RoleModel is an interview series highlighting badass individuals.
When we think of game-changers, the name Erika Lust often comes to mind. Quite simply the most influential living female pornographer, her work has exploded the boundaries of the adult film industry. Tired of watching porn made for and by men, Lust took the camera into her own and began to create work guided by female viewpoints, feminism, and storytelling. Since entering the scene in 2004, her films (which she often conceives, writes, and directs) have won countless awards. She’s since launched her own production company which continues to make films that are as politically radical as they are sexy. Basically, she’s the Gloria Steinem of pornography.
I got the chance to pick the legend’s brain.
Do you remember the first time you saw porn?
Erika: The first time I saw porn I was at a friend’s house having a sleepover when we found an adult film that belonged to her dad. We were excited to watch it and to uncover the mysteries of sex, but we were so disappointed with what we saw. After that, I left [porn] alone for a long time until my college boyfriend suggested watching some together. I tried again… he liked it, I didn’t. I was bored of watching films where the woman’s role was to give pleasure to the man, yet her pleasure was completely ignored. I knew that there was so much more to sexuality than what was depicted in these films. Plus the cinephile in me couldn’t understand why all of the porn I saw lacked imagination, a story line, relatable characters and cinematic qualities. I understood that it was made with the sole purpose to arouse, but I didn’t understand why we had to forfeit the satisfaction of our other visual senses!
Can you tell us how you got started in the porn industry?
I first became interested in the adult industry when I was studying and read Linda Williams’ book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” It showed me that porn was its own genre, with its own history and it was a specific cinematic trend. Porn is part of a wider discourse on sexuality, Williams explains that porn always wants to be about sex, but on closer inspection — it’s always about gender.
This sparked my interest in porn, but it wasn’t until later that I acted upon it. My first film, The Good Girl, was a humorous take on the classic pizza delivery boy porn trope. I cringe a bit looking at it now, because it’s technically poor, but it was a start and it still somehow works! The film was really cute and completely different to what we were used to seeing in mainstream porn. I put it online and it ended up getting 2 million downloads!
That’s when I realised there were other people out there looking for alternatives to mainstream pornography, and so I decided to start making adult films that reflected my own ideas and values on sex and gender. I went on to direct four more adult features before starting XConfessions [one of Lust’s better known film series] in 2013. XConfessions is an audiovisual project where users send me their sexual fantasies and I turn them into explicit short films. At the beginning it was just me making the films, but two years ago I started a worldwide open call for guest directors, so now we have filmmakers all over the world turning confessions into films and showing us their take on sexuality. It’s a really beautiful crowd-sourced project.
Did you always know you’d end up working in adult film?
No, not at all! It wasn’t something I really contemplated until I was living in Barcelona. I moved here after my degree and was initially looking to work in international development, but I was in need of some money and took a job as a runner on a tv set. I worked hard and made my way up to production assistant. Then I suddenly had this restless feeling of wanting to make my own movies. So I took a few night courses to study film direction, and once I had saved enough money to make my own project I made The Good Girl.
Did you receive pushback from anyone in the industry in regards to your woman-centric approach?
Yes, definitely. People are still more annoyed by me being a feminist, rather than a pornographer. Certainly at the beginning of my career men in the industry did not want my feminist perspective coming in to change “their porn.” They refused to acknowledge the problems in mainstream porn — the complete disregard for female pleasure, the harmful categorization and othering, gender role stereotyping, the relentless male gaze… the list goes on! Anyway, I was making something that prioritised the female experience, and they didn’t like it.
We each approach feminism in our own way, and the movement is constantly growing and expanding, but it seems that our feminism is suddenly under intense scrutiny. There is a legion of judgemental people looking to police and find faults in other women’s actions. It is undeniable that, because I’m a woman who is vocal about what I dislike in the industry and because I’m pushing to have an impact, I will attract a lot of criticism. There is still some backlash against feminist pornographers because we live in a society that is often sex negative — especially towards women — and there is still a lot of confusion over exactly what “feminist porn” is. I don’t see half of the criticism I receive being given to male L.A. studio owners, who have done nothing to change the industry at all.
