Candida Royalle’s Fight to Fuse Feminism and Porn Movies

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“Each time I know I have to go on stage soon I feel like screaming and crying,” Candice Vadala wrote in her journal in November 1980. It was Election Day, the dawning of what Ronald Reagan, the landslide victor in the presidential race, would later declare to be morning in America. But night still hung thick in the places where Vadala made her personal appearances, in embattled strip clubs in struggling industrial cities around the United States. The blinking lights on the marquee always used her professional name, Candida Royalle. She had chosen it six years before, in San Francisco, for her work in underground theater. She might have known, from her Catholic girlhood, that Candida—derived from the Latin candidus—meant white, pure. It meant what Candice meant, but it looked fancier, more upper-class, especially when paired with Royalle. “I thought it sounded like a rich French dessert,” she later wrote.

She’d worked the live-show circuit for a year or so, on and off, gigs tucked between films and romances and writing assignments. She played Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C. She played Bridgeport, Connecticut, and New York’s Times Square. The bookings lasted several days, sometimes a full week. She’d done a show in Toronto in the dead of winter, a few days before her wedding.

The contracts her agent brought her always sounded so promising, one more sign that Royalle’s name was “getting big & respected,” she wrote. The money seemed good: as much as $250 a night—about $750 in today’s money. It was more than she made by writing an article for a men’s magazine, roughly equal to her day rate for shooting a film. Sometimes, a club’s owner even paid her travel and hotel. Royalle’s “star status” also meant she could set her own limits on the circuit: “No sleazy crotch shots or anything.”

The first time she readied for the road, Candice had relished the anticipation: picking numbers to lip-sync during her striptease, pairing the vampy siren song “Whatever Lola Wants,” from Damn Yankees, with the Blockheads’ throbbing postpunk anthem “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick.” Assembling costumes—fishnets and garters, always. A sheath that looked like the half-ravaged tiger skin of a porno Wilma Flintstone, or a gamine nightdress that called to mind a dirty Doris Day, or a bodystocking made entirely of string, a cross between ’70s macramé and the dawning ’80s bondage fashion. She was keen to use her dance and vocal training, and to flaunt her personal style, which evoked the movie stars of the ’40s and ’50s. She thought she might have found her “true calling in life: to bring back burlesque the way it was meant to be! To prove that excitement can be generated by sheer electricity rather than just sheer cunt!”

The audience wanted sheer cunt.

The first time Candice had strutted onstage, at the Hi-Way in Chicago in September 1979, she had felt like a silver-screen star—like “Mae West with her young strapping bodyguards by her side, signing autographs, posing for pictures.” The club’s owner had produced Hot and Saucy Pizza Girls, one of Candice’s favorites among the forty-plus pornographic films in which she’d appeared. Ads for her live show in the Sun-Times touted “Pizza Girl in Person! She Sings! She Dances! She Delivers!” The Hi-Way’s staff waited on her hand and foot: “Would you like your water now, Miss Royalle?” She had always been a sucker for any hint of luxury, a princess awaiting her prince and her castle. It had taken a couple of days, and a boost from some hash, but she managed to “warm up and get loose & sexy” on the club’s stage, really “cookin’,” she wrote, feeling the kind of energy she got from singing jazz or doing theater.

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But then, in Detroit, disappointment set in, as if they’d turned up the houselights to reveal the kinds of theaters that played 16mm hardcore for the raincoat crowd, places managed by people she called “low life sleazoids” or “hillbilly slobs” who exploited their customers, the “strange & sometimes retarded little men” who came to watch Candida Royalle dance, hoping for a feel or even a taste, bringing her “odd little gifts,” telling her how much they admired her early work, in silent peep-show loops, the cheapest, lowest form of sex film, the stuff that had embarrassed her even on the days she made those horrible one-act wonders, sometimes two in the course of a single morning. Yet the adoring customers Candice both pitied and despised also complained to the management: Royalle gave them too much burlesque and too little beaver. She scribbled in the spiral notebook she used as a makeshift diary an angry poem:

They pull up in front of the blinking marquis

Park their pickup trucks and pay the fee—

They’re all set for an hour of fun

Watching girls’ pussies pretending to come

They’d like it if I shoved my pussy in their face

They’d like me to be an awful disgrace . . .

Ya wanna see me writhe on the floor

You wanna see me . . . act like a whore

I dare ya!

