Erika Lust thinks porn is a lot like the restaurant industry. “McDonald’s is doing food and this restaurant is doing food”—she gestures around her—“but they’re completely different concepts.”
Lust, a noted feminist pornographer from Barcelona, and her husband-slash-business partner, Pablo Dobner, have traveled halfway around the world to promote her brand of “ethical adult cinema” as an alternative to mainstream pornography. We’re having lunch on the roof of a boutique hotel in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, not 30 miles from so-called Porn Valley. She tries to explain what, exactly, sets her films apart from the “McDonald’s” type of porn, while she eats market greens and raw ahi tuna ornamented with slivers of lotus root.
Lust has come to Southern California—“the base of the heterosexual mainstream porn idea,” as she puts it—for a sold-out screening of a selection of her short erotic films. It’s the very first time she’s shown her work in Los Angeles, despite the fact that Lust has been making porn for nearly 15 years and to quite a bit of success. Her films often eschew familiar tube site genres and focus on women’s pleasure—and those are clearly things she wants to emphasize. As a press release for the event pointedly highlights, Lust is bringing her “progressive message about female desire and sexual agency” to LA “in the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and so many horrifying stories about sexual abuse and harassment.” The release goes on to say that Lust’s work is a challenge to “the unchecked misogynistic attitudes, racist categorizations, and degrading narratives of mass-produced, mainstream pornography.”
Lust, casually bohemian in bright beaded earrings, a black V-neck, and a loose peasant skirt, quickly raises the subject of exploitation and abuse within the mainstream porn industry. I mention the recent allegations of on-set boundary violations brought forward by porn performers Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon in Southern California. (These allegations followed accusations in 2016 against director Tony T and performer Ramon Nomar, and, before that, against porn star James Deen. In all instances, including the most recent one, the accused denied the allegations.) She leans back in the wicker love seat she’s sharing with Dobner. Neither has heard about Raven’s or Nixon’s accusations, but they say they are not surprised.
“What can you expect? The pornographer is the same [kind of] guy here in LA and Budapest and London,” says Dobner. “It’s a guy who is into girls—”
Lust interjects, “Boobs and ass and cigars and cars.”
“Private areas of VIP clubs and money,” says Dobner, completing the sentence he started. “You know him.”
“It’s not a man respecting women, it’s not a man looking out for women,” says Lust.
“He doesn’t care about human sexuality. He doesn’t care about gender equality,” he adds.
“He’s into destroying them, that’s what he wants. He wants to punish-fuck them,” she says.
“They are cheap, mentally and economically,” he says of these men. “We call them ‘fuckographers.’ They are not high-end culture people.”
Clearly, the two aren’t interested in mincing words—or refraining from borderline slanderous statements. Lust is historically a vocal critic of the mainstream industry. In 2014, she delivered a TED Talk in which she railed against “bad, wrong, chauvinistic porn,” invoked X-rated clichés—like “watermelon breasts,” money shots, and “fake pleasure”—and declared, “It’s time for porn to change.” In 2017, she appeared in Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, in an episode focused on just two of the many women now directing and producing pornography. In it, she made a similar argument to the one she makes now about mainstream porn: “The people creating it are more interested in punish-fucking women than showing good sexual encounters.” The Netflix series as a whole, already seen as hostile toward porn, engendered controversy for allegedly outing a sex worker and featuring several without their knowledge or consent. It also put Lust on the adult industry’s radar—mainly as an outsider.
Eric Paul Leue, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s trade association, says that mainstream producers give Lust credit for the work she’s done around, as he puts it, “pushing porn forward, and changing stereotypes about both who makes it, who watches it, and what they want to watch.” But he adds that “today’s mainstream producers may bristle a bit at her depiction of the industry as male-dominated and monolithic,” which he says is simply untrue.
Lust hasn’t been to Los Angeles in well over a decade, so her actual relationship to the mainstream business is next to nonexistent. For the most part, she occupies a parallel universe. As Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist and author who has studied the adult industry, puts it, Lust’s “degree of crafted, purposive separation” is “unique.” Her work has only been nominated twice for the AVN Awards, the so-called Oscars of porn in the US, and it isn’t difficult to find porn insiders with little clue as to who she is. As Lust puts it, “I stay apart from the industry.”
Lust says she does have “allies and friends” within the mainstream—in fact, it’s where she’s found some of her star performers. “There are a lot of good people in the adult industry,” she tells me, and, historically, Lust has been more coolly detached than aggressively adversarial toward Porn Valley. As she puts it, “We don’t know each other that much.” But that might be changing.
