Lust For Life
Growing up in Sweden, Lust had a familiar first experience with porn. Watching it secretly with a girlfriend, she was aroused, but like a lot of other adolescent girls, felt kind of embarrassed, and hated the way women were portrayed on screen. Plus, she was disappointed by the actual film.
So, after studying for degrees in political science and gender studies, the Barcelona-based filmmaker tried her hand behind the lens. The result was the 2004 erotic short, The Good Girl, which sparked in Lust the desire to keep pushing porn forward and refocus it—away from the male gaze.
Since then, she’s developed her own brand of inclusive feminist porn that, aside from including the audience in its production, forces viewers to not only to witness female sexuality, but enjoy it—in all its forms.
office caught up with Lust to talk about feminism, sexual autonomy and being a mother and in porn.
How did you get into porn as an actual career? Is it something you ever thought you would do?
It started when I was studying Political Science and Gender Studies at university. I often tell people about the book that influenced me, which was Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the "Frenzy of the Visible". It gave me my lightbulb moment and I realized that pornography was a genre—a specific cinematic trend with its own history. It wasn't just ‘porn’ to me anymore—it was part of a discourse on sexuality making a statement and expressing ideologies and values on sex and gender. Williams explains that porn wants to be about sex, but on closer inspection, it's always about gender.
I was always a cinephile and I had fallen in love with Spain on my erasmus year, so after university, I moved to Barcelona to study filmmaking and decided I wanted to shoot an erotic film. I shot The Good Girl, which was a humorous take on the classic pizza delivery boy porn trope. To be honest, I can't really watch it now without cringing at my lack of experience, but it was a start and it changed my life. I uploaded it to the internet and made it available for free download. Next thing I know, it had over 2 million downloads in less than two months!
That's when I realized there were other people out there looking for alternatives to mainstream pornography, and I decided to start making adult films that reflected my own ideas and values on sex and gender. That's how it all began. I went on to direct four more adult features before starting XConfessions.com in 2013.
What was your experience with pornography growing up? Was it something you actively watched/enjoyed?
I have a pretty stereotypical and common story about my experience with porn growing up/ I was at a girlfriend's house having a sleepover when we found one of her dad's explicit DVDs. I cannot tell you how excited we were to discover the mysteries of sex. But oh god, were we disappointed! After that, I left it alone for a while until I was in college and my boyfriend at the time suggested watching some porn together. I gave it another try, but again, I was disappointed. I felt physically aroused but uncomfortable with the degrading behavior shown towards women and the complete neglect of their pleasure. Plus, the cinephile in me couldn't understand why all of the porn I saw completely lacked imagination, story line, relatable characters and cinematic qualities. I understood that it was solely for the purpose of arousal but I didn't understand why we had to forfeit the satisfaction of our other visual senses.
Do you think your academic background plays a part in how you both experience and create pornography? Like, do you feel like you're looking at it through a more academic lens?
Yes, I do think my education plays a big part in how I interact with porn. Having to study gender from a politicized angle at university meant I had to read academic literature and I was exposed to articulate arguments I hadn't thought about before. My studies were hugely valuable and really eye-opening for me. They equipped me with the language and knowledge to effectively describe what I had thought about porn, sexism and other matters about gender from a very young age.
Tell me about XConfessions. What was the idea behind it?
It came about very organically to be honest. After I made my first few films people started sending me emails with their sexual fantasies asking me to shoot them. At first, I had a blog and I would upload their confessions anonymously. As I got more and more, I realized that they were great ideas for films. So XConfessions was born in 2013 and now I choose two confessions from the public to make into a short film each month. It’s a crowdsourced project.
Why did you want to ‘break down the third wall’ in the sense that you're letting viewers come up with what they want to see?
Breaking down the third wall and letting the viewers tell me the films they want to see is great because the public's imagination is never-ending, and I get to discover sexual fantasies that I'd never even thought about before! Plus, everyone is a bit of an exhibitionist inside, so being able to confess their sex secrets anonymously can give them a bit of a buzz. One of the hottest projects I have recently discovered is the Casual Sex Project, where people write their real casual sex experiences. It's super arousing to read other people's fantasies and real stories—that's why I think XConfessions works so well. You read the confession, you imagine it and then you let yourself be surprised by how myself or a guest director represents it on the screen.