She dared them, but still she danced, and the men kept paying, and she kept wriggling, and now, 14 months after her debut in Chicago, she was opening in Pittsburgh, “live on stage” at the Casino Royale, in the failing steel city’s fallen downtown, sandwiched between adult bookstores, blue-movie theaters, and massage parlors. Liberty Avenue was the kind of place where someone might sell you a fix and then pull you into the alley with a knife at your throat. “Maybe there’s something to be said for expecting the worst,” Candice wrote shortly after she checked out the club. When the curtain went up, she was relieved to spy “a couple of genuinely good-looking guys” amidst the toads.

The Pittsburgh gig ran for a week, four shows a day, plus a midnight special on Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s performances started at noon, right after church. When the engagement was nearly done, a friend flew out from New York to bring her some heroin. Candice sniffed rather than shot it now, only when she really needed a bump to get her through. “Stoned I hardly felt the anguish,” she wrote in her journal.

Unchained by the dope, she lost herself in the dance, her beauty reflected back to her in the onlookers’ gazes. “They shrieked! They were at the edge of their seats panting,” she wrote after the show. The friend who brought the heroin took pictures: Candida with her hair tied in ribboned pigtails, wearing a filmy pink baby-doll nightie, dancing to Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” with “the mood,” as she later put it, “definitely little girl.” Candida tearing off the nightie to reveal a demure pink satin push-up bra. Candida stripped to her G-string, head thrown back, one arm hooked behind her. Candida on her knees, fully nude, still singing. The club was dark, and the pictures are blurred, but you can see the men, all white, some in coat and tie, their faces rapt, surrounding the runway on three sides, near enough to touch the writhing star if their hands weren’t busy in their laps. They were crestfallen when she finished: “screams—yells,” Candice wrote. She left the stage “laughing, sweating, panting, having just worked myself up into an explosive ending. I looked like I was coming—I felt like I was.”

Then she flew home to Brooklyn and found that she couldn’t stop crying, the tears “dragging long black streams of makeup down my face.”

Candice insisted she felt no shame, though Reagan had won the election and not only his family-values conservatives but also many of her onetime sister-feminists were out on the barricades, marching against porn. “I don’t suffer guilt,” she wrote in her diary. “I find erotic entertainment valid & necessary.” Still, the appearances gutted her. On film sets, she’d been surrounded by other performers, women and men who’d faced the same chances and made the same choices she had. How different it felt to stand before the “men that actually go & get off watching me.”

She knew that her work in hardcore film hadn’t been “wrong,” wasn’t “sin.” But that didn’t make porn the hill she wanted to die on. “I don’t even care about any ‘cause,’” she wrote. In fact, she hadn’t voted in the big election. “I don’t even live like most people fighting for sexual freedom,” she wrote. “I am sexually free. And I’m also old fashioned.”

One of those things was true.

She turned thirty right after the Pittsburgh gig. She had begun to ponder how she had fallen into her line of work, and whether she might yet get out. She thought about telling her story; having kept a diary for 18 years, she’d “become a pretty good writer!” She pitched an essay about the personal-appearance circuit to editors at New York and other mainstream magazines, promising to offer their readers “understanding into the mind behind the body. Women in the sex industry have long been misunderstood & put down,” she said. “I would like to help change that.”

She began to imagine a full-dress memoir. Candida Royalle, Porn Queen would be the story of a generation, and of the “different experiences & choices we all make every day of our lives—we women trying & needing to prove ourselves.” She had lived those experiences and choices “more extremely than others,” and so her tale was more “telling of what we all go through.” About this, and much else, she was surely right. Her life, despite or indeed because of its extremes—its literal bareness—embodies both the promise and the perils of her times, and their aftermath.

She pored over her diaries and letters, highlighting passages to feature, softening rough and bigoted language, smoothing over flaws. She pondered existential questions: how did Candice Vadala—“a nice middle-class” kid, supplied with “ballet lessons, girl scouts, all those ingredients that go into making a nice wholesome American Girl”—end up as Candida Royalle, Porn Queen? And to what extent would she succeed in the project she set for herself in the ’80s: creating feminist porn, writing a different ending to her own life in the process?

She made outlines. But she got busy, and then she got sick, and finally, in 2015, she died, too young, without producing a draft.

Candice Vadala long wanted to share the story of her life. I never expected that I would be the one to write that history—at once the book she never managed, and nothing like it.

