Sisterhood of Sex

Sisterhood of Sex

Directors with gross demands. Feminists branding them as brainwashed. For many women who chose to work in adult entertainment in the 1980s, the so-called “Golden Age of Porn” was a minefield they no longer wanted to navigate alone. In this excerpt from a piece that originally appeared on narratively.com, we meet five performers whose friendship changed their lives, and the industry, for the better

On a chilly February afternoon in 1983, the baby shower guests made their way into Annie Sprinkle’s Lexington Avenue apartment in Manhattan. Inside, a couple dozen people mingled around the “Sprinkle Salon,” as Annie, an adult film star, called it. Her home was a sort of Andy Warhol Factory of the porn and underground art worlds, a place where she hosted sex-world luminaries alongside artists and celebrities.

It was a pivotal time for porn. The once completely taboo industry had gained legitimacy in the 1970s, when celebrities embraced “porno chic” and big-budget adult films came complete with red-carpet premieres. It was a time when Jack Nicholson and Jackie Kennedy went to see Deep Throat. Yet many states still had laws criminalizing pornography, and many political and religious leaders were on missions to stop the rise of porn. Movie theater owners who screened porn still risked prosecution. And the female actors who worked in the industry had little to no workplace regulations or safety protections—in an era when AIDS was starting to spiral out of control.

Five of the women at the baby shower that day had no idea they were about to form a pornography sorority of sorts. A sisterhood that would change their careers, their lives, and eventually, the way many viewed people who work in porn.

The guest of honor, pregnant porn star Jane Hamilton, 26—who went by Veronica Hart on screen—was at a crossroads. She had arrived in New York in the ’70s after earning her bachelor’s in theater, ready to become a mainstream movie star. A casting director lured her to the city, but his creepiness turned her off. Jane ended up renting a room from a man who worked in the adult industry. They slept together, and he suggested that Jane work in adult movies. She began starring in porn films in the 1970s and by the ’80s had become one of the biggest stars within that world.

Now Jane was newly married and about to be a mom. She had stopped having sex in adult movies before she got married but wasn’t sure if she wanted to leave the porn world entirely. Perhaps she could give up having sex in movies but still strip? Could a woman really have a career in the adult industry, a loving husband, and a kid? 

A photographer and artist studying at the School of Visual Arts, Annie Sprinkle, the shower’s host, was also torn between continuing her career in sex or opting for a conventional life of marriage and children. On the cusp of 30, she didn’t know how many more years she’d have on-screen, anyway.

Annie, neé Ellen Steinberg, grew up mostly in Los Angeles, and at 18, she worked as a ticket taker at an adult movie theater in Arizona. One day, the theater owners were arrested for screening Deep Throat and charged with violating the state’s obscenity laws. Annie was ordered to appear in court as a witness because she had been there selling popcorn. It was in court that Annie met Deep Throat’s director, Gerard Damiano, and asked him to teach her how to, well, deep throat. In his hotel room, he gamely obliged. Annie was attracted to this world and worked for several porn companies for six months behind the scenes, including as a fluffer (a person who preps men before their big scenes so they are sufficiently erect). Then she moved in front of the cameras. After several years, she decided that she wanted to direct. 

Along with Annie and Jane, in attendance was fellow porn star Candida Royalle, an aspiring actress and ballerina who was exiled from ballet at 15 because she was too curvaceous. Candida, neé Candice Marion Vadala, came to porn after starring as the daughter of Divine (the drag performer of Pink Flamingos fame) in a theater production called The Heartbreak of Psoriasis. The show was critically panned and closed after just one day. Candida then met a porn director who suggested she take her career in a different direction. 

By the time of the baby shower, eight years after getting her start, Candida was ambivalent about porn. A longtime feminist who had gotten married three years earlier, she’d quit the industry shortly after getting hitched. But now she felt a pull to return. Candida dreamed of unionizing exploited workers and directing films herself so she could provide an alternative to the male-dominated films that flooded the market. 

At the shower, Candida mingled with Jane and another guest, Veronica Vera. Veronica, neé Mary Veronica Antonakos, always dreamed of being a writer. She finally scored a regular column in a porn magazine, where she sometimes also appeared topless. And after spending time writing about her adventures in the sex industry, she was offered roles in films, which she’d just begun to accept. Veronica was quieter than the others at the baby shower because she was newer to the porn world and was worried she wouldn’t fit in with the bigger stars.

