The Making of Feminist Crowdsourced Porn
interview by Leah Perrino
// Filmmaker Erika Lust premiered (and sold-out) a screening of her award-winning XConfessions series in los angeles on Saturday, March 24. Lust strives to create artful adult cinema that celebrates healthy sex, consent and strong female roles. Her XConfessions series is unique in that viewers submit sexual fantasies and/or confessions, and Lust chooses anonymous stories to turn into her short films. We caught up with her on her mission and the making of feminist crowdsourced porn.
Asymmetric Magazine: We love your short films and artistic, ethical spin on adult cinema. Can you tell us about about the creation of your XConfessions series and the mission behind your work?
Erika Lust: Thank you! XConfessions was a project that I started in 2013. After making my first five films, people began sending me their sexual fantasies asking me to turn them into films. It's now a site where users watch short films based on their own anonymous sexual confessions and stories. Every month I pick two of my followers’ fantasies and turn them into erotic explicit short films. And thanks to my open call to finance more guest directors, from July I will be increasing the amount of films I release from two per month to one per week! XConfessions was a way to get my audience involved and make the experience of making and watching adult films a totally crowdsourced one.
As for my mission, my motivation was and is still this: to change porn for the better, to improve it. To make something from my female perspective, that I would like myself and that I thought other women and men, looking for something more fresh, sensual, relatable to real-life sexual encounters, would also like. I want to change the representation of sex and gender roles that are thrown out there.
I want to change the representation of sex and gender roles that are thrown out there.
My open call is helping me on this mission to change the adult film industry. At this point I have financed 24 guest directed films for XConfessions from all around the world and there are more coming! We have shot in Spain, USA, UK, Germany, Brazil and Finland so far, and more are scheduled for Wales, Rome, France and Poland. We need as many women and non-binary people in the industry to ignite change.
AM: We admire how interactive you've made it. How do you select which fantasies/confessions you will recreate?
EL: I always start reading the confessions with an open mind. I like to be surprised! A big part of the appeal of the project is how diverse the confessions are. So, first we read all the confessions because we have to make sure that they're legal, and then I choose the ones that inspire me the most–the ones I think are crazy or great or wonderful. And I sit down and think about a script and a short film you could make out of that story. Sometimes they're similar to the confessions or sometimes they're inspiration and my fantasy gets going from that.
The originality and diversity in the concept, characters and writing are all key to deciding what confessions I pick to shoot–but also the truthfulness behind the story. It has to stand out to me in terms of the locations, the characters, the tone and the situations. It has to grab my attention and inspire me cinematically with a specific atmosphere or unique set design or personality behind the story. If I am drawn into the situation instantly, picturing every part in my mind and it's turning me on, then I am instantly inspired and want to see it on screen myself!
XConfessions allows me to take part in such a wide range of fantasies and erotic stories that it never gets boring or predictable. So sometimes I get to do a tender story, and other times it's super kinky, funny or scary–it can be anything. I'm not limited to a narrow idea of sexuality.
If I am drawn into the situation instantly, picturing every part in my mind and it's turning me on, then I am instantly inspired and want to see it on screen myself.
AM: What's the most fantastical request you've received?
EL: It's hard for me to choose one. Fantasy is very rich and everyone has different desires. Lots of the confessions sent in are wonderfully fantastical! Sometimes we receive confessions set in other times or other worlds. We've had Mad Men fan-fiction about Don Draper's penis, vampire fantasies, ghost sex, kitten orgies and succubus sex.
The confession we received for Pouring Pleasure particularly stood out to me. The way this person described the pouring rain in a tropical country–its soothing feeling and the erotic romantic association it has. I could immediately imagine myself in the rainy season laying down naked on my terrace while the water came down on me, surrounded by euphoric people dancing in the streets.
AM: How did you get started making feminist porn?
EL: I studied Political Science and Gender studies at University and was reading Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible' by Linda Williams when I had my lightbulb moment. It was the first book to treat pornography as a genre with its own history and as a specific cinematic trend. I realized that porn is actually a discourse on sexuality. It makes a statement, an idea; it expresses ideologies and values and also opinions about sex and gender.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to try and create something totally different in the genre. I wanted to make an alternative to the degrading mainstream porn gaze, something that would express my ideas and my values. That's how it all began!
AM: What's the biggest challenge you've faced in the industry?
EL: 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 done. Women already had 'their soft scenes with roses and silk sheets'. That's what female-friendly 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.
AM: What about in the actual execution of your films?
EL: The challenge in executing my films has always been money and time. As an independent film maker, everything is expensive. Our spending for each 10 minute short film on XConfessions is always in the higher ratio of money spent per minute than in the current adult industry, usually totting up to around 15,000 euros (~ $18,500) per short film. We do short films–not scenes. So this can limit the confessions we pick, the kind of set we want and the performers we can choose.
