10 Classic Porn Films Made by Women

10 Classic Porn Films Made by Women
Illustration: Allison Corr

I have never been a good student of history, at least not in the traditional sense. I hate reading about war, but war is only one lens through which we can study the past. History is literally just stuff that happened, and wars are not the only thing that happened. Almost any cultural phenomenon or artistic movement can serve as a historical lens, and that includes smut.

By studying the history of pornography and watching Golden Age films, one can gain a deeper understanding of how decency is weaponised by the state, and an appreciation for how smut pioneers made free speech that much freer. You can also use porn as a lens to learn about the history of organised crime, the FBI, and how mercurial the concepts of “good guy” and “bad guy” really are.

You also learn a lot about how women are treated under capitalism.

In a vacuum, no sex act is wrong, as long as that sex act is being enjoyed by enthusiastic, consenting adults. The same applies to the depiction of those sex acts on film. But porn is not made in a vacuum and, as with any job, women’s experiences working in pornography vary greatly. Sex work is valid work — and women can be exploited in any field — but the very nature of the work can make any exploitation more acutely felt. (It is worth noting that the “legitimate” movie business is hardly free from sexual exploitation and abuse.)

People aren’t quite as quick to praise a #girlboss as they were five years ago, but the idea that putting a woman in charge will lead to a more fair and equitable workplace persists, and it feels like porn made by women — if not for women — would naturally be more ethical. But women are not immune to the influences of racism, sexism, transphobia, and classism, nor can they escape the realities of capitalism. Women are more likely be aware of the specialised oppression their gender faces as a whole; they’re also more likely to be empathetic toward these instances of oppression. But there is no guarantee a woman will write, direct, or produce a more progressive piece of pornography (or any kind of art for that matter).

Still, viewing classic pornography that was “made” by a woman gives us an interesting (if horny) lens through which to view the past. One is immediately disabused of the idea that “putting a woman in charge” makes for more forward-thinking, feminist sex flicks but — in many instances — you can see the influence of the attitudes of the woman who made the movie (for better or worse). Keeping in mind that second wave feminism was not exactly sex worker-friendly — porn was one subject on which the feminists of the time and the religious right could agree — it’s not surprising that most porn of the ‘70s and early ‘80s fails to meet a progressive or feminist standard (though some of it does pass the Bechdel test).

I tend to pick my porn based on the actors (the real workers of the industry) — anything with Jamie Gillis, R. Bola, Lisa De Leeuw, Herschel Savage, Sharon Mitchell, Andrea True, or Veronica Hart usually makes it into the queue — and I’ve only recently started focusing on directors. For one, it’s kind of hard to keep track of who directed what, as with the exception of the big names — Pachard, Damiano, Lincoln, the Mitchel brothers, etc. — a lot of directors did their directing under pseudonyms. Setting out to find porn directed by women is even more challenging. I reached out to Ashley West of the Rialto Report via Twitter direct message to see if he could point me in the right direction, and he confirmed that finding early porn with a “genuine female lens” is not all that simple.

“Golden age porn had a few female directors, but very few of them brought a genuine female lens to the genre until Candida Royalle in the mid ‘80s, who made that her raison d’être,” he wrote. “Until then, the most prolific directors on the east coast were people like Roberta Findlay and, to a lesser extent, Doris Wishman. Both of them were personally uncomfortable around other women, and surrounded themselves with men, so they were hardly role models as female directors. On the west coast were people like Ann Perry, Summer Brown and Svetlana (though the latter two worked closely with their filmmaking husbands so it’s difficult to know what their individual contributions were.) And then there were the actresses, like Annette Haven or Clair Dia who occasionally made individual movies but didn’t stay long behind the camera.”

(You can’t always trust the credits, either: Sometimes, West noted, women were credited as directors even why they had nothing to do with a film’s productions. “It’s a disappointing aspect of the golden age that it took woman so long to be taken seriously as directors,” West wrote.)

Porn doesn’t have to have been made by good role models to be good porn, and these early women-led films are still worth watching. Aside from sex, there may not seem to be overlapping themes between Roberta Findlay’s more caustic work and Candida Royalle’s soft, romantic stories, yet you can clock dialogue, scenes and jokes that are unmistakably tinged with the experience of fucking as a woman in both of their work. (Or perhaps I am reading too much into it; I have been watching a lot of porn.)