The Dobner-coined concept of the “fuckographer”—an update on the cliché of the greasy-haired, gold-chain-wearing pornographer of yesteryear—is a fraught one. Certainly, this type of porn director exists within the adult industry—perhaps especially outside of the mainstream—but he is by no means the leading standard. Take über-successful, routinely award-winning pornographers like Axel Braun, who is known for elaborate big-budget parodies, and Greg Lansky, a flashy director with a meticulously crafted signature aesthetic. Both talk about their films as art, and both show some degree of ethical consideration. Braun’s “conscience,” as he put it, led him to decide against casting women younger than the age of 21 in his films, and Lansky has made a point of speaking out in favor of sex worker rights. (There is, however, no denying that Lansky is into “boobs and ass and cigars and cars,” as Lust put it.)
But women directors and producers are increasingly getting recognition in the mainstream. Bree Mills, head of Gamma Films, is making a name for herself with Girlsway, a girl-on-girl studio experiencing huge buzz and commercial success. She recently released a porn film with a feminist take on emotional abuse, fat-shaming, and bulimia. There’s Joanna Angel, co-founder of BurningAngel and the celebrated queen of alt-porn, and Jacky St. James, an award-winning feminist pornographer who has taken the industry by storm in a few short years. Over a quarter of the director-of-the-year nominees this year at the AVN Awards were for women—which isn’t parity, but is slightly better than can be said for this year’s Academy Awards best-director noms, as Mills has pointed out. The performer-of-the-year award went to Angela White, an actor who published her honors thesis in gender studies on women’s experiences in the porn industry.
Lust is herself part of a wave of feminist-minded directors and performers who made names for themselves in the early 2000s and necessitated the creation of the Feminist Porn Awards, a Toronto-based ceremony meant to celebrate this growing facet of the industry. Outside of the LA-based business, there are directors like Shine Louise Houston, who creates queer indie porn featuring a diverse range of body types, ethnicities, and gender identities. Women performers are also increasingly taking the means of production into their own hands by webcamming, doing findom Skype sessions, filming specialized content for the popular clips site ManyVids, and monetizing Snapchat content. Leue of the Free Speech Coalition suggests that “there are probably more women than men producing porn in the industry today, especially when you talk about performers who run their own sites and clips.” The industry is also filled with outspoken advocates and activists—from directors like Madeline Marlowe to mainstream performers like jessica drake—who are deeply concerned with the ethics of porn production and agitating for sex worker rights.
So, Lust’s critique can feel lacking in nuance and, at times, slightly out of touch. She positions her “ethical” on-set practices in opposition of those of the “mass-produced” industry—although she says she hasn’t been on a mainstream set in 15 years. Lust emphasizes that she does things like ask performers who they would like as their co-stars, sending them scripts ahead of time to review, and making sure that actors personally enjoy the scenarios in which they will be performing. “We do a great deal to make sure that they are comfortable, that they are never, ever, ever pushed into doing something that they don’t want to do.” But, the recent industry abuse allegations notwithstanding, there are mainstream directors who do these things as well. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that Nomar, one of the co-stars Nikki Benz sued for alleged sexual battery, has starred in two of Lust’s films.) Tibbals, the sociologist, argues that “much of the adult industry” to varying degrees engages intentionally around performer safety and authenticity in performances.
All of that said, Lust’s work is singular for its particular blend of cinematic production values and hip Euro-indie aesthetics. Her films, which are not narrowly intended as “porn for women,” are not quite like anything else being created in any industry. Lust is best-known for her series XConfessions, which takes viewer-submitted fantasies—about everything from noisy next door neighbors to period sex with a vampire—and brings them to life in highly stylized cinematic shorts. There is often, although not always, a fair amount of dialogue and scene-setting. The sex is pornographic, but in a somewhat restrained way. It’s no more focused on between-the-legs penetration shots than it is on lingering eye contact or hand movements or subtle facial expressions—but it doesn’t shy away from explicit closeups, either. The classic money shot is notably absent from Lust’s films.
The performers tend to be beautiful, but in a hot-barista sort of way—cute bangs, delicate piercings, well-groomed beards, understated tattoos. There is some diversity of body types and ethnicities, although Lust allows that she could do better on this front. Many of the pairings are girl-on-guy, but there are also plenty of scenes featuring women couples, group sex, and nonbinary performers. Lust has done a couple scenes between men and says she’s gotten positive responses from pleasantly surprised heterosexual male viewers. Her sets range from sparse, dimly lit warehouses to remarkably stylish Barcelona apartments that feel like they exist on the edges of real life without entering into the utterly fantastical.
Her formula seems to be working: The XConfessions website currently has 10,000 subscribers and a net monthly revenue of more than $120,000, according to Lust’s publicist. Those are phenomenal numbers for an independent porn producer like herself.
XConfessions occasionally veers dramatically into the avant-garde—showing shirtless men in fetish masks doing modern dance, having a narrator recite beat poetry during an extreme closeup on a flexing asshole, or breaking in the middle of a blow job for a psychedelic, mirrored montage of the act. It can get kinda weird. But plenty of it functions as relatively straightforward erotic fare—stuff meant to get you off—with a high production value and a focus on women’s subjectivity, desire, and pleasure.
