THE INTERVIEWS, PART II
The week of July 5, 2015

Erika Lust is making porn female-friendly, one art film at a time

By EJ Dickson

This article contains sexually explicit language.

There’s one thing you’ll never see in Erika Lust’s porn: a blonde with red lips, a skintight dress, and “watermelon breasts.” That’s what she promised in a TED Talk she gave back in December, in which she described a typical porn movie in grotesque, explicit detail.

“She’s giving him a blowjob. Why? Because this nice guy came to her rescue when her car broke down,” she says with derision in her TED Talk, to much laughter and applause. “After the ‘thank you’ blowjob, he comes all over her face, and she smiles in fake pleasure. That is porn. And it’s time for porn to change.”

Lust is at the forefront of sex-positive feminism, breaking down the myth that strong, equality-minded women don’t enjoy sex as much as everyone else. She’s doing this by making female-friendly, sex-positive porn, with nary a breast implant or comically oversized phallus or “money shot” in sight. And she’s taking inspiration directly from her fans on her website xConfessions, where she crowdsources viewers’ sexual fantasies and transforms them into X-rated movies.

Inspired by adult director Candida Royalle and French actress Ovidie, Lust is changing the adult entertainment industry from the inside, creating erotic films that, she’s quick to note, are too explicit for YouTube and not hardcore enough for aggregators like YouPorn and Tube8. (That’s not to say Lust’s films don’t feature hardcore sex—they do—but because they’re more subtly and artfully shot, they defy tube sites’ typical, lazy “blowjob” and “threesome” categorization.)

Lust’s work is notable not just for her artful cinematography, but for everything that happens behind the scenes: investing in diversity, letting viewers get to know the performers, and bringing a level of respect and thoughtfulness to an industry in dire need of it.

“My films are explicit, but they are also art, and they are also cinema, and they are also beautiful aesthetics and catchy storylines,” Lust says. “Sometimes they are ironic, sometimes they are fun, sometimes they are dramatic. And people have a lot of trouble to understand this kind of genre somehow. They don’t know how to fit in.”

The Kernel spoke with Lust about the ethics of feminist porn and having “the talk” with her kids.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

My friends told me they had difficulty trying to find feminist porn, which was surprising to me because of the ubiquity of porn on the Internet.

It’s not so difficult to understand, though, because traditionally porn has always been for men. Some women are curious, and we go online and look for it, and we recognize that we are feminist and we recognize that we still like sex. There’s this new wave of sex-positive feminism out there that says, “No, we love sex, we need sex, but we want it for us; we want it with our values, the way we want it, not the traditional male way.” But then we go on YouPorn or PornTube, and it’s horrible. It’s disgusting.

“Filming is a very physical thing. It’s almost like you’re having sex as well.”

What qualifies as “feminist” porn for you? What kinds of performers or sex acts are you going to see in a feminist porn film?

I don’t think it has to do with sex acts. It has to do with attitudes. If we start speaking about sex acts, you can be a feminist and you can enjoy to be dominated by a man. Feminism is not the same thing as being dominant. Feminist porn has a few different components. You see women having pleasure. They are not in the film only to please the man. That is something we see quite a lot of in traditional pornography. One of the things very different in feminist pornography is the team working behind the film. Obviously it’s a different perspective if you have a female team behind the group—female directors, scriptwriters, producers—thinking about what we want to see. You can see the difference in every small choice: How we dress the characters, the makeup, on the camera angles. What do we look for?

Can you give me an example?

Well, I feel that in traditional pornography, men are being reduced to being penises. You don’t see much, actually! And to me, as a heterosexual woman, I find men attractive. So I would like to see, when I watch porn, their expressions. I want to see their faces, their bodies, their arms, their butts, their reactions. I don’t get attracted looking at the penis. I want to see them.

And it’s also important in how we look at women. When I’m behind the camera, when I’m with my team, I have women managing my camera, And I know that they know how female pleasure is being expressed. When I have men behind the camera, sometimes I had to tell them, “Go up! Look at her face! She’s having an orgasm! You’re missing it!” because they were looking downward at the penetration instead.

Filming is a very physical thing. It’s almost like you’re having sex as well, because even if you’re not being filmed, you have to be there. You live it with your actors. They are not stopping the film to say, “Hey, I’m having an orgasm!” So if I can’t read what is happening on their faces, I can’t communicate to my audience what is going on. … My films are explicit, you can see the penetration going on, but I’m not in there with a light, looking for the gynecological detail that way. What I’m trying to capture is the whole motion of sex, somehow. So if I have a shot of penetration, I need another shot of the face, and then maybe I need a hand grabbing something, because I need to capture the whole thing.

“What I’m trying to capture is the whole motion of sex, somehow.”

What about the casting? What kind of bodies are you looking for?

