Film+TV

Top image: Still from XConfessions Vol.2

The way we approach and consume sex as a collective society is changing, albeit slowly. Over the last few years, attitudes surrounding the sex work industry have been shifting in a way that’s suggesting a more progressive future not only for sex positivity, but for feminism, specifically, too. The role of women in commercial porn is, first and foremost, to be an accessory in male satisfaction – and while porn hasn’t conceived women’s desire or oppression, it has had a powerful role in shaping both. However, a rise in independent porn has manoeuvred this power play, becoming one of the most important vehicles for discourse surrounding gender, sexuality and power dynamics; the portrayal of all diversity on-screen is taking the adult industry towards a more inclusive future.

In some ways, there’s a discrepancy between body and mind in commercial porn – although there might be a physical response, the story lines usually lack the sexual and emotional depth that many viewers – including women – require to get themselves off. Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust’s goal is to produce films that stimulate both. After studying political science, human rights and feminism at University, she began to explore her love of filmmaking and sexual autonomy with one pursuit in mind: to create movies that represent her politics. Over nearly two decades, she’s produced hundreds of films, been presented with prestigious awards for her work in the erotic film industry, and even launched XConfessions – a web series where members of the public can submit their sexual fantasies for her studio to turn into a film.

Erika Lust has been an instrumental force in promoting the aims of the feminist porn industry, to say the least – her work has always been centred around consent, pleasure, mutual understanding and, most importantly, advocating a healthy relationship with sex. She spoke to us from her studio in Barcelona, where she writes and produces the majority of her films.  

Rachel Grace Almeida: Hi Erika. You’re doing really important work within the porn industry – especially with your series XConfessions. How did that idea come about?
Erika lust: It kind of happened naturally because of ordinary people coming up to me after I’d done my screenings and events wanting to share their own stories. There is a huge gap between the narrative that we see in porn and people’s actual sex stories. I felt that it was a great opportunity to start a community and telling how actual people live their sex lives.

RGA: How do you choose which fantasies to turn into film?
EL: I do it with a gut feeling, really. I choose the ones that turn something on in me and make me go, “this is interesting!” or ones that have interesting characters. It comes to me with impulse. Sometimes I choose them based on the setting being in a special location, too. I encourage the guest producers to look to the confessions and see if they find something they like and want to make films of. Some are even writing their own confessions.

RGA: I think what makes your films so striking is that the usual porn we consume is extremely polished and the aesthetic is almost cartoon-like, in some ways.
EL: I used to say that porn is done by people who aren’t interested in sex or film, which sounds crazy, right? That’s what it should be about. It seems to me that the porn industry nowadays is full of people driven by earning money and people who are more into technology than filmmaking, artistry or promoting sex positivity. There’s so much sex negativity in porn nowadays. It’s sad really.

“It’s part of who we all are and sexuality isn’t something that’s fixed, it’s fluid. It has to do with your own mind and how you can be more open to new experiences.”

RGA: Do you think that sex negativity has always been present in porn or is it something we’ve learned?
EL: In the last decade or so, there’s been a rise of all these tube sites online. If we go back historically, you realise that it started in the 60s and 70s. It was part of a liberal, sexual revolution to a very conservative society – people were interested in the cinematic values and narratives. In the revolution of video and the possibility of watching porn in your home, it seemed to me like a lot of people were just interested in earning money and not the promotion of sex being a healthy, natural thing.

RGA: I think your inclusion of queerness in porn is important because it’s so underrepresented – especially the intricacies and tenderness of queer love and sex. Do you think things are moving forward?
EL: I think things are moving forward and I really believe that things are starting to change. I do believe it’s important to spread these messages and to include people in a natural way. What I’m trying to do is include more queerness to show heterosexual people that they don’t have to be so afraid of it. It’s part of who we all are and sexuality isn’t something that’s fixed, it’s fluid. It has to do with your own mind and how you can be more open to new experiences.

“There’s so much sex negativity in porn nowadays. It’s sad really.”

