Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark Art Director: Suzanne Sykes
Candida Royalle ex-porn star and founder of Femme Films is trying to revolutionise the industry. The reason that more women don't watch porn she argues is that the standard offerings don't take female sexuality into account. But are her ‘couples’ movies really any different from the usual tacky videos?
American romance 1988-style. Paul is in investment banking; Christie is in publishing. Friday night and Paul is at Christie's apartment; she made dinner, he brought a good bottle of wine. They take their coffee and move to the futon. Christie picks up what looks like a large romantic novel of the steamier sort, but closer inspection reveals it to be the packaging for a video. She takes out the cassette and places it in the machine. They settle back and a soft, seductive voice introduces them to Femme Films: 'Femme, the fantasies that women have been dreaming about all these years.' The movie Three Daughters starts and, as the package suggests, it's a raunchy romance. The plot has no more surprises than an average television blockbuster mini-series; but what makes it different is that there are no strategic fade-outs. Instead, there are long explicit sex scenes, with the girls firmly on top. The movie lasts for 90 minutes, but Paul and Christie aren't planning on catching the closing credits. Designer porn is becoming an essential aid to yuppie lovemaking in the States.
By way of contrast, porn in Britain has a terminal image problem. At best, consumers of the tawdry, downmarket product marketed here are seen as stag-night lads or pathetic inadequates; at worst, porn is thought to be fuel for rapists. The overriding image is still of the seedy guy in the dirty mac and, by and large, the British porn industry succeeds in living down to its image. You have only to visit your local newsagent to be confronted with rows of fly-blown magazines like Lovebirds or Whitehouse, filled with endless shots of bored girls with spread legs and stories so repetitively unimaginative as to defy belief. They offer a fantasy world of appalling impoverishment, testimony to a country that, in terms of mainstream pornography, is still living in the late 1950s.
But is yuppie porn any less exploitative than the traditional kind? I went to New York to interview Candida Royalle, ex-porno star and boss of Femme Films. She's late. I wait in a room full of potted plants and women dressed in black, relieved yet somewhat disappointed to find myself in what resembles a trendy PR company rather than a den of vice. Femme's offices are located in Manhattan's chic consumerland, the downtown district of SoHo; a Times Square sleaze parlour it is not. Femme's press officer, Char Rao, assures me Candida will be right with me. Candida's husband and Femme Films producer Per (Swedish, boyish good looks) offers me a cup of herbal tea.
Candida Royalle, when she arrives, has the appearance of the Ideal Businesswoman. Somewhere in her mid to late thirties, she is chic and confident, wearing serious glasses and cropped dark hair with a silver-grey flash at the front. She is highly articulate, businesslike and enthusiastic in an all-American kind of way. Like an unholy cross between Dr Ruth and Jane Fonda, she comes over as an X-rated girl guide. Her feelings about the output of the established porn industry, which gelled during her time as an adult movie star, reflect sentiments that many women undoubtedly have.
“The women in the conventional movies were not fairly represented. Their sexuality was not at all a concern of these movies, and I didn't feel that was right, particularly since I knew that women were starting to watch these movies. The women looked stupid: they always had to be these little pom-pom girls or bitches. So I did feel that women were being exploited - I felt that people were being exploited.
The sexuality in these movies was so infantile that, if anything, it would be harmful. I could just see these men watching this girl in the throes of passion because some guy is coming on her face, and going home and thinking, "Why doesn't my wife respond like that?" And maybe the wife sees it and, if she's not totally revolted, she might try it and wonder, "What's wrong with me that I can't enjoy it this way?" I thought this was really unfair. So all of this led me to the idea of making movies from a woman's perspective.”
The porn industry was new and booming when Candida first became involved in the early 1970s. There was a drive to legitimise the films, and each would take a week to shoot. With the advent of video, standards declined and today porno movies are generally shot on video in one day, treating the actors as replaceable commodities. Candida points out that her introduction to the business was a far more genteel affair.
“A very good friend of mine had made an adult film and she said it was perfectly fine,” says Candida. “I thought, "I'm a liberated gal, I do this in the privacy of my home... why not?" So I went to meet all the people who were making the movie. I had the same preconceptions everyone else has... a seedy motel room, a couple of junkies who need a fix…In fact there was a full crew, a proper set and the actors were very attractive.'
The most famous of the 1970s porn stars, Linda Lovelace, claimed in her book Ordeal that she had been coerced into performing. Candida finds this surprising: 'We were all consenting actors and actresses. I remember my first audition. I walked into this room full of beautiful women and handsome men, I had to read the script and all. People weren't dragged in; they were more likely to be turned away.'
So was it simply to make money that she got into the movies? 'No, looking at it now, I think that growing up Catholic led into all this. I was a good girl, I didn't lose my virginity until I was eighteen and in love and all that, but when my first relationship broke up, I felt incredibly guilty over it. This mixed in with all the other negative Catholic messages I had received through my adolescence and told me that my sexuality was dangerous.
