Can porn be feminist? A conversation wth Erika Lust

Feminist porn is sex on film showing women and men as sexual equals – that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman

First published by Open Democracy, 27th April 2016

Feminist porn is sex on film showing women and men as sexual equals – that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman

Erika Lust believes that porn can change. The Swedish erotic filmmaker with a degree in political sciences has won numerous awards for her work, including the Feminist Porn Award Movie of the Year in 2012, Cinekink Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature, and the Feminist Porn Award for Hottest Straight Vignette two years in a row. Lust is a self-identified feminist and perhaps one of the most important alternative voices in pornography, due to her treatment of the medium as a legitimate art form that deserves time, care, and budget, and in which her actors are treated with consideration and respect.

Porn has long been a thorny topic within feminism, from the second-wave anti-pornography movement and subsequent ‘sex wars’ to the increasingly popular style of ‘Cool Girl’ feminism that posits all porn as empowering and positive. However, approaching the subject with nuance is key.

It’s simply untrue to state that all porn or porn as a concept is harmful to those who consume it or to those who work within the industry, and it’s equally disingenuous to argue that there are no issues with some of the most commonly viewed porn available online. Porn is an industry, but it’s also a product and it responds to the needs and desires and behavior of consumers. If we are to alter the product that mainstream sites are offering, then an alternative must be presented.

Can porn be feminist? Pornography is explicit material designed to sexually arouse the viewer and by definition, there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about porn, because there is nothing anti-feminist about wanting to be aroused or wanting to look at arousing images. Give me porn that shows women and men and non-gender-conforming folks enjoying themselves. I’ll download that. Hell, I’ll even pay for it. Porn can be feminist, but much of the content accessed by millions of viewers on the ‘porn giant’ websites like PornHub and RedTube is problematic.

The impression of variety and choice is belied by the fact that the majority of porn caters to the presumed desires of a male viewer. Mainstream porn makes weird, retrograde and highly racist categorizations of performers based on skin colour, and titles videos with the kind of misogynistic language you’d expect on a 4chan thread or scrawled on a school desk by a fourteen-year-old boy who thinks he’s ‘well hard’. Depictions of violent or degrading acts (slapping, choking, spitting, punching, biting, verbal abuse) towards women are now commonplace in mainstream pornography, and although these acts can be mutually pleasurable in a healthy BDSM context, they are not presented in a setting of trust and consent, leaving them open to interpretation by young people who assume that ‘this is what you to do girls when you have sex’.

The extensive research presented in the 2015 Girl Guiding ‘Girls’ Attitudes Survey’ is stark and damning, with 87% of the young women aged 17 to 21 surveyed believing that porn creates unrealistic expectations of female bodies, 71% saying that porn gives out confusing messages about sexual consent and makes aggressive or violent behavior towards women seem normal, and 65% agreeing that porn increases hateful language used to or about women.

Within porn, there are issues of consent (as in the case of James Deen, who has been accused of sexual assault on and off set by fellow performers, including the writer and porn star Stoya) of sexual health, of the kind of bodies that are represented, and of royalties (or lack thereof) and the ownership and dissemination of erotic material. There are also problems for performers who have left the industry and find themselves shunned, as former adult star Bree Olsen pens in her essay for the Daily Dot. She writes “people look at me as if I am the same as a sex offender. They look at me as though I am less than [them] in every way… I could never go back and be a nurse or a teacher, or work for any company really that can fire me under morality clauses for making customers feel “uncomfortable” because of who I am”. Shaming women for participating in porn, painting them as ignorant dupes, surmising that as long as they were paid everything is A-OK, or arguing that those who work in porn can’t be assaulted or raped – these positions are reductive, unhelpful, and often downright misogynistic.

Erika Lust on set. Photo: Rocio Lunaire for

Erika Lust agrees that porn has problems, but she’s committed to changing the industry, one porno at a time. I decided to sit down with her and talk about the kind of films she makes, her politics, and her crowdfunded XConfessions series.

HW: Erika, tell me a little bit about the kind of movies you make. What can a viewer expect to see and experience if they watch an Erika Lust film?

EL: Through my films I want to show that sex as the beautiful, healthy, exciting, intimate, wonderful and positive experience that it can be. I think we get so used to seeing sex presented only as violent, traumatic or overly commercialized that I think healthy depictions of sex are very much needed today! That’s what I aim for, to show the exciting adventure of passion and intimacy.