I do look for diversity. But let me tell you, it is super, super, super difficult to find. Most people who are professional adult actors today get better paid if they have a certain body. That’s why you see many women with operations [for] breasts [and] lips. You see many men with muscles that are a little too big, but they look good on camera. It’s what we all do in professional life. We all go for the look that’s in demand. It’s the same with the modeling industry. It’s sad, but it’s the world we live in.

Do you ever cast women with larger bodies? I don’t think I’ve seen any plus-size performers in your films.

I do. In my last film, for example, I cast Poppy Cox, a larger actress, and she was just amazing, and her body looks super great on camera. The idea that only thin women look good on camera is completely wrong. It’s the magnetism that you have. I look for people with different faces—sometimes someone with a bigger nose, a woman with short hair, for example. People who don’t look exactly like what you see typically in porn.

Do you vet your performers in any way? How do you ensure they’re in the industry for the right reasons?

I need to speak to my actors. I need to know who they are. I see it as my responsibility as a producer and director that the people I cast want to be in my movies are having a good time doing it. I always ask them who they want to work with, because you do see the chemistry on camera. The camera is a bitch, because it sees everything. It’s very, very difficult to hide that there’s no chemistry. I can do retakes and get another shot of an actor’s face, for example, but sometimes the magic just happens and it makes the situation more beautiful, somehow. It’s the same filming sex as it is filming other stories. You can see when the light is right at the moment, when the actors connect, how the set you chose is amazing, how the art director did a job that makes you cry.

Do you find it difficult to compete with the tube sites? So few people are actually paying for porn these days.

No, not at all. I was afraid of it when I started. Everybody told me, “This is not gonna work, because porn is for free.” But I said, “Yeah, but my porn is different, and it’s not out there.” Because my kind of films, they are not on YouPorn. It’s just not there. I can’t even call those films films, because they’re just like homemade videos, and they show them in poor definition, and they have no service like subtitles. Im trying to do a product that’s completely different and has another value, because we tell the stories behind [the films].

“Everybody told me, ‘This is not gonna work, because porn is for free.’”

Do you think it’s possible to have ethical feminist porn that’s also free?

Well, if you go to the few sites that have feminist porn, you can see a few things for free. On my site, for example, you can see trailers for free. But remember that to produce these kinds of films, they cost a lot of money. People are working in these films—not only the actors but the whole film crew. So the whole idea of free porn, I don’t see it as something so interesting. I think it makes sense to have good porn and pay a little. If I want ecological tomatoes, I pay a little more for them. But also, they taste a lot better. That’s the truth! I dunno, I live in Spain; we have great fruit. But still. (laughs)

We live in a very low-cost society. People see a plane ticket and think, “Oh, 20 euros to fly to London,” but it’s very little money. It doesn’t even begin to pay for the damage you do for the environment. So I think as a whole, in this society, we need to start thinking in terms of sustainability. If you want to watch porn, and you want to watch better porn, then you need to help the people making it.

I find the idea of ethical porn interesting, in part because no one really has any idea how to define it. What are the markers of ethical porn, in your opinion, that consumers should look for?

Well, if you go on my site, we have interviews with the performers on camera, so if you are afraid they are poor Eastern girls who didn’t have another choice in their life, go on my site and you will see these are powerful men and women who know what they are doing, and are doing it for the right reasons. I think it’s very important to have this transparency, somehow, especially for women, because we are relatively new consumers of porn and we are so much more critical than men. When we shop in the supermarket, we check our products. Where do they come from? What cow is behind this meat? And one of our problems with traditional porn is we don’t trust these men doing it.

I read a study recently that said that women who watch porn don’t actually like watching porn for women. They prefer watching hardcore porn that’s targeted at men. Can you address that?

Yeah, but I don’t know how exact that study was, actually. I think I read the same one. They are showing that women go online and look for lesbian porn and gay porn, that women don’t really know what to look for because all these categories don’t fit with what they’re looking for. I feel the same way sometimes. I am a feminist, but when I say I make feminist porn, people get confused, because porn is supposed to have female-haters behind it, and feminism is supposed to have male-haters behind it. They think feminist people are terrorist people who want to take over society and kill all the men. So people don’t understand how those two things go together.

I tell stories about people who get together as equals and have a great moment of sex together, but they are equals. Both of them give pleasure to the other. Both of them enjoy the sex in that moment. They look at me and say “I agree with that. That sounds nice.” Because everybody wants to see that.

“I see it as my responsibility as a producer and director that the people I cast want to be in my movies are having a good time doing it.”

The criticism I hear most often from people about porn is that they want to see people who look like they’re enjoying sex. They don’t think the porn performers are enjoying having sex.

Because it’s true. Because they’re not.

You think that’s true all the time? That most porn performers don’t like shooting porn? I’ve definitely spoken with performers who’ve said they genuinely enjoy having sex on camera.

Most of the time, it’s true. I definitely think many times porn gets made for a lot of the inequality we have in society. But it doesn’t have to do with porn. It’s just a mirror of the values we have as society. If you think the porn industry is so bad, go to the model industry and it’s probably even worse. Or talk to Hollywood actors. Imagine people in the C-list trying to get up in Hollywood. So I don’t think the [exploitation] is particular to the adult industry. I think it’s an expression of our whole society, our whole world, and how we work our ways around it.

