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Why Adult Films Need To Change: An Interview With Feminist Director Erika Lust

Women’s rights have dominated the headlines since news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October of last year. Its enduring legacy is the #MeToo movement which has inspired millions of women (and men) around the world to call out their abusers for sexual harassment. However, there is one group of people who have largely been excluded from this movement: sex workers.

Recently, there have been a number of deaths in the adult entertainment industry, the most well-publicized of which was that of 23-year-old August Ames in December. She took her own life after being subject to online abuse for refusing to work with a crossover performer (namely, a man who had acted in gay and straight material) out of fear that she could be putting herself at risk of catching an STI. While Ames’ trolls argued that she was being homophobic, they failed to see the bigger picture; even though she was a sex worker, she still had every right to chose what she wanted to do with her body.

Watch the video below for an insight into an alternative and ethical approach to adult cinema:

Ames’ treatment is a reflection of a wider problem in the adult entertainment industry.

Sex workers, particularly women, who are unhappy with the way they are being treated are expected to comply with every demand made of them because it was their choice to become a sex worker in the first place — demeaning the value of this work and dehumanising the very people who provide a form of entertainment that’s watched by the majority of the population.

A testament to this disturbing trend is the fact that 90% of women in the industry want to leave, according to psychoanalyst Steve McKeown.

Dr. Gail Dines, author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality, said of this issue:

“Just imagine everyone is telling their stories of rape and assault and being listened to, and you know full well that if you come forward, they’ll just say ‘what did you expect, you wh*re’.”

We recently spoke to Swedish feminist porn director Erika Lust, pictured above, after a screening of her new XConfessions series in Los Angeles to gain an insight into what is like being a sex-positive female in a patriarchal industry and how the adult cinema might change in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Lust is famed for her raw and honest portrayal of female sexuality on screen, and her XConfessions series is inspired by real fantasies of real women, providing a never-before-seen insight into female sexuality through a medium that’s long been dominated by men.

In the video below, Lust eloquently explains why adult films need to change:

How did your experiences as a woman inspire you to voice feminine sexuality through a medium predominately geared towards men?

“My experiences as a woman and my studies inspired me to show [how] my view of female lust and desire counter the mainstream and create adult cinema that has the power to liberate. My studies in Political Science, Feminism and Gender provided me with the language, the tools and knowledge to effectively describe what I had thought about porn, sexism and create an alternative discourse.

When I first watched adult films in my 20s, I saw how much mainstream porn was catering to men to boost their sense of power and entitlement over women’s bodies. As I often say, 'men don’t have sex on screen, what they often do is ‘punish-f**k’ women.' ‘They put them in their place’, ‘They teach them a lesson’... on and on.

It is often about men subjecting women to violent and degrading sexual acts.

This goes along with the common gendered sexualisation of violence in mainstream imagery. It is part of our current sexist culture. As Caitlin Moran stated, ‘Simply seeing people have sex is not inherently misogynist or horrible to women. Pornography isn’t the problem. It’s the porn industry that’s the problem.’

I wondered where is the heat, the passion, the context, the sensuality of sex?”

“Pornography has historically been seen as the purview of men, and, as a result of this male dominance, female sexuality and her pleasure and views on sex have been ignored or neglected in the medium for too long.

We are still missing a meaningful analysis of the way women are represented in adult films as a whole. What it means for women collectively in terms of achieving gender equality and the message we are sending out. We’ve never had a culture which fully encourages women to embrace, explore and experiment their sensuality without censure.

We don’t understand the full potential of uninhibited female sexuality. Even now, in mass media and on social networks, when a woman decides to take ownership over her own body and her sexuality the way she wants, she is then censored. However, all the Dan Bilzerians of the world keep sending their misogynistic message that women are only accessories to their lavish lifestyle alongside with their guns, money and weed.

What message does this give? For me, it means that we live in a male-dominated world that does not want the status quo changed where media allows commodification of women but keeps censoring their bodies when they take ownership of how they present it. What stops any men from doing it in real life if this is the message media and now social media keeps sending out?”

“There seems to be a general consensus made [by men] that women like erotic novels, soft sex, silk sheets and roses. We’ve been given the ‘female friendly’ category on the tube sites and we should be happy with that. But it’s just not true. Female sexuality cannot be pigeonholed into one category. My films show that women have sexual preferences as varied as their personalities and like the sex just as dirty as the men. Whether it’s rough, multiple, vulgar, strange, romantic, modern, or all at once.