There is also a difficulty in finding the right performers for a particular confession. In my films, I aim to include everyone and seek out performers who can bring diversity across the board. All the bodies shown are natural and diverse without conforming to a stereotype. I work with a wide variety of performers from different races, ethnicities and gender identities, as well as different body types, from petite to plus size. I believe it's important to showcase the beautiful diversity of the human body. Performers who work in the porn mainstream industry often fall into beauty standards that are very limited. I don't work with performers who had their boobs done for instance. I am looking for natural bodies.
AM: What advice would you give to aspiring female directors/filmmakers?
EL: My advice would be to just start making something and stop thinking about being perfect. I started making films because I saw a need not just for the porn industry, but also for my own personal pleasure. So, I started making something different that I wanted to watch. And if you're interested in making adult content, then show your own vision of sexuality and sex. Represent real bodies and real sex according to your perspective. There is nothing more powerful and unique than your own personal vision–use it!
AM: Aside from celebrating healthy sex, consent, and strong female roles (thank you), are there other themes you pursue in your art?
EL: What I care about the most are the messages that I don't send out. There is never any simulation of coercion, pederastia or fantasies of abuse on XConfessions. There is no depiction of aggressive violent sex or rape scenes (not to be confused with BDSM practices). My philosophy for making films is based around four main ideas so these are the themes I pursue.
The first, which you mention, is to show that women's pleasure matters. I want to see women owning their pleasure, taking control of their sexuality, and I want to represent women who assert sexual agency.
Secondly, I'm a big believer that adult films can and should have cinematic values. It's unfair to assume that just because someone is watching adult cinema they don't also want to see something beautiful. So, in my films, I always make sure the cinematography is perfect so that the entire experience is engaging, immersive and pleasant.
Thirdly, I want to show more body types, ages and races in my films. It's important for audiences to see themselves represented as the norm in the media they consume. We often see people categorized and bothered if they don't adhere to the stereotypical slim, white, young archetype.
Finally, the whole production process from start to finish must be ethical.
AM: That's incredible! What is your biggest inspiration right now?
EL: I am inspired on the one hand by the anonymous confessions people are submitting every day to XConfessions, and on the other hand by watching films, tv series, commercials and videoclips.
John Cameron Mitchell is fun and fearless! He’s one of the few who have dared to portray real sex with real actors in a film for commercial theaters. Shortbu sportrays sex as a crucial communication tool between human beings, whether there’s a conventional relationship behind it or not. The link the film establishes between sex and happiness is so enthusiastic that it might seem naive at a certain point, but every time I watch it I can’t help but surrender to the celebration of sex, life and creativity within it.
I also really admire Jill Soloway. The writer, director and producer has been a proponent of the "female gaze" in filmmaking for a long time and is always striving to represent more sexualities and genders in their work. Their production process is incredibly inspiring to me and resonates with my own style. In Transparent they made sure the entire production crew was trans-inclusive and I Love Dick was directed largely by women. Just as I have a mostly female film crew and post production team, Soloway ensures that people have a voice to tell their own stories and the power to take part in a discourse that concerns them.
AM: So, most porn is pretty cliche. How do you avoid that in your films and keep it fresh and real?
EL: The crowdsourced nature of XConfessions keeps my films innovative and fresh because it's not just my imagination I'm using, so no themes are really repeated. Every month I get to see how diverse everyone's sexual desires are! Often the women's fantasies that I receive are far kinkier than the men's. And the result is a huge range of films on XConfessions that represent different sexualities and kinks from orgies and pegging to period sex and foot fetish.
AM: What music are you currently jamming to?
EL: When listening to music, I'm always thinking about how it can be used in our films. Music is as much a vital part in adult film as the setting, characters, nd sex; it's part of the audiovisual narrative.
Music varies a lot from one film to another, like the tone and setting of the stories. We have a dramatic use of it, which is quite different from most adult entertainment: we use music to create atmospheres, but also for storytelling. It might be a crucial part in the satire of a film, to capture a certain era in history or create tension.
And when I'm at home, I'll be listening to anything my two daughters are playing.
AM: What can we expect to see from you next?
EL: This year we are embracing the never ending development of technology. In May, I will be filming our first virtual reality erotic short film. It will be nothing like you have seen the mainstream porn companies do so far–I promise you! With VR, I want to combine representation as I have done until now with full immersion. It's very immersive and very realistic. However, it is worth bearing in mind that erotic films (VR or otherwise) are not suppose to replace sex or human relationships, but spice them up.
We are also launching our own response to camshows with XConfessions Live. Again, they will be very different to the ones you may have seen in the mainstream industry. We will be focusing on quality over quantity, films will be shot with a cameraman/woman as opposed to a stationary camera, and they will be artistic and intelligent. And to top it off, we are also releasing the XConfessions webseries on April 13th.
View more of Erika Lusts' work at erikalust.com.