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Debbie Directs Dallas
Video Erotica Made By Women for Women
Jodie Gould

What do women want? Now that they own VCRs, women want erotic videos made with them in mind. Or at least that’s what the adult film industry is telling us.

Here is a scene from Urban Heat, an X-rated adult video written, directed, and produced by a female: An attractive middle-aged woman in a white minidress and fire-engine red pumps enters a Manhattan office building. The elevator is broken and a sign directs her to the freight elevator around the corner. As it ascends, the woman salaciously eyes the handsome young elevator operator. She places a manicured hand on his, and brings the elevator to a sudden halt. She slowly steps out of her dress; they kiss passionately and drop onto the blanketed floor. She commands him to do this and then that; there, there, and yes, there. She rolls on top of him and there are loud cries of pleasure and, finally, release. Hers.

Candida Royalle’s Urban Heat differs from the typical adult film scenario in several ways: the woman initiates the contact; there is prolonged foreplay in which the man pleasures the woman; there are no close-ups of commingling genitalia; and, above all, we do not witness that trademark of traditional porn flicks—the Vesuvian eruption of the man’s orgasm.

Royalle is one of the rare but growing number of producers in the adult film industry who are reaching out to the women’s market. And the increasing number of women who are renting sexually explicit videos suggests that people may be ready to view sexuality through a female lens.

Two technological developments, MTV and the VCR, are the main contributors to the new sensual revolution. MTV exploded in the eighties, with a fallout of split-second images and sexy visual montages. Taboo-busting videos by Madonna and Michael Jackson made crotch-grabbing de rigueur. And with 71 million American homes owning videocassette recorders, there is a potentially huge audience for X-rated videos, viewed in the privacy of the bedroom.

Last year, a nationwide survey conducted by Video Store magazine found that 64 percent of the approximately 1,000 stores polled carried X-rated films. Significantly, women and couples made up 48 percent of the adult film renters in 1990, according to another survey by Adult Video News, an industry trade publication.

Since the pornography industry has historically been organized and run by men, the reluctance of women to watch erotic films in the past may be due, in part, to the images that these men have created. Films like Assault of the Killer Bimbos and Gang Bangers appeal to some men’s fantasies of women as brainless sex toys. “I think it’s wonderful that women are producing erotic films from a woman’s point of view,” says writer Erica Jong. “Because men have dictated what erotica was for many centuries, we haven’t even known what erotica would be if they were free to develop it.”

Michael S. Kimmel, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and editor of the book Men Confront Pornography, says women’s fantasies have always been different from men’s. “Women are becoming more interested in consuming sexual images that have a feminine slant to them,” Kimmel says. “They are usually about people who know each other’s names, people who have a relationship with each other. And they don’t look like men’s fantasies at all.”

But some women reject such distinctions when it comes to pornography. In fact, they believe pornography is the chief socializing agent for violence against women. “That it is a woman, Candida Royalle et al., behind the camera doesn’t matter to us,” says Norma Ramos, general counsel for Women Against Pornography. “Her films do exactly what other pornographers do, which is reducing women to body parts. Pornography eroticizes women’s inequality. It’s prostitution on paper or celluloid.”

Catherine A. MacKinnon, a professor of law at the University of Michigan specializing in sexual harassment cases, agrees: “Pimps are always trying to double their money, that is, reach the women’s market. Any person who sells women as sex and for sex is a pimp. It’s hard for me to imagine that being part of the slave traffic is anybody’s definition of liberation.”

But porn actress and director Annie Sprinkle, who has made a remarkable 150 films, says the anti-porn credo comes from a “sex negative” point of view. “I was never anyone’s slave,” Sprinkle argues. “I was empowered by my experience. If you believe that sex is bad, wrong, or dirty, you’re gong to think this is bad.”

Royalle, who was once a porn star herself, says erotic films made with a feminist sensibility can liberate us from negative attitudes toward sex. “When I was in the movies—the more traditional stuff—I had no idea that I would be involved with productions,” explains Royalle, 41, who founded Femme Productions in 1984. “But I was already starting to question what they were doing and why they didn’t focus more on sensuality and women’s sexuality. I came to the conclusion that this is a very valid medium that’s not doing what it could be doing. That it was still made with such an exploitative approach with no social consciousness or concern.”

Royalle’s first video, Femme, is a series of vignettes in which a woman fan is ravaged by her rock idol; a fashion model seduces her photographer; and two men make love to a woman in an art gallery. Unlike her predecessors, Royalle uses original soundtracks, softer focus, and fewer genital close-ups. “Women have wild fantasies,” Royalle says. “I’ve known women who complain their men weren’t raunchy enough in bed. I think a really raunchy fantasy depicted tastefully is where it’s at.”

Royalle now runs her own distribution company in Manhattan and is about to complete her eighth movie, which she shot on 35mm film instead of video. She has invested only $350,000 in her films to date, not including distribution, and has grossed nearly $2 million dollars. Although her budgets are low by Hollywood standards, Royalle spends up to 10 times more than most adult filmmakers.