I want to show that women are not just sex objects, but that they are sexual complex human beings with their own thoughts, ideas, interests and passions, and that they have the right to pleasure. Also I don’t want to show men as sex robots without feelings, but sex as something you do together. That people can meet, communicate and develop through sex.  I like to make the films as cinematic as possible. There’s no reason sex on film has to be presented as cheap or dirty. I think it’s worthy of artistic framing as any other grand human experiences.

HW: Would you describe your films as ‘erotic art’ or pornography? Do you make a distinction between these two terms?

I see them as erotic art yes. I think the word porn carries so many bad connotations with it, so it’s hard to “reclaim” it. And the vast majority of what gets called porn is so different from what I do, it’s not so strange that I don’t feel like my films are not part of that world.  Yes, I depict explicit sex on film. But does that really put me in the same genre as someone who records a sex scene on a porn set, with no consideration for cinematography or artistic direction?

We could get really academic about the word and look at the modern definition which is basically just visual material intended to arouse the viewer. And sure, that is definitely part of the intention of my films. But if you go even further back to the origin of the word, it’s from the Greek ‘pornographos’, meaning “writing about prostitutes” and I think a lot of the old ideas about the Madonna/whore views on women are still true today, and still true for anyone working in porn. So it’s a complicated word, one that I don’t have an easy relationship with, like many other words really. Like many other words, it has far worse implications and social consequences for women than for men. Part of me thinks semantic reclamation is the answer, another part of me wants to move on, create something new.

HW: Why did you decide to crowdsource for the XConfessions series? What has the response been like from those who’ve pledged and from viewers?

EL: I started it because I wanted to make films based on the actual fantasies and memories of people from all over the world. It had felt so great for me to get to bring my own ideas to the screen and I wanted to see if I could make that happen for other people too. And also, I was just very curious to see what people would come up with. Luckily people really connected with the idea and started confessing these amazing stories. Definitely some things I could never think of, and lots of funny and sexy memories from real life mixed with all things ranging from poetry to IKEA-fetishes. The XConfessions entries make up a huge library of human sexual imagination.

People submit stories on the site, and I handpick two each month and turn them into short films. It’s given me the opportunity to turn fantasies into reality, which is a fantasy come true for me as a director. Because after all, that’s what I want from my films – to show a true and fair representation of human sexuality. It can still be full of fantasy and imagination, but it’s based on something way more real and exciting than what you’d see in mainstream porn. It’s coming from the inner working of the people’s brains and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help from the public, who keep bringing in all these amazing stories.

HW: How important is it to you to make porn that’s ethical? How would you define ethical porn?

EL: It’s very important. It’s quite simple. It’s about treating everyone involved like human beings, being attentive to their needs, requests and emotions, compensating them fairly and providing a good working environment with good working conditions. I also think it’s important to be ethical in the signals you’re sending out with your stories – that you make consent come through, not showing irresponsible scenes or anything to do with coercion etc.

HW: I want to believe that we can have feminist porn that doesn’t just cater to men and their desires. Is your porn feminist? What makes it so? Is it intersectional?

EL: This might be a good time to talk about what feminist porn is! So, feminist porn is explicit films made by people who have a problem with how the mainstream porn industry makes films. I’m one of those people. One common complaint about mainstream pornography is that it shows women as mere objects without any feelings or any power to say yes or no – it mostly shows women as catering to the whims of men, with no attention given to her desire and needs at all. A lot of porn is misogynistic – and proud of it.

There is so much porn where women are insulted and humiliated and it’s just presented as “normal”, and it’s expected to be this that appeals to the male audience, which is just crazy! Because most porn is made by men for men, the films embody the male gaze, and it results in women being presented only as objects of desire, never as subjects of pleasure. Men are strangely missing from much of straight porn, only appearing as disembodied penises – also is a form of strange objectification. God forbid that the male viewer might have any homoerotic feelings!

But it’s fully possible for films to be both sexually explicit and still show women as human beings who deserve respect, even when they’re naked, and that they have an equal right to sexual satisfaction, pleasure and desire. We can definitely create films that show women as sexual collaborators with men – rather than sexual conquests of men.

So the idea of feminist porn is simple: sex on film made in a non-sexist way. It shows women and men as sexual equals, that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman. It has nothing to do with what kind of sex is shown – it’s all about how the films are made, and that consent really comes through in the story. For example, Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex series is a great example that you can shoot and show any kind of sex in a non-degrading way.

HW: Do you think that porn has a problem with perpetuating racist stereotypes and categorizations?