In the fall of 1981, nearly a year after Candida Royalle’s Pittsburgh show, I started college. The most explicit images I had ever seen were the drawings illustrating my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, which they hid, under blankets, in the back of a bureau drawer. Those pencil sketches wouldn’t do for a thoroughly modern coed. Sometime that year, or the next, I saw a pornographic movie in the company of a group of friends. The VCR was still novel; just over 1 percent of American households had one. Dorm rooms certainly didn’t. Students watched cinema, programmed by film societies, in campus spaces. My porno, as I recall it, was screened in the auditorium of the Yale Law School, where, by day, I attended a popular course in Soviet history. Maybe some First Amendment principle was involved? Not for me or my friends, heaven knows. For us, the outing represented at least four parts dare to one part lust. I’m sure I laughed in the crowd in the dark.

The relationship of pornography to misogyny loomed large in the American women’s movement at the time, yet I was only dimly aware of the internecine feminist conflict that would soon become known as the sex wars. Subjects like women’s history and feminist theory were just making their way onto campus. I scarcely was taught by a female professor, and never confronted a female protagonist who lived beyond the pages of a Victorian novel.

Candice Vadala’s aversion to “cause” notwithstanding, she wound up enlisting in the sex wars, a conflict that, among its many other ironies, enlarged the cultural cachet of adult actresses and filmmakers. As Candida Royalle, she played an unpredictable role that scrambled the division of feminist sensibilities into anti-porn and pro-sex sides. Royalle was a stealth fighter, an insurgent, a mercenary. She rejected both the victimology and the criminology of anti-pornography feminism. But she also knew, and sometimes spoke to, darker sides of the sex industry, which belied the facile hedonic sex-positive arguments made by those who worked sex only on paper.

Shortly before Reagan’s second landslide victory, Candice turned the camera around and got behind it. Her production company, Femme, made explicit movies she considered to be, and touted as, feminist. In the last decades of the American century, Femme films—18 in all—raised the temperature in countless marriages. They carried the imprimatur of the sex—and family—therapy industry. By the turn of the millennium, when “the pedagogic enshrinement of porn” became “an established fact,” as James Atlas wrote in The New Yorker, the films Royalle directed were not just screened but taught on elite college campuses. “Sex is now seen as the motive force of our beings,” one pioneer of the genre of porn studies told Atlas.

Just as Royalle settled into the director’s chair, I graduated from college and moved to Manhattan. The sex wars were raging, and the toll of the AIDS epidemic was increasing exponentially. Time magazine had run a cover story entitled “Sex in the 80s: The Revolution Is Over.” Since the Carter years, Congress had debated numerous bills attempting to curb explicit materials, chiefly in the name of child protection. Early in Reagan’s second term as president, he directed his attorney general to produce a doomsday book documenting the impacts of pornography. Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography held its first hearings the month I got to New York.

The feminist anti-pornography movement was then entering what turned out to be its last major domestic phase. Campaigns to pass local ordinances allowing people who claimed to be harmed by pornography to sue those who made or sold or displayed it had failed in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Cambridge, Massachusetts; the courts had turned back the strategy’s one legislative success, in Indianapolis. Still, anti-porn’s feminist warriors fought on, sometimes in concert with Meese’s evangelical coalition. I remember seeing, on streetcorners around the city, activists displaying enormous reproductions of an infamous Hustler magazine cover, on which a nude woman is fed, headfirst, through a meat-grinder, reduced to a pile of ground chuck, misogyny made flesh. A young person from a mostly middle-class life—Girl Scouts, ballet lessons—I was stunned to witness such enormous hatred in the world upon which I sought to make my mark.

One day after work, I picked up, from a table on the sidewalk in Morningside Heights selling books said to have been stolen from Columbia University’s library during the student uprisings of the ’60s, a fading copy of Andrea Dworkin’s fierce and fearless Woman Hating (1974). Dworkin knew the depths of misogyny and saw pornography as both its root cause and its native tongue. Images like that Hustler cover were not aberration but essence. “Pornography, like fairy tale, tells us who we are,” she wrote. “It is the structure of the male and female mind, the content of our shared erotic identity, the map of each inch and mile of our oppression and despair.” It is an exaggeration, though not much of one, to say that the power of Dworkin’s pain and the gut punch of her prose sent me to graduate school.