It’s fun to watch people fuck on film, regardless of who wrote and directed the scenes, and the following 10 flicks are fun, or at least fun to talk about. Here they are, in no particular order: A bunch of vintage skin flicks written and/or directed by women, imperfections and all.

Liquid A$$ets (1982), written and directed by Roberta Findlay

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A lot of Findlay’s work is mocking, almost cruel, and she has a tendency to use abusive father figures and the horror of the ageing female body as plot points. Liquid A$$ets isn’t kind, but it isn’t as hateful as some of her other work (such as Anyone But My Husband).

A parody of The Producers, this flick follows Suzy, a simple country girl from Trotsville who sets off to Broadway to star as Anastasia in Piece & War, a play about “the Czar’s family during the last days of the revolution.” (If you’ve ever wanted to hear references to the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in your pornography, this is the movie for you.)

Bobby Astyr stars as Mr. Cashbox, a tax-dodging rich guy who tries to save himself by producing a terrible play. Astyr was known as “the clown prince of porn,” so it’s refreshing to see him in a leading role, especially opposite his real-life wife, Samantha Fox. (The two share some truly acrobatic scenes.)

The supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Veronica Hart is legitimately funny as a tacky, sex-crazed actress, while a rare mustache-free R. Bola plays her brother, a “loophole salesman” who sets Cashbox up with the disaster play (and manages to deflower Suzy after saving her father’s farm). Ron Jeremy is there too, but he doesn’t get to fuck anything other than a blowup doll, which is more than he deserves.

Kiss & Tell (1980), directed by Suze Randall

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Though she directed more than 20 pornographic movies (most of which are on video, not film), I am more familiar with Suze Randall’s pioneering work in erotic photography. Kiss & Tell is a mostly a vehicle for her centerfolds, but that’s ok, because they are very fun to look at.

The threadbare plot of Kiss & Tell revolves around KOCK FM, a radio station with a coke-snorting DJ who encourages listeners and callers to do dirty things. He also bangs two fans.

This is pure fuck film. If, like me, you like your porn with a lot of plot, this may not be the film for you, but not everything has to be for everyone. There is enough dialogue to give context for each scene, and sometimes that’s all you want out of a dirty movie.

Kiss & Tell is not without some genuine moments. My favourite comes right after a three-way at the radio station — everyone laughs and high fives, which is how all three-ways should conclude.

Satan Was a Lady (1975), written and directed by Doris Wishman

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Satan Was a Lady is slow to take off, at least in terms of plot — it gets to the fucking straightaway. It takes a while to figure out what exactly is going on, though it is immediately apparent that Terry (Annie Sprinkle) despises her little sister Claudia, because she is betrothed to Victor, who Terry is having an affair with. In the midst of all this, Terry fucks Bobby Astyr (to make Victor jealous), and Victor fucks C.J. Lange (because she is there).

Doris Wishman didn’t like directing hardcore pornography, and you can tell. In fact, Doris outsourced the direction at least some of the sex scenes in this movie, though she did lend her voice to Annie Sprinkle’s angry inner monologue.

This is not a cheerful film. No one is happy and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. There are a lot of rotary phones, a lot of ugly couches, and a bedroom with a fireplace that seems incongruent with the rest of the apartment. Things get truly batshit in the last five minutes, and that’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil it.

Annie Sprinkle is, without a doubt, the highlight. She shouts “Why don’t you just leave me alone!” at anyone who dares to speak to her, but all the brattiness fades away as soon as she takes her clothes off. (I have never doubted that Sprinkle has enjoyed her career in porn, and this movie didn’t change my mind.) Even solo — solo scenes tend to be more filler than anything else — reads as completely erotic, in spite of the ugly couch it takes place on.

Naughty Girls Need Love Too (1983), written by Summer Brown

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It’s hard to watch someone else live your dream (Jamie Gillis asking you to open a sex club together), but I can’t fault Honey Wilder for saying “yes.” Honey and Jamie are just one of the excellent pairings in this flick — Naughty Girls is packed with stars working at the top of their game.

The movie follows a pack of hot singles living out their hot single lives in the same Marina Del Ray apartment building. Friendships are formed, couples pair off, everyone is in love by the end, and the female orgasm gets a lot of screen time. With the exception of a casting couch — or, uh, casting tire — scene, there’s no cruel trickery or cheating, and no one gets their feelings hurt — they just fuck a lot. It’s almost too sweet for porn, but Honey Wilder’s harmless scheming and Jamie Gillis’ dalliances with co-eds keep it from being saccharine.

