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Interview: The Politics of Porn With Erika Lust
Sex|Mar 3, 2021

Interview: The Politics of Porn With Erika Lust

“I Started My Business Almost 20 Years Ago Because I Wanted Porn To Change."
Amie Wee

Erika Lust is a porn pioneer based in Barcelona who is renowned worldwide for creating plot-driven ethical adult cinema that challenges mass-produced mainstream pornography by promoting women’s pleasure, diversity and consent.

Penthouse spoke to Erika Lust about how she went from studying politics to making political porn, what mainstream porn gets wrong and the most surreal scene she’s ever shot.

 

You have a background in political science. What inspired you to move into shooting adult films?

When I was studying political science and gender studies at university in Sweden, I came across a book by Linda Williams called Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. It gave me my lightbulb moment, and I realised pornography was part of a discourse on sexuality about who expresses specific 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 in my Erasmus year, so after I finished my graduate degree in Sweden, I moved to Barcelona at 23 to study filmmaking, and I immediately felt that the city was much more receptive to my vision. When I first moved here, I felt so liberated, I felt like I could be or do whatever I wanted! Barcelona gave me the creative freedom to start making adult films. On the whole, the people here are very open-minded and sex-positive.

 

Erika Lust on the set of of Lust Cinema's 'Safe Word' / Monica Figueras

Erika Lust on the set of of Lust Cinema's 'Safe Word' / Monica Figueras

 

How was the Erika Lust brand born?

Back in 2004, I shot my first erotic film, 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 two million downloads in less than two months! That's when I realised there were other people out there looking for alternatives to mainstream pornography, and I decided to start making adult films that reflected my taste and values on sex and gender. That’s how Erika Lust was born!

Before that, when trying to pitch The Good Girl to adult content productions, they used to tell me that the film was good but that there was no market for women; women are not interested in buying anything that has to do with sex. You pay women for sex but you don't do films for them. That made me angry but also motivated me to push even harder and create myself the kind of adult content that I’d enjoy as a viewer, according to my own values and taste.

I started my business almost 20 years ago because I wanted porn to change. I wanted to create porn where people can see themselves in those films, to see the sex they have and feel inspired and to become receptive to the huge range of different sexualities out there. Today, with my crowd-sourced project XConfessions, I turn the public’s anonymous fantasies into explicit short films while my studio Lust Cinema produces plot-driven original series and feature films for lovers of cinema and sex. Else Cinema is the Erika Lust Soft Edition for those looking for a softer erotic experience, and The Store by Erika Lust offers a wide catalogue of adult films made by me and other filmmakers around the world with no need of subscription. Finally, ThePornConversation.org is the non-profit organisation that I started together with my husband Pablo with the aim of giving other parents and educators the tools to help open up the topic of porn and sex to the younger generation.

I wanted to create porn where people can see themselves in those films, to see the sex they have and feel inspired and to become receptive to the huge range of different sexualities out there.

Do you still face resistance as a female producer in the adult industry?

We still live in a predominantly sex-negative culture where we are taught to keep eroticism private and hidden and to not enjoy sex too much. Women learn to fear their own sexuality from a young age through a lack of comprehensive sex education in schools. I guess that's why there are still many people who don’t understand what’s behind my work.

For instance, I keep on facing censorship on social media. Instagram has strict guidelines when it comes to sexual content, with depictions of sexual intercourse and most types of nudity being outright banned. The social media censorship I’ve experienced is a result of Instagram’s ambiguous label of ‘sexually suggestive’ content. Because this term is mostly left to interpretation, the decision ends up in the hands of social media algorithms and the people who make them, that is, cis hetero white men. Algorithms hold the same bias as their creators, so you’re going to see what they want you to see. The problem is this directly affects women because we are seen as sexually suggestive only for exposing skin and expressing our sexuality in a way that we want. All female bodies are generally hypersexualised on the media, however, research shows that BIPOC women's bodies are policed even more than their white, straight, cis counterparts. Not only women, other marginalised groups are also disproportionately affected by these algorithms. Sex workers, LGBTQ+ people, and other minority groups have faced prejudice from this technology.

I created the term ‘biased banning’ to acknowledge this unfair censorship that relies on patriarchal bias coded into these algorithms. I have a #biasedbanning campaign going on Instagram where I ask my followers – especially women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ community, and those with ageing or ‘imperfect’ bodies to share their censored photos and experiences. The purpose is to keep raising our voices and make people talk about it and to shape change. I want us to come together to show the world that we are not to be censored, but to be celebrated!

 

On the set of ‘Ink Addiction’ / Arden

On the set of ‘Ink Addiction’ / Arden

 

What do you think the biggest difference is between the movies you make, and mainstream porn?

Watching my first porn film when I was a teenager, I was feeling conflict in myself. Those videos got me aroused somehow, but at the same time it wasn’t really pleasurable as I felt that something was wrong with them both ethically and content-wise. I knew that there was so much more to sexuality than what was depicted in those films. I understood it was made with the sole purpose to arouse, but I didn't understand why we can’t experience the same visual pleasures we seek in any other type of movies even when watching porn? Why can’t we make porn with beautiful images, interesting locations and captivating storylines that actually do kind of drag you into a whole context of sensuality and passion?

