Swedish-born, Barcelona-based erotic filmmaker Erika Lust has been challenging the tiresome clichés and uninventive formulas of the porn industry since her 2004 debut, The Good Girl. Following a string of award-winning features including Life Love Lust and Cabaret Desire, she started the interactive web-based XConfessions project: members of the public are encouraged to confess their secrets and fantasies, which Erika Lust then makes into films. The resulting stories range from daily situations, as in the self-explanatory Meet Me in the Workroom or The Couch Surfer (think erotic air b’n’b), to the oneiric as in Spectrophila (an erotic encounter with a ghost lover), bondage reveries as in An Appointment with My Master (an S/M session presented like an appointment at the doctor’s), or flights of fancy inspired by books or TV as in Mad Men Porn. What all have in common is a joyful and tender approach to the diversity of human sexuality supported by a strong artistic vision that gives the films style and sensual beauty.
Below, Erika Lust talks about women and pornography, trying to change the adult industry and innovating with XConfessions.
VS: You describe yourself as a feminist porn filmmaker, what does that mean to you?
EL: I normally describe myself as a filmmaker, and I’m interested in the subject of sexuality, especially female sexuality. I think that the whole concept of feminist pornography can be very confusing for people because it seems that there’s something anti-male in feminism and something anti-female in pornography. I don’t believe that, but I think people have that idea about those two words, even though feminism is a basic idea about human rights. When you consider yourself a feminist it means that you believe women and men should have the same rights. I think it’s very sad that there are so many people who misunderstand the concept and think that feminism is an extremist movement against men.
In your book Good Porn, your friend Audacia Ray says that, for her, feminist porn is not about what is on the screen but about the way the film is produced. Would you agree with that?
I do agree with that part of it. For me the concept of feminist porn has three pillars. First it’s about what you’re showing on the screen; it’s about the sexuality and how the people on the screen are interacting. Then it’s about women in important roles, where they are moving forward, being a character, taking care of their own pleasure, and it’s about seeing their pleasure on the screen. But it’s also how you make the movie, who is behind the movie, and what ideas they have. I think it’s extremely important that women step in and start telling their stories about sexuality. So I mainly have a female crew behind my movies. When I started it was basically me and a few more people, but now I have a crew of around 15 people. In all important creative decision-making roles I have women – director of photography, line producer, assistant director, casting. For pornography to progress it really needs women behind the camera. It’s a genre that is created by 98 or 99% of men. There are still very few women involved today and they are mainly in the independent adult genre.
Throughout your work you challenge clichés about women and porn, one of them being the idea that women are not stimulated visually by explicit sexual material.
I think we are stimulated by all our senses, and one of them is obviously vision. I think it’s extremely erotic to see images. And I think that most women feel the same way. What happened with pornography is that it started as something more attractive back in the 60s and 70s, when there were actual filmmakers behind some of the films being made, they had ideas, visions, they wanted to tell stories. But then the whole genre turned into a money-making factory that was just interested in the penetration and the fluids and the acrobatic positions. It’s not that I don’t find that interesting, but I want something more. If you get into the most visited porn sites of today, like Porn Hub, YouPorn, Red Tube, etc, it’s aesthetically very ugly. And many of those films are basically men punish-fucking women. I feel that most women don’t feel comfortable with that, and I have to add, many men don’t feel comfortable with that. I think it’s a vision that we need to talk about. It’s getting very important to look at what kind of sexual images we are selling because internet has become a power of its own when it comes to pornography – one third of all internet traffic is about porn. When we log into those websites we are after sexual stimulation, we are after trying to figure out who we are and what we like. If the only images you find online when you look for pornography are those kinds of images then your view of sexuality will be affected by that. You will start to believe that the main goal of women in this world is to make men come. Sex-positive feminists believe that the problem is not porn, it’s that there’s too much bad porn, and we have to make it better. That’s what I’m trying to do.
How did XConfessions come about?
When I was going around doing screenings, especially with my last one, Cabaret Desire, people were coming up to me wanting to share because they felt that porn is pretty much all the same and their stories were quite different. When I was thinking about my next project after Cabaret Desire I couldn’t decide on one idea, so I decided to do ten short films. At that time, it was two years ago, there was a huge shift. DVD sales dropped, the way we were consuming movies changed. It’s not so long ago that we started to use the internet more and more as opposed to the cinema, TV or DVD. And that’s why I saw the opportunity to do a web project where people could interact and send me their confessions and I would make films from those confessions. Sometimes the films have a lot to do with the confessions, but sometimes the confessions are just inspiration for the films.
Do you get ideas sent by more women or men?
It’s 50/50, or at least it’s what the statistics are telling me, because who knows – the confessions are anonymous so because they choose a feminine name I think it’s a woman. But I don’t feel there’s a lot of difference between men and women in their confessions and what they write about. It may also depend on the audience that I have. My feeling is that it’s quite a smart audience, they are very articulate, they know how to write, they have a lot of ideas and fantasies, and even cultural references to books, music, films, a whole cultural world.
Which fantasy has surprised you the most?
I don’t know what surprised me the most. There are so many of them and they are so different, but there are some tendencies, a lot of things coming back. There are plenty of threesome situations, people love those films. People want to explore, I don’t know if they want to do it in real life or just in the fantasy world, but they love exploring. There are also a lot of confessions around power play, domination, submission, both men and women being both roles. And infidelity comes back quite a lot.
Has there been any confession that you haven’t wanted to make?
I haven’t done any rape fantasies. People ask me for that sometimes, there are confessions around that theme. But I feel that it’s not really something that I can deal with. I don’t know what to do with it. There are a lot of women who have those kinds of fantasies, I’m not saying that it’s the limit, but I don’t really see it. I have to believe in it, there has to be something that I want to go for.
The films are really diverse and they really show how inventive and varied human sexuality is.
That’s exactly what I want to show in the project. I love the idea of gathering all these films together to show that sexuality can be so many different things. It doesn’t have to be the pizza guy, the mafia guy, and the babysitter. Keep on dreaming! And that is one of the biggest problems with the adult industry and the way it’s become. The industry doesn’t have much creativity, or much fun. Imagine if in the film world you only had Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude van Damme. It’d be a very small world, and porn has ended up a little like that. It needs the Woody Allens and the Tarantinos and the Isabel Coixets and the Sofia Coppolas. But I think it will change. Things are happening, there are new people coming in.
On the other hand, porn has seeped into independent film, with films like Gaspar Noé’s Love, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac or Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs. What do you think of that evolution?
When sex gets into independent film, what happens is that it gets very dark and complicated. It’s like in Nymphomaniac, it’s normally only disturbed people who are sexually active and who go beyond the limits. Many of those films are made by men, there are few women. And very few of those films are positive about sex. What I try to do in my work is show a positive vision of sexuality.
Main pic credit: My Master (X-Confessions, Dir. Erika Lust, 2016).
Interview first published in Electric Sheep Magazine, February 2016.