How Candida Royalle Set Out to Reinvent Porn

In 1979, a group called Women Against Pornography opened an office in what was then, in the organizers’ view, the belly of the beast: Times Square. WAP members, predominantly white feminists, who believed that porn had the power to reinforce, and even breed, misogyny, led others who shared their views on eye-opening tours of the neighborhood’s peep parlors, X-rated movie theatres, and live sex shows, hoping to turn out shocked shock troops for what was then a growing branch of the women’s movement. There were some ironies, not to say cruelties, to this mission. The great nineteen-eighties debates known as “the feminist sex wars” and a lot of writing by queer critics and memoirists would help reveal them. In “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,” from 1999, the Black gay novelist Samuel R. Delany wrote elegiacally about how the seamy old Forty-second Street had fostered cross-class contact and welcomed sexual encounters that could have happened only in darkened theatres and similar spaces; he lamented its sanitized successor. Even in 1979, the Times was noting that the WAP office had taken over a location that was formerly “a soul food restaurant and gathering place for transvestites and prostitutes.”

On the other side of the country, I was finishing high school that year, in Los Angeles County’s suburban San Fernando Valley, a place that I had no idea was then becoming, and would remain for several decades, the center of porn production. What I did know was that the world was lightly stitched with other people’s desires and with public settings to satisfy them in. There was the friendly neighborhood drag bar, the Queen Mary, down the street from the Sav-on drugstore where my friends and I got our school supplies. There were the no-tell motels with the blinking neon signs on Ventura Boulevard. On the way to the L.A. airport, on Century Boulevard, there was a sign for nude bowling. Spotting it from the car, my mom would say, in mock confusion, “Now, who do you suppose is nude in there—is it the bowlers?” Driving through Hollywood, you’d often see marquees advertising “Live Nude Girls.” She’d say, “Much better than the alternative.”


Illustration by Rose Wong

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The feminists of WAP did not anticipate—who could have?—how irrelevant places like Times Square would become to their crusade, how thoroughly the porn industry was soon to be transformed by new kinds of capital and technology. The anti-porn arguments of the Catharine MacKinnon–Andrea Dworkin camp would ultimately be swamped not by the passionate counter-arguments of so-called pro-sex feminists, emphasizing female agency and unruly desire, or even by more mainstream liberals stressing free expression and the First Amendment, but by the sheer deluge of porn soon to be released through the home-video market and, later, the Internet. The first videocassette recorder widely purchased for home use, Sony’s Betamax, came on the market in 1975, followed the next year by a competing format from the company JVC. In 1980, there were roughly two million VCRs in American households; by the end of the decade, there were more than sixty-two million. X-rated videotapes helped fuel the steep demand for the new gadgets, and vice versa. Hardcore headed home and curled up in the den.

And there was just so much of it—hundreds of thousands of X-rated videotapes were available for home consumption in the eighties. The kind of porno-chic feature films that in the seventies had been shown in now shuttered adult theatres—“Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door,” “The Devil in Miss Jones”—gave way to videos that patched together sex scenes with perfunctory dialogue and barely-there plotlines. It wasn’t the narrative arcs that most viewers were after.

The shift toward sheer volume would be accelerated by the arrival of free Internet porn, and particularly by the advent of the global behemoth Pornhub, which relies heavily on pirated clips and on content uploaded by users. In 2010, a somewhat mysterious German software guy named Fabian Thylmann bought Pornhub and a number of other purveyors of online sex stuff, and turned them into a mighty conglomerate that eventually acquired the bland, Silicon Valley name MindGeek. (Since August of last year, MindGeek has gone under the even more opaque name Aylo.) In 2020, Erika Lust, an adult-film director and producer, told the Financial Times, “They came into the market with a business model based on piracy and completely destroyed the industry, putting many production studios and performers out of business.”

Not many lives reflect these successive eras of modern porn and our attitudes toward them more revealingly than that of Candice Vadala, better known as Candida Royalle, an adult-movie actress turned feminist-porn pioneer. Few have tried with as much ardent, self-serious determination to remake the industry from the inside. With her production company, Femme, Royalle set out to produce hot, explicit films that rejected what she called, at various times, “plastic formulaic pounding dripping in your face porno” or “big-boobed babes having meaningless, passionless sex with some perfectly buffed ‘stunt-cocks.’ ” The results were mixed, but intriguingly so.

