Features Muse

Ethical Porn Part 2: In Conversation with Erika Lust

Annabel Mulliner speaks to feminist erotic film director, Erika Lust, about the process behind her ethical pornography.

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Monica Figueras

In the first half of Nouse’s featured series on ethical pornography, Charlotte Lear explored the issues behind mainstream ‘tube’ viewing platforms, namely PornHub, and the difficulty in ensuring fair and safe working conditions for actors. The demand for increasingly extreme content and the difficulty in regulating this is a huge cause for concern, considering that nowadays many young people’s first encounters with sex are via porn. The porn industry thus has huge leverage over our cultural attitudes to sex.

If our sex education is to come from unrealistic, extreme and frankly sexist porn, how does this then translate into our real-life sexual relationships? By and large, porn is viewed as being ‘for men’. If women can feature in porn, yet are not meant to enjoy viewing it themselves, this sends the message to young women that their own sexual pleasure is not important.

Ethical working conditions and feminist, realistic content should go hand in hand. Consensual and realistic scenarios encourage a safer and more enjoyable environment for sex workers, while creating more enjoyable, and less damaging content for our viewing. So if ‘tube’ sites can’t deliver this, then what is the alternative? This is where Erika Lust’s mission began.

As she puts it, she directs porn for people “who don't think that sex always has to be presented as cheap, tasteless and vulgar”. A mission that not just women, but surely all of us, can get behind.

In her 15 year career, Erika has created a host of porn platforms, each with ethical values at its core. After establishing Lust Films in 2005, five years later Erika went on to create LustCinema, a curated catalog of pornographic films, with a subscription-style akin to Netflix. In addition to this, Erika created XConfessions, a platform via which users can submit their fantasies, of which a select few are then adapted into erotic films.

I caught up with Erika via email to talk about what it’s like to be a female, ethical producer within this male-dominated and corrupt industry, and how much work goes into producing ethical erotic films.

<br />
How do you go about selecting films to feature on LustCinema?

I created LustCinema because I wanted to give space and bigger budgets to female directors in the US who want to create movies and series that are outside of the adult industry standards. Amazing directors such as Dana Vespoli, Madison Young, Kay Brandt, and more recently Casey Calvert, are creating original feature films and series in which they’re able to explore character development and plot on a much deeper level.
My long term vision for LustCinema is to challenge the porn industry standards by promoting the cinematic possibilities of the medium, high quality storytelling, and a realistic representation of human sexuality and sex; so we select and distribute each month six films whose kind of storytelling and production process are projected as much as possible towards this goal.

Can you see Lust Cinema, and other similar porn catalogues, outperforming PornHub etc. in the future?

I think that the future of pornography depends on whether or not there is a shift away from simply using these tube sites and start backing more varied companies by paying for their content. Users need to be made aware of the ethical implications of watching pirated material.

In recent years we have all become more conscious of what we consume, and ethical and sustainable businesses have really boomed. I hope that this trend also translates to peoples’ attitudes towards pornography and that people begin to think more about the consequences of not paying for pornography and relying on tube sites.

At the moment films are often made on a very low budget by companies who need to churn out as many films as possible in order to compete and be profitable; this leads to a very poor representation of sex and sexuality on screen. It is only once people start paying for pornography this will begin to change as, more money, more evenly distributed within the industry will provide space for innovate new directors and allow production companies to focus on quality rather than simply having an economy of scale.

The pirating business model which has taken over in recent years with the rise of Tube sites such as PornHub, YouPorn and RedTube (all of which are part of the big controversial company MindGeek) has completely decimated the industry and put many production studios and performers out of business. Whether you're a performer or a production company, if the content you create is uploaded onto tube sites, it doesn't matter how many times it is watched, you will not get a penny from those views. This, coupled with the fact that many content creators, especially smaller independent producers, simply don't have the time or resources to trawl through these sites looking for their pirated content, has meant that the business is far less lucrative than it used to be.

Your erotic films are well known for being ethically produced. Can you tell us more about how you ensure your films are ethical?

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 18+, have had their own sexual experiences already and are sex-positive and 100 per cent enthusiastic to be part of the project. I don't just ask performers to come on set with their best lingerie on and that's it.

When we have the cast for a film, we arrange for performers to know each other well in advance (if they don’t already know each other). We ask them if and which sex toys or accessories they would like to use, if they want to use condoms, and we make sure with weeks of antecedence they’re tested negative for STIs (and, right now, for Covid-19 as well, which concerns all crew members as well).

I have a talent manager on set to make sure the performers are being taken care of at any time. We ensure healthy food and water on set provided by a local catering service, good accommodations, and flights paid if necessary. Everything related to the sex scene must be discussed and agreed in advance with the performers. After that, it is important that there is no last-minute change of plans that could make them feel obliged to do something. When we're on set I talk to them before shooting sex, to make sure once again that 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.

Ethical porn means that there’s understanding of consent between everyone on set - including the crew, that needs to be aware of the inherent complexities of sex work. Me and my team need to ensure that the set is a safe sex environment in which performers can explore their sexuality in a comfortable and relaxed way. We strive to let performers feel free to voice their opinions and feelings, and to stop the shooting whenever they feel uncomfortable for any reason.

How can feminist porn empower viewers, both female, male, and otherwise?

Porn can be a really powerful tool to help people explore their sexuality. 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. Porn can open your mind about sexuality and help you to discover new desires and fantasies. For many viewers, alternative adult cinema helps them celebrate their sexuality and encourages them to be empowered by sex in a variety of ways.

It can help you discover your body, learn how to give pleasure to it, and to others! Apart from being fun and healthy to watch, explicit films can be used as a tool for sexual liberation and education. It can also be a tool for women’s sexual expression and for people in general to get rid of taboos. We all need to be eager to accept sex as a wide, beautiful universe of sensuality and pleasure without judgment.

