Register Tuesday | September 18 | 2018

The Frontier of Feminist Porn: An Interview with Erika Lust


                                                   Photographs by Rocio Lunaire.

Watching porn is rarely a life-affirming experience. Whether it’s the cartoonish beauty standards or the lingering doubts that anyone involved is having a good time, mainstream pornography functions solely as a means to an end. 

Enter Erika Lust, the Sweden-born, Barcelona-based filmmaker who has devoted herself to creating pornographic films that are story-driven, emotionally engaging and yes, still sexy. For her latest film series, XConfessions, Lust selects anonymous sexual fantasies submitted to her website as prompts to inspire her own narrative vision. With high production values, a nearly all-female crew, and active and engaged performers, her films shed the guilt that cab accompany traditional smut. As Lust famously says, “the sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean."

Lust’s Five Hot Stories for Her won Movie of the Year in 2008 at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto. On the morning before she was awarded two more awards at the 2015 festival, we met to discuss her filmmaking process, attempting realism in pornography and the impossibility of pleasing everybody. 

Kate Fane: I attended the XConfessions screening on Wednesday, and I was really blown away. The films were so erotic, uplifting, and surprisingly funny. 

Erica Lust: That’s wonderful, because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Something completely different that we feel hasn’t been done before. No one’s approaching the genre of pornography with a creative vision. Well, they did back in the 1960s and seventies when directors were exploring new kinds of storytelling, but then in the eighties and nineties it went away.

KF: What do you attribute that to?

EL: To the VHS revolution. When the genre started, there were a lot of creative people who were taking ideas from the sexual revolution. They had ideas of the films they wanted to do, and they wanted to see sex in a new light. And then it turned into a sausage factory. Producers realized that there was a lot of money in porn, and people without vision started to make films because it was so cheap to make them. You could just buy a video camera and make your own. It was ugly, it was not arousing at all. 

This was the era when people started owning VCRs, so they could watch pornography in their homes. But women didn’t really participate—not in the production and not even as consumers, because it didn’t really attract us. And then the internet came and changed everything again. Suddenly the technology got more democratized.

KF: Do you think it actually became more democratized? I see a lot of the same types of things happening in porn today.

EL: I think it helped a lot. Suddenly people who had ideas started to dare to experiment with this genre,and that’s when actual independent cinema started to live. New people are getting involved and that signals the revolution. But we’re still in that beginning phase. This indie revolution has happened to all of the entertainment industries, but the adult industry has just reached that point.

KF: You’ve been working in the genre for ten years. What changes have you noticed in the way it’s been received?

EL: We’re not so afraid of feminism anymore. People are starting to understand what feminism is about, that it’s not an angry army of women to take over the world, killing all the men. It’s about human rights, about being equals, about having the same opportunities.

KF: So how does that translate into your filmmaking? 

EL: It’s a value. It’s about giving women the opportunity to be involved in the filmmaking process, in important leadership roles—not just as makeup artists. We are becoming producers, directors and scriptwriters, and we’re starting to manage the business side of it.

We as consumers are more critical than men in our approach to what we’re buying. We want to know where the product comes from. We do the same when we go to the supermarket to buy the eggs. We ask ourselves, “Where do they come from? Was it from a farm, or some factory?” I do that with my eggs, with my milk and with my meat. And I do the same with my porn. I want to know that it was produced in a correct way. When I began to watch porn, I didn’t trust those companies. I didn’t trust them at all.

KF: Exactly. If you’re watching a rough sex scene, how do you know you’re not witnessing a sexual assault?

EL: With mainstream pornography as a genre, women don’t seem to have pleasure. They’re a function in it, and their function is to give the men pleasure. The structure is all men-centred. He’s the main character, it’s about his ejaculation and she’s there to help him out. She’s some kind of sexy object, but it’s not about her. When I watched porn, I felt I was excluded. But when I had sex, I was part of it. So why couldn’t I be part of it in pornography? 

KF: What inspired you to challenge this system?

EL: In the beginning I thought I had an individual problem. But then I started to speak to other women and I realized “Oh, it’s not really me. It’s you and you and you.” It’s like when I became a feminist in my late teenage years. At first I thought it was just my problems, then I started to understand that it wasn’t, that I wasn’t allowed in some situations because I was a women. That moment when you realize that it’s about the structure and the society you live in is a very interesting moment, because that’s when you can actually start changing something. 