“The way I responded was to shelve that whole part of myself, out of fear and guilt. I ended up moving to San Francisco and hanging out mostly with gay men. It was a really creative circle - I have nothing but good things to say about it - but, sexually, this was too much of a safe place for me. I eventually reacted by becoming "Candida Royalle - Porn Star". In a funny way, porn was another safe place sexually because the woman's enjoyment was never taken into account.
“I wasn't deriving any real pleasure from the movies, certainly not to the point of climaxing. "Candida Royalle" gave me a chance to act out the sexuality that I was terrified of in real life.'
In 1978 after a successful five years as 'Candida Royalle - Porn Star', she stopped performing: 'I decided I really wanted to get out because it was distracting me from my serious acting ambitions. I had never wanted to make this my main thing and I needed to move on because it was getting too comfortable, making this nice money. So I gave myself one more year in the business and moved to New York.'
It was shortly after she moved to New York and was working on one of her last movies, in early 1979, that she met Per. 'He was in the business already as a production manager/producer and he had no problem with me being in these movies - he was one of the rare men who didn't.' In fact, it was Candida herself who found the situation impossible. The couple married, and performing for the camera with other men became increasingly distasteful to her.
From 1980-83, during a period of introspection, she did some writing for men's magazines as well as a handful of in-depth features on women in the porn business. Eventually she went into therapy and, this being New York, formed a support group for porn actresses in 1981. Unlikely as it may sound, the group discussions featuring such luminaries as Veronica Vera, Gloria Leonard and the mellifluously named Annie Sprinkle - led to a stage show, Deep Inside Porn Stars, and to an unorthodox feminist viewpoint being introduced into the porn debate. Not content to be typecast as either scarlet women or prodigal daughters, they succeeded in outraging one and all.
From this experience, Candida began to realise that what bothered her about her career in pornography was not the sex per se, but rather the kind of sex displayed. The established style had become relentlessly tacky, rarely raising sex above the most infantile level. Candida's thoughts turned to producing sexually explicit movies from a woman's perspective. Just what that might be is a topic for endless debate, but Candida was at least sure she knew what women didn't want: 'I didn't just want to make a soap opera with the same old sex in it, which was some people's answer to the demands of women watching. I thought it was the sex itself that was lacking; it was so boring and stupid… it just didn't turn me on.'
So with the intention of turning women on and relying on Candida's intuitive belief that couples were starting to watch porn together, Femme Films was set up in March 1982. The company's intentions were straightforward; to treat women's sexual pleasure as central, to dump the tired formulae, and to re-introduce suspense. They were also prepared to flout the industry's conventional wisdom by omitting shots of ejaculation and refusing to show anal sex (this being the established industry's idea of innovation). Candida used her old contacts to guarantee distribution, and by May 1983, the first Femme production was complete. Simply entitled Femme, it was Candida's attempt at easing her way into the business.
There is no plot in Femme; essentially it is an elongated hard-core rock video. Along with its successor, Urban Heat, which suffers from excessive MTV-style fast-cutting, these are the least interesting of Femme's films to date. But they served their purpose and gave the company a niche in the market.
The movies have become steadily more ambitious, and dramas like Taste of Ambrosia, Sensual Escape, Christine's Secret and Three Daughters have most recently been followed by Candida's pet project, the Star Director series, in which porn actresses past and present are invited to take a turn behind the camera.
So, what do you get when you pick up the video from the store, finish the candlelit dinner and settle down in front of the video?
I spent an afternoon watching a selection of them in Femme's editing suite, trying to maintain a suitably disinterested air, accepting cups of tea and chatting about the soundtracks while bodies writhed passionately in front of me. The films are well lit, the camerawork imaginative and they all feature neat music composed and performed by saxophonist Gary Windo in a style pitched midway between jazz and New Age music. Some even feature wordless vocalising by the multitalented Ms Royalle. They range from the realist drama of Three Daughters - a sort of Neighbours with knobs on- to the pure, out and out fantasy of The Tunnel. What sets these films apart from traditional hard-core fare is that they are decently made and scripted, with the sex arising out of the plot rather than randomly and repetitiously inserted. Concepts like foreplay and afterplay are no longer alien. When they do get down to the nitty gritty, the camera does not just home in on floodlit genitalia. It's not all Athena poster vaseline on the lens stuff, but neither are you subjected to an intimate examination of every last pimple on the participants' buttocks. Instead, and this is certainly a breakthrough, you have the sense that the participants are enjoying themselves, which is aided, no doubt, by Candida's policy of using real-life lovers whenever it is possible. As to whether the films are 'pornographic' or 'erotic', this has always seemed to me to be somewhat arbitrary, a distinction favoured by those people who believe that their sexual fantasies are more tasteful than others'.
