“I accept that I’m an intelligent, competent, submissive feminist,” says the woman on the screen. “Who sometimes finds her power by choosing to let it go.” She’s one of several women who speak directly into the camera against a stark black background. They’re discussing feminism, as well as their desire to be sexually dominated.
Soon, the scene cuts to one of the women, Lina Bembe, negotiating the terms of a BDSM scene with porn performer Owen Gray, a dominant. Over the next 30 minutes, Gray spanks, slaps, gags and has sex with Bembe, denying her orgasm until the very end of the scene. Covered in sweat, spit and her own tears, Bembe laughs, then kisses Owen.
The scene is followed by a roundtable discussion between the same women from the beginning of this 45-minute film, entitled Feminist and Submissive. The moderator, Erika Lust, talks about feminism and the practices of BDSM – shorthand for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism. “It’s not politically correct, but if it’s your desire, it’s your choice,” she says. For some, feminism and BDSM could seem like they’re at odds – but for Lust, it’s only natural.
In 2004, Erika Lust, a Swedish-born filmmaker who had studied political science and feminism in college, found herself frustrated with the adult entertainment she was seeing. Mainstream porn was full of “horny housewives, desperate nannies, fuck bunnies” she lamented in a 2014 TedX talk. “Women as objects, fulfilling men’s desires.” When she watched porn, “The feminist me felt cheated. The activist me felt mad. The sexual me felt aroused. Arousal tasted sweet, [but] objectification tasted bitter.”
Lust decided to make the porn she wanted to see. She turned her film class final project into a pornographic short, called “The Good Girl,” then released it for free online. The film was downloaded millions of times in several days, and Lust realized that consumers were as fed up with the porn they were watching as she was. “There were so many people coming up to me every time I did events, or writing to me, wanting to share their stories,” she says now. Stories of their own sexual escapades, or of the fantasies that played in their heads, but not on their computer screens. “I realized, these stories all had to do with sex, but they were so different from what I saw in mainstream porn.”
Seeing the potential in these unfulfilled fantasies, Lust (pronounced “Loost”) became a full-time erotic filmmaker. Fourteen years later, Lust is at the helm of XConfessions – the website behind Feminist and Submissive – just one part of her ethical porn empire based in Barcelona, Spain.
She believes her work can help the rest of us find our way toward a better sexual future, where explicit consent is a matter of course. “Porn can help us to see sexual etiquette,” she says. “It could really help us explain that kind of situation, to prepare us in that kind of situation.” Porn can cover a range of sexual behaviors in explicit terms, she says, starting with “small details that you can easily bake into a script. Condoms, for example. That’s a form of consent.”
She brings up how characters in her films ask their partners, on-screen, if their partner wants to use protection. “‘Do you want to use a condom?'” she says. “If you just have your character saying it, you’re teaching people that that is a great behavior.” And this includes the sex acts themselves: In Feminist and Submissive, for instance, the performers discuss their desires before they engage in sex, then continue to check in with each other before beginning anything new. It appears not only easy, but also hot.
Lust says that she tries to build this type of behavior into many of her films. “These are small things, you know. ‘Do you like this? Would you like me to do this?’ It’s just one line,” she says. But it could be powerful for the legions of people who watch porn regularly. “Some young people have access to very poor sex education, and access to very few adult people who dare to talk to them in an honest way about sexuality. So obviously, they turn to porn! I mean, really, what else could they do?”
As her company and output have grown over the past decade and a half, Lust has watched the rest of the porn industry change drastically. And though she’s been working hard to make her feminist vision a reality, she says that the advent of free streaming “tube sites” like Pornhub and YouPorn have presented consumers with the lowest common denominator of mainstream porn. “So much of the porn that so many young men are watching today is really showing men who are kind of punish-fucking women. It’s like, ‘I’m slapping this slut!’ and ‘I’m gonna destroy this tiny teen!'” she says. “It’s this aggressive, toxic masculinity and aggression.”