What upsets you most in the mainstream porn industry?
I am really concerned with the way certain fantasies are presented and categorized in mainstream porn and the “othering” involved using this criteria. There is a reduction of the performer to their primal feature (size, age, ethnicity, etc.). A lot of sites still put all people of color into exoticized genres, set apart from “regular” porn. Categorization is a really harmful issue for performers and racism in the porn industry is jaw-dropping. Not only are the films marketed with racialized language but the sexual content exclusively relies on racist stereotypes as a motive, which dehumanizes the performers. Interracial porn is not a thing for me for instance, it’s just people having sex.
Porn has never been known for its delicate treatment of marginalized groups — and that clearly includes older performers, too. When scenes are shot with MILFs, they don’t exactly set out to break down ageism so much as to exploit it. It’s also obviously not a true representation of older generation sex, some performers film their first MILF scenes in their early 20s. This is something I’ve wanted to address for a while, and I recently had the opportunity to make a film with a mature couple who wanted to showcase their sexuality and their version of slow, soulful sex. It’s a really beautiful, emotive sex documentary and it will be released on XConfessions next year, so stay tuned for more info!
How would you define feminist porn?
There is still a lot of confusion over exactly what “feminist porn” is. For me, it reclaims a genre that has traditionally been seen exclusively as the purview of men. It’s made by feminist directors who directly inject their feminist values into the films. Women have leading roles behind the camera as directors, producers, art directors, directors of photography, etc. making active decisions about how the film is produced and presented, and the stories are told through the female gaze.
Feminist porn creates a sex positive space for women to reclaim their sexuality, pleasure, and desires. Women are shown with sexual agency, owning their pleasure. Men and women are treated as sexual collaborators, not as objects or machines. The films promote role equality and there is no gender stereotyping, which is ultimately harmful for both men and women. In the films, the culture of consent is paramount. There is never any simulation of coercion, pedophilia, or abuse. There is no depiction of aggressive violent sex or rape scenes (not to be confused with BDSM practices). Diversity is key and the films push the representation of human sexuality and identity, showing the diverse ways of desiring and having sex. Marginalized groups are represented without being fetishized or categorized.
Feminist porn is so important because we need to show the world that female pleasure matters. Not because male pleasure doesn’t matter, but because we’ve been watching a type of porn that completely ignores women sexuality for too long. And it’s important to understand that porn has the power to liberate! It doesn’t have to be a negative part of our society. We can create porn where people can see themselves in those films, to see the sex they have, to be inspired, become educated, and receptive to the huge range of different sexualities out there. And most importantly they don’t need to be exposed to one version of porn that teaches them toxic values.
Does your work ever get pirated onto larger free sites such as PornHub?
Yes, all the time! Just recently I was in a battle with PornHub asking them to remove some of my XConfessions films but they were ignoring me. Until I called out their behavior on Twitter, they didn’t do anything — and the DMCA compliant notice forms my employee was sending were a waste of time. These sites are a huge problem for the industry, and they’ve put many filmmakers out of business.
Sites such as PornHub are not making their own material, they’re stealing it. They traditionally rely on “users” uploading content to the site who should declare that they have the rights to do so, but it’s clear that amid large quantities of fully licensed material, content exists on PornHub that is infringing copyright. But because they claim to be a completely user generated content site, they’re protected by the provision that they can’t monitor copyrights of every video uploaded.
When a filmmaker finds that their content has been illegally uploaded they can report it and the tube site is served with a DMCA takedown notice, upon which they remove the stolen content. However, the next day the same video is often re-uploaded by another (sometimes the same) user. Obviously small porn studios do not have the time to be trawling through tube sites looking for their content every day. Therefore content goes up faster than studios can issue demands for it to be taken down.
The pirating business model has completely decimated the industry and put many production studios and performers out of business. The industry is no longer as lucrative as it once was. When you shoot your own content as a performer or as a production company and the content is uploaded to the tube sites, it does not matter if it is watched one million times, you are not getting any money from those views. This has pushed many companies to closure and others have lost lots of money. For many of those that survived they’ve had to change how they work by making lower budget films.