The adult industry has always been very male-dominated and as a woman it can be hard to speak up, because men tend to take up so much space. However, explicit films are a discourse on sexuality and most mainstream porn doesn’t reflect any truths about sex, but it expresses ideologies, values and opinions on gender and female pleasure. I wanted to express mine.”

What barriers have you faced as a woman in such a male-dominated industry?

“Initially, it was the incredible hostility I received from my male counterparts in the industry. I was belittled by a lot of them and told that I was wasting my time and money. They didn’t understand why I wanted to try and make new type of adult cinema. For them everything was already done, women had their ‘soft scenes with roses and silk sheets’ and that’s what ‘female-friendly’ adult material was reduced to. Ultimately they didn’t like it because they thought I was wrong to think I could do something better than them.

It’s always hard trying to change the status quo, but if you don’t try you'll never succeed!

I’m in a great place right now, with a wonderful team coming up with new exciting projects. Of course, it has taken a lot of effort and work, but I wake up every day feeling that it’s worth it.”

How do you think the adult entertainment industry is going to change in the wake of the #MeToo movement?

“The #MeToo movement has shown us that there is a gender dysfunction, a power imbalance in society that is visible in every single field. Harassment is diverse, it takes different shapes and is not always obvious. Power abuse is not a male trait, it’s a human trait, but we live in a culture of toxic masculinity that allows and encourages men to perpetrate acts of violence towards women or to simply disrespect them and that helps condone the behavior. 

As in any other male-dominated field, power imbalance and harassment is huge in the adult entertainment industry. Unfortunately, sex work is still a topic of conversation that a large portion of society does not want to broach. If we don’t talk about the industry and how it works, about sex work, we won't able to see and confront any climate of serial sexual predatory behavior that exists.”

“The solution is to tackle the heftier discourse surrounding content and production process.

More often than not, porn fantastically mirrors our society, blatantly showing the neglect and misrepresentation of female pleasure and consent not only in front but also behind the camera. Situations like what happened to performer Leigh Raven happen all the time.

It is key that every part of the shoot has been discussed and agreed beforehand and performers know that they can stop a shoot at any moment. In order to create this safe environment, I believe the solution is putting women behind the camera in leading roles who follow the values of ethical adult cinema. Nothing will change otherwise.”

“An ethical production process guarantees to have been made with the consent of all parts involved. Consent regarding the sexual acts that will be performed but also the rate of pay that people will be getting. In ethical porn, boundaries and personal limits are respected. It ensures that is done under a safe sex environment where performers can explore their sexuality in a health controlled environment, and under good working and safety conditions and basic labor rights not only for performers but also for the crew. This environment emphasizes safety and mutual respect. It also goes down to things like people being fed on set and having anything they need provided.

My company follows the principles of ethical adult cinema. We take this very seriously and we are very proud of what we do.

That’s the only way to really combat the male porn gaze and create an industry where women can feel sexually empowered and safe and where there is no sexual coercion. I also believe the adult entertainment industry needs to begin taking responsibility for the messages it sends out about women.”

What steps do you think need to be taken to create a culture where it is acceptable for sex workers to say #MeToo?

“Historically, feminism has always had a very complicated relationship with sex work. There is a hesitance by some to welcome sex workers into the conversation, and it’s a huge issue, but it’s not only specific to #MeToo.

There’s a long-held, very problematic fallacy in society that sex workers can’t be assaulted due to the nature of their job, and, as a result, they have been excluded from the discussion on sexualized and gender-based violence. But sex workers are criminalized, vulnerable to sexual assault, and oppressed in a variety of intersectional ways, so their exclusion from these conversations just doesn’t make sense.”

“Statistics show that sex workers are more likely to experience sexual abuse on the job but they have few good options to report it. If they do report it, they’re often not treated with empathy and take the risk of being arrested for prostitution. Society tells us that they should expect abuse, they should expect to be treated badly and they should expect to have their boundaries violated. This puts the onus of abuse onto the women who experience it, rather than those who commit it.

We need not only policy and legal change, but cultural change. We need to advocate for decriminalization of sex work and safer working conditions. We need more people to identify themselves as allies and include sex workers in public conversation on sexual violence.