We are used to adult movies made by men, where you have close up genital shots, emotionless storylines, where the man’s presence is represented only by his penis, and women live sex as something that is done to them instead of actively participating in it.

With my films at XConfessions and Lust Cinema I want to portray healthy sex relationships and to capture the whole feeling of sex – the passion and the pleasure of everyone involved – not just a mechanical shoot of it. My sets are made up of 80 percent women and we have a big crew, which may look very different for a performer coming from mainstream sets. For female performers used to small crews made up of solely men, this means a lot in terms of feeling in a friendly, supportive, and safe environment.

I think it all has to do with the perspective from which the films are made. At the very beginning of my own career, I had men behind the camera. When shooting heterosexual sex, I found out that they were often missing something important: the woman’s orgasm – how she breathes, how her facial expressions change … that’s the powerful image of sex. On the other hand, while constantly focusing on the woman as ‘the most beautiful thing that was going on’, they were overlooking the man. I would end up with so much material of her body, and so little of his body and his reactions. That’s why I believe that we need more women involved in adult films as producers, scriptwriters and directors of photography. There’s a relevant difference in their gaze, in what women find attractive. Sex is not only about genitals, it’s about the whole pleasure experience.

 

Talk us through the basics of what happens when you’re shooting a scene.

When I'm doing a film with my crew, we do the same work as if we were any other independent film production. From an idea, we develop script and storyboards, we consult our art director, we work in interesting locations, making sure everything is faithful to the initial concept. When we have a story, we look for the perfect fit for that specific role. We get to know performers through interviews, we have Skype calls with them and meet them in person if we can. We always make sure the performers are over 18, have had their own sexual experiences already and are sex-positive and 100 percent enthusiastic to be part of the project. I don't just ask performers to come on set with their best lingerie and that's it. When we're on set I talk to them before shooting sex, to make sure they're ok with the scene they're about to perform, and then I let them go with their own flow, without being pushy in my direction. I have someone from my production team on set to make sure the performers are being taken care of. We ensure healthy food and water on set provided by a local catering service, good accommodation and flights paid if necessary.

 

Erika Lust on the set of ‘Ink Addiction’ / Arden

Erika Lust on the set of ‘Ink Addiction’ / Arden

 

What’s something you think mainstream porn lacks or needs to show more of?

I started making adult films because I wanted porn to change, and I believe that to do so, we need women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people to make that change. We need as many different voices as possible making films that showcase their own perception of sex, sexuality, gender and desire. We need them in leading roles behind the camera, informing decisions on how to portray sex and how to produce the films. I believe in the importance of the female and queer gaze in a male dominated porn industry. I want the female and queer gaze to be a norm, and not the exception anymore.

Men and women should be portrayed as equally important sexual collaborators, consent should be shown clearly, and simulations of coercion, paedophilia, or abuse should not be presented as the norm. The performers should be representative of the true range of human identity. Instead of the same white, slim porn archetype, we should have a range of bodies, ethnicities and identities – whilst avoiding the toxic fetishisation of difference prevalent in mainstream pornography. We need to remove the ‘othering’ in categorising porn by the race, age and bodies of the people in it.

Categorisation is a powerful tool to influence and it creates a reductive loop. Seeing categories like “18 and abused” being presented as a normal everyday category on a porn tube is just ridiculous and dangerous. Porn often sidesteps scrutiny because we’re unwilling to talk about it in public. We need to address this exploitative language, misogynistic or racial slurs and offensive racist categories.

Seeing categories like ‘18 and abused’ being presented as a normal everyday category on a porn tube is just ridiculous and dangerous.

What’s been the most surreal scene you’ve shot?

360° of Lust, my first VR porn film – what a crazy experience! The workflow and process was completely different to what I'm used to. When filming in immersive 360 degrees, everything that appears on set is in shot. It’s impossible to hide anything from the camera or delete it in post-production, so we organised the location's space in order to shoot 180 degrees at a time, and then replicate the first 180 degrees to make the final 360-degree piece. We also divided the space into ‘wedges’ around the camera and then we replicated each wedge and layered them on top of each other to get the desired number of scenes. Doing that, we were able to place the performers in different scenes around the camera and give the viewer the experience of seeing the same performers in different scenes at the same time in the final piece. It was a new experience and we didn’t have any previous references of 360° 3D-adult cinema to work with, so we had to experiment a lot with distances and distribution of the actors in order to create the desired effect. This was challenging and definitely something I'd like to improve on next time.

 

Tell us about one of your most recent movies.

Ink Addiction is my latest short movie that was released at XConfessions last September. I've wanted to shoot the relationship between tattoos and eroticism for a long time. I wanted to create an erotic celebration of tattoos and Eslina, Jasko, and Anthony were the perfect people to give me access to their world. I like this film because it blurs the line between pornography and art. Their bodies merge and dance together mixing pornography with art. You’ll find in it a mix of interview, dance, and of course, sex. The pain that we often associate with getting a tattoo is contrasted with the sensual and tender sex between them, and I loved seeing their individual pieces of art blend together as one! A piece of art is made to be seen and having sex is the perfect way to celebrate these beautiful canvases. Check it out for an exciting journey into the sexy world of tattoos!

Check out Ink Addiction at XconfessionsSee more of Erika's work at Erika Lust.