I really believe that porn does matter, because it has a cultural impact on the society we live in. It’s clear to me that porn has become sex education for a lot of people. And if most of the porn shows a very chauvinistic structure, that’s what we will learn from it. Especially young women and young men, they will think that that’s how we have sex. I feel that the problem there is that too many women will think that sex is for pleasing men. 

KF: What was it like first entering the industry?

EL: When I started ten years ago, I didn’t know much about it so I had to explore. When I go back and look at my first films, I can see that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. But technically, I lacked the filming skills that I have today. But everything comes with practice. So that’s always one of the basic lessons when I speak to younger women. I tell them, “Don’t be so afraid. Just do it!” And it will not be fabulous in the beginning, but it doesn’t matter. Because you will get there.

KF: Are there certain non-pornographic directors who have influenced your work?

EL: Of course! I love Sofia Coppola, I love Jane Campion, I adore Kimberly Pierce. I love the films of John Cassavetes. I have a lot of Scandinavian filmmakers that I follow and I think are amazing. 

KF: I can see that. Coppola and Campion have a real lyrical quality to their films, and your work often has a fluid approach to storytelling, with the sex interspersed with the story, the fantasy. 

EL: Yes, though to be fair, the films screened [at the Feminist Porn Awards] were recut. The full versions online, they have longer sex because the goal is for someone to be able to watch them at home and have, you know, a private time. Whereas when you’re in a theatre, the goal is to watch something new and creative and fun and to be inspired by it, but not necessarily get turned on by it in that sense. So I do a theatrical cut that works better for a large audience. 

KF: When it comes to that audience, are you writing for a specific consumer in mind, or are you writing for yourself? 

EL: It’s definitely both. My audience is a very exigent audience. It’s an audience who enjoys culture in general. They go to the art museums, they go to concerts, they love the cinema, they read and they discuss what they read. I think people are starting to discover that pornography doesn’t have to be bad and dirty and smutty and low-culture; it can be great. And if you combine those, suddenly it starts to get explosive.

KF: I think most porn is slightly repulsed by its audience. And then you can feel that repulsion and shame when you watch it. 

EL: We could compare it to being a chef. It’s like, what would the world be if there were only Burger Kings and MacDonald’s and Pizza Huts? It would be super boring.

KF: And unhealthy.  

EL: Definitely! And that’s more or less what’s happening with porn. It’s fast food culture. We need to have different restaurants that take care of their employees, that think about the best food combinations and that care about how you set the table. That’s what I’m trying to do, taking care of all those details. I had a girl coming up to me and said, “I love your movie I Wish I Was a Lesbian and you know what I loved most?” I thought she was going to say something sexy, but she loved that the character had unpolished nails!

KF: God, in mainstream lesbian porn they always have those massive nails, which is just nonsensical.

EL: When you make films it comes down to those small details. You have to believe it, you have to feel it and you have to keep everything in mind. 

But it’s the work that I do with my crew. I have a fantastic crew. We are 90 percent women, and that’s a really important thing here. Our crew is very positive, we have a great energy and everybody dares to speak their mind. When I started out, I worked with a lot of male technicians. I always felt that some people didn’t dare to speak up, because they often wouldn’t listen to the women. Even me, I realized I was using a very feminine language when I was proposing things. I realized in that process that I needed to be able to work with men and I needed to straighten out my language. But now, my crew understands my way of communicating and that’s amazing. There are so many things that change when women are involved in the process. 


KF: You’ve spoken in the past about the resistance you’ve faced from male pornographers.

EL: I think it definitely has to do with insecurity, that they are realizing they’re being watched. When I started to criticize [mainstream male pornographers] and the values that their films are proposing, I think they got a little scared because they realized that something was not completely right in their work. 

When I start criticizing, they go up like an army wanting to protect their rights. It’s just so amusing somehow, how suddenly their rights become so important to them. But if you feel that way, why don’t you understand that women feel we don’t have the same rights?

KF: I think it’s so fascinating looking at the men’s rights movement. There are so many legitimate issues men face, whether it’s falling behind in school or higher rates of suicide. But instead of talking about those, they attack the feminist movement and often specific feminists. 