The media needs to report not just on Hollywood’s stories of assault, but also sex workers’ stories, not only because they are at more risk but because they are often unable to report their abusers for fear of punishment. There are similarities between their stories and the stories coming out of Hollywood, the main difference is that sex workers lack any kind of support system.”

“The situation is particularly problematic in the USA at the moment. The enforcement of SESTA/FOSTA has severe consequences for sex workers. The SESTA and FOSTA bills claim to protect people from sex trafficking, but they will harm sex workers and porn performers in real ways. These are online spaces sex workers need to survive. This law will make it even harder for sex workers to share their experiences of abuse and assault.

The creation of ‘bad date lists’ online has been common practice among sex workers to protect each other from assault and violence. But now, due to SESTA/FOSTA, the websites hosting these lists will be liable for what users say and do on their platforms and may have to take them down. #MeToo gave survivors a voice, which SESTA/FOSTA may take away.”

Do you think that major adult websites need to be legally forced into introducing stricter controls on the type of material they provide for free?

“We definitely need stricter controls on their whole pirating business model. Because let’s be clear, these websites are not making their own material, they are stealing it. Tube sites such as Pornhub traditionally rely on 'users' uploading content to the site. Uploaders have to declare that they have the rights to do so but it’s clear that amid large quantities of fully licensed material, content exists on Pornhub that is infringing copyright. They claim to be a completely user-generated content site and are subsequently protected by the provision that they can't monitor copyrights of every video uploaded.

When a filmmaker finds that their content has been illegally uploaded they can report it and the tube site is served with a DMCA takedown notice, upon which they remove the stolen content. However, the next day the same video is often re-uploaded by another (sometimes the same) user. Obviously, small adult film studios do not have the time to be trawling through tube sites looking for their content every day. Therefore content goes up faster than studios can issue demands for it to be taken down.”

“The majority of the world’s tube sites are effectively a monopoly owned by a company called MindGeek, whose bandwidth use reportedly exceeds that of Amazon or Facebook. Their business is not pornography, cinema or human sexuality, they have no interest in that.

They don’t care about the images of sexuality and sex they put out there. Their business is traffic.

Platforms like Pornhub and YouPorn, for instance, were very vocal in the fight against the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality because they obviously need huge amounts of traffic to sell ads and get studios to play by their rules and create premium accounts. They are extremely profitable and lucrative, they bought most of the old studios and companies in San Fernando Valley and they have created a business model that has completely disrupted the industry, destroyed the conditions for sex work, and supported the way we collectively and without conscience, consume pornography.

The tube business model steals from the studios they did not get to buy, while it profits from decentralized, unregulated amateur production. Female performers’ wages dropped massively since the 2000s, when the first tube-style websites were founded. When there is no benefit, there is no money for production and all costs have to be reduced including performers. This definitely adds to the capacity for exploitation. At the same time, its anonymity creates the illusion that pornography is free for everyone and entails no cost, which leads to the assumption that sex work is not work. It's a vicious circle.

More controls need to be put on these websites, but above all, users need to be made aware of the ethical implications of watching pirated material. Viewers need to think how the scenes they are watching were made. ‘What kind of conditions are the performers working in?’ ‘Where and how was its done?’ ‘Was it consensual?’

If someone gave you a free holiday you would be suspicious, it’s time to bring that suspicion into your porn consumption. It’s time to be a conscious consumer and start demanding to know how your porn is made and who makes it — or you may be contributing to an expanding machine of profit-driven exploitation.”

“Paying for porn is the most direct way to ensure porn was made under ethical production values.

If you are downloading films for free or visiting tube sites, you don't have any idea of who made that material and you’re basically making it harder for companies that want to support performers with good wages to do that. When we talk about professional and ethically made adult cinema, there are many reasons that the content is behind a paywall. It costs money to make. 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 require.

Sex work is a real job, and performers deserve to be paid. By paying for your adult material, you’re helping to ensure that smaller companies that are committed to some of these labor practices, are able to continue making the porn that they want to make and that sex work is done in a safe environment.

I always recommend the same. 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?”

“When you watch free adult films you are bringing more traffic to the free tube sites and giving them more domination in the market. Even if the film was made under ethical circumstances, when that film is pirated and watched for free the studio loses money and you become part of a chain that is lowering performers’ rate of pay. I think it makes you complicit with a business model that promotes exploitation.”

