Electric School, which formalized the practice of erotic massage. Joe sent me to massage school, where I learned both traditional massage and erotic massage, and we collaborated on my first sex education video projects. I also helped him develop and teach the Sexological Bodywork program at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which is eventually where I met Charlotte. Meanwhile, I continued to work with Annie Sprinkle on various projects and we remain friends to this day. Our work here at Pleasure Mechanics is part of direct lineage from the earliest pioneers of sex positive feminism, and we are grateful for all those who laid the tracks before us. We hope to continue their legacy of creating a more positive and pleasurable sex culture for us all.