What are some XConfessions fantasies you've been surprised by? Or, some you thought you would receive but haven't?
XConfessions has taught me that inspiration, fantasies and arousal can come from all kinds of sensory experiences. For example, the confession we received for Pouring Pleasure particularly stood out to me. The way this person described the pouring rain in a tropical country—its soothing feeling and the erotic, romantic association it has. I could immediately imagine myself in the rainy season laying down naked on my terrace while the water came down on me, surrounded by euphoric people dancing in the streets. I've learned that sex and sexuality aren't limited to a narrow idea, and especially, not the idea of the predominantly white, middle aged, cis men running the free mainstream porn sites or the Greg Lansky’s and Dan Bilzerian’s of the world. Sex can be funny, or kinky, and it should be a wide, beautiful universe of sensuality and pleasure.
As far as the most common fantasy I receive, from the start, I thought I would receive a lot of threesome confessions—and I wasn't wrong, they're definitely the most popular.
How would you describe your place in the current porn landscape? Do you feel like you fit in?
I have always been very separate to the mainstream porn industry. I set myself apart from them very early on in my career when I said I wanted to do something different. I have always emphasized the importance of the cinematic and aesthetic part of the genre and that was not something that seemed to belong in their club.
There are more female filmmakers in the industry now who have loud voices and who stand by their work, which ultimately, I believe is one of the most important things to do in this industry. If you are proud of what you do and you have nothing to hide, you put your face out there if you can. This new porn landscape includes filmmakers such as Jacky St. James, Jiz Lee, Shine Louise Houston, Jennifer Lyon Bell, Madison Young, Bree Mills 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—and it's great to have other sexualities and identities represented on screen without being fetishized.
What are you trying to change about the industry?
There are a few things that I want to address: my first mission was, and always will be, 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 visual expression of real sex, women’s pleasure and female sexuality, which is not abundantly available on the mainstream market. 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.
Another huge part of my mission is also to show that pornographic 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 of pornography in the ‘70s when films were feature-length, released in theaters 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.
I also want to help diversify the industry, which does not mean fetishizing and categorizing performers by their race, age or body type. I am really concerned with the way certain fantasies are presented and categorized in mainstream porn and the "othering" involved using this criteria. A lot of mainstream porn still puts all people of color into exoticized genres, set apart from “regular” porn. 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. The fetishization of age can be particularly egregious. Categorization is a very harmful issue for performers. There is a reduction of the performer to their primal feature (that being their size, age, ethnicity, etc.). 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 a connection, having sex.
As far as the way women are portrayed in the industry, and in adult films, do you feel like that has changed for the better, at all?
There are definitely more women working in the industry doing amazing work which is having an effect on the way women's sexuality is being portrayed in adult films, but there is still a long, long, long way to go! Stereotypical gender roles are still very much pushed down our throats and the mainstream porn industry still includes female degradation and sex athletics involving men 'doing sex to women' or 'punishfucking' them.
What about on a larger scale—do you feel like women's relationships with porn have changed and/or become less stigmatized?
Yes, I think there has been a reduction of stigma towards women enjoying watching porn and masturbating. For years, women were told that porn was degrading and that we wouldn't, or shouldn't, be turned on by it. But women are sexual beings—we can be aroused by the representation of sex on screen just as much as men. Recently, there has been a cultural shift with regards to women feeling empowered to come forward and embrace their sexuality. However, at the same time, we are still experiencing the same online censorship regarding our naked bodies.
You have two daughters. Has being a mother changed your feelings about the industry? I guess, when you hear anti-pornography ‘advocates’ they always say reductionist things like, ‘Well, what if it was your daughter?’ You're a mother, and a porn director. So, what do you say to that?
Having daughters has increased my urge to address the problem of sex education. They are why I started The Porn Conversation with my husband Pablo. We have been working to provide parents and teachers with the tools they need to talk to teenagers about pornography. The website is full of practical, useful guides to encourage parents to talk to their kids about what they are going to see online; to tell them that it’s normal to be curious, but what they are going to see is a performance of sex and not what real sex is actually like; that a lot of the people they see in the films are not representative of the average body and that you shouldn’t treat women the way they are treated in a lot of the porn on the free tube sites.