“I am very tired of all these images of women not participating on their own behalf,” she says. “It’s this power-culture of men dominating women.” She worries that these kinds of images have undue influence over viewers. “It shows us how to think about sexuality, how to think about gender roles, how to think about power balance, how to think about masculinity and femininity,” she says.
Lust attempts to, as she puts it, “show women as agents over their own bodies and their own sexualities and going for their own pleasure.” This manifests in subtle ways in her films—in the way a woman looks at her partner or moves her hips or touches herself. Moans are often slow to rise or inconsistent, and orgasms are sometimes, well, super fucking awkward. Much of it feels like it reflects an authentic internal experience, although it’s worth considering the ways that authenticity can become its own kind of performance.
Lust’s style extends to the way she markets her films—and it’s another part of what she says sets her work apart. She doesn’t use traditional keywords to organize her content into genres. In fact, you navigate the XConfessions site by performer rather than scenario. Scenes between people of different races and body types are not categorized as “interracial” or “BBW,” unlike with much of the mainstream industry. She takes issue with the sexist language that shows up in the titles and keywords associated with a lot of mainstream scenes, particularly on tube sites like Pornhub. “We are all of us fetishized and divided into small groups—it’s ‘Latina,’ it’s ‘ebony,’ it’s ‘MILFs,’” she says.
Kayden Kross, co-founder of porn site Trenchcoatx, tells me that she agrees with Lust that there is a tendency toward misogyny in the mainstream industry. She is bothered by the pressure performers face to fit into a marketable box—like “MILF” or “teen”—and has been upset to see some of her content repackaged on tube sites with words like “fuckdoll” and “cum bucket.”
However, Kross, a longtime performer within the mainstream industry, including for former heavyweights like Vivid Entertainment, draws a line between ethical filming practices—which are a major priority of hers—and the “sexist” scenarios targeted by Lust. “Some fantasies are tied up in misogynistic themes, and they can be made under ethical [shooting] conditions,” she says. “Fantasies are not required to be politically correct.”
Lust agrees, but says she is more interested in showing “how men and women can interact on an equal basis,” as she puts it. That said, she is well-aware that plenty of viewers, women included, have fantasies of submission and domination. It’s something she has addressed in several films, including the short Feminist and Submissive, which depicts a BDSM scene between a submissive woman and dominant man, and then follows up with a roundtable discussion between a handful of women about kink. Lust draws a line, however, at things like rape fantasies, which she acknowledges are common among women. “I’m not condemning that in any way,” she says. “We are brought up in the world we live in and our sexuality is shaped by the values of this patriarchal world. That’s how it is, we have to get rid of that.” She adds, “When it comes to perversions, many times things turn us on that we don’t like. It’s not logical.”
It’s a delicate line between calling out misogynistic themes and creating a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” desires, or suggesting that women who fantasize about such themes are experiencing “false consciousness.” But that particular debate has been happening since at least the second-wave of feminism, and probably long before that. Lust walks that line carefully. “It’s not politically correct, but if it’s your desire, it’s your choice,” she says during a moment of on-screen narration in Feminist and Submissive. “And that’s what decades of feminism should have brought us, to a place where every woman can speak about her own true desire.”
These questions around fantasy are highly relevant to Lust’s “ethical” mission. As Tibbals puts it, “Much of Lust’s content corresponds with wider notions of what ethical porn looks like, but ethical porn is not a content genre or look.” Instead, Tibbals argues, it has to do with the “safety, consent, and wellbeing” of performers and crew members. A lot of porn might “not correspond to individual tastes or comfort levels,” she says, but adds, “something doesn’t have to be ‘your thing’ to be ethical.”
There is no arguing with Lust’s aim of getting women to focus on their own, instead of men’s, desires—but growing up in this society, that can be a tricky proposition. Women often to some degree take on men’s desires—or, men’s desires as they are portrayed in the culture at large—as their own. It’s what we see all around us, it’s the wallpaper of our world. And it’s not a phenomenon restricted to heterosexual women, either. So how, exactly, does a woman discover her own authentic sexual desire? “I guess you have to stop listening to the noises around you and start trying to listen to your own body,” says Lust. “What do you really like, what kind of images turn you on?” But, of course, to even be able to effectively ask the latter question, you have to be able to see a diversity of images.
Kross agrees. “It’s hard to find an authentic identity in anything,” she says, pointing to everything from fashion to architecture. “These are all culturally shaped and most of the time the best we can do is put an individual spin on it. Sexuality is no different,” she says. “I think we will see more and more women lending their voices to the conversation on what is truly desirable, which in turn will lend diversity to the expressions seen on camera, which in turn will lend to more women finding more authentic sexual identities and desires.” And Lust’s work, she says, is part of that—it’s the work of changing our sexual culture.
