What Candida Royalle, The Godmother of Feminist Porn, Taught Us About Sex

What Candida Royalle, The Godmother of Feminist Porn, Taught Us About Sex

We live in an era where pop stars sing about the joys of masturbation, where women openly acknowledge buying sex toys and watching pornography and where everyone and their grandmother has read 50 Shades of Grey

But none of this likely would have happened without one woman bringing the importance of female sexual pleasure to the forefront of our cultural conversation: Candida Royalle, the pioneering feminist pornographer who was one of the first filmmakers to make erotica exclusively for women.  

A former adult performer and longtime advocate of sex-worker rights, Royalle died of ovarian cancer at the age of 64 at her Long Island, New York, home on Monday. Her death has prompted an outpouring of praise and support from members of the adult industry, many of whom credit her with pioneering the genre of feminist porn as we know it. 

In an industry that has traditionally been dominated by men, Royalle's films were some of the first to focus entirely on female pleasure, depicting authentic female orgasms and going beyond the male-focused "money shot." Many feminist adult filmmakers credit her with paving the way for diversity in adult cinema and a larger role for women in porn. 

"Candida was the first to acknowledge that women are also audience, not just sexual objects," adult film director Erika Lust told Mic. "She had a clear view and a critical mind about chauvinism in adult cinema, because she performed before directing. Her work helped opened up adult cinema to women, and made them feel comfortable watching adult content." 

But Royalle's films didn't just spark a sea change in the adult industry by triggering the creation of a genre. They also created a dialogue about sex-positivity and the importance of female pleasure — and we're still having this conversation today.

We needed to see female pleasure onscreen so we could demand it for ourselves. Before the advent of feminist pornography, mainstream adult films were overwhelmingly geared toward a male audience. Royalle, who began performing in erotic films at the height of the sexual revolution, started producing her own work in the 1980s with the belief that erotica should reflect the reality and complexity of female sexual desire, a view that had been lacking in mainstream porn.

"What I [felt] was that these movies were being sold on the backs of women, and there was nothing about women's sexuality," Royalle told Smashing Interviews magazine in 2014. "I wasn't interested in just making the same old, typical, boring pornography, some of which was degrading and ugly. I wanted it to be something that had dignity that was pleasing to look at, that women could enjoy and relate to."

As a sex-positive activist, Royalle promoted female masturbation, sexual exploration and closing the orgasm gap. She showed women what they wanted to see in porn, but she also emphasized applying that knowledge to their own sex lives by being vocal about what they wanted in bed. 

"I grew up receiving a lot of terribly unhealthy messages about sex," JoEllen Notte, a Portland-based sex educator, told Mic. "I arrived at adulthood not understanding how women around me seemed to enjoy sex, and why I felt so disconnected from all things sexual. Royalle's work turned what I thought I knew about pornography — indeed, about female pleasure — on its head. It helped normalize sex for me." 

What women want: Today, "feminist porn" has become something of a buzzword, with filmmakers like Lust, Petra Joy and Jacky St. James producing erotica that portrays authentic sexual desire from a female perspective. The creation of the feminist porn genre has inspired women to watch adult content that is uniquely tailored to them, which has resulted in more women feeling comfortable watching porn: According to 2013 Nielsen ratings reported by Alternet, nearly one in three visitors to porn websites are female.

By emphasizing the importance of female sexual pleasure and demanding satisfaction, Royalle taught a generation of women that they should ask for what they wanted in bed, a then-revolutionary idea that's inspired a whole new wave of sex positivity.

"Royalle's activism and films made it OK for women to claim their sexual pleasure as their own, and not have to rely on anyone else to tell them what it should be like in bed," Elle Chase, an American College of Sexologists sex educator who worked with Royalle shortly before her death, told Mic. "She was a permission giver, assuaging the concern of an entire generation of women who didn't think they were entitled to ask their partners for what they wanted in bed."