Lower budget films can often means less money for the performers. When PornHub launched in the 2000s, performers’ wages dropped massively. Most of them now also do other forms of sex work to create further cash flow in order to create a brand around their name, gain fans, and become well known. This is the way for performers to gain financial security. When a performer has many different income revenues and treat their career as a business that has to be handled professionally and responsibly, then they can save for the future. It’s really hard work.
In my case, I have very loyal customers who know the importance of paying for porn, and they pay for the content I license and the short films I shoot. I’m not targeting the average porn consumer who is looking online for infinite amounts of free porn.
How do you think porn influences the young people who watch it — specifically, young men?
Porn can be particularly harmful towards young people when it teaches them to prioritize male pleasure, shows them harmful gender roles, ignores the importance of consent, shows particular body types as the norm, and presents hard-core sexual fantasies as the only way to have sex. For boys, they may learn that they’re supposed to “perform” a certain way — be very dominant, choke, and slap the female without asking for their consent, last for a certain length of time, cum all over her to signal the end of sex, etc. This can not only leave a lot of young men incredibly anxious about their performance, but also teach them very harmful behaviors for when they come to have sex.
The issue we have is that kids are curious and pretty much every time they type something sex related into a search engine, they’ll be greeted by something like PornHub where they’ll be bombarded with a lot of degrading, disrespectful sex which doesn’t always appear to be consensual. We can’t stop kids from finding these sites so instead of ignoring it or trying to ban it (which will never happen), let’s educate them. By acknowledging porn, it immediately becomes less shameful and opens up a dialogue, which leads to healthy, active learning! Parents who don’t talk to their kids about what’s online are leaving the porn industry to step in as their children’s sex educator.
Good, up-to-date, useful sex education is lacking pretty much everywhere. We know that a huge percentage of schools are not providing adequate sex education. At no point in a child’s education does anyone teach them about consent, which seems like a pretty crucial lesson to me. Our kids aren’t oblivious to sex. Porn is always going to exist, so giving kids the tools to be critical and aware of what they’re watching is unbelievably important! They should be able to differentiate between the types of porn and understand what respectful, equal sex between consenting adults is. When they are old enough, they will see that certain porn can promote gender equality, intimacy, diversity, affirmative consent, safety, pleasure and sexual freedom and exploration.
These concerns are exactly why my partner and I started the non-profit website The Porn Conversation, which offers tools for parents to talk to their children at home. By having open and honest conversations, they will develop much healthier attitudes towards sex and relationships. They will be able discuss their feelings, communicate their sexual desires, and be happier people for it!
I’ve read that you work primarily in Barcelona — is there something about Spanish culture that influences or permits your work to thrive?
After I finished my graduate degree in Sweden, I moved to Barcelona and immediately felt that the city was much more receptive to my vision. My ideas and values on sex began to take shape growing up and studying in Sweden, but it was in Barcelona that I started working as an adult filmmaker and created Erika Lust Films. When I first moved here I felt so liberated, I felt like I could be or do whatever I wanted. I had no eyes on me and I was away from the high standards in Sweden that required me to be more polished. Barcelona gave me the creative freedom to start making adult films. My friends were of all different sexualities and genders, and on the whole the people here are very open minded and sex positive. Sexuality is something to embrace and celebrate, and the people are creative, inspiring, and sexy. I continue to work mainly in and around Barcelona, but thanks to my guest directors program, we now have XConfessions films shot all around the world!
What are you hoping to change in the porn industry?
My mission has always been to show that women’s pleasure matters. I want to show that women have their own sex drive and desires, and are not passive objects exclusively focused on pleasuring the men. XConfessions is adult cinema that is smart, sex positive, and respectful to women. It offers a representation of women’s pleasure and sex on screen that challenges the unchecked misogynistic attitudes, racist categorizations, and degrading narratives of mass-produced porn. Gagging, slapping, and vomiting are presented as mainstream fantasies. Of course some women like these things, but they shouldn’t be presented as the alpha and omega of sex. With my films, I show women enjoying themselves while receiving and giving pleasure in relatable scenarios. Women have their own sexual agency and take ownership of their sexuality and their bodies. It doesn’t matter if the film is kinky, romantic or anything in between; what empowers women is to have a voice in the story and to seek their own desire. And in turn I can squash the belief that women aren’t as aroused by sex on screen as men!