The problem we have right now is that good, 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 pretty important, no? Our kids aren’t oblivious to sex—they hear about it from the society around them and go straight to Google to find answers. And unfortunately, pretty much every time you type something sex-related into a search engine, you’ll be greeted by something like PornHub where you'll be bombarded with a lot of degrading, disrespectful sex or kink which doesn’t always appear to be consensual. We can't stop kids from finding these sites, so instead of ignoring it, let's educate them. By acknowledging porn, it immediately becomes less shameful and opens up a dialogue, which leads to healthy, active learning.
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 also understand what respectful, equal sex is that consenting adults can enjoy. 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. By learning to distinguish between different types of sex they see around them, kids will develop much healthier attitudes towards sex and relationships. By having open and honest conversations, they’ll have the opportunity to discuss their feelings, communicate their sexual desires and be happier people for it!
Do you feel like you have to spend a lot of time defending yourself for working in the porn industry? Both as a woman, and a feminist.
I definitely did at the beginning of my career and I definitely still do. Often people are still more offended that I am a feminist than a pornographer. People are bothered by my feminist perspective—they don't want me to 'touch their porn' and don't want to acknowledge that a lot of the mainstream porn can be sexist. The films that persist with gender role stereotyping, and portray male pleasure as more important than female. The scene typically unfolds through the male gaze and the cumshot seems to be mandatory to end the scene. The female character is being used to satisfy others, but not themselves.
It's funny because some people don't think that I'm ‘enough’ of a feminist, and of course, I can not please everyone. But I think there is something interesting happening within the movement at the moment. We each approach feminism in our own way, and obviously it is constantly growing and expanding, but it seems that now our feminism is suddenly under intense scrutiny and the purview of 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, that I will attract a lot of criticism. I don't see half of the criticism I receive being given to male LA studio owners, who by the way, have done nothing to change a thing.
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.
So, what is it for you?
For me, feminist porn 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. Marginalised 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's 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.
Within the feminist movement itself, I think there's a divide between women who like porn, and others who feel it’s, as a whole, ‘un-feminist.’ I, personally, when it comes to feminism, don't think there's a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it—it's a personal thing. But what's feminism to you? And how does that affect what you do, working in an industry that has a lot of—I don't want to say ‘un-feminist,’ but misogynistic tendencies?
For me, feminism is the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities in all aspects of life. It is sisterhood and it's about female sexual liberation. Supporting another woman's right to do whatever she wants—however different another's woman expression may be from yours. Women should be free to express and experience sexuality however they choose to do so.
In terms of the divide between feminists on the porn debate, there are two concepts that many anti-porn activists tend to disregard: firstly, women are sexual beings and they also get aroused by sex on screen. Secondly, many women in the porn industry are empowered and elevated by what they do. That is one of the ways they choose to use their freedom. They encounter situations they don't like for sure and some days they might not feel like going to work and having sex on camera, but that is no different than any other job in any other industry. There is this wrong idea that porn (and prostitution) is always exploitative for women, which isn't true. Sex work exclusionary feminists take all autonomy away from female sex workers and feed the stereotype that women do not have their own sexuality or desires. They conflate sex work with sex trafficking and perpetuate the stereotype that sex workers are victims or are driven to a demeaning lifestyle by a damaged history. Do they ever speak to sex workers in the industry about their experiences? Do they ever speak to those sex workers who have chosen this profession because they enjoy it, or because they want to make money? No, they don't, because it wouldn't fit with their narrative.
In terms of the industry, it's true that the word ‘porn’ has been corrupted by sexist porn. Feminist porn makers often criticise mainstream porn, not to shame people who enjoy it or star in it, but to question and highlight that extreme porn has become the norm—that extreme and often violent porn has become mainstream. That is due to the misogyny in society as a whole. Objectification is not an inherent product of the medium of explicit films itself. The actual definition of pornography is ‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.’ Porn doesn't have to objectify women—sexist people choose to do so. The medium of explicit films can be used as a tool to portray healthy, consensual, happy sex between equals. Pornography as a medium can be used in a positive or negative way as everything else. It can definitely be a tool for women’s sexual expression and for people in general to get rid of taboos.
