by Annette Fuentes and Margaret Schrage
Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 41-43
They were just six white women sitting around discussing meetings and their schedules when we walked into the room for the interview. Dressed from casual to more fashionable, they could have been any group of professional women getting together for business talk. And to a great extent that's what they are. The six women — Veronica Hart (whose apartment we were at), Gloria Leonard, Kelly Nichols, Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Vera — spoke at length about the industry in which they work, referring to it so often and with feeling that the industry assumed a life of its own in our conversation, independent of money, people or power.
But these women were not just any career women, nor is the industry in which they work just another sector of the economy. They are porn film stars whose names have frequently appeared on the marquees of 42nd Street. And the industry is the $5 billion sex-for-sale industry, which includes peep shows, bookstores, and massage parlors as well as x-rated films. They got together a year ago for a baby shower (Veronica Hart's) and decided to make it regular, forming a sort of consciousness-raising group like those of the early women's movement. In fact they consider themselves feminists, though each has a different notion of what that means. And they are puzzled at "the feminists'" rejection of them as allies. By the meeting's end, we were puzzled, too, and couldn't see drastic differences between their make-it-in-a-man's-world philosophy and, say, that of Ms. magazine.
If, according to Gloria Leonard, the bottom line of the feminist movement is for women to have as much freedom in terms of achieving or performing, to break with tradition, then they are all feminists. Others may feel that's so general it sounds like the free enterprise credo. Such feminism says that if only woman could be president or a leader in the porn industry, then everything would be okay. Gloria Leonard, the woman with the most media savvy, could rightly be called the Gloria Steinem of pornography for her tireless efforts to promote the industry and herself as its symbol. Pornography pays a lot better than feminism, though. Leonard's two phone-sex hotlines generate $10,000 a day, a business that is boosted in magazines she publishes, High Society and Live.
But she was not representative of all the women in the group, called Club 90. Some were more concerned with changing porn films than with making money. What they told us changed the way we looked at porn and the women involved with it. Their involvement with a feminist art group called Carnival Knowledge, producing an act called "Deep Inside Porn Stars," evidences the impact the women's movement has had on their lives and shows their desire to engage other women in discussing sexuality.
Tell us about your group, Club 90.
Leonard: While working on a baby shower for Veronica, I said something that Annie was surprised to hear me say, something negative about the pornography industry. She said I was always reluctant to bad-mouth my feelings about people in this industry for fear of not being accepted or getting work.
Hart: And never having heard it from anyone else in the business.
Leonard: Being a vet of therapy of one sort or another over the years, it occurred to me that perhaps there was a need for women who've had sex on film to discuss some of the causes and effects of being in this business — as related to self-esteem, family, friends, men, and just things in general. And Annie was particularly going through a rough time with a lot of ambivalence, so we put this group together.
Like a consciousness raising group, to share feelings you've all had but never discussed?
Leonard: Everyone felt very alone.
Hart: It doesn't always center on porn or the sex industry, sometimes it just centers on us as women.
Royalle: We threw an overall open meeting for other women actresses to come and see how we did it. And there's a second meeting forming because the idea worked so well for us.
Leonard: The last member of this group, Sue Nero, who isn't here, came and thought it was a social thing. We explained to her that it wasn't about the business so much, but about ourselves and us trying to help ourselves.
Sprinkle: We get very personal, and we don't discuss things outside of the group, so we have a lot of good gossip. (Everyone laughs).
Leonard: Our only ground rule is whatever we discuss in our meetings cannot be discussed outside of it, preferably not with your husbands or whoever. 'Cause none of us wants to be the subjects for somebody's book four years from now.
Someone mentioned that you're trying to write your own scripts. Are you also doing that kind of thing?
Hart: I'm not strictly all that much with pornography. I don't perform hardcore anymore. I'm more interested in evolving. I'm doing R-rated projects. I'm directing and producing my own stuff. But I don't consider myself in the mainstream of porn anymore.
Sprinkle: And she is on every marquee in town.
Leonard: But I think what you're getting at is that we're trying to further our positions as feminists so we're not so manipulated in the business, so we have more of a say.
Vera: You work within the business and you find out how to do what's best for yourself, how to have more control over what's affecting you, and how you can affect others. We're putting what we learned to use — rather than just doing a day's work, getting money, going out, spending it, and going back to the same old thing again.