They all chatted with Gloria Leonard, a thrice-married former stockbroker who became a porn actress at 35. Gloria was raised as Gayle Klinetsky in the Bronx to be “a nice Jewish girl,” as she put it. She had acted and modeled in the vanilla world, was a ghost writer for famed advice columnist Dr. Joyce Brothers, and had worked as an executive secretary at Elektra Records. When looking for film production work, an agent suggested she try a porn role. 

  In 1976, Gloria starred in the porno-chic classic The Opening of Misty Beethoven. She gained notoriety in New York as the host of two late-night, adult-themed television shows on Manhattan Cable Television, and in 1977, she took the helm as publisher of High Society magazine. Misty was soon followed by another film called All About Gloria Leonard, with posters plastered throughout New York City. 

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In Annie’s apartment that day, Gloria, Annie, Jane, Veronica, and Candida began dishing on the directors in the industry: who was easy to work with, who was a hemorrhoid. “We weren’t in our porn personas,” Annie says. “We were our natural selves and there was no competition, just love and compassion.” 

The women realized they’d had similar struggles in the industry that hadn’t been articulated. While female porn performers earned slightly more than their male co-stars, it was the men behind the scenes who were raking in the real money. Because the business operated in a gray area of legality, they had little power to advocate for fair wages.

Women in porn were also not in control of their own stories. The movies usually centered on male sexual pleasure. And even when it appeared as if female porn stars were telling their own stories, it was often a ruse. The columns in adult magazines with porn stars’ bylines were secretly penned by others. “It was all men writing under our names in the ’70s.” Annie says. “It was all made-up bullshit.” 

While all these issues—a patriarchal industry, unequal pay, exploitation—were feminist issues, the mainstream feminist movement shunned women in porn. In fact, most liberal feminists had a shared goal with Reagan-era Christian conservatives: banning porn.

This was the era of feminist groups like Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM), which picketed in front of adult movie theaters chanting, “Porn teaches rape! Women are the victims of organized hate!” Two leading feminists and legal scholars at that time, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, claimed women in porn were being sexually assaulted, and if porn stars claimed otherwise, they were victims of false consciousness. 

A few years before the baby shower, Ms. magazine published a cover story titled “Erotica and Pornography” that condemned the porn industry. In response, Annie and Gloria protested in front of the Ms. office, with Annie holding the sign “I am not a female captive” and Gloria with one reading “Porno power.” 

“We were all feminists, and we were all really socially conscious,” Jane says. But they felt shut out of, even villainized by, the feminist movement. MacKinnon and Dworkin were so opposed to porn that they fought to pass laws that would allow women to sue pornographers for damages, on the grounds that pornography was a form of sex discrimination because it depicted women as sex objects who enjoyed being sexually abused.

That day at the baby shower, after the other guests left, these five women who stayed to talk to one another felt a sense of joy and unity in their shared contradictory feelings about porn. They felt empowered yet exploited, freed from the strictures of gender roles, yet constricted by new stereotypes. 

“We should do this more often,” Candida recalled telling the other women in Legs McNeil’s and Jennifer Osborne’s book The Other Hollywood. “So, we started meeting regularly.” The support group would be held right there in Annie Sprinkle’s apartment, and they would call it Club 90, in honor of Annie’s 90 Lexington Avenue address.

Club 90 would become a lifeline for these five women and many others, as they navigated all the complexities of working in a widely demonized industry. Or, as Gloria put it in her unpublished memoir, “Fucking and sucking on-screen, it turned out, produced some real complex issues.” 

Members of Club 90 and other porn stars pose bare-chested for a group photo with Jane’s baby
BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBIN LEONARDI/ESTATE OF GLORIA LEONARD

*

A few months after the baby shower, the women arrived at Annie’s apartment for the first meeting of Club 90. While new-age music played in the background, the women sipped Annie’s homemade miso soup and gabbed about their cats. Jane rocked her new baby on her lap. An outsider could’ve mistaken the scene for a bridge club. That is, until they started sharing stories and warning each other about dangerous people. It was a place to talk about things they couldn’t talk about anywhere else. There was only one ground rule, which Gloria laid down: what happens in Club 90, stays in Club 90. 

The meetings were held every three weeks. They’d go around in a circle, each woman saying what was on her mind, sharing personal problems, or opening up about business issues, like reporting how much she’d been paid. When some realized they were being underpaid, “We gave [each other] the courage to ask for more,” Annie says. 

Club 90’s soirees were so secretive that no minutes were taken. But gradually, people heard about them, and usually they wanted to know more.