In mid-March, I’m standing outside of Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, in a line that extends around the corner and down the block. It’s mostly women—in pairings, groups, and by their lonesome—but there are also a number of woke-looking men with women companions. The ticket holders have the general appearance of many of Lust’s performers—young, urban, hip. There are multiple women with shaved heads, septum piercings, and heavy black boots. A few attendees have me reconsidering whether I, too, should do manic French-girl bangs. They are all here for a screening of Lust’s films, followed by a Q&A with the director, in an event sponsored by the Berlin Film Society.
The scene inside is a bit different. A team of dancers from S Factor, a high-end pole-dance aerobics class, does floor routines. There’s a table set up with displays for The Jade Yoni Egg, billed as a way to “strengthen and tone your pelvic floor,” and V-Steam, a “100% organic” herbal steam bath for your vadge—its makers say it brings “vitality, balance, and well-being to the vagina.” (There is little evidence to support vaginal steaming, and experts have actually raised serious concerns about yoni eggs.) There are gift bags on offer that include a pin reading “Protect Ya Puss,” a lavender-colored vibrator, and a THC-infused vaginal suppository. (The next morning, I will hastily discard said giftbag on the LAX rental car shuttle for fear of TSA confiscating the suppository.) Clone-A-Willy is also in attendance, with a display of silicone-molded dildos of various colors and textures. It’s an impressive show of mass sponsorship—and just the kind of spiritual-raunch that often arises during sexuality events geared toward women.
Then there’s the small VIP room, which is lined with black leather couches and equipped with its very own gold-toothed, long-haired male bartender in a vintage band tee. Several mainstream porn performers and directors mill about, including Kayden Kross, Angela White, and longtime director Holly Randall. Then there’s Tristan Taormino, a feminist author, sex educator, and former porn director, and Chris Donaghue, host of the new Loveline with Amber Rose. Ramon Nomar, one of the performers named in Nikki Benz’s recent lawsuit alleging sexual battery during a porn shoot, is also here—although this is before her filing makes headlines. It’s a veritable roll-call of Los Angeles sex celebrities.
A couple of Lust’s employees—fashionable young women who will later inspire me to forlornly click through Rachel Comey’s website—have flown out from Barcelona for the event. They usher us into the 5,000-square-foot screening room, which is packed with chairs and yet still has standing audience members lining the walls. The screening begins and it quickly becomes clear that we’re in for a selection of her more challenging films—including the aforementioned vampire period-sex short in which a pale-skinned hunk sneaks into a woman’s room at night, wordlessly goes down on her, and surfaces with a bloody face. There’s also a foot fetish film where co-stars rub wet, gray clay all over each others’ naked bodies amid visceral slopping sounds. There is laughter, some uncomfortable giggles, a few guttural “mmms,” and a lot of whooping and clapping for all of the shorts.
But, without a doubt, the crowd favorite is I’m Obsessed With Owen Grey, which shows a young woman from Barcelona, Cintia, getting to fulfill her fantasy of having sex with porn performer Owen Grey—on camera. It’s a lot of buildup—there are separate interviews with a nervous Cintia and a humble Grey in anticipation of the scene—and then Lust documents their first meeting: in an industrial room ornamented with only a bed. Grey holds her hands, as she can barely look at him, and then they hug—and then they do a lot more than hug. Audience members around me “aww,” but not in a condescending way. I catch someone dabbing at the corner of their eye. It’s what Lust does very well: bringing to life the emotions around sex, and making viewers empathize with the people on-screen.
After the screening, the Q&A starts and Lust is more measured in her critique of the mainstream adult industry—perhaps because some of its members are in attendance. “There’s a lot of things about mainstream porn that I don’t really agree with, but there’s a lot of things about society that I don’t agree with—a lot of things in advertisement, a lot of things in Hollywood films, a lot of things in television,” she says. Lust focuses her critique on tube sites that thrive on pirated content and devalue the work of creating porn. As she puts it, “If you’re not paying for it then who is paying for it?”
But what really resonates with the crowd and inspires a raucous round of applause is her response to a young woman filmmaker who asks for advice on getting into the adult movie-making business. As it happens, Lust is currently holding an open-call for guest directors to work with XConfessions. “Porn needs new perspectives,” she says. “We want to support and help and finance and distribute your movies.” Lust continues, “My biggest advice to women filmmakers is do it. Stop thinking about it, just do it. Every time I go out and meet people, I have at least five women coming up to me telling they are thinking about it,” she says. “That thinking can go on [for] years. I really recommend you get out in the open, to dare to do it.”
Update (May 11, 1:30 p.m.): This piece has been updated to clarify which abuse allegations Lust was commenting on.