The sex in this film is good — because the actors are good — but the scenes that follow the sex scenes are disarmingly, genuinely intimate. John Leslie’s elevates the handyman character from a trope to a real dude — a dude who seems to have authentic, tender feelings for the big-breasted showgirl (Mona Page) he hooks up with after attempting to fix a sink. After they get off, Page lazily files Leslie’s nails while they chat in bed, and it is perhaps the most accurate depiction of non-sexual intimacy I’ve ever seen in pornography (or any movie, for that matter).

Ballgame (1980), written and co-directed by Anne Perry

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Anne Perry initially planned on becoming a nun. Instead, she became the first woman to serve as the president of the Adult Film Association of America, was arrested several times for her work in the industry, and was a fierce advocate of free speech.

Arresting someone for making films like Ballgame seems ludicrous now. It’s silly and sleazy, with an almost tired, classically exploitative framing (a bunch of horny, hot lady inmates are being treated poorly at the hands of a dirty old warden). Candida Royalle stars as Lolita, the newest inmate at the dilapidated county jail. Lolita inspires her fellow inmates to take collective action in the form of a petition and, when that doesn’t work, a riot.

In an effort to deal with the uprising, the Warden Blowhard makes a deal: The inmates (team name: Beavers) will play a baseball game opposite the prison guards (team name: Dicks). If the Dicks win, the money raised will go towards improving conditions in the prison; if the Beavers win, the prison will get fixed and the inmates will be granted work furloughs. (Blowhard is not that good at negotiating, but is in a bind because he blew through his prison-fixing budget while running for office.)

After a bra-less, pants-less training montage — complete with an original song about beavers beating dicks — the girls get to work systematically ambushing the male guards. There’s some clever bar work, a couple of really good scenes with Herschel Savage (“This is a correctional facility!” he protests, as his pants are unzipped), and a genuinely funny peephole moment that made me laugh out loud. The girls are vulgar and the men are props, and a decidedly unsexy fart joke is made in the middle of some under-the-table antics. I fully believe that joke was written by a woman, as men don’t like to be reminded that women fart (or so they would have you believe; Pornhub tells a different story). The next day, the Beavers distract the already depleted guards by flashing them during key moments of the game. They win, and the warden tries to weasel his way out of the deal, but the warden’s secretary (Lisa De Leeuw) saves the day (with receipts).

My only real criticism is that there is that Lisa is underutilized, at least physically, but perhaps that is by design. Her iconic upper half is revealed only at the end of the film, as she reveals her true power; Perry shows restraint I don’t think a male director would be capable of.

The Health Spa (1978), directed by Clair Dia

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Clair Dia studied film at the Berkley Film Institute but spent more time in front of the camera than behind it. She did, however, direct two feature-length skin flicks, the first of which was The Health Spa.

As a professional journalist and amateur powerlifter, I enjoyed the representation of those two interests in this film, though I cannot recommend engaging in any sexual activity while benching. (Remember: These are professionals. Do not try these routines at your local gym.)

Kay Parker stars as June, a sexually repressed reporter whose editor wants her to write a scathing takedown of a health club that specialises in “sexercise.” Ashamed by the pleasure she experiences at the spa — and later, in her apartment with a junior reporter, Alice (Abigail Clayton) — June goes through a bit of a spiral while struggling with the ethics of the situation (and a bit of alcoholism). She also threatens to fire Alice — the moral centre of the film — which is completely uncalled for.

The sex in The Health Spa ranges from goofy to tender, but the message is overwhelmingly sex positive. “We’re simply trying to combine sex and exercise so people will have a good time while they’re trying to get in shape,” the spa owner explains. Safety concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Screwples (1979), directed by Clair Dia

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Screwples was Dia’s second film, and it kicks off with a nod to her first: Another pair of journalists (broadcast this time, instead of print) are searching for a subject for Nancy (Kandi Barber) to report on. Seems they had wanted to report on the health spa, but missed their chance.

They settle on “sexual fantasies,” and Nancy (naturally, obviously) sets off to the circus to gather testimonials. These first-person interviews are somehow rendered into reenactments — captured on film, naturally — and Nancy and her horny older (but handsome) editor have a private screening (for work).