My mission in life is to spread the joy of sex-positive feminism. I am advocating for female pleasure and have been working over the years to change porn, improve sex education and change unhealthy attitudes towards sex.
What do you think is the difference between female-directed porn and male-directed porn? Both for the actors on set, but also, from the audience's perspective?
In my experience, in terms of the audience perspective, when it's female-directed there are less close up, gynecological shots. This seems basic, but if there's a male performer on my set I also include his head in the shots. So much male directed porn is close ups of the female, her vagina, and the male performer is basically just a dismembered penis. It's quite odd. Myself and a lot of the female filmmakers who I admire are more concerned with capturing the whole feeling of sex—the passion and the pleasure, instead of a mechanical shoot of what it looks like.
When a woman is directing porn, she avoids displaying the woman as a spectacle or portraying her as a passive object of desire. We refuse to make the female body an object of a predatory gaze. When it comes to the performers, I can only speak from experience of what they have told me, but on my sets, it is mostly women and we have a big crew. This can make some male performers quite nervous who are used to small crews made up of solely men. But it’s a really nice, supportive and safe environment for the female performers who are used to being surrounded by men on set.
So, your crews are mostly full of women?
From the moment I created Lust Films I knew I wanted to get more women in positions of power in all aspects of the business. It can vary slightly but it's usually 80% women when I’m working on set, with women working as camera people, producers, editors, runners. My office is mostly female and the heads of each department on the production team are women, including the directors of photography and art. The female viewpoint is vital for me and to really get that I need to have a predominantly female team. You can see a video of my team here.
I think a lot about the male gaze when consuming any art. So, when I think about all film, including pornography, that comes into play. When you have men writing female characters and their stories, then actually directing the films, what does that do to the female experience?
When men are making and directing adult films, they're catering for the male viewer and his pleasure. The ideal spectator is always assumed to be male, and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. The female becomes the object of the combined gaze of filmmaker, male performer and male viewer. This multiple male gaze means that the woman becomes a passive object to be looked at, while the man is the active subject. Automatically her sexuality is defined by the male, she does not have her own sexual autonomy without him.
As for the women watching these films, it means that her experience is always secondary to the male viewer. As Laura Mulvey taught us [in her book, Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema], the male gaze suggests that the female viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male. In porn, this means that she sees sex and sexuality through male eyes looking at women as an object. The male gaze creates a power imbalance by supporting a patriarchal status quo, perpetuating women's real-life sexual objectification.
In general, do you think porn is more targeted for men? Is that something you're trying to change with your films?
I think the mass majority of porn on the free tube sites is still targeted towards men. It's definitely something I want to change with my work, to show that women can enjoy porn too. It’s a common assumption to say that women apparently don't find as much pleasure in looking as men do, but we need to look at this in a broader context. When we're looking, who looks and who gets looked at? It's a question of power and historically the gaze is male, while women are the objects being looked at. Sex images make you hot, but is it really surprising if women don't ‘respond’ to images and films made by men and for men?
Women have always been told what to do with their bodies and with whom, and this is yet another example. For years, we were told that we wouldn't, or shouldn't, be turned on by it. But women are sexual beings, we can be aroused by representation of sex on screen just as much as men.
Is feminist porn inherently political?
I guess to a certain extent, yes. Porn is a discourse on gender and sex, thus porn itself is political. I feel conflicted to call all feminist porn political, though. I don't go into every film I make thinking that I want to make a political statement. To me, showing female pleasure and sexual agency isn't a political act. But I know that unfortunately some people don't see it as a normal thing. I think some of my films are certainly more political than others, but I wouldn't say that it's automatically always political just because I'm a feminist making films with my feminist values.
What do you want people to take away from your films?
That female pleasure matters. I also want to show that porn and art don't need to be mutually exclusive. I want to bring beauty and cinematic value back into adult films. Along with other filmmakers, I want to return to a Golden Age style of pornography and return the industry's lost legitimacy; to show that porn doesn't need to be one-dimensional, it can be artistic, have a storyline, character development, cinematic values. Porn can be a part of artistic sexual expression and experimentation.
All photos by Erika Lust; courtesy of the artist.