Royalle: We haven't talked about doing anything as a group together, in that form. But I think all of us are involved in varying degrees or not involved in varying degrees (in porn). I haven't done a film in a few years. The last thing I did was a script I wrote for my husband who produced the film and I starred in it. I can do a lot if I choose to because I am so engulfed in the whole world with so many connections. I really want to start getting into films that are more directed toward women viewers. I've already written two scripts with my husband. I see them as basically pro-women scripts, while still being commercial. I'm also meeting with a woman who is interested in porn on video.
Hart: We're not necessarily a political force, but we have our own political views, and each of us is a reflection of porn whether we're in or out. The fact that I might be able to do other stuff might help to validate pornography. I'm very happy with what I've done, but now I'd like to go on to something else.
Royalle: Many of us also write for magazines.
Leonard: I host a TV show. I publish a magazine. A lot of the women here also write for a lot of the magazines. I consider myself political. I'm a staunch First Amendment purist, not just in terms of pornography but in general. And one of the things I stress is that the First Amendment was created not to protect the majority but to protect the minority, those with what would be considered an unpopular perspective on the subject.
What is the main audience of the films you're in? Isn't it men?
Leonard: Up until the last two or three years you'd be right. However all of us here are acutely aware of cable TV, videocassettes and pay TV systems bringing information and entertainment into the home, enlarging the distaff side of the audience. And if the mail I get at the magazine is any barometer, there're a lot more women readers of High Society, just as there're a lot more women viewers.
Royalle: Yes, I read of a recent survey that showed that women are an increasing percentage of buyers of videocassettes. Unfortunately we have to follow the demands of the theatre owners. There's still a certain market that is very male dominated. There was an attempt at more women-oriented films, but I see a backlash, just like in the women's movement overall in society.
What do you mean by women-oriented?
Royalle: Ah, an attempt to put real plot into the film.
Leonard: Where the sex is motivated as opposed to more gratuitous.
Hart: Better scripts, better acting.
Royalle: More erotica rather than just hardcore genitalia. Plots that aren't insulting to women. That put the women as heroines.
Leonard: There's a trend to attract more women and more couples. There are a number of films, albeit a handful at the moment, which I'd consider women's films. One of these a number of us were in, called ROOMMATES. And there are four or five others I could recommend. In ROOMMATES, while it shows you that the three principal characters get fucked over by men, in the end, the bottom line is that they keep on, that they don't need the men, that they're survivors.
Do you see any future for a women's porn theatre?
Hart: You get outside the city and there are more couples that do come into the theatres. But I think they're losing that audience because of videocassettes and cable. It you're a man and a woman, wouldn't it be a lot more comfortable for you to be by yourself, be able to freeze the action, rewind, see it again, turn it off, and do your own thing?
Royalle: To be able to make love while you're doing it, that's what it's for.
Leonard: Face it, home is where most people prefer to have their sex anyway, so it just makes sense that that's where you'd enjoy information that relates to it.
Nichols: The porn theatre is going to be gone. It's all video.
Leonard: In the last year the number of active theatres has really gone down dramatically.
Hart: If you have the right connections, you can get it played, because there's a limited number of theatres and that might pay you back for your film and any profit now is made on the video cable.
How does the video boom affect you?
Royalle: When I made films, there was little recognition of that market yet. They'd have you sign releases, where you'd have no right to anything. And right now I'm more famous than I ever was because of all the video and cable. Agents are calling me up now for work because they see me on TV, and I don't do hardcore anymore. But I don't get any percentages or royalties. It's like diddlyshit for me, but someone's making money off my name.
Vera: Yeah, but there's also the pro side of it, where once you get an expanded audience that means you're going to have opportunities to create new things. There's more room for different kinds of stuff, and people are willing to take a chance on different stuff.
Royalle: Yes and no. Now maybe I could move on to something else — I can't now because my films are playing on TV and video. It looks like that's what I'm doing now but it's not. In some cases it's what I did 5, 6, 7 years ago. It's a misrepresentation of me.
Leonard: I disagree. Look at Candy Bar. Look at all the loops she did years ago; they're still around. Once you commit yourself to celluloid, you can't say, "I want out."
Hart: And all of us signed the releases. Nobody held a gun up to my head. Nobody forced us to do anything.
Leonard: Contrary to popular opinion. I have high visibility and work very hard at trying to upgrade the image of the people and the business at large and trying to dignify it. And then a piece of shit comes along and takes me three rungs down my ladder. A movie like HARDCORE with George C. Scott a couple of years ago chose to dwell on an underbelly, underside area that none of us here have ever had any experience with.
Hart: And also the Women Against Pornography (WAP). I took it personally because I get grouped in with people who do all kinds of films I've never had any part in. I felt bad, not that I'm for pornography, but to be grouped in with that.