Lust worries that because so much of this aggressive porn is available for free online, people assume that’s all there is to porn – and to sex. “Men seem to accept porn as it is,” she says. But conversely, “For a woman, while she watches mainstream porn, many times instead of just sitting back, relaxing, and having a good time, she gets into conflict,” Lust hypothesizes. “That’s not a great situation when you want to come!”
And so, as a counterpoint, Erika Lust has remained steadfastly outside of mainstream pornography, creating a niche for herself as an outspoken critic of the industry she is a part of. But she’s not only following her own instincts – she’s responding to what consumers have told her they want to see.
After Lust started making porn, fans of her work began to write to her, sharing their ideas and stories. “They were telling me, ‘I love your films! And I have this idea.’ Or, ‘I want to tell you what happened to me,'” she says. The stories she was hearing “felt so much more personal and intriguing and interesting to me.” Stories of wild after-clubbing sex parties, of noisy neighbors whose vocal sex lives are turn-ons for the people next door, of fantasies of abduction and public sex. “So I had this idea,” Lust continues, “that we were going to start a website where people could just send in their story, their adventures, kinks, what had happened to them, what they wanted to do.”
Lust launched the site XConfessions in 2013, turning her favorite confessions and into erotic vignettes. The site has been a resounding success. During a time when many small, independent porn companies have struggled against the deluge of content available online, Lust says, “For us, it is really a growing business. It’s working very well.” So well, in fact, that at a rate of one new film every other week, XConfessions has now released nearly 150 vignettes. Lust herself has directed 112 of them, and another two dozen have been funded by the Lust team, but directed by guest directors, like Goodyn Green (The Toilet Line), Florence Barkway and Reed Amber (Tips and Tricks for Suckin’ Dicks), and Poppy Sanchez (Moist).
“I always wanted to push for other women, to give other people opportunities,” Lust says. “I realized that this was a wonderful opportunity to offer people to fund their films.” In late 2016, Lust put up an open call on her website, inviting aspiring erotic filmmakers to submit their ideas for consideration. “It’s completely fabulous, because the whole project of XConfessions is becoming, really, this community of filmmakers and creators and also artists,” she says. Starting this July, the team plans to start releasing a new short film every week.
The goal is of showing people how to have better sex while giving better consent seems to be working. “I get a lot of e-mails from men, saying, ‘Thank you…I tried to watch porn with my wife,” says Lust. “‘She never liked it. And now we watch your films, and we had the best night ever!’ One of the biggest problems with sex is that it is still so taboo that people don’t talk about it. Everybody is feeling that they are alone, that they are strange, that they are perverts and they can’t share it with anyone else. But in the end, we are all perverts!”
Sunny Rodgers, an XConfessions devotee and certified sexologist, says she finds Lust’s films helpful in a professional sense. “XConfessions ticks a lot of my boxes when it comes to recommending what to try,” she says. “Erika has found a way to include consumers in the personal process of film creation by allowing us to share our fantasies and become a part of her secret club, along with others harboring sexual secrets. She has created her own tribe.”
Rooster, a career cinematographer who has worked on Erika Lust sets several times, speaks highly of their collaborative experiences. “It’s not just about getting more women and more diverse people behind the camera and in production,” Rooster say. “If you don’t put performers’ voices first, there is this great power imbalance where performers cannot speak up if something is unethical.”
Lust’s years of experience working with a growing group of diverse performers, prioritizing their needs and desires on set, and facilitating conversations about their on-screen sex have made her one of Rooster’s favorite directors to work with. “It’s usually both the performers who end up talking, more than Erika Lust being involved in the conversation,” Rooster says.
But ethical standards are difficult to maintain across a growing field of directors. Rooster tells me that at least one of the guest directors they’ve worked with did not have the same facility for putting performers at ease. “On the productions I’ve done with guest directors, I, as an experienced performer, had to teach them how to do things ethically, because maybe that might be the first porn they’ve ever shot, or the first nude scene. Ultimately, they’re looking to achieve the thing that they’ve written. And that’s where it maybe falls apart.” (Editor’s note: In the months since this story was originally published, Rooster has publicly said that they were sexually assaulted on an Erika Lust set, and that she was aware of it. Lust has denied the allegations.)