In an assiduously researched, elegantly written new biography, “Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution” (Norton), the historian Jane Kamensky makes a strong case for her subject’s story as both unique and, in a curious way, representative. Royalle, she writes, “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.” Kamensky was until recently the director of the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library, an unparalleled research collection on the history of women in America, and it was in this capacity, not as a fan of, say, “Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls” (1978), that she got interested in Royalle. Reading the film star’s obituary in the Times sparked a thought. The Schlesinger had the papers of Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and WAP. What if Royalle, a very different kind of figure in the sex wars, had maintained anything like these comprehensive records of her own life and career?

As it turned out, she had. At the core of Royalle’s personal archive were the diaries she had kept almost continuously from the age of twelve. (There were also photos, videos, clippings, costumes, and correspondence.) Kamensky is fascinating on what she calls “the Great American Diary Project,” an endeavor encouraged by teen magazines, therapists, moms, ministers, and books—“Harriet the Spy,” “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” and that depth charge of adolescent-girl diaries, Anne Frank’s. (After reading Frank, young Candice pledged “to write interesting things from now on.”) Women who grew up in the nineteen-sixties and seventies might find it easy to picture their first diary even now—likely a pocket-size embossed book with a tiny, inadequate lock and key, into which you poured your secrets and aspirations, which were often, in an era that didn’t exactly prize female ambition, one and the same.

“From the first page, she addressed the book as a person, a you, to whom she said good night at the end of each entry,” Kamensky writes, of Royalle’s dear diary. At fifteen, she told it, “I’d never throw you out! You’ve sort of become a part of me.” Over the decades, the diary would serve as both a goad to and a document of the kind of endless, restless self-searching that was the template of many people’s lives in her generation. Hers would encompass a dalliance with transactional-analysis therapy, of “I’m OK—You’re OK” fame; years of more conventional therapy; and a late-life search for the mother who’d abandoned her. Royalle’s thirst for self-knowledge couldn’t be quenched. “Still trying to unlock the key to myself,” she wrote in 2013. “Myself. Myself, myself, myself, myself.”

As a young girl growing up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Candice (Candy) Vadala had some joyful things to confide—she wanted to be a “coed,” a mother, and a “famous dancer”—and some very, very sad ones. Her father, Louis Vadala, was a jazz drummer who styled himself as a free-ranging hepcat. He met his first wife, Peggy, in St. Louis, when he was touring with a musical combo. Peggy was a “brash and glamorous” eighteen-year-old with a young son and an ex-husband in the state reformatory. Louis and Peggy were married, and before long were living on Long Island with two little girls, first Cinthea, and then Candice, born in 1950. Louis’s Italian American family, who were Catholic (Peggy was not), gave his new bride the cold shoulder. And it wasn’t only Louis’s relatives. Family lore had it that Peggy had given birth to Candice at home to save money on hospital bills, and that her hepcat husband parked himself in the living room while she screamed through labor in the bedroom. When Candice was eighteen months old, her mother went home to Missouri for good. Louis was granted custody of the girls—unusually for that era—and, though visitation rights were stipulated for Peggy, she never saw either of her daughters again. Louis married a woman named Helen, who worked as a cigarette girl and longed to be a lounge singer; the family settled into a modest apartment building in striving Riverdale. He needed help raising his children, but Helen wept a lot and drank and got rough with them when she did. Worse still, when Cinthea hit puberty, Louis developed a sexual obsession with her. He started standing outside the girls’ shared bedroom at night, gazing at Cinthea as she slept, while touching himself. He scrawled an obscene suggestion in Cinthea’s diary, which he erased but left legible.

The family’s interpretation of this behavior, Kamensky argues, would have been subject to a reigning pop-psychoanalytical atmosphere not well equipped to help any of them. That atmosphere downplayed or denied the likelihood of sexual or physical abuse in the home, and cast blame for family troubles on “frigid” wives and sometimes even on “alluring” daughters. Candice, showing her familiarity with contemporary psychological lingo, wrote in her diary that Louis was “terribly neurotic” but that Cinthea, too, was “obviously neurotic.” Candice felt excluded from the central household drama, which seemed to her to revolve around Cinthea, but noted succinctly that “this family can make you sick.”

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