Royalle: There are echelons, levels.
It sounds like maybe you are an elite, if you're talking about echelons of films. I guess you all have standards of what you will and won't do.
Leonard: I think everyone has their own definition of what violence is and what pornography is. It's in the eye of the beholder.
Nichols: When I first got in, I did some of those cut'em-up type films, more blood, the kind I really abhor in terms of violence. You know, I'd opt for sex before violence. The film was rated R. Cameron Mitchell was in that one. When I got into sex films, I got handed scripts and got to see what was going on. You start making distinctions — this will make more money; if I hold back from here, I can do this. Also you find out you can just go ahead and do everything. And that's when you start getting into your own personal morality.
Hart: It's very tough for us to represent women as a whole in the jobs we choose, 'cause it gets down to the bottom line of making your living, and the telephone bill is due. Perhaps you might have to do a film that you don't feel represents women as a whole. It might be a job rather than what you'd like to see happening.
But how much opportunity is there really to make feminist porn given the porn industry's focus of pleasing men?
Hart: It's geared towards making money, and any film is geared towards that. We'd all like to see certain films being done. But what good is it going to do if there's no market for it?
Leonard: As a postscript to ROOMMATES, it bombed at the theatres, but it's one of the best selling video cassettes available in X or any other rating.
Nichols: That's why we can be excited in these times when it's going over to video and cable. It's got to have more script and better quality. I'm seeing that with the budgets. I want to do THE DAUGHTER OF O, and I've got backers. I may never do it, but I'm one of a lot of women who suddenly — because they're involved in the industry — are going to say, "Yeah, maybe we can do something to better the industry."
Leonard: This industry has provided a tremendous training ground for many of us, to hone skill we never thought we had. I have appeared in 30 films, and it has given me a working knowledge of how films are made. I've worked in production, make-up.
Vera: There are a lot of opportunities in this business and you have to pick and choose what's right for yourself. There's also an interest a lot of people have to put this business down for whatever reason. WAP had their thing. Well it's in the interests of a lot of the moneymen in the business to have women looked down on, because then they can pay us little, control us more. In a way WAP is…
Leonard: Doing them a tremendous favor.
Vera: By not supporting us and our right to make things the way we want. By not giving us feedback and acknowledging that in every woman there is this curiosity that shouldn't be hidden in the closet.
Leonard: I've done a lot of media battle with the ladies from WAP and I have asked them this on camera: "If you could make a so-called erotic movie, a blue movie, write it down. I'd like to see what is acceptable." And of course they never do. And if I may be so bold — I'm not speaking for everyone — I think inherently women are exhibitionists and men are voyeurs. And that's how it's been since time immemorial and will always be.
Hart: It's called biological, perpetuation of the species.
Royalle: I think that erotic films are fun. We just need to gear them in a more balanced way. Women's sexuality has only come to be recognized in the last 20 years. Porn was always for men. Now that women are finally allowed to have a sexuality, we are looking for stimulus. Women are saying, "Okay, now let's look at a film." Well, now is the time to start making films for women. That doesn't just mean quality and scripts. It means what's the sex all about.
It sounds like a real struggle. We're talking about power relationships in an industry.
Hart: That's why it's so important that we're in this group, because it's the first time we've ever been invited to work with feminists — which I think most of us consider ourselves to be — in a thing about pornography. All of the contact I've had with feminists was always anti-porn. They wouldn't even discuss porn. And now to find people who are artists and are discussing the issue and getting into it, I think it's wonderful.
Leonard: Also the very radical feminists such as WAP, who would take us to task for degrading women, treating women like sex objects, exploiting women — women are sex objects. It's okay to be a sex object.
Vera: It's delightful to be a sex object!
Yeah, but sometimes you want to be a sex subject, the actor, not the passive…
Leonard: None of us here promotes the notion that one should be a sex object 24 hours a day. But when the time presents itself, one should be equipped, whether it's in dress or style, one should know what to do.
But women have been trained for that for centuries. It's nothing new.
Hart: We're providing the other side. If you see our piece (Deep Inside Porn Stars), I think we're showing in effect that we go beyond a set of tits, that we're people too.
In porn films it generally seems that women want only to please men, they just like big cocks…
Vera: Which they love to suck…
Hart: Well, personally I like that.
Well, personally we do too, but sometimes you like to do other things that focus on your pleasure.
Royalle: Well, they're starting to do that now.