Her best-selling video, Three Daughters, is a soap opera with explicit sex. It is the story of a young woman who masturbates for the first time after spying on her older sisters and their boyfriends in coital bliss. Her sexual initiation includes a tryst with her girlfriend and, later, with an affectionate older man who takes her for romantic walks on the beach. Before consummating their relationship, this highly evolved male asks, “Are you sure you want to do this? I want you to know that I would never hurt you.”

Three Daughters was shown at the National Convention of the American Association of Sex Educators (AASECT), which supports the use of erotic films by individuals and couples. “For years, adult films were the only kind of sex education for adults in this culture,” says AASECT spokesperson Judith Seifer, R.N., Ph.D. “What’s wonderful about erotic films done from a women’s perspective is that it puts sex into an environment women will be comfortable watching. That’s all Candida does. She puts it into a context of what women say they want: a relationship and a slow, caring, gentle lover.”

Porn star Hyapatia Lee says female-oriented erotica is a positive trend for both sexes. “Not only do women appreciate films with more plot and character development, but I think men do too,” Lee says. “I’ve had a lot of men come up to me and say, `I’m so tired of seeing the same old scenes where there’s nothing but sex, sex, sex.’”

But Screw magazine’s senior editor Aaron Clark, says sex is what men want to see most. “The reaction from a lot of men around here is that Candida’s films are not raunchy enough,” Clark says. “One of the problems of doing porn films these days is that you have low budget and you don’t have very good actors. So if you go in the direction of having some plot exposition, 99 times out of 100 you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

There are a few things on which porn pundits agree, but they are unanimous on this: the question of what turns women on provokes strong feelings and lively debate. In her latest book, Women on Top, Nancy Friday writes about how women’s fantasies have changed over 20 years: “Sexual freedom was fresh and believable [then], and women trusted the new images and words of other women saying it was all right to be sexually in control and powerful….This desire to initiate and control sex—indeed to continue sex until the women’s full sexual appetite is satisfied—is the underlying themes of these new fantasies.”

Susie Bright, erotic movie critic for The Sexuality Library, a mail-order catalog produced by Good Vibrations, a San Francisco store, says commercial films for women are too little, too light. “Sometimes when I see videos that pander to a good liberal view of erotica, which means don’t do anything that’s taboo, I shake my head and say, `grow up.’”

While the debate goes on, Royalle continues to pave the way for other women to tap into the softcore market. Gloria Leonard, a 17-year veteran of the industry and former publisher of High Society, recently launched her Body and Soul line for Vivid Videos, one of the largest distributors of adult films. Leonard describes her movies as “activist porn.”

“Each one of my films has an underlying feminist theme,” Leonard says. “The first is about a married woman who realizes there is no reason to stay in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is emotional or sexual.”

Her first film, Vow of Passion, which she directed and co-wrote with Raven Touchstone, stars an actress whose screen-husband is a philandering wham-bam-light-a-cigarette kind of man. She finds solace in her vibrator and, ultimately, with a fellow volunteer at a homeless shelter.

If the plot seems laughable, that’s okay with Leonard, who does not believe that humor and sex are mutually exclusive. In fact, her second film, Two Hearts, is a farce about a man who has the secret to the meaning of life tattooed on his penis. But the message becomes legible only when the man is aroused. The plot thickens when, pursued by people of all sexual persuasions, he is physically unable to oblige.

Along with the contribution of humor, female erotic auteurs are responsible for other innovations in the business. Actors who appear in sex scenes now wear condoms. And like, the condom manufacturers who market their product to women, female purveyors of porn are also designing their packaging to attract women consumers. “One of the things I absolutely insisted on is that there has to be really great-looking men as well as women on the box,” Leonard says.

But, in the end, packaging can’t sell a product that lacks appeal, and some women’s taste in erotica runs more toward the hard-core. For them Fatale Videos produces material that is more explicit. Deborah Sundahl, publisher of the lesbian magazine On Our Backs, who has also produced films for Fatale, describes their laissez-faire approach to lovemaking: “People are doing a lot more in their bedrooms than the media gives them credit for. If that freaks people out, we don’t worry, because we concentrate on the people who know where we’re coming from.”

Lee Rothermund, director and producer of Tigress Productions, is credited with being the first woman to make an X-rated video for lesbians. Erotic in nature won an award for best specialty film from the Gay Film Producers Association, and her second film, Hayfever, is being translated into six languages. “Women want to see tender, caring stuff,” says Rothermund. “They want to see ordinary people, not just gorgeous women. They want a little heart content along with the visual stimulation.”

While female directors cater to a wide range of erotic tastes, they agree that more women should be video voyeurs. For the novice viewer, The Sexuality Library catalog gently offers reasons for watching X-rated videos: “To be entertained and/or aroused; to expand your fantasies and try on a bit of sexual diversity; to learn more about the range of sexual behavior and your own responses and preferences.”

According to Royalle, among the best reasons for watching an erotic film with a lover is to open the lines of communication: “It’s very difficult to turn to your partner and say, `I want this’—especially for women brought up to think that good girls are not supposed to do this sort of stuff.”

Still, some prefer their own fantasies to the ones they see on film. “At this point in my life,” says Erica Jong, “I can invent better fantasies, as far as play-acting goes, than what most people create on screen.” Porn producers will have to improve the quality and variety of their films—or at least keep up with the fantasies of their audience—if they want to capture the more sophisticated women’s market.

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