The titles His Was First in My Ass, Titty Titty Bang Bang, and My Moaning Neighbor could easily be mistaken for your average porn flicks. But these are the films of Erika Lust, the acclaimed director of female-led indie erotica.
In her popular XConfessions series, viewers can submit anonymous confessions to Lust’s website for free. Each month, Lust chooses the confessions she wants to transform into a short film. Just released in its sixth volume, the erotic films featuring explicit sex bear clever references to Russ Meyer movies and the “underwear scene” in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. They’re artistic, occasionally humorous, and feature a range of body types and races.
Born in sex-positive Sweden, Lust’s first experiences with porn were awkward at best. She found the movies “tacky” and lacking a female perspective. This is the focus of her Barcelona-based company, Lust Films, where women dominate the crew and the movies look more like filthy, beautiful indie films than the ultra-plastic productions many audiences are used to.
Flavorwire spoke with Lust about why she hates the “porn” categorization, creating adult cinema in an Insta era, and what it’s like to watch real-life couples having sex.
Flavorwire: In your TEDx Talk, you say that Linda Williams’ Hard Core, an unprecedented study on pornography, was your “eureka” moment at the beginning of your career. Can you talk more about the book’s influence on your work?
Erika Lust: Yes, I definitely had my eureka moment when studying Linda Williams and her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” because it really was the first study that looked at porn as a genre with a history, as a specific cinematic form, and as an important part of contemporary discourse on sexuality. So instead of coming from a really moralizing angle, it academically analyzes the messages and tropes of mainstream porn in a way that made me really think about it differently. I had long thoughts about the structures in porn, but had not been able to fully form my ideas, because I hadn’t found the right theories about it.
That book really gave me the tools to understand that mainstream porn is not something that reflects a truth about sex — it’s a statement, an idea, it’s expressing ideologies and values, opinions about sex and gender. The more I learned about pornographic discourse, the more I wanted to try to create something totally different in the genre — to make my own films, according to my own taste, expressing my ideas and my values, and of course, including the female as an active subject of pleasure, with her own ideas and desires, not just as an object to cater to every whim of the man.
Your home of Sweden has an established history of sex education since the postwar era. A big part of that was teaching students that sex is a source of joy and an important part of our development. You’ve been vocal that a lot of porn is about “punishing” women or using them for male pleasure. Does this seem to be an inherently American trait?
I wouldn’t say so, because we have people in Scandinavia consuming violent porn and committing violent crimes against women, too. I think violent porn reflects misogyny in society. But also, violent porn can reproduce warped ideas about sex that ultimately underlie rape culture. It can really be a vicious circle.
I’m not saying that all mainstream porn is misogynistic, but clearly, a lot of it is — and proud of it. And as it’s being presented as normal and expected to appeal to the average male audience is just insane. So we have to talk about it.
Swedish sex ed is great, there’s no doubt about that. Modern Swedish sex ed also includes talks about porn, as it should. It’s not about telling kids to watch porn, because they already do. It’s giving them space to talk about it, to encourage being critical of what you see, and being empathetic to other human beings.
All the statistics show that countries with good sex ed have fewer cases of teenage pregnancies and STDs, and that it makes people wait for their sexual debut. So we’re not just talking about sex and porn because we’re filthy! It’s just about approaching the subject as a reality of life, that we need to know things about it in order to make informed decisions about our bodies and what we watch.
Has there been a time in the past, in porn, where women were more in control of their pleasure?
In the Golden Era of porn in the ’70s, I think there were some really great films that were used as tools of sexual liberation as a response to conservative views about sex held in society. But there weren’t many women behind the camera… I think true control over pleasure in porn comes from getting to make active decisions about how it’s produced and presented. And that means having women in leading roles as directors, producers, art directors, directors of photography, etc. I work with a team made up of almost all women, and as you can see in the results of my films, they are very different from the mainstream, showing women and men enjoying their sexuality and showing the beauty of sex, not just the mechanical organs pounding against each other.
You studied film directing and you have a personal interest in cinema. In your TEDx talk, you said you view yourself more as a filmmaker exploring sex rather than a pornographer. Do you have an aversion to the pornographer title due to its inherent sexism?
Yes, I do a bit. I wanted to create an alternative to porn, not to “join it,” if you know what I mean. I always felt that I have done something different than porn, that we need a new word. But porn is the best-known word we use for sex on film, so it’s used because it’s easier and people can understand it. I can live with it. But I prefer to refer to my films as “independent adult cinema.”
Do you want your films to be viewed as political?
I think it really depends if you are intending it to be or not. They are political in some ways, though not directly — but mainstream porn films are political, too. There is ideology wrapped up in sex. And sexist ideology is ideology, too. You can’t get around the fact that how you choose to present sex becomes political.
I studied Political Science at university, so I come from a background where I do think about injustice, structures, and who gets to have a say in whatever I look at. And absolutely, I think of my films as adding to something positive and contributing to sexual equality.
But mostly my films are about pleasure, fun, and cinematography — to show sex being enjoyed by everyone.
There’s sometimes a myth, perhaps most among men, that women prefer softcore over hardcore sex — that things have to be softened to get them off. Is that a misconception you felt it was important to tackle with your own work?
Yes, it’s definitely a myth. Women can like sex just as dirty as men. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to see a cheap, ugly-looking film because of that. Personally, why should I have to endure looking at a horrible couch just because I want to see sex on film? I shoot hardcore, I’ve directed anal and BDSM, but I still frame the stories beautifully and have a narrative there, a context. And by narrative I don’t mean that people are talking for ages before they take their clothes off. But just something that answers the question, “Why are these people having sex?” That makes the whole thing sexier. You can add humor, drama, atmosphere — anything you can think of. The whole thing just gets better with more attention to everything.