Leonard: Don't you find that women's newfound assertiveness in the bedrooms of America as well as the boardrooms of America is putting men to the wall? I think men are having a lot of trouble dealing with it because their performance is on the line, their techniques.
Hart: Porn has helped a lot of women. There was an older lady, it shocked me that she watched porn, because maybe I have funny ideas about who watches porn. She said it was great for her because her husband never wanted to go down on her. But in the films he saw other people did, and that it wasn't a horrible thing.
Leonard: I've gotten mail from men and women who said they'd been making love with the lights off for so many years that they didn't know what their bodies and genitalia looked like. While I won't say we're involved in an educational device…
Royalle: It can be. We still push the same old high school sex that took place in porn films in the beginning of the century. I review films, and I'm so enraged half the time when I leave them because — how can they be showing this? I don't walk into a room and say, "Fuck me" or "Whip out your cock. I'm dying to suck it." Let's get some reality in here.
Leonard: The most glaringly absent element in porn films is foreplay. But every filmmaker will tell you that in the interest of time and budgetary concerns, they cannot do that.
What's the role of women behind the cameras?
Leonard: Unfortunately, the few women I know in the business, like Bonnie Atlas, Svetlana and Roberta Finnley — there are quite a number of women in powerful positions — but regrettably they do films very much the way men do.
When you talk about formula films with one of every combination and sexual variety, doesn't this relate to men's sexuality? For example men can come so much faster than women in general.
Hart: They're more visually stimulated. And women are more tactily stimulated. But I wonder if that is just a condition of society, that we're told we're supposed to be like this.
Leonard: In terms of the feminist accusation of what we do and represent, they should be in our corner cheering us for having broken with tradition, for going where women haven't gone before, instead of shaking their fingers at us.
Hart: Standing outside saying, "Oh, you can't do that, or working from the inside." You're not going to be able to change anything from the outside.
While we disagree with the WAP position that porn is the cause of violence against women, as feminists we can't help but feel that porn films just reinforce the image of women as sex objects. How can that be a liberating thing for women?
Hart: Sometimes I get tired of being hit on by guys, and my husband says, "Well, honey, that's what you portray in the films." But that's the actor playing the role.
Royalle: I don't think that's what they're saying. I think that what we put across, a lot of people are going to take at face value.
Those are the only images we are offered of women.
Royalle: Exactly, but I don't think it objectifies women any more than it does men. It shows them as guys who don't want to do anything but fuck any pussy they can find. We have to change the attitude toward both men and women.
Sprinkle: I've been in porn for 10 years. I always looked at the positive sides. Now I'm starting to look at the negative side, like when men think of women, you know, seeing the films and treating me like I'm that person when I walk down the street. But I'm exploring these feelings of men treating me as a sex object with pornographic images.
You are all white women. Aren't there any Black and Latina women in the industry?
Royalle: Not in 35 mm film.
But those women do work in the industry?
Royalle: Maybe on the lower 42nd Street level. Unfortunately there's a racial caste system.
Leonard: The only well-known Latina film star is Vanessa Del Rio.
Hart: I know Annette Havens and myself. No matter what I would do personally, you have to be careful not to alienate certain parts of your audience. I never have performed with a Black man because I didn't want to lose my Southern audience.
Do you all consider yourselves feminists?
Sprinkle: I think we're all striving to be treated fairly when we're dealing with men, treated not as a woman but as a person.
Hart: I'm an independent woman who is making my own way in the world. We make inroads into different things.
Leonard: I have single-handedly raised a 20-yearold daughter without any financial or emotional or spiritual help from any man. I was a so-called libber before the term had a label.
Royalle: I was a feminist way back in '69, '70 when I was in college. I was very active, and I don't feel I'm any less of a feminist now. But I tried a lot of different roles to explore my own sexuality. I don't feel what I did was necessarily great or bad. We're not really crusaders for porn. We can all agree it's had a great impact on our lives. It represents what women are going through in society, and in a way we're all leaders. We're the first generation of porn actresses to become stars, who stood up for what we do.
Nichols: You were talking about women's being sex symbols for generations. Well, maybe there's a third level to go to once you have an awareness, instead of becoming what other people project us to be. I have five brothers; I was a tomboy. I was raised without much sex stereotyping. When I got my first offer to do a skin magazine, I thought it was great. I'd always had a fat complex. It started to make me feel better about my body. The third thing is to project in my mind, "I'm a sexual being. It's okay to other females, to men." I was raised in a Catholic school, all girls. We used to dress up for each other. Instead of going up to the mountains to abstain from sex, maybe you can immerse yourself in it and come away clean.