I asked Candida if she was consciously moving away from the pure fantasy of the early movies towards a more realist approach. 'One thing I wanted to do was to project real people. Some people really appreciate it that the sex looks like what they are accustomed to, and some people want more dialogue and more reality. Then again, some people want to get away from reality and to submerge themselves in fantasy. I had a letter from a sex therapist who really liked my first three fantasy-based movies. He said that they gave his patients somewhere to go off to. I think that the answer is to do both. Hopefully I will continue to explore many more levels of sexuality, including some of the darker sides. I would like to explore the fact that women are very turned on by the idea of being dominated sexually - again that goes back to guilt, but I think it's a very powerful fantasy that women have. I've only touched on it so far, as I wanted to establish myself first as being politically correct. In my latest video, The Tunnel, I tried to explore it a little, to bring in the element of danger that is such a turn-on for women. It should never be taken literally, but it's sure a lot of fun to play with, with someone you trust.'
The Tunnel is Candida's own contribution to the Star Director series of videos, although my favourite of these is Rites Of Passion, directed by Annie Sprinkle. The infamous porn-star-turned-performance-artist-and-photographer has made an extremely funny tale of a Southern sex kitten's awakening to the joys of the Tantric sex of eastern mysticism, casting aside her selection of vibrators and addiction to junk food along the way. The saga is narrated by Ms Sprinkle in a style irresistibly reminiscent of a hard-core Dolly Parton.
So far the Femme Films output is erotic but erratic. Candida clearly feels she's barely scraped the surface of what she might achieve. But there are problems to be confronted. The spectre of AIDS is paramount, and Candida is haunted by the prospect of one of her actors dying. She uses what she believes is safe sex, but who can be sure… And as for the response of the mainstream industry, she is frankly disgusted: 'Most of the people sitting up there on their fake leather thrones are not concerned with the talent; they are concerned with the money they are going to make. If they think that using safe sex is going to interfere with their movie they are not going to use it. What should happen with the death of John Holmes [male porn star who was famed for his penile dimensions; veteran of literally thousands of movies, whose recent death from AIDS sent a panic through the industry] is that people go out and get tested.'
There are problems, too, from another direction. Femme have certainly uncovered an audience of female consumers, women who are happy to watch porn on video but would never have dreamed of visiting a porn cinema. Reaching the audience, however, has not always been easy. Femme have had to organise their own distribution – this being an area of American commerce that is notoriously controlled by organised crime - but the local wholesalers are unhappy that Femme Films' production values make them more expensive than their competitors. So mail order looks to be the way forward, particularly as it appeals to women who don't relish venturing into their local video shop. Marketing the Star Director series is the immediate concern, and then a dilemma has to be faced: whether to make more soft-core productions, celluloid bodice-rippers that would be saleable to cable television, or whether to keep on pioneering feminist pornography/erotica.
Femme Films are interesting if for no other reason than that it is still extraordinary for women to give shape to their sexual fantasies. Just how women should represent sex has long been a topic of heated discussion within the feminist movement. Femme Films started at the height of the feminist anti-pornography movement identified with Andrea Dworkin. I asked Candida what reaction her work was getting from feminists. 'I have a tremendous amount of support. They recognise that what I'm doing is progressive in that I'm trying to create a sexual medium that presents positive role models for women and for men, that presents the women as human beings with other lives, and shows equal adults pleasuring each other. They see the value in what I'm doing. The people that don't are the Women Against Pornography groups. To them the act of sexual intercourse is an affront to women, and has been a tool to oppress women. They feel that any kind of erotic depiction exploits women. Now that must mean, at the bottom line, that these acts are negative, and I don't buy into that. In general, the extreme groups - who have not even seen my material as far as I know - believe I'm a thorn in their side, but the overall feminist community is supportive.'
Candida is not alone in believing that feminism can be compatible with an interest in sexually explicit material. Caught Looking is a magazine put together by American libertarian feminists. Pornographic images illustrate a series of articles that argue against allowing the real issue of sexual violence to drive women into pro-censorship positions, a case summed up here by Ann Snitow: 'To accept rather than struggle against the idea that sex is dangerous and polluting is to fear ourselves as much as the men who rape and hurt. We need to be able to reject the sexism in porn without having to reject the realm of pornographic sexual fantasy.'
Femme Films is making a start in claiming this territory for women. The popularity of videos for couples is changing the character of the sex industry; add in the fact that AIDS has produced a climate in which surrogate sex has a necessary appeal, and the time is right for genuinely adult movie making.
So, what are the chances of something similar emerging in Britain? Mention the prospect of porn for couples and the familiar reaction is, 'It can't happen here.' Then again, that's what they said about everything from skateboards to psychoanalysis. Britain's censorship laws may be the tightest in western Europe (the Republic of Ireland excepted) and, at the moment, pictures of couples having sex are illegal; but as the American-inspired 'new age' culture, from crystals to health-food chainstores, is already upon us, can couples movies be far behind?