I appreciate that your movies feature different body types and races, without making the films specifically “interracial” or “BBW,” etc. In the mainstream porn world, these performers aren’t necessarily featured prominently. Can you talk a little bit about the casting process for your movies? Is there a type of performer you look for?
Thank you! Sometimes I get questions like, “Why don’t you have more gay/black/trans/larger/older people in your films?” The answer is always the same: because I can’t represent everyone, even if I would try, and also, I don’t want to cast someone because they have a certain body type, etc. It’s about who they are and that they are right for the film.
I would love to work with an even wider range of performers, but it has to happen organically. I don’t want to start fetishizing the actors, because then I’m no better than the pornographers who just break people into body parts. That’s not me.
[Note: the trailer below features some nudity and NSFW content.]
The XConfessions series is really immersive for a set of short films — from your fun poster designs to the settings and costumes. How long does it take you to shoot each project, and how involved are you throughout the process? What’s the most exciting part about creating them?
Thank you! It’s a heavy production output, as we release two films a month (one film every two weeks), but I don’t do it all by myself. I have 15 people working in my office and then another 15 making up my production team for the shootings. My favorite part is definitely being on set, directing. That’s when I’m the happiest. I shoot five films every three months, so it can take up to four or five months before the final film is released online — from initial idea and confessions, through to location scouts, casting performers, script writing, then onto the shooting, and then all the post-production work that goes into them afterwards for color correction, editing, sound, and choosing the soundtrack. The production output is the same as for any independent film and works in very much the same way, apart from the fact we also include explicit sex.
I loved the link you made to Russ Meyer films in Titty Titty Bang Bang and some of your other cinematic references. Are there explicit (non-porn) films that really inspire you or have shaped the look of your work?
We do receive a lot of breast-related stories, but this one stood out because of that tiny Meyer reference in the confessor’s username “RMeyer!” It can be something like that, which just starts a snowball of ideas and references. In terms of other references, I love L’amant, (The Lover) by Jean-Jacques Annaud. This is probably the movie that influenced me the most to start making adult films. Some think it’s cheesy, but I just love it. I saw it in my teens and was mesmerized — I must have been about the same age as the girl in the film. The attention given to the female perspective in the love story really resonated with me. I guess that’s when I realized how often that aspect was missing. I’m a huge cinephile after all, so I love watching films and great series, especially Lena Dunham’s Girls!
You feature several real-life couples in your movies, which definitely brings a unique chemistry to the film (as in Titty Titty Bang Bang). Is working with couples different than individual performers?
It’s a bit different, yeah. For non-couples, me and my team always do our best to match people with performers they have a great chemistry with by asking them if there is anyone in particular they would like to work with or what kind of things they like, etc. With couples, that chemistry is already there — and as a director, you don’t have to second-guess anything about their connection.
Do you find it difficult to make porn in an era when free films are available at the click of a button online?
It’s always going to be a challenge doing this. But I just have to stay on the top of my game. So far, people have felt like it’s worth paying, because they’re getting something good and unique in return. And I think more and more people have a conscience about consuming adult films as well. Even if they can get something for free, trust me, many people do see the value of paying for adult films. It’s the only way I could finance what I do. Piracy is unavoidable in this business, but if everyone chose to view my films through piracy I wouldn’t be able to keep doing this. But I do also offer two free films, which change every few months for free members on XConfessions just so they can get a little taste.
Have you noticed any common traits with your female audience?
No, actually! They are a very varied bunch.
Have you received any backlash from people in the porn industry about your views on mainstream porn?
Yes. Mainly from the kind men who can’t see a problem with the porn industry, and seem to think that their films somehow are a reflection of an equal society, haha! Or it’s been criticism from men who defend mainstream porn and say, “But mainstream porn is so diverse, it caters to every kind of body and fetish you could think of!” But that’s not diversity. That’s just serving up body parts as disembodied bits.
What has been the response to your work by female and male audiences? I watched several movies with a man I’m dating, and he said: “I liked that it was more about the scenario and the connection between the two people, instead of close-ups on smashing body parts.”
Glad he liked it! Yes, that’s usually what both men and women say, that it’s nice to see a connection, kisses, intimacy, touching — that doesn’t mean that there can’t be any closeups at all. It’s just that I don’t want to base a whole film on genital closeups. That’s not erotica, that’s like a gynecology research video. Over half of my audience is made up of men, so I get feedback from both men and women. They tend to say similar things, that they like seeing a fuller picture of sex, not just the penetration, and that there is a strong sense of realism in the depiction of sex, characters, and context.
Who are the other women porn directors you admire and feel we should be watching? [Please note: the director website links in the response below are NSFW.]
Oh yes, there are so many female directors who make great films! There’s the pioneers like Candida Royalle, Nina Hartley, and Maria Beatty — all very different, all very good. I love Jennifer Lyon Bell, Ovidie, Jacky St. James, Morgana Muses, and Nympho Ninjas. And then I’m obsessed with some great younger filmmakers who make beautiful, artistic films in a really interesting way. There’s Vex Ashley and her production company A Four Chambered Heart, and two Swedish women making the project A New Level of Pornography. Really, the female-led erotica movement is stronger than ever. There are so many different films, so there really is something for everyone.
What advice do you have for women who are considering a career in the porn industry, behind the scenes?
Do it! Take classes, write scripts, talk to people! It’s an amazing job, and you’ll meet amazing people who will support you. They can also read my free e-book, Let’s Make a Porno, from my store, which has all my advice on making your own erotic films. And don’t worry about what your parents will say, because they will always have something to say, whatever you choose to do.