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XConfessions vol.5, 2015
XConfessions vol.5, 2015Courtesy of xconfessions.com

Why you should watch porn through the female gaze

The number of woman pushing for pleasure equality on-screen is growing. Here, director Erika Lust asks why are we still scared of real female sexuality

Earlier this year it was announced that the annual Celluloid Ceiling report found women directed only seven per cent of the top 250 grossing films in Hollywood last year. Which means that men took charge for the remaining 93 per cent. 93 percent! If that’s Hollywood, then what’s it like for women behind the scenes in the porn industry?

It’s estimated that while nearly 70 per cent of young men watch porn weekly, only 20 per cent of women do. Why the dramatic difference? Because, for some reason, when it comes to women openly talking about it and celebrating it, sex is still a taboo. In fact, celebration usually leads to #slutshaming, but that’s for another article.

One reason for women tuning out of sex on-screen might be that the porn available is heavily male-centric, meaning it’s based on male pleasure, from a male POV. A one-sided, and particularly damaging norm to put out into the public domain, especially when – as above statistic reads – most young men are flicking onto Pornhub and co., often garnering their first ‘sexual experience’ through such sites.

Erika Lust is just one female smashing the porn patriarchy. Heading up XConfessions, a website that regularly takes user submissions and turns them into adult films, last month, her latest series was included at the 2015 Raindance Film Festival. Lust is determined to make a change to our after dark viewing habits, and with a desire to push for visibility of female pleasure on-screen, she hopes to change our behaviour and attitudes off-screen. Forget what you think you know about ‘feminist porn’, the fact is, this is about equality – in front of the camera and behind – body diversity, and some damn good cinematography.

So while we’ve already touted her as the future of female-led porn and shown you just what it takes to make a kick ass pornography, below, we caught up with Lust to talk about the challenges of being female in a male-dominated industry, getting flack from the feminists, and why we should be having fun with sex.

Recently we interviewed you in our “The future of female-led porn” on Dazed – it’s still one of the most read articles on the site this year. People responded so well to it, it was like, ‘this is where the conversation needs to go’. When it comes to porn, it’s often just taken for granted that what we see is all we can get.

Erika Lust: Yeah, people don’t think about pornography as a whole – modern people don’t care much about porn because the look is very old fashioned. The style of it. Porn is porn and that’s it – but you can make it differently. That was one of the first things that happened when I started and had this vision of what I wanted to do. When I started to speak to people I got the reaction so many times like ‘come one, porn is porn, nothing can be done about it, it’s the way it is, what do you want?’ They really didn't understand it. In the beginning I was pushing the perspective that it was for women, that was one of the things that was important to me. And people were saying ‘women will never pay for porn. They will never pay for anything to do with sex, because you pay women for sex.’

“People were saying ‘women will never pay for porn. They will never pay for anything to do with sex, because you pay women for sex” – Erika Lust

Do you or did you look up to any other female porn filmmakers?

Erika Lust: There was Candida Royalle, who just passed away. She was never a main name or voice out there, but still if you look at her films, you realise that they are still explicit, but there is still a little more of a romantic perspective. When I watched her films I did feel more comfortable – there was a want for that, a need for it – people wanted something different. But I still felt – and, maybe it has something to do with the generational shift – but I felt I wanted something more modern, with a more cinematic feel to it.

In your films there is always an element of humour. The film A blowjob is always a great last-minute gift idea! (where a man simulates oral sex on a life-sized cock-shaped candy) is intelligent, funny and sexy. Why is humour important?

Erika Lust: There’s a lot of humour, because, for me, sex is fun. I think that is one of the things that defines my films; there’s a lot of humour; it’s a lot of fun; it’s about positive sexual experiences; because I always felt that there was porn that was very hardcore, very violent, very sexist, and then there was these softer films in the romantic category where there were silk sheets – that world. Neither of them appealed to me. Then I looked at independent cinema. There was nothing in mainstream cinema, of course. Sex is what happens in the cut when they are on the bed, then behind the sheets and that’s it. But normally what happens in independent cinema is that the directors – there are very few women, of course – but the director’s perspective is dramatically different. They are not at all interested in exciting you, they aren’t interested in making something ‘hot’. They are interested in using sex in their narrative, in their description of the characters. But normally the role that sex or sexuality plays is something more traumatising, something more complex, obscure, dark and difficult. Like Nymphomaniac. It is very hard to find films, like Shortbus (2006), that has positive sexual descriptions, or Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which is one of the best examples I’ve seen of graphic sex in an independent movie.