Pulling Back the Curtain

One day, Candida spotted a flier: Franklin Furnace theater in New York City was seeking performance artists who could answer the question, “Is there a feminist pornography?” It was a chance for the group to share their stories with the world. “People in the business heard about Club 90, and everybody was curious about it,” Jane says. “So, we thought, ‘We’ll give them a little bit of a look.’” 

On January 26, 1984, Club 90 took the stage at Franklin Furnace. Their performance piece, “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” which Annie says was only lightly fictionalized, gave insight into their clandestine meetings. The response was overwhelming. Soon they had an agent and two top producers interested in expanding the show and taking it off-Broadway. Veronica hoped they could create “a strong play that would push us toward mainstream acceptance.” 

Candida, in the blue dress, and members of Club 90 perform “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” 1984 
DEEP INSIDE PORN STARS” PHOTO COURTESY OF LESLIE BARANY

In June 1984, the women convened at a weeklong writing retreat in Libertyville, NY. Days were spent working on scenes from morning till night, with swim breaks. Most of the days were idyllic. At other times, though, they struggled to get “five strong egos to create one art piece,” Candida wrote in her diary. Finally, they finished the script. It followed Club 90 members from their lives as porn stars directed by men to the ladies all working on a porn film together, no male directors in sight. It was a vision of the porn world as a matriarchy, inspired by their time together. Their narrative took their shared knowledge of what was wrong with the industry and imagined a brighter future: one in which female empowerment—and female orgasms—were front and center. Once the script was done, their agent shopped it around. “While I think the subject matter is fascinating, in its present state, I don’t think it’s dramatic,” wrote an associate of one production house. “It seems more like a consciousness-raising group than a dramatic play.” 

Club 90 by the poolside in Woodstock during their writing retreat  PHOTO BY LAURA LOLYA

“The producers thought we were stupid porn bimbos,” Gloria said in an interview with The Other Hollywood, “so we never moved forward.“ 

Club 90 and baby Christopher in upstate New York during their writing retreat  POLAROID PHOTO COURTESY OF DONA ANN MCADAMS 

Club 90 Goes to Washington

Veronica Vera, black hair, and Seka, another porn star, testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice in October 1984 
 SENATE PHOTO COURTESY OF ANNIE SPRINKLE 

Soon, they had larger problems to worry about than a producer’s criticism of their play. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, headed by Arlen Specter, started holding hearings on porn. Members of the committee hoped— according to some newspaper reports—to ban pornography altogether.

The committee invited witnesses from both sides: those in the business and those opposed to it. They reached out to the most politically active member of Club 90: Gloria. But Gloria was scheduled to have back surgery during the hearings, so she asked Veronica, who was thrilled by the idea.

On Veronica’s day in court, with her hands folded neatly in front of her, she spoke into the silver microphone. “I consider myself very fortunate to be able to share my experiences with this committee,” she said. “I speak not only for myself, but for every woman I know in the sex industry. We do not see ourselves as victims. We do not need to hide in the shelter of being somebody’s victim. We accept responsibility for our own lives. We cherish that responsibility. Do not make any laws to ‘protect us.’ We do not want them. Leave us our precious right to choose.” 

Though Veronica’s testimony got some news coverage, conservative legislators kept pushing for more anti-porn ordinances. Meanwhile, the women of Club 90 were more determined than ever to create porn they were proud of. 

Taking the Helm

One day, at a Club 90 meeting, Candida brought up the idea of directing porn films for women. “We were all supportive,” Veronica says. With their encouragement, Candida started a porn company called Femme. She would direct, write, and sometimes star. 

It was a first: porn produced by women, for women. Her movies were heavy on the foreplay and the orgasms were internal. Annie took stills for Femme’s marketing. Jane helped distribute Candida’s features. Candida proposed a Club 90 porn film collaboration, uniting, as she wrote in her unpublished notes, “the dynamic founding members of Club 90 sharing the most intimate parts of themselves in the ‘Star Director’ series.” Finally, Club 90 would be in control on a porn set. They would pay performers fairly, focus on consent, and center women’s orgasms. 

Each woman would direct a 30-minute short film. They shot in March of 1987 for two weeks. Candida insisted that the films had to be targeted toward women and couples, had to feature a strong story, had to have a love scene and safe sex, and had to address the AIDS crisis. All the penises in the films were swathed in condoms. 

The female-led project was revolutionary in the porn industry. But feminists widely ignored Femme’s productions. “[Porn] is the only real source of sex education in our society,” Veronica wrote to Ms. “Because of this, it is important that responsible people begin taking over the production of this material.” 