Do you feel that there’s a stigma to feminist porn within the industry—that it pigeonholes you somehow?

I think many of the same feel the same way as I do. If we are all together, we have no problem identifying as feminist pornographers. Then everyone understands what the label means. The problem somehow, especially when I speak to the press, is if I say “feminist pornographer,” everyone freaks out. That’s why I use the label “independent adult cinema” or “erotic filmmaker,” something that is less stigmatized, because otherwise I have to explain myself for half an hour.

Why do you think people have a hard time with it?

When I speak to young women who say they don’t consider themselves feminists, and then we speak for a little while and they are feminists. I just think it’s so sad they have this huge “no no no no no can’t do it.” They are so afraid of it. And for me, it’s not a word I am at all afraid of. It is a word that stands for equality, for human rights, for the same opportunities and possibilities and laws.

Sometimes when I see feminist porn, it’s so concerned with being perceived as feminist and appealing to feminists that it actually loses sight of what porn is supposed to be, which is hot. Is there ever a concern that feminist porn will ever get overly politicized? That you’ll get boxed in by your values?

Yes, and that’s the other thing. When you speak about feminist porn, they think about the militant thing, and when you talk about erotic films, they think about porn for women. Like, “ah, suddenly it’s shimmery, and there’s Champagne and chocolate, and the prince is coming in on his horse.” And that’s not hot at all to modern women. We have our own money, we have our own technology. And if I want to get hot, I want to get hot to something I enjoy.

“I see many parents escaping discussion about sex and pornography, because they’re too afraid of it. So I say I need to get to them before these porn studs get to them.”

Do you think that porn should be used as a sex ed tool?

I don’t think it should be used. I think it is being used. Especially in countries where sex ed is not as strong as it could be in other countries, like in Sweden. I see a lot of young adults who go online and search for porn because they obviously want to learn about sex, and they end up seeing all these crappy movies where women are treated terribly and men are sex machines, and they think that’s how people are having sex. It’s easier for you and me, because we’ve had sex in real life. We have the capability to think critically about it. We can watch one of those crappy porn films understanding where it comes from. But many kids don’t understand that, because they didn’t have good sex education or good media training. And you need both.

How would you feel if your kids, for instance, were taught your films in their sex ed curricula?

Well, they’re 4 and 7, so that’s a little young, still. But yes, I would definitely prefer them to watch my films than any porn stud’s films. I think they’d get a better sense of male pleasure, female pleasure, and reality as a whole. Many people ask me if I’m afraid of telling my kids what I’m doing, and I always say I’m not really. It’s an advantage, in some ways, because I’m more prepared to have “the talk” with them when the time comes. I know how to guide them through it, kind of. I see many parents escaping discussion about sex and pornography, because they’re too afraid of it. So I say I need to get to them before these porn studs get to them.

Have you had the sex talk yet?

We started. We’ve started to talk about the body, the biology, what happens between adults that love each other, that naked photographs are considered erotic art. She’s aware. She’s more aware than many kids at her age, I’d say. She knows what feminism is, and what chauvinism is, and how to recognize it when she sees it in school. She had a crisis the other day because they wanted all the other girls to put on a skirt for a dance they were gonna do, and she came home saying, “Mom, this isn’t fair! I know there are some boys who want to wear the skirts, and some girls who want to wear it!” (laughs) She’s quite the lady.

How have you seen the field of porn for women changing in the past few years?

It’s getting easier. It’s not as hard to get started. Ten years later they were like, “Really? Are you sure you wanna make porn for women?” But in general, even with this book that was a huge success, Fifty Shades of Grey, women are getting less and less afraid of showing that they do like sex, and that they enjoy reading and looking and watching and having sex. That’s at least the feeling I have. And I think it’s positive that women are getting angry about porn, and saying “Hey, I don’t want to look at this!” Let’s criticize it! Let’s get porn out of the… the cupboard, or whatever you say, the drawer. We have to discuss it and speak about it and recognize that we watch it and sometimes don’t enjoy it, because then we can make it better. We can make it work for us. We want our porn to be good, and we want to have it when we want it. The only way we can actually do that is speaking about it.

This is an area 99 percent dominated by men. The only ones who have the chance to express themselves pornographically are men. Ten years ago, we were maybe half of 1 percent of porn. Now, it’s maybe 1 percent. In the next 10 years, I’m hoping we will be 30 percent. I studied political science, and in political science, we talk about critical mass. Women who are getting into parliament need to have a critical mass. They can get through propositions and proposals and decide laws, et cetera. But before that, they are such a small percent that many times they speak, no one hears about it. So what I hope for this business is I want to get more women into it; I want more filmmakers into it. I want more challenges, I want more competition, and I want people with great artistic ideas finding expression.

Illustration by Max Fleishman