Feminist porn star laid bare

Although some regard sex as private in nature, for those in the porn industry and many celebrities, sex straddles the line of public and private. Given this ambiguity, what role might celebrities—those in the porn industry or elsewhere—have in advancing political thoughts related to sex, such as body positivity, feminism and the “sexual revolution”?

Exploring the private and public lives of these celebrities may provide answers to such questions. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Professor of History at Harvard University and Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard Jane Kamensky gave a lecture titled “Candy/Candice/Candida: Making a Feminist Pornstar,” which presented the life of Candida Royalle: a well-known porn performer, radical feminist and, later on, producer and director of couples-oriented porn films. The lecture was sponsored by the C. Mildred Thompson Lecture Fund and the History Department.

Prior to the talk, Professor of History on the Eloise Ellery Chair Rebecca Edwards, who was a key organizer for the lecture, hosted a reception for Kamensky in Swift Hall. There, Kamensky and Edwards discussed Kamensky’s process of gathering information for her project in various archives over coffee and cookies.

During this reception, Edwards indicated that a key reason the History Department hosted this lecture is its relationship to a course she’s teaching, titled Sex and Reproduction in Nineteenth Century America. According to Edwards, “The big tension in the course is between women’s rights and ‘free love’ or sexual liberation … Students [can] connect [this lecture] to what [they’ve] learned, because…what we’ve been asking are how forms of feminism we’ve been studying relate to sexual liberation.”

Weighing in, Kamensky commented, “One of the things I intend to do is question the ways [the pleasure revolution] is and isn’t feminist progress. It seems better than being beset by shame and fear, but… my question is where have we taken our attention from … Some of the big structural issues [of] poverty and sexual violence [were] brushed aside.”

To begin the lecture, Edwards introduced Kamensky as a Harvard professor and historian and discussed some of her numerous accomplishments, as well as her esteemed role as a Vassar parent. Edwards also indicated that Kamensky’s study of Royalle is part of a larger project: a book she is writing titled “Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution: A History from Below,” which will be published by W. W. Norton (Harvard University Department of History, “Jane Kamensky,” 2018).

Kamensky prefaced the lecture with commentary about the general mood of her findings, providing a content warning to the almost-filled auditorium of students, professors and community members that the talk would include mentions of gender and family-based violence. She conversationally remarked, “One of the things I’m reckoning with in this project is the sadness in a life and era of revolution that is supposed to be filled with spontaneity and joy.” Despite these cautionary remarks, Taylor Hall’s auditorium remained densely populated with students, many of whom later indicated that they were in Edwards’ class.

Throughout the lecture, Kamensky presented the intimate details of Candide’s life, which Candide recorded in her diaries. Much of the content in these diaries detailed the hardships Candice faced during childhood. “Her parents lived at the fringes of social acceptability,” Kamensky said of Candice’s family’s poverty-stricken life in New York. Candice was also a survivor of sexual harassment, having recorded several instances of being followed by men, almost being assaulted by a man in the woods and being leered at by her brother.

In adulthood, Candice rechristened herself as Candida and became a porn actress. She also became addicted to heroin and attributed her failures to her difficult childhood. According to Kamensky, “The shakiness of Candice’s life [paralleled that] of American culture in 1974.”

However, as attitudes toward women and sex began changing throughout the 1970s, Candida reflected on herself in the context of her sexual experiences. She began to produce her own pornography and adopt a sex-positive stance and became a leader in what she dubbed the sexual revolution.

Kamensky acknowledged that much of Candida’s movement was an attempt at liberation from her past, and that her sex-positive feminism was more a byproduct of her attempts: “She was pretty distressed that porn was remaining her [focus] … There’s a way in which the kind of legitimacy she gained was an incredible vindication and totally insufficient.”

Following the lecture, a student asked Kamensky to elaborate on how the feminist movement of her era and Royalle’s own ideas of feminism informed her porn experience. “The body politics of radical second-wave feminism are impossible for her,” replied Kamensky. “[Candida] wants to shave her legs and wear lipstick and have her feminism, too. What she loses when she breaks from that type of feminism is structural thinking … [but] she represents how female pleasure is just as deserved as male pleasure.”

Kamensky also indicated that she was uncertain whether Royalle’s movement constituted a sexual revolution, or if the pornography she produced was more feminist than that in which she starred: “Many count [Royalle] as someone who broke through, but [her feminism] is a pretty narrow slice.

But this shows less the limitations of her feminism and more the limitations of the porn industry [as her medium].”

While Candida’s version of feminism both gained and lost at the fringes between it and the broader radical second wave, regardless of her movement’s efficacy, she remains an important historical figure due to her evolution from a working-class background to a semi-famous movement leader. According to lecture attendee Charlotte Waldman ’21, “There are many feminists promoting body positivity, but one of the reasons why Candida Royalle [is] an important historical figure is because of the intensity of her transformations: from a heroin-addicted porn star to a feminist entrepreneur, from Candice Vidala to Candida Royalle and from an object [of] unwanted sexual attention to a figure of invited and monetized sexual transparency. These transformations reflected an American sexual culture that invited such changes.”

Concluding the lecture and attendees’ brief study of Candida, Kamensky summarized the obscurity of Royalle’s feminism in the context of her time and the importance of hearing the voices of those who, historically, have remained unheard: “Dipping into Royalle’s diaries, they didn’t sound like any side [of the movement]. She was victimized by a pathological family, but she’s also victimized by a culture that no longer knows its moral center … She’s also a full-throated participant in that culture. [We see that] it’s not a two sided story, because here’s this woman in a sequence pink hat, and she doesn’t represent either of those narratives at all.”

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