For her part, Lust says, “We try to pick the right people. We have to prep them to be aware of all the health testing, of condom use, of appropriate behavior around actors and porn performers, and what they can ask and what they can’t.” Still, she acknowledges that a lot of that emotional labor often ends up being performed by the actors. “The actors are also kind of helping filmmakers to realize how it all works when you shoot sex, because some people are not so great with that, because they don’t know!”
And among those who do know how to film sex, Lust believes that ethical behavior is in short supply. In her TedX talk, Lust told her audience that after reading the book Hardcore by Linda Williams, a Berkeley professor, who wrote that porn is more than just jerk-off material – it’s a discourse about sexuality, “I realized that the only ones participating in the discourse of pornography are men. Chauvinistic men. Narrow-minded men. Men with little sexual intelligence.”
While these claims certainly hold true in some pockets of the porn industry, as indicated by recent claims from Nikki Benz, Leigh Raven, and Riley Nixon, other adult entertainers have taken issue with Lust’s assessment of mainstream pornography.
“How can you make a sweeping generalization about the U.S. porn industry when you’re not working in it?” asks Jacky St. James, a writer and director who creates films for mainstream porn companies in Los Angeles – herself an avowed feminist.
“Collectively, as a unit, women should be working together. And there are so many women who are creating pornography and doing it ethically, and so many women that are feminists doing it.” She mentions other feminist porn makers Dana Vespoli, Joanna Angel, Jessica Drake, Stormy Daniels – all of whom are currently making ethical, feminist porn.
Lust’s appearance in the 2017 documentary Netflix series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On further distanced her from many in mainstream porn. The series was a follow-up to the Rashida Jones-produced documentary Hot Girls Wanted – which was loudly decried as harmful to the adult industry – so to some, her participation was shocking. Lust says she knew that she was taking a risk signing up to be a part of the series. But, she believes, it’s a risk that introduced more people to what she’s trying to do, and that exposure is its own reward, particularly because she stays focused on moving forward, improving her work, and trying hard at every turn.
“If we could say one thing, I guess it would have to be that I try, and I’m proud of it,” she says. “That’s the whole difference, really: trying. And that’s what I see that most mainstream porn producers are not doing. They are not trying to get more women behind the cameras. They are not trying to portray female pleasure in a better way. They are not working for more diversity.”
Lust has also been criticized for a lack of diversity on her sets—a disparagement she has been working to overcome for years. “I do try for diversity,” she tells me. “To have people of different colors, different ethnicities, different ages, different body types. But sometimes I’m failing because it’s difficult. I can’t do it in every movie. But at least I feel that if I look at the representation of the actors I’m working with now, it’s become much better. If you go back and look at my work five years ago, it was a lot whiter, and younger, and skinnier than it is today.”
Her dedication to making better, more ethical porn has taken her far. To date, Erika Lust has won nearly 20 awards for her films, including seven Feminist Porn Awards. She is overseeing a half dozen websites that range from (NSFW) pornographic VOD to resources for parents seeking help in talking to their children about pornography. Last year, she launched the Power Pussy clothing and accessories line. She is employing almost two dozen people and funding more directors to create ethical porn, spreading her message far and wide.
Case in point: her work was featured prominently in a recent episode of Black Mirror, in which a woman watches porn in her hotel room to cover up her absence as she hides the body of a friend she just murdered. And in Lust’s recent visit to Los Angeles featured a sold-out #LustinLA event where XConfessions vignettes were shown on the big screen between live adult performances.
Criticism, controversy, and all, the woman who positioned herself as the antithesis to porn she deems “mainstream” is becoming, well, mainstream.
As for those who are put off by her outspoken disapproval of mainstream porn, she says, “I criticize porn a lot. I’m aware of that. I don’t criticize porn because I don’t believe in it – I do believe in porn. But I believe in better porn.”