I didn’t know then that Hustler’s meat-grinder cover, blown up on those curbside easels, had been published seven years earlier, shortly after the magazine’s publisher, Larry Flynt, was shot and paralyzed while standing trial for obscenity. I didn’t know that, Dworkin’s synecdoche notwithstanding, the image wasn’t in fact typical of porn, nor even of Hustler, much less that it had been a satire: a poke in the eye of feminists who said that such magazines treated women like pieces of meat. Published in the wake of Flynt’s conversion to Christianity, the image may also have contained elements of self-critique, as some defenders said. Anti-pornography feminists’ use of the Hustler cover, like many weapons in many culture wars, was a carefully curated piece of propaganda, and a bit of moral jujitsu too.

I knew even less of the feminist arguments against anti-pornography, arguments that cast women as desiring subjects rather than as victimized objects, that foregrounded sexual freedom and sexual difference, and that saw far greater danger in the powers of the state than in even the most misogynist images. Nor could I have then anticipated the ways that the bill for the sex wars would come due: the cost of a generation of revolutionary intellect and organizing squandered in stalemate while our democracy went through the meat grinder.

The more I learned, the more I came to equivocate on the question of porn.

Decades passed. I became a historian of the United States and taught university courses on a range of topics in American history, mostly centered on the nation’s founding era. I wrote books, several of them combining history and biography, field and figure, times and life. Though trained in the history of women and families, I had largely left the twentieth century, and with it, the feminist sex wars, behind.

And then, in the fall of 2015, I started a new job, which combined a professorship in history at Harvard with the directorship of Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, the most comprehensive research archive of its kind in the world. Days after my appointment began, The New York Times noted Candice Vadala’s death, headlining a half-page obituary with her nom de porn and lauding the movies she “infused with plots, passion, seduction and even romance,” as well as her work as a founder of Feminists for Free Expression, “a so-called sex-positive organization” that had challenged efforts to censor pornography from left and right alike.

The Schlesinger holds the papers of Andrea Dworkin and those of her frequent collaborator Catharine A. MacKinnon, as well as the records of Women Against Pornography, among many other collections centered on sexual violence and women’s liberation. But even the capsule biography of Royalle in the Times obituary revealed an individual life, and a kind of life and work, that remained underdocumented. That lacuna impoverished not only the library’s vaults, but also the accounts scholars could assemble of the complex issues to which Royalle’s experience spoke.

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And so I wondered whether it was even remotely possible that Candice Vadala/Candida Royalle had documented her own life, and whether those papers, if they existed, might find an institutional home.

It seemed, for all sorts of reasons, improbable. But she had, and they did.

Candice’s impulse to archive surfaced even before she began her nearly continuous run of diaries, at the age of 12. By her early twenties, she had developed a sense of her own intrinsic importance that would never fail her, no matter how many times she got knocked down. That conviction was both personal and generational, part of an inward turn among those born after World War II that the journalist Tom Wolfe called a Third Great Awakening, cresting in “the ‘Me’ Decade” of the ’70s. “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold,” Wolfe wrote in 1976. “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—-remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)”

Candice’s commitment to self-knowing and self-making deepened her commitment to her archive, and vice versa. By the time she turned thirty, she had called more than twenty places in six cities home. And still she kept her collection close. She had to. As she’d told her diary at age 15, “I’d never throw you out! You’ve sort of become a part of me, my inner self . . . you are me in a sense.” In the ’80s, when Candice kicked heroin and co-founded Femme, and when the sex wars burst the narrow confines of academic debate and gave Candida Royalle a national stage, she began to think not just about the inherent interest of her life—her biography—but also about its broader significance—her relationship to History. She realized she should “be sure to preserve all of it carefully.” Her husband suggested looking into microfilm.

The cartons holding Royalle’s papers began to arrive at the Schlesinger in late 2016, just as the Washington Post published a leaked audiotape in which the Republican candidate for president of the United States bragged that he could “Grab ’em by the pussy.” Now processed, the Papers of Candida Royalle span 106 file boxes; 109 folders of photographs; 209 videotapes; three archived websites; tens of thousands of emails, posters, costumes, and more: evidence of a life as overexamined as it was overdetermined. In that sense, the collection, as Candice sometimes recognized, was at once a savior and a trap, leading her inward and leaving her there.