Even though many feminists were opposed to hearing from porn stars, those in the wider culture, including daytime TV host Phil Donahue, were not. Candida appeared on his show on November 18, 1985. Candida also appeared on Morton Downey Jr.’s show (so did Gloria), Gloria on Oprah, and the two of them together on The David Susskind Show. Jane appeared on AM Chicago with Oprah Winfrey, on The Morning Show with Regis Philbin, and on Donahue.

While the women of Club 90 were finally getting mainstream attention, the anti-porn narrative was still winning out. In May 1985, the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography asked Candida to appear at a public hearing on pornography and exploitation. Candida agreed but focused her testimony on her working experiences in the non-porn world. She detailed how, when she was working at a Manhattan health club at 18, the manager sexually assaulted her. She discussed the executive who made her give him a goodnight kiss every night when she was his 19-year-old secretary. “Conditions are no worse for women in the porn world than they are in the ‘legit’ world, so what are we really upset about?” she asked. “The victimization of women or the fact that some people just don’t want any form of explicit material to be available to consenting adults?” 

  Decades before the #MeToo movement, Candida’s insistence that the attorney general should look at all kinds of workplaces was prescient. Yet the commission’s final report focused on the dangerous effects of porn on women, arguing that obscenity laws should be enforced more often and with greater restrictions. 

After the ’80s

Club 90, left to right, Annie, Gloria, Veronica, Candida, and Jane, 1994
1994 PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBIN LEONARDI/ESTATE OF GLORIA LEONARD

Following her collaboration with Femme, Annie graduated from the School of Visual Arts, got a Ph.D. from the Institute of Advanced Studies of Human Sexuality, and became a very successful artist, traveling the globe with one-woman theater pieces that are now studied in universities around the world. In 2003, she established the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, still observed in many countries every December 17. And in 2007, she married artist and art professor Beth Stephens. “I joke that after having sex with 3,500 men, it was time for a change,” Annie says.

Gloria, who created one of the first phone sex lines in 1983, only to see the federal government try to shut it down, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. She appeared in nearly 30 X-rated films and became president of the Free Speech Coalition. She continued to defend the porn industry on talk shows, debating anti-porn feminists, until she suffered a stroke and passed away in 2014.

Candida directed and wrote dozens of porn films for women and couples. In the late 1990s, she also created a line of ergonomic vibrators and members of Club 90 served as her sex-toy testers. Candida passed away from ovarian cancer in 2015.

Veronica founded Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls in the early 1990s. She kept it going through 2020 and it was the subject of her three books. Her column in Adam magazine, “Veronica Vera’s New York,” ran for over a decade. 

Jane became an exotic dancer, then a producer and director of adult films, as well as some R-rated romps. Her features won many Best Director nods from the Adult Video News Awards, the Oscars of porn. She’s had numerous mainstream roles, including in Six Feet Under, One-Eyed Monster, and two Paul Thomas Anderson films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson called her “the Meryl Streep of porn.” 

Members of Club 90 after receiving Doctor of Human Sexuality degrees from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, 2014. Gloria received the title posthumously, after passing away earlier that year 2014 PHOTO COURTESY OF SHEONA MCDONALD 

*

Club 90 continues to this day, with the three surviving members—Annie, Veronica, and Jane—still meeting in person, and their legacy is clear. The porn industry has more women, transgender, and genderqueer directors now than ever before. Women ask for and obtain more money than ever before. And many feminists now share Club 90’s viewpoint on the porn industry.

“Each of these women directly inspired things that I have done with my career,” says Stoya, a well-known adult film star, writer, and director who now pens a column for Slate. “They were part of an expansion of what adult films can be.” 

Beyond all their groundbreaking accomplishments, for the women of Club 90, their most lasting legacy is the vital way the group brought them all together. As Gloria wrote in 1989 in The Adult Video Association Newsletter, “Club 90 helped make real women of us—the undying support that each knows the other provides has created a kinship and closeness I frankly never believed was possible.” 

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This story was adapted from a longer piece that originally appeared in Narratively, an award-winning storytelling platform that champions indie journalists and celebrates the diversity of humanity. Visit narratively.com for more extraordinary true stories.

 PROFILE PICS: JANE HAMILTON, ANNIE SPRINKLE, CANDIDA ROYALLE, VERONICA VERA, AND GLORIA LEONARD PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROBIN LEONARDI/ESTATE OF GLORIA LEONARD