EL: And when they’re attacking these women, they can get very physical. Instead of attacking ideas, they attack your body. Suddenly you’re ugly or a slut. It’s like, “Come on, give me a real argument!” I heard it a lot in the beginning, they’d ask, “Why are you even doing this? If you’re so interested in sex, you could just act [in pornographic films].” And I’m like, “Where did that come from?” It’s not even a criticism. 

KF: What separates most sexual fantasies from sexual practice is that people feel a degree of shame or hesitance to do something in real life. There’s usually an aspect of taboo. Does that present challenges when you read a fantasy, and have to consider how to actually represent it in real life? 

EL: Someone asked me the other day whether I’d shoot a rape fantasy. I hadn’t even thought about it. Because why would I want to show that? It’s completely OK if you have that fantasy, and even if you want to play that game in your home with your partner, that’s your little world. But for me, as a filmmaker with the power to portray sexuality, I would not be comfortable with shooting that scenario. 

In the end, it’s about my limits and what I would like to show. I make movies that I find intriguing and exciting and sexy, so if I don’t find it sexy myself, I can’t see myself ever shooting it. It’s the same with my cast. I choose people that I find attractive, with personality, with something special that I can transmit on the screen. And then it’s about the chemistry between them. The best approach is to just ask them. They have to accept the partner and feel that it’s interesting, otherwise there’s nothing to shoot. 

KF: I guess when it comes to sex, if there’s no spark, you can’t really fake it right?

EL: Well that’s the magic of cinema, you can work around it. But I say that we shoot fiction when we do the story and we shoot documentary when we do the sex. It’s two different filming styles.  

A lot of feminists talk about authenticity in the sex, and that [feminist porn] has to show a real female orgasm. But in real life, you don’t always have one right? So I don’t feel I have to show it every time in my movies. We’re in constant communication during filming. When I notice an actor is struggling to finish, I just say, “I’m sorry. We have to let it go this time,” and maybe we edit something together to make it look like it happened. It’s a very relaxed environment. 

KF: When people criticize mainstream pornography, they criticize the unrealistic beauty standards, the exploitation, the sexism and the racism. The only critique I see as consistent with feminist porn is that at the end of the day, you’re still profiting off of female sexuality, off of female bodies. How would you respond to those who still see feminist porn as oppressive because of this?

EL: If you take care of the process that you work in, if you make sure you’re working with people who are enjoying themselves, if you pay them for it and you explain what you’re using this content for, I don’t see a problem. I think that a lot of feminists are very afraid of earning money. But I don’t see that. If you can earn money while doing good at the same time, great! 

I’ve created my company completely organically with my own financing. I don’t have debts to banks. I don’t have debts to anyone. I make a new movie as soon as I make back enough to make a new movie. We have to realize that we live in a world where money is power. When you go down to the basics of feminism, to be able to express your opinions and make your own choices, you need your economic stability. It’s the same problem in the art world. Artists think there’s something bad, there’s something devilish about it. But it’s all about your conscience. Did you do it well? If so, then go earn your money, it’s wonderful for you! And if I earn more from my movies I can pay my actors and my crew better.

KF: The question of diversity also came up during the screening, when an audience member questioned the limited the representation of body types in the XConfessions.

EL: I understand this, but it’s very difficult for me to show more diversity. I have a lot of Latin-looking girls because I live in Spain. That’s what we look like there. I try to seek out diverse performers, but they’re just not active in the industry in Spain. 

KF: You could always encourage them to make their own films.

EL: Exactly, this is what I’m saying! I think it’s important that we lose this desire to please everyone. It’s such a women thing, wanting to please our mother and our children and our partner and our boss. You can’t please everyone in the end. Just go with who you are and what you want to do and express that to the world. That’s being a real feminist, isn’t it? That’s the way we can have more diverse visions out there. But you have to stay true to yours. 

What I really want is for more female filmmakers to get inspired. It’s not just about the sex, it’s about the art, about the filmmaking. We have to see more creative visions. So I would love to see those young film students say, “Hey, how would I shoot sex? Who do I want to see shown?” And then to go out and do it.

Follow Kate Fane on Twitter @katefane.