But there was such an uproar about both of those films.

Erika Lust: I’ve never understood that. How people can be so afraid of sex when it is something very natural. We all come from sex, it is the source of life, it is the basics of everything. We all do it, we all enjoy it. So I really don’t understand the hype around it. Then violence is out there and that is accepted, they are chopping hands and pouring blood! I am very sensitive to violence – I can’t watch it, I get physically ill.

So your film was included at Raindance Film Festival, and even though porn has been included at the festival before – such as Bruce LaBruce – you’re the first woman. You’re leading the charge.

Erika Lust: I think it’s a reaction to the world we live in today. Women are stepping into the world of filmmaking. Now I read a lot to do with the world of filmmaking, but it is very clear that they are coming. Look at TV in America, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer. They are coming and they are funny and intelligent and have new voices and different perspectives. We have different characters, women as people. That’s so important. I’m so tired of seeing women as the girlfriend, the mother and the whore. We’re done with that. Let us just be, and be difficult and strange and let us have crazy ideas.

Your films feel very empowering. As women having sex, we don’t look like porn stars, so seeing real women – one of them had proud body hair, one of them had braces – that is something that does give women the feeling that it’s ok. That your behaviour, how you look, what you want, in sex – is ‘normal’.

Erika Lust: It shows that sexiness has nothing to do with physical looks. Sexiness is a feeling, you can be sexy however you look. It’s how you feel. Some days you feel super sexy and some days you feel like shit. It’s the same. Also what I am trying to do in XConfessions is to show a diversity, that we can play and we can be whoever we want to and we can have different moods when we want a different type of sex. Just because you want to be dominant one day doesn’t mean you don’t want to be submissive with someone else another day, or with the same person. Sexuality is not by definition ‘I am this way’. It’s fluid. It comes and it goes and it is in different phases of life and all the time you are constantly changing. In my speech (at Raindance) I talked badly about mainstream pornography as a whole, because I think we need to talk about it and criticise it and change it. I’m not saying that we only need to point out what is bad about it, we also need to realise what we like about it, why we want to watch it. But for me the most important thing is to make an alternative – to find something that I want to look at.

“How people can be so afraid of sex when it is something very natural. We all come from sex, it is the source of life, it is the basics of everything. We all do it, we all enjoy it” – Erika Lust

I think it is important for people – whether they’re turned on by mainstream porn or by yours – to see both, to see the flip side and to see sex in a different way.

Erika Lust: One day you want to go to McDonald’s, and the next day you want to go to a nice small little family-based restaurant. You want a lot of different things in life. One thing doesn’t exclude the other.

At your Raindance screening you said, ‘Sex is greater than porn’. Are you filming porn or are you filming people having sex?

Erika Lust: In my approach, I am filming sex. I don’t view myself as a pornographer. I feel I am a filmmaker who is interested in sexuality and who films sex. When you put explicit sex on the screen it becomes pornographic by definition. This is the discussion that important filmmakers have in festivals where they have been showing explicit sex, and a journalist comes along and asks them “Is it porn”? And they all say the same thing, “No it is not porn. Because I don’t want to turn you on.” For all of them, that is the basics of it. But by that definition, what I do is porn, because I want to turn you on. But not just to turn you on, I also want to show you a great story, to inspire you, to make you feel happy, to show you new ideas.

Have you had much of a reaction from mainstream filmmakers?’

Erika Lust: Yes, of course. I’ve been called everything from Feminazi to fake feminist. And a big spectrum in-between. Of course I have had a lot of positive reactions too – some people think I am doing an inspiring and amazing thing. But there are a lot of porn actors that feel quite attacked. Because they think I am saying that they are making sexist movies, and they want to defend themselves by saying that actually a lot of women like their movies. And you’re like, “Yeah of course, I’m happy for them, but there are also a lot of women and men who don’t like your movies”. I think they want to protect porn somehow. They don’t want porn to become a subject of criticism and analysis, because then there will be a lot of censorship and rules about it. There is a lot of money and a lot of people in porn and they don’t want to see that cut. That’s not such an uncommon reaction.