Porn as a medium can be used in a positive or negative way as everything else. I think it's also important to bear in mind that erotic films are not supposed to replace sex or human relationships but to spice them up.

Self-pleasure is very important too. You need to explore yourself, find out what you like, what your kinks are, and of course have lots of fun! There are so many benefits to self-pleasure and so many ways to do it now with all the toys on the market. And we should openly talk about it. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can be in control of our own sexuality and pleasure.

Your first erotic film, The Good Girl, was available for free on YouTube. Do you think free porn can ever be ethical?

When I made my first film, I had no idea that Erika Lust was going to be born. It was more to test me as an adult filmmaker and to see how people would react to my idea of erotica. But the kind of care that is required to an ethical production process is not cheap. It costs money to make a film and to ensure good working conditions for everyone who is involved in making it happen - from interns in the office to the talent on set. There are many reasons why adult content is behind a paywall.

It costs money to pay performers, crew, post-production, and the director; legal contracts that protect all of their rights as workers, lunch for the day, comfortable accommodations if required. Sex work is a real job, and performers deserve to be paid. By paying for your porn, you're helping to ensure that smaller companies that are committed to some of these labour practices, are able to continue making the porn that they want to make and that sex work is done in a safe environment. Do your research and when you go to porn websites see who is behind those websites. Can you see their names, their faces? Are there credits for the team behind the camera? Viewers must become more conscious consumers with their pornography.

One of your ventures is XConfessions, a platform that you use to turn viewers’ fantasies into film. What was your inspiration for this idea? What does the viewers’ involvement with production contribute to the ethics of the finished product, if anything?

After the online success of The Good Girl, 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 in 2013.

XConfessions is a crowd-sourced audiovisual project where users contribute by sending their anonymous sexual fantasies and experiences. At the beginning it was just me making the films, but in 2016, I started a world wide open call for guest directors, so now we have female and queer filmmakers all over the world turning confessions into films and showing us their take on sexuality. It's a really beautiful crowd-sourced project. I have been making adult films as Erika Lust for over 15 years now.
Today, I have directed and produced over 150 short films, and have more than 600,000 members on XConfessions, where I and the guest directors I collaborate with choose the best fantasies every month to translate them into groundbreaking explicit short films.

I started this project as I want 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.

What has been your biggest challenge as a female director in the porn industry?

I remember when I was pitching my first film The Good Girl to adult content productions back in 2004, they used to reply saying it was an interesting project but, unfortunately, 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 keep pushing even harder. And still today there are people who don't understand what's behind my work, what's the mission I’m carrying out, or that keep trying to censor my content on social media.

Changing the rules of porn is no easy task, especially if you’re a woman in a field that is so overwhelmingly dominated by white cisgender men. On the other hand, I’m glad that there's a growing community of people out there craving for more realistic, inclusive, and original adult cinema, who support me and my team to always do more and better.

I am still surprised by the stigma attached to people working in the industry, but especially for women. It's a never-ending battle just to exist online and promote our businesses. Social media censorship is a huge problem at the moment. Myself and other women in the industry continuously have non-explicit photos removed, accounts deleted or shadow-banned, hashtags removed... It surprises none of us that this censorship is heavily gendered.

When a woman takes ownership of her own body and presents herself and her sexuality in the way she wants, she is censored. However, the Dan Bilzerians of the world are free to keep sending their misogynistic message that women are only accessories to their lavish lifestyle. When Dan posts a picture on Instagram using a naked woman as a table to rest his trophy on, he is not censored. But when an adult performer such as Ana Foxxx posts her own non-nude, non-explicit photos on Instagram she continuously has them removed.

You’ve been in the porn industry for a long time, since 2005 in fact. What changes have you seen happen in the industry since then? Is porn, as a discourse on sexuality, changing for the better?

As from what I'm seeing already, we're witnessing a gradual general shift in the adult entertainment industry and the need to start making things with more values and better work conditions for everybody who is involved. There are more adult filmmakers now showing a whole spectrum of sex, sexuality, and gender roles to show that porn should not be limited to one narrow idea. I've seen more films being made with women viewers in mind and a wider range of content.

In the past few years, it seems that finally the industry is starting to recognise that women like to watch porn too, that we can be aroused by representations of sex on screen just as much as men, and that we will not be pigeonholed into one "porn for women" category. There are also more women in the industry now than before. Women with loud voices who are standing proud next to their brilliant work.

However, that is not to say that porn is suddenly an equal playing field. Let's not forget that it's an androcentric industry still, we still have a long way to go. Narratives need to change: we need to stop showing harmful gender stereotypes and starting depicting men and women as equally important sexual collaborators. 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.

What are your thoughts on OnlyFans?

Sites like OnlyFans are essential at this moment to support independent cam girls, performers, and directors. Many sex workers who have lost all of their in-person bookings due to social distancing are now relying on their online personal channels as their only source of income.

I urge the public to find some of their favorite performers online, go to their Twitter pages and subscribe to their own content via social platforms that support their work like OnlyFans, manyvids, fancentro etc. In the past, adult performers had very little direct contact with fans but today many use social media to build their brand. These platforms enable performers to build individual brands that can be leveraged to generate other revenue streams. Performers can create their own content in the safety of their homes and with people they want to work with. Now is a good time to subscribe to their channels, and support them by contributing to their income.

3867

You Might Also Like...

Leave a comment

Your name from your Google account will be published alongside the comment, and your name, email address and IP address will be stored in our database to help us combat spam. Comments from outside the university require moderator approval to reduce spam, but Nouse accepts no responsibility for reviewing content comments on our site

Disclaimer: this page is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.