When I first started out female pleasure was missing in a lot of the mainstream porn on the free tube sites. In recent years this has thankfully started to change, there are more female filmmakers in the industry with loud voices and who stand by their work. This includes brilliant filmmakers such as Shine Louise Houston, Jennifer Lyon Bell, Madison Young, Bree Mills, Jacky St. James, Jiz Lee and Holly Randall — to name a few! Plus, with my ongoing guest directors open call I also have that community of new filmmakers who want to show different sides of sexuality and other cinematic perspectives. It’s great to be able to get more voices, more depictions of sex and sexuality, and more people doing something different to a lot of the mass produced stereotypical porn on the free tube sites.
Another thing I really want to change in the industry is to show that adult films can have cinematic qualities. Most of the typical mainstream porn on the free tube sites is devoid of cinematic quality and beauty. We’ve lost the golden age when films were feature-length, released in theatres and reviewed by respected media. Now we have low costs, no filmmaking prowess and low-grade quality. On XConfessions, we invest around €17,000 in every short film. We pay a professional crew to work in styling, location, art direction, cinematography and we also invest in post-production, sound, color correction and take equal care of the arts and graphics that accompany the films.
What is the process of finding your actors like? Are their certain traits, physical or emotional, that you look for during casting?
In terms of the performers, we look to work with performers who share our philosophy and want to do cinema to ensure the best experience for everyone involved. Our casting process is long and thorough. We always make sure our performers are 18+, have had their own sexual experiences, are sex-positive and 100% happy and enthusiastic to be involved. We get to know them long before we start filming, and the performers get to know each other too, so that it feels natural for them. The people I work with are fantastic well-rounded individuals who have made clear choices to reach the decision to perform in adult cinema.
How do you ensure your cast and crew feel safe — can you walk us through what some of those conversations may look like?
I think over time, from my position as a director, I have created a safe space on set and shown that an XConfessions film is a collaborative project, with both cast and crew. Everyone’s opinion is completely respected, heard and valid on my set. I also have an on-set talent manager who looks after the performers on the day of shooting to make sure they are taken care of and have everything they need. It is our responsibility to help performers feel comfortable speaking up and ensuring their boundaries are respected for their full comfort and consent.
From the start of Erika Lust Films, an ethical production process has been vital to me. This goes from small things such as feeding everyone on set, to performers being able to stop shooting anytime they feel uncomfortable. Of course, shooting an adult film is challenging and we do our best to make sure performers are looked after and feel comfortable throughout but sometimes mistakes happen. We are not perfect. Now that I have the guest directors program, there are more people than ever before making films for XConfessions, some of whom have never directed an adult film before. So, to ensure that my ethical production values are maintained across the board, we recently developed two documents; Performer’s Bill of Rights and Guidelines for Guest Directors to shoot with Erika Lust, which are a mandatory read for anyone making films for XConfessions.
How would you define a sexy porn scene?
The ingredients for a sexy film are creativity, cinematography, consent, realism, and equality. Sex should be shown as fun and full of passion — the performers should be able to laugh and have fun if they want to! Intimacy plays a huge role, the performers should be connected by the narrative in the story, through the direction and camera shots. If there is no intimacy it will feel cold and detached. The viewer should be able to answer the question, “Why are these people having sex?” to truly feel the eroticism and excitement of the film. And of course pleasure is important, obviously porn is fictional and I’m not saying the performers have to have a real orgasm in every film, but the viewer should be able to feel that they are having fun. I have a general rule that I don’t direct the sex at all, I let the performers do what feels natural and pleasurable to them. I think this is a good way to get good results on screen.
To keep up to date on Erika Lust’s latest projects, you can visit her website or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
To read more about how parents can educate their children about online pornography, you can visit thepornconversation.org.
Photos (in order of appearance) by Erika Lust, Daniel Klaas, Vilgot Sjöman, and Erika Bowes.