I spoke to feminist porn director Erika Lust about how she’s changing the industry

‘Women won’t get anywhere if we can’t create our own stories about sex’


Erika Lust makes “feminist pornography”, and she has an eloquent description of what this means.

“Feminist porn is basically explicit films made by people who have a problem with the mainstream porn industry and its way of making film,” she explains. “I am one of those people.”

Lust says that hers is an intellectual approach. She does not objectify, she does not truss women up as male fantasies incarnate. Her work is for men and women – a study by explicit site PornHub last year found that 24 per cent of its viewers are women – and she is also sensitive to the ways in which ‘traditional’, high-octane porn can damage men too. Her work has been shown at the Raindance Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival and by the Berlin Film Society.

I asked her what feminist pornography really means and how she hopes to change the tone and imagery of pornography.

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Problems with the mainstream pornography industry

There is much that is wrong with the porn industry – chiefly that it is misogynistic, exploitative and can be dangerous. It attracts vulnerable women (and men), some of whom are ruined by it. Last week, YouTube channel Real Women Real Stories shared a video interview with former porn star Bree Olson, who worked in the industry for six years. Olson was emotional and vehement: “I send a very strong message to young girls – don’t do porn”.

“The thinking about porn tends to be very black or white,” Lust says. “People have preconceptions that porn is always exploitative, harmful and bad, and there are those who think all porn is always OK because it’s with consenting adults who are getting paid. In general, it’s important to not be dogmatic about porn. It’s as anti-intellectual to be zero-tolerance anti-porn as it is to be ‘I have no problem at all with the state of porn’.”

What is ‘feminist porn’?

“Feminist porn aims to show women and men as sexual equals, and that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman, and something women do for men.

“One common complaint about mainstream pornography is that it shows women as mere objects without feelings, power or desire of their own,” she continues, “catering to the fantasies of men. There is so much porn where women are insulted, humiliated and even assaulted. A lot of porn is misogynistic and proud of it, showing men as aggressive sex robots – which isn’t very healthy either.

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A screenshot from Erika’s website

“It’s fully possible for a film to be both sexually explicit and present people as human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, even when they’re naked. It has nothing to do with what kind of sex is shown – it’s all about how the films are made.

“If people hold the idea that sex on camera is always inherently sexist… well, I don’t think women will really get anywhere if we’re not allowed to create our own stories about sex, and that includes having a voice in pornography as active decision-makers and story-tellers. Just because some porn is extremely sexist doesn’t mean all porn has to be.”

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Porn and liberation

Some argue that porn rots teenagers’ – especially teenage boys’ – approach to sex. She suggests the right pornography could do the opposite.

“I definitely think adult films can and should be used as a tool for liberation and education. There are way too many depictions of sex out there that are traumatic, aggressive and violent.

“Sexual openness should start with proper sex education in school,” she suggests. “It should be an ongoing thing, so that young people ask questions and have discussions. There should be critical discussions about pornography too. Sex education gives young people the power to make informed decisions.”

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Erika instructing on set

Does porn create an unrealistic image of women?

“Yes, how could it not? But it’s not just about the same silicon-fantasy being churned out over and over again. There are certainly categories for most body types – but that’s just about objectifying and fetishising those body parts. It has nothing to do with diversity. And that goes for men in most mainstream porn too. For example, I don’t think so many men would be concerned about the size of their package if it weren’t for porn. Men end up being strangely missing from much of straight porn: they only appear as disembodied penises, which also is a form of objectification. We can change those unwritten rules.”

Porn and representation 

“Being a huge cinephile, a lot of porn is just so aesthetically unsatisfying,” she points out. “I mean, just because you want to see sex on film doesn’t mean you want to look at a horrible couch for 30 minutes.
“Often the aesthetic in mainstream porn is as offensive as the content! It’s completely possible to shoot cool settings, have nice styling and make-up, and conversations that don’t make you want to sink through the floor, and still shoot hot, amazing sex. Sex doesn’t have to be shown as vulgar and cheap. Context is also really important. Something that answers the question ‘why are these people having sex’ – human beings deserve more to stimulate their senses.”
Another scene from on set

Another scene from on set

Personal stories are sexy

“Right now [I’m working on a] project, XConfessions. Users leave confessions on the site – real fantasies and sex memories from people from all over the world. [They] are submitted to the site, and I handpick two stories each month and turn them into short films. The entries we get are incredibly varied and just full of lust and imagination.
“I agree that the majority of porn can be dangerous –  the kind that only shows women as objects and sex as something that men do to women and that women do for men. I think that reflects reinforces a warped view of sex that contributes to rape culture. That’s exactly why we need more voices in porn: to show women as sexual equals who also have the right to desire and pleasure.”