Maybe it’s because I had spent the entire previous day watching pornography (for work), but I found the first two sex scenes in Scruples to be kind of dull. (A bored housewife gets a sexual massage, a man has a three-way by the pool — it’s been done to death!) But the third scene, which showcases real-life couple Serena and Jamie Gillis, is mesmerising. Even if you’re not particularly into leather or light S&M, the chemistry between Jamie and Serena is undeniable. If it weren’t professionally shot and lit, I would think Dia had simply inserted one of their home movies into the middle of Screwples. It is, quite simply, very hot — just Jamie and Serena, doing their thing(s), one of which is a creative, surprisingly intimate strap-on configuration I had yet to consider.

Blue Magic (1980), written by Candida Royalle

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Candida Royalle put her whole pussy into this screenplay. Blue Magic has lavish locations, elaborate costumes, taxidermy, sex magic, Victorian decadence, and an in-depth discussion about cuff links. It is a movie made by a capital-W Woman, and it shows.

Blue Magic is packed with plot. We make it a full 12 minutes without any nudity, and the sex that follows the nudity can only be described as “love making.” The rest of the sex occurs because the plot demands it: A beautiful, immortal sex witch must feed on the sexual energy of others to remain beautiful and immortal, so she steals their personal effects and casts little spells to lower their inhibitions and encourage three-ways.

All the sex is pretty good, but the juxtaposition of a joyful lesbian scene with a cold, dominatrix-led MMF three-way feels divinely feminine. Samantha Fox and Veronica Hart enjoy — like, really enjoy — each other in a beautiful, airy room filled with natural light. They keep their pretty dresses on for the entire encounter, moving and lifting their garments as needed. The three-way is much less tender: The men are ordered to strip bare, lick, suck, and fuck, while the blonde dominatrix (Merle Michaels) stays clothed (or, uh, corseted).

Every Inch a Lady (1975), written and directed by Roberta Findlay

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This Findlay film is the embodiment of gritty New York porno chic. It’s well paced and well shot, with beautiful and believable locations and dialogue (and a little murder plot, as a treat).

Every Inch a Lady deals with some usual Findlay themes: anxiety around ageing, betrayal, and being replaced by a younger, hotter woman. Harry Reems and Darby Lloyd Rains star as Chino and Crystal, two former hustlers who band together to start a successful escort service/sex empire. They’re also engaged to be married, a source of consternation for Crystal’s assistant/lesbian lover (played by a suit-and-wig-wearing Andrea True).

It’s one of Findlay’s least mocking films. Unlike some of her more naive characters, the women in Every Inch are savvy, conniving even, and it’s their hubris and lust for power — not lack of intelligence — that gets them into trouble.

There are several excellent sex scenes in this film. The first encounter between Reems and Rains sparkles with a touch of believable awkwardness, and their scene with Jamie Gillis (their first client!) is exactly as kinky (and funny) as you would expect. There’s also a pretty hot scene with Reams and True, two real-life friends who always seem to enjoy working together. (Reams introduced True to the industry, which they attempted to unionize; they obviously weren’t successful, but I love that they tried.)

Angel Number 9 (aka Angel on Fire) (1974), written and directed by Roberta Findlay

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I featured Angel Number 9/Angel of Fire in my last smut slideshow, but it’s worth revisiting in this context. To re-cap:

The movie begins with Steven Ellis telling his newly pregnant girlfriend (who he just failed to bring to climax) to “get the fuck out of here and never come back.” Then Steven gets hit by a VW bus.

The angels above decide Stephen needs to learn a lesson about respect, so he’s sent back to earth as Stephanie (Darby Lloyd Rains), so he can see how it feels to be treated like shit (by Jamie Gillis).

This framing allows Findlay to explore a concept many women are familiar with: Men who are only capable of empathy through personal experience. Stephanie is pitiful, almost pathetic, and the character would feel exploitative if not for the fact that we know Stephanie is really Steven.

If you’re a woman who’s turned on by a little sexual denigration but feels guilty about it for some reason, this clever plot device makes the viewing the rougher scenes as erotic a little more “acceptable,” at least by certain feminist standards.

I personally do not think there is anything wrong with enjoying the rougher scenes without this framing. There’s nothing wrong with getting off to a little cruelty, as long as the cruelty is being portrayed — or acted out in the bedroom — by consenting adults. Findlay may have been uncomfortable around or even contemptuous of other women, but discomfort and contempt made for some sexy scenes, and making sexy scenes is the job of the pornographer, no matter their gender.

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