EL: Oh yes, definitely. Viewing someone as a fetish because of their race is… well, duh, racist – exoticism is racism too. Sometimes defenders of mainstream porn say it’s actually “really diverse” because it caters to “every desire and fetish you could have”. But that’s not diversity. That’s just different body parts, separated from the person and served up to the viewer to consume, all presented in the same old repetitive way. And some people try to tell me that’s diversity. It’s not. It has nothing to do with real sex.

HW: Can porn be used as an educational tool?

EL: Yes! In an ideal world, everybody gets to have proper sex education in school that allows people to ask questions and get information that allows them to make informed decisions about their bodies and health. Great sex education also includes critical discussions about pornography. But this is something that is not available, or even a priority in many countries.

No one can deny that porn is a huge cultural genre and that many people, especially young people, watch it to learn about sex. So it’s important that we can talk about it like adults, but also that there are all sorts of voices in porn – not just one type of film that teaches guys to disrespect women and treat them as objects, and teaches girls to be passive objects without any needs of their own. We have to have films that also show sex as a healthy, positive thing that people do together, not as something you do to someone.

HW: Do you agree that it’s problematic to see acts usually associated with BDSM presented as ‘the norm’ within mainstream porn, particularly because they lack a context of trust?

EL: Yes I absolutely agree. That’s not saying that people are not allowed to engage in certain sexual acts like you say BDSM, but the way many of these films show violence and humiliation is in a way that shows no consent coming through at all! It shows sex as something aggressive that men do to women, and as something that women do for men. It’s not just misogynistic porn that’s guilty of that, it’s also things like Fifty Shades of Grey, that again, shows the woman as a passive, naive virgin who just gets right into BDSM with an emotionally abusive man, before she’s even masturbated. Come on! It’s ok to have kinks, it’s ok to like BDSM, but for god’s sake, let’s not forget about the importance of consent and communication.

When I directed my first BDSM-scene in An Appointment With My Master, I made sure communication was essential to the whole story, showing the performers Mickey Mod and Amarna Miller, both experienced BDSM-practitioners, talking about boundaries and what they were going to do. And the tenderness and trust that comes through in that scene is just stunning. It made it so sexy. It was important for me to show that side of consent, enthusiasm and communication.

HW: How should we go about changing mainstream porn?

EL: My stance is that there has to be MORE voices in pornography, more people that get to share their ideas about sex. That could eventually change the mainstream by making it more equal. But I don’t expect to come in to the mainstream producer’s sets and change what they do. I create the change I want to see myself – I can’t expect people who are, for example, proudly misogynistic film makers to suddenly go “hey, maybe these films are not so great for humanity.”

What I want to see is more women behind the camera, and more people in general who think differently than the average white, male heterosexual pornographer. Many women are tired of being presented with tired old sex-clichés everywhere they turn. They want to make their own narratives. And many women are tired of being told that all porn is bad and that watching porn makes you a bad woman or a bad feminist or whatever. Wanting to see sex on film doesn’t make you brainwashed, dirty or bad. But it’s great to see there’s such a healthy and powerful movement working on the opposite side of mainstream industry, making the kind of films they want to see themselves.

HW: What does being a sex positive feminist mean to you?

EL: I’m a sex positive feminist and film maker and I firmly believe that sex is a healthy and natural part of life. I think that those who want to should be free to create erotic material that reflects that. I wanted to start making adult cinema to add my voice, to show women as sexual equals who also have the right to pleasure, who are complex human beings with their own ideas about sex.

I think that adult films can be used as a tool for liberation and education. I want my films to make people feel liberated and happy, not oppressed and sad. Feminist porn has the power to influence. If you show the performers talking to each other, you show them both being excited about the sex, if you show sex with a context, you show embraces, kisses, consent, passion, enthusiasm, pleasure and orgasms – then I think that is a great thing to share with the world. There are too many depictions of sex out there that are traumatic, aggressive and violent – it’s almost made people believe that sex is always traumatic and violent. And if people hold the idea that sex on camera is always inherently sexist… well, I don’t think women will get anywhere if we’re not allowed to create our own stories about sex. I think there should be female voices within all cultural genres, including pornography. Just because some porn is very sexist doesn’t mean that all porn is harmful, harmful and exploitative.

After my conversation with Erika, I’m even more convinced that porn can be feminist, that it can include women as equal consumers, and it can treat performers fairly and ethically. Why shouldn’t we remake porn into something that’s wonderful?


Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.