Unlike mainstream adult material, your XConfessions series focuses on real fantasies from real women, do you think that normalizing the experiences depicted in porn is the key to enabling people to have better sex lives?

XConfessions offers a visual expression of real sex, real orgasms, real women’s pleasure and female sexuality, which is not abundantly available on the mainstream market.

To me, it’s less about normalizing the experiences depicted in porn, and more about depicting female sexuality and fantasies in pornography that people want to see, appealing to a larger demographic of people instead of just the hetero, white, cis male running the free tube sites!

It’s important for people to be able to see themselves in the films and see the sex that they desire. Then they can be inspired, educated, and most importantly they won’t be exposed to just one version of porn that teaches them toxic values.”

On that note, how has acting in your films affected performers compared to working with other directors? Has the higher production value given them a sense of pride that's not so easily found in creating mainstream pornography?

“As far as I know, my actors all enjoy their days shooting with me, and I love shooting with each of them! Everyone I work with is sex-positive, intelligent and very proud of the work that they do with me and with other directors. Sometimes they are amateur, sometimes they are well known and sometimes they come to me from mainstream sets, so everyone's experience is slightly different.”

“Our casting process is long and thorough. We always make sure our performers are 21+, have had their own sexual experiences, are sex-positive and 100% happy and enthusiastic to be involved. We really get to know them long before we start filming, and the performers get to know each other too, so that it feels natural for them. The people I work with are fantastic well-rounded individuals who have made clear choices to reach the decision to perform in adult cinema.

You can find out more about the performers, there are interviews and profiles explaining a little bit more about them and why they like to be in my films or do sex work in general!”

Most people’s understanding of sexuality in the modern world has been largely influenced by the adult entertainment industry's patriarchal standards, what advice would you give to women who are looking to explore and embrace their sexualities in spite of this?

“I’d say ‘Most people's understanding of sexuality in the modern world has been largely influenced by the world's patriarchal standards’. Not the industry’s.

Adult films are a medium that can open your mind about sexuality and help you to discover new desires and fantasies. It can help you discover your body, how to give pleasure to it and to others. My advice is take time to look at different types of porn online and explore indie adult cinema. Do your research into who is making the films and check that they're being made under ethical circumstances. And most importantly, don't be put off by a lot of the mainstream content you may see on the free tube sites! Porn is not a monolith!”

“Over the last [few] years, there has been a growing movement of female directors who are trying to change the industry from within and create films that are artistic and realistic, that positively mirror female sexuality and that can help to change perceptions of gender.

With cinematic value and high production values they aim to create an alternative to mainstream porn for everyone who wants something different, something real and honest and they do it by following an ethical production process.

I recently started a new website which is a catalogue of the best directors in indie adult cinema from across the globe. All of the films are beautiful, realistic and sex-positive whilst being ethically made, produced and distributed. It is a good place to start for men and women who want to give this alternative we created a chance.”

“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. Masturbation isn’t a taboo anymore, and the more we know about ourselves, the more we can be control of our own sexuality and pleasure. Female pleasure matters!”

Los Angeles has long been associated with the production of adult material, with its famous San Fernando Valley often being referred to as the porn capital of the world.

The screening of Lust’s XConfessions series in this location helps to shed light on how the industry needs to change to an audience who were undoubtedly audience familiar with the status quo, opening up a discussion about the importance of promotion of female creators and sexuality in an industry saturated by problematic material, and hopefully changing the way adult material is produced for the better in years to come.

Contrary to what has traditionally been depicted in the media, pornography is not just for men.

We live in a world where female sexuality is being celebrated in a way that it has never been before, however, there is still a long way to go when it comes to achieving absolute equality between the sexes.

If female pleasure and fantasies are depicted honestly onscreen like they are in Lust’s XConfessions series, it will not only improve the sex lives of women around the world but people of all genders. They can then use this to their advantage in the bedroom instead of reducing their understanding of sex, as Lust pointed out, to society’s patriarchal standards.

Lust’s insightful answers shed light on the problematic nature of the adult entertainment industry in its current form. Unlike in years gone by, the majority of young people are accessing pornography for the first time through free tube sites, and because of widespread ignorance on how the material they are viewing is being made and distributed, they are unknowingly funding an industry which treats sex workers as subhuman, devaluing what they do and contributing to a culture where they are unable to say #MeToo without being condemned.

If you would like to see Lust’s XConfession’s series for yourself, you can visit her website here.