Yet the Royalle Papers are also an archive of immeasurable, even revelatory, potential: the remains of a profoundly, uniquely twentieth-century American life, a life like no other, and also like every other—a biography and a history. The parlor drama of a family and its failures unfolds against the epic of cultural transformation in postwar America, shot through with the ironies of feminism and its foibles, and psychology and its discontents. Just as Candice Vadala, born in 1950, was forged in the crucible of the Cold War, Candida Royalle was a product of the sexual revolution, her persona made possible, if not inevitable, by the era’s upheavals in demography, law, technology, and ideology. Her life could not have unfolded as it did in any place but the United States, or in any time but the one in which she lived.

As Candice Vadala would have been the first to argue, she also shaped her times. Her having done so is perhaps less remarkable than her insistence on documenting that impact. People like her—working-class, physically and sexually abused, psychologically battered, and sidelined to the sex trades—have rarely told the stories of their own lives. Scholars have glimpsed them, across centuries, through a series of objectifying gazes: the patriarchal gaze of pornography and the disciplining gazes of moral reformers, including anti-pornography feminists. Royalle’s papers flip the point of view, seizing the camera and insisting that she be treated as a thinking subject, creating as well as created by. Historians have had few tools with which to probe the mainstreaming of pornography in American culture, and especially to understand it from the inside out. Candice Vadala’s life, and her extraordinary record of that life, lays that machinery bare.

In its broadest contours, then, this book is a study of the ways ordinary individuals make history even as history makes them. Specifically, it offers a wholly new history of the origins, course, and consequences of the so-called sexual revolution.

In 2017, I taught, with a colleague, a research seminar on the vexed history of feminism and pornography, rooted in the Schlesinger’s collections on the subject, including Royalle’s papers. My colleague and I had lived through the sex wars, I as an observer and she as a combatant. To us, they still felt raw and present. But to our students, those battles of the ’70s and ’80s appeared remote, sepia-tinted, further from their lives in college than World War II had been from mine.

Had a student asked me, that semester, when the sex wars ended, I would have said they sputtered to a draw in the ’90s. Leading anti-pornography feminists had made enduring institutional alliances, and so their arguments lived on in laws governing hate speech, domestic violence, even war crimes. But in the broader culture, the sex-positive side had triumphed. As evidence to support that claim, one might cite: Pretty much any episode of pretty much any series on pretty much any premium cable channel. Or the annual campus bacchanals that fly under the name of Sex Week, which began at Yale in 2002 and continue decades later in many universities, including my own. Or the evolution of the Take Back the Night march into the SlutWalk. Or, I suppose, the very existence of our course at Harvard.

At moments that term, some students sensed a tension between aspects of their theoretical feminism—rooted in narratives of victimization and trauma, with remedies that foregrounded punishment—and their lived sexual ecology—an alcohol-fueled, no-holds-barred, tits-out free-for-all. Still, on the whole, it was the antis whose work and worldview seemed strange to them. Reading Catharine MacKinnon felt a bit like reading Mary Wollstonecraft: once a bracing and righteous message, now desiccated and curled, sealed in a bottle and left on the shelf.

But late that autumn, the #MeToo movement ignited, its fires fed by the familiar American tension between liberty and equality. The sex wars, it turned out, had been buried, half-alive, in a shallow grave. Old arguments roared back in new covers, like the pulsing red paperback anthology of Andrea Dworkin’s essays, bearing the Gen-Z-friendly title Last Days at Hot Slit, issued in 2019. Books meditating on the ambiguous achievement of sexual freedom for women—-works whose titles include words like rethinking or unfinished or lost—have brought the voices of the ’70s and ’80s to bear on a vastly different moment, in which core aspects of women’s lives remain stubbornly unchanged. In 1986, in the midst of hearings on pornography held by the National Organization of Women, the president of NOW’s Portland chapter had asserted, confidently, that the “elimination of pornography is more basic than reproductive freedom.” Nearly forty years later, it is painfully clear that feminists secured neither goal.

The authors of these rueful new works, young intellectuals who came of age amid the rubble of the sex wars, grapple, inconclusively, with difficult truths common to most if not all such conflicts: Both sides were wrong. Neither fully captured the complexities of pleasure or danger, let alone of women’s full humanity. The sexual revolution was a war. And as in all wars, nobody won anything without also losing something.

These were realities Candice Vadala was already living, unknowingly, when she started her long run of diaries, on New Year’s Day in 1963. Almost two decades later, Candida Royalle held such bitter truths in her very marrow, when she stepped off the runway in Pittsburgh, sweaty and shaken, to begin again.

Reprinted from Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution: A History from Below by Jane Kamensky. Copyright © 2024 by Jane Kamensky. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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