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‘There’s not just one type of porn’: Erika Lust’s alternative vision

“There’s not just one type of porn,” Lust said in an interview at her office in Barcelona, Spain, where she has lived since 2000. “People see it as one monolithic entity, but it’s not.”

By: New York Times | Barcelona, Spain |
Updated: January 16, 2022 5:31:59 pm
Most viewers watch Lust’s stylish, highly produced films by subscribing to her websites, where she also distributes videos by other like-minded directors.

When Billie Eilish called pornography “a disgrace” in a recent radio interview, the quote made headlines. The Grammy-winning musician said she had started watching at around age 11, to learn how to have sex, and that she was now angry about the way she felt porn misrepresented women.

When people talk about pornography, they’re often referring, like Eilish, to its commercial, heterosexual variety, which is what most of the free porn online tends to be. On those sites, you’d be forgiven for thinking it all looks the same. But depending on the sexual politics and vision of its creator, porn can look wildly different.

Take the work of Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust. She has built her production company, Erika Lust Films, into an art-house pornography behemoth by offering something outside the porn mainstream. Most viewers watch Lust’s stylish, highly produced films by subscribing to her websites, where she also distributes videos by other like-minded directors. But her own films have also been screened in regular movie theaters in Berlin, London, Paris, Los Angeles and New York.

“There’s not just one type of porn,” Lust said in an interview at her office in Barcelona, Spain, where she has lived since 2000. “People see it as one monolithic entity, but it’s not.”

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In the films Lust makes, she said her goal was for the female performers to have real orgasms.

“When women watch porn, they need to see that women are being stimulated,” she said. “If there is a scene with penetrative sex, viewers need to see a woman using her hand or a vibrator at the same time, because that’s what works for most women.”

Lust, 44, added that she had spoken with many young women who told her, “‘Something’s wrong with my body; I can’t reach an orgasm with a man,’ because they’re reproducing what they learn from online porn.”

In Eilish’s radio interview, she said the damage inflicted on her by online pornography went deeper still: In her view, it had “destroyed” her brain. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan has also recently considered porn’s effect on the mind, reviving feminist debates from the 1970s and ’80s.

In “The Right to Sex,” Srinivasan’s 2021 bestselling essay collection, she argues that “while filmed sex seemingly opens up a world of sexual possibility, all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified. The sexual imagination is transformed into a mimesis-machine, incapable of generating its own novelty.” (Srinivasan declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Although in her book she argues against censoring explicit material — a move that often unfairly targets women and sexual minorities, she writes — the Oxford University academic advises young people to lay off porn if they want their sex lives to be “more joyful, more equal, freer.”

“Perhaps then the sexual imagination could be coaxed, even briefly, to recall its lost power,” Srinivasan writes.

Yet Lust said it was film’s capacity to excite the erotic imagination that first drew her to pornography. While studying political science at Lund University in Sweden, she said she read “Hard Core,” a book by Linda Williams that is regarded as a classic of feminist film criticism and that argues that pornography is a way of communicating ideas about gender and sex.

Feminist thinking led Lust to realize that porn, like many other cultural products, was mostly made by men, for men and from a narrow perspective: that of “middle-aged, heterosexual, white men,” she said. This male view of sexuality was “often misogynistic, in which women were reduced to tools for men’s orgasm,” she added. A lot of commercial porn is shot from a disembodied male perspective, and often the only part of a male performer that’s visible on screen is his penis, Lust said.

The films she directs and produces, on the other hand, show women with sexual agency, who stimulate their own clitorises and whose facial expressions communicate their emotional and psychological states. Lust’s performers have a natural, everyday look and include people of “different sexualities, skin colors and body shapes,” she said.

Her films are also heavy on plot lines. Lust’s best-known series, “XConfessions,” are filmed depictions of her viewers’ real fantasies. Anyone can “confess” their imagined or real-life sex stories through the XConfessions website. If she likes the idea, she turns it into a film. The stories include classic and kinky fantasies and are sometimes made by guest directors, such as Canadian cult queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. One of his “XConfessions” movies, “Valentin, Pierre and Catalina,” is a remake of François Truffaut’s classic movie “Jules and Jim,” a three-way polyamorous love story between a woman and two men.

LaBruce, who just wrapped up a feature-length parody porn movie set in the fashion industry, said in a phone interview that he was not surprised by the recent resurgence of negative attitudes toward porn.

“The idea that porn is a male way of controlling women — that used to be the providence of the Christian right,” he said. “Now, the left and the right have kind of flipped.”

Gayle Rubin, an anthropologist who was on the “pro-sex” feminist side of the 1970s and ’80s “sex wars,” opposing calls for censorship, said by phone that pornography was “easy to pick on” because, historically, it had been marginalized socially and legally.

“You know in movies when you think the monster is dead, but it just keeps coming back?” she said. “These assumptions about porn just keep resurfacing, going back more than four decades.

“Many people just don’t think as rigorously about porn as they do other topics. Porn is a special case in how it’s treated intellectually, which is badly — even among philosophers and others who should know better,” Rubin said.

While the porn industry is not known for critical reflection, there are events like the Berlin Porn Film Festival, an annual gathering that seeks to provide new perspectives on the genre — artistic, social and even philosophical. Paulita Pappel, a porn performer and director who is one of the event’s curators, said porn was often “a mirror of wider problems in society.” She added: “The more we scapegoat and stigmatize it, the less space there will be for porn to be diverse, and the less chance we have to change the bigger issues.”

When Lust screened her first feature-length movie, “The Intern,” to a sold-out audience at the festival in October, many in the audience — men, women and gender-nonconforming people, mostly in their 20 and 30s — said they came to see the film in search of an alternative to traditional porn.

“I’m here because my friend recommended Erika Lust, because she doesn’t make heteronormative porn,” said Levent Ekemen, 28, a graduate student. “Her films show sensuality, and they’re extremely erotic.”

Lust said she hoped that the movies on her websites can have an “expansive” effect on people’s sense of the erotic.

“With some of LaBruce’s films with male interaction,” she said, “men tell me, ‘Erika, I’ve never watched this before, but it was on your site, and it was hot!’ People are opening up their sexual visions outside of what they might be used to seeing.”

She added that she wanted to help create a society that sees sexuality as myriad and joyful, and where women’s pleasure matters.

“The value filmmaking has when it comes to empathizing with other people is incredible,” she said. “Sex is such a huge part of who we are, and there are so many more stories to tell.

“I have a right to tell them,” she added. “And no one can stop me.”

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