It’s the same as when women wanted to get into politics. Like, “Why would women be interested in politics?” Or when women wanted to go to university or study medicine. People were saying, “We don’t need women, we manage medicine and investigations fine”. And women started saying, “All these experiments you’ve been doing have been on the male body, do you know that the female body is different? Maybe we should do some testing on the female body”. And everybody started to realise that it was different. Women entering a new world will always be criticised in the beginning, until we become a critical mass. That is something I learnt at university when I studied political science. They always talk about the critical mass being when a minority becomes 30 per cent of the population, and then you have to scream a lot. And when you scream a lot you are a bitch. And before that I had a lot of haters criticising my looks and my body, saying, ‘You just need to go out and get fucked by a real man’. I have a lot of those comments. The important thing is that everyone (other female porn filmmaker) has their own style. It’s not like you watch mine and you go, “Right, this is it. This is what it will look like”.

“I had a lot of haters criticising my looks and my body, saying, ‘You just need to go out and get fucked by a real man’” – Erika Lust

I’ve been criticised even from a group of feminist porn filmmakers, that somehow my films will make people think that all women want is good cinematography. Criticism comes from everywhere. That is the way it is. If you believe in something you can’t care what people are saying because they will always have their own perspectives. There have been people criticising me saying “Why don’t you show trans?” That I can’t be a real feminist if I don’t show trans people. The list goes on. I think that as women we are brought up to please people and we feel very attacked when we face criticism. But we have to let it go and feel good about what we are doing. If you are doing something that other people like and you are doing well then you don’t need everyone else to like it too. I think that young women would be much happier if they learnt that earlier in life.

With the term feminist filmmaker, how do you define that? How do you feel about that?

Erika Lust: I think it is extremely complicated. The term ‘feminist porn’ I normally try not to use it too much. Not because I don’t believe in it, and if we break it down theoretically I think it can definitely work. But we need to understand what feminism is and what pornography is. The problem when I use it is that I need ten minutes, and if I don’t have it I don’t use it. (laughs) Because with feminism there is the general idea that it is anti-men, and for pornography there is the idea that it is anti-women. So people get very nervous and don’t know what to do with it. Mostly though when they hear the term people think it is only women, that it is lesbian porn, and then people think that it is just ugly women. So when I speak about my work I say that it is independent adult cinema – it is easier to understand and doesn’t take ten minutes to explain it. But for me, feminism stands for men and women being equals, that we should have the same rights and opportunities. Even though we are not at that point yet in society, you actively work towards that point.

And you do that by having both men and women on your sets?

Erika Lust: I try to prioritise women, but sometimes no one shows up. And I’m not just gonna be like, “Alright I’ll put in a dog”. (laughs) If I find a man that I feel is on the same level and he understand my project then I will have him on the crew and listen to him. But I feel we are about 85 per cent women on the set. What happens with women is that they are much better at communicating. If women are in a meeting that is dominated by men I think it takes a lot more for them to say, “Hey I have an idea”. But if you’re in this group with a lot of women then the art director will suddenly speak up, and the camera operator doesn’t feel like someone is going to tell her it is a bad idea. Even when I started to direct and I had more men in my crew I felt like I was communicating in a feminine way, like, “What do you think?” “Should we do this?” Women understand that. Men just answer me “No”, and a woman would never say that. If she thinks differently she would put it in cotton, make it softer. I’m not saying that it is a better way of communicating because the masculine way may be clearer and more direct. With my kids I use a masculine way because they get confused when I’m like, “What do you think about the idea of having meatballs for dinner?” But on set, when there are a lot of women, we feel more secure.

“With feminism there is the general idea that it is anti-men, and for pornography there is the idea that it is anti-women. So people get very nervous and don’t know what to do with it” – Erika Lust

With XConfessions, people may criticise you for not having a trans character or a disabled character, are there things you want to move into?

Erika Lust: I feel that I can’t do it all. That is one of the lessons. It will always be something else – more working class women or shoot a story in a tree, it doesn’t work that way. My work is basically story driven in the sense that I go with the good story. If I find a good confession that I think has a good story then I’ll shoot it. If I have a confession that I read and I think it’s great and it’s about trans then I might do it. But I don’t feel like I have to show that I am doing all of it. It is difficult to go outside your own sexuality somehow, it is interesting but difficult. I have shot a story between two men, and I get a little lost because I am not a man and I don’t know exactly how it works between them. So I feel that maybe it is more interesting for me to show who I am and my reality, than to try to push the limits to capture all of it. Maybe I should leave that to people who are better at representing those groups. It’s also that feeling that, you know, I am not chosen democratically to represent all women. That’s not what I’m doing. What is definitely clear is that this is a genre that needs new creators – it needs more people.

Erika Lust is speaking at the Chicago International Film Festival tonight for XConfessions: A conversation with Erika Lust, click here for more information