RGA: Have you ever had hetero people reach out to and tell you that, thanks to your films, they’ve explored a side of their sexuality that they hadn’t before?
EL: I’m kind of surprised by all the positive emails I’ve received from straight men – at the beginning, they felt reservations, but then they started to see that in my movies people are not afraid. They see two men kissing, then realise it’s not so bad, so they start to become interested in it. I really think that porn could have huge potential to depict different sexualities and storytelling around sex. People are very intrigued about sex in a society where talking about sex is taboo for so many people – you know, the only time they do watch it is during late night hours on their computer when they’re by themselves.

RGA: It really makes you wonder why people don’t value porn. I think the way that some people approach sex – especially cis, straight men – implies that sex is their god-given right, rather than a vehicle for expression and pleasure. I think that entitlement and use of power dynamics spills into how people treat and consume porn in general. Really, porn could be used as a powerful educational tool in breaking down social stigmas and inequality, rather than a device to enforce patriarchal ideals.
EL: When we talk about education, even if we wanted to be or not, there’s always people saying porn and sexuality shouldn’t be included. Be realistic here – we need to start educating young people about it. We need to talk to them about it. There are so many parents avoiding it, like it doesn’t exist in their world. That’s not the way to do it. I think that so few parents have a normal conversation about the existence of porn, and it’s worth explaining that porn is not the same as sex. Porn is a fictional product of sex and it’s such a basic concept that if you tell that to young people, most of them understand it.

RGA: I think it’s important to start meaningful dialogue around masturbation – especially female pleasure – because a lot of people pretend it doesn’t exist.
EL: If you’re a young woman and you have an appetite for lust and sex then you’re labelled a slut immediately. I have so many young women contacting me all the time about how they’re not in touch with their own sexuality and there must be something wrong with them because they feel like they can’t have an orgasm. When I start talking to them, it turns out that they’ve watched porn and tried to see how to do it, because porn is one of the most explicit materials out there. Of course, they’ve gone on these tube sites and they think that an orgasm is something that a man should give to you. You start talking to them and you tell them that they need to be in control of their own body.

“Porn is a fictional product of sex and it’s such a basic concept that if you tell that to young people, most of them understand it.”

RGA: The important part is breaking down the hierarchy of identities in porn. How do you tackle this in your work?
EL: When I get the confession submission, I think of the gender balance in it – sometimes I ask myself what would happen if I changed the genders of the main characters. Would that create a different story? Sometimes you don’t realise, even as a filmmaker, that there’s so much stereotyping in it – you see a man or a woman in a certain role. Many times it gets interesting if you change the perspective.

RGA: When you’re directing a film, do you take a step back and let the actors take their own initiative?
EL: That’s kind of a difficult question – yes and no. What I do is I prepare a lot. I work by asking the actors who they’d like to perform with because the result is so much better if they like each other and already have chemistry. When we turn the camera on and shoot the sex scenes, I sit down behind the monitor and leave the camera crew, camera operator and sound engineer to focus on the technicalities. If there’s something going on that I don’t like, then I would give directions on what to do. Usually what works best is when you leave the actors to do what they do and give them space to get into it – even when it’s an intimate moment in front of other people.

RGA: I know you’ve talked a lot about being a feminist director. What does feminist porn mean to you?
EL: I’ll give you two sides of it. First of all, I think it’s a complicated concept in itself because people have a hard time understanding what it is. Many times when people mention feminist porn, people have this idea of women with strap-ons! I used to tell people that I’m a feminist and I make porn, but my porn isn’t really feminist. But then what could it be? I’d say it’s about how you portray women in front of the camera – like women having their own agency, being pleasured, taking initiative and living their own sexual stories, not just there to satisfy others. Behind the camera, I think it’s important to have female perspectives. My crew has about fifteen people – most of us are women. At other companies, it’s mostly male-dominated.

RGA: What have you learned from being an independent porn filmmaker?
EL: I’ve learned that you can be more relaxed in your own body and sexuality around other people and I’ve learned how to respect other people and their personal decisions. Maybe that’s one of the most important things – when it comes to sexuality, we’re so different, we’re all dark and perverse and strange people. I think it’s very positive for a lot of people to see indie porn and realise that their fetishes and sexual ideas are shared by others, too. Like they’re not as lonely in their perversion.

Follow Erika Lust and XConfessions here.