We’ve all heard the narratives about the exploitation of women in porn – about those poor actresses who are only there because they’re desperate for the money or they’ve been manipulated by male filmmakers. That’s why it surprised the world when porn director, screenwriter, and producer Erika Lust declared in her 2014 TED Talk, “I don’t want to get women out of porn. I want to get women into porn. We need women in porn. Behind the camera.”
Through public appearances like this and through her artistic, stereotype-smashing films – she’s one of these women “behind the camera” as the creator of the ethical porn sites Lust Cinema and XConfessions, the latter of which makes porn based on viewers’ crowdsourced fantasies – Lust has made the concept of feminist porn accessible to many people who would have never used those two words together.
This month, POV by Lustery celebrates the women+ pornographers who have shaped the porn industry and continue to do so with our micro-documentary PornograHERs: The Women+ Who Make Porn. We talked to Lust about the sexism and other problems that exist within porn and elsewhere – and how they can be solved in ways other than going after the industry itself.
Why do many people still equate porn with female degradation? What greater misconceptions about women's sexuality do you think inform this view?
We are taught from a very young age that we don’t own our sexuality, that our pleasure is not for us but for someone else, and we get used to being shamed whenever we express our sexuality proudly and empower ourselves by taking ownership of our sexual expression. We learn from our childhood that our sexuality is something for us to protect and not to enjoy; that it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves from morbid glances and abuses and the toxic masculinity that we face for being female-identifying in a patriarchal society, instead of educating the gaze of the people who are watching.
The thing is that throughout history, sexually active females have been seen as posing a particular threat to social order, from burning sexually titillating witches to the Victorian illusion that respectable women are passion-free creatures. For too long, we have been given the choice to be two types of women: the respectable woman who doesn’t want, enjoy, or think about sex too much, or the fallen woman and the temptress. Fast-forward to the last 10 years, and a lot has changed. Sexuality in general has become a less taboo subject, yet women’s sexual liberation still has a long way to go.
The orgasm gap, a lack of anatomical knowledge of the vulva and the clitoris, slut shaming, male-dominated governments debating over whether abortion is ‘ethical’ or not, doctors who do not take women’s sexual pain seriously, and horrendous practices such as female genital cutting show that there is still a deeply rooted cultural fear of female pleasure. This fear is instilled in us from a young age. Boys are taught about their puberty through erections, ejaculations, and masturbation, whereas young girls’ sex education is focused on what they don’t want, whether it’s pregnancy or an STI. At no point in a young girl’s education does she learn about pleasure.
Most girls grow up feeling huge amounts of shame about touching themselves and end up not knowing anything about their own bodies. When the time comes for their first sexual experience, many girls have it with someone else, whereas most boys have their first sexual experience alone through masturbation. From the very beginning of our sexual lives, girls are taught to understand their sexuality and pleasure in relation to someone else, whereas boys can depend on themselves for this.
Our societies sustain gender inequality by disguising the male experience as the standard: everything is built by the male vision and its ideals. Mass media show us that men are at the centre and their bodies, thoughts, and experiences are the standard. So instead of blaming porn and sex work, we should look at how women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC people are represented and seen in our everyday lives in society.
Do you think there is a problem with the way women are depicted in mainstream porn? If so, what do you see as the biggest problem there?
It seems to me that MindGeek's monopoly keeps on promoting harmful gender stereotypes, racism, and fetishisation of LGBTQ+ bodies and desires through the majority of their content. People of different genders, body shapes, and ethnicities aren’t represented as equally important sexual collaborators. Affirmative consent is not shown clearly, and abuse is often depicted as something completely normal to enjoy. Furthermore, the typical storylines encouraged by the algorithms just aren’t relatable for a wider audience. Female performers are the stars of the films and the driving force behind the industry, but most of the time, the characters they’re given are only there to please the man. We so frequently don’t even see the men involved, just their penises.
There's also a lot of discourse around women being coerced or abused in porn, as in the 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted and, more recently, Nicholas Kristof's New York Times article about Pornhub. What do you think is missing from these conversations? To the extent that this problem does exist, what do you think is the solution?
I think that what people need to understand is that porn as a genre is not a sexist or a male-constructed entity. There is a tendency to talk about porn as if it's one thing, but just like any other big industry, there are different businesses doing different things within it. If you don’t like salad at McDonald’s, you probably won’t tell yourself that lettuce is bad, but that it would be wise to look for it in a more appropriate place, maybe a vegan restaurant. The same applies to porn and to any other cultural product.
Mainstream media are rarely willing to talk about porn, and when they do, they provide the same old story about the need to protect women from the industry, whether they are porn actresses or female porn consumers. But we can't make an audience believe that porn is just one seedy, bad thing and that alternatives do not exist.
“We can't make an audience believe that porn is just one seedy, bad thing and that alternatives do not exist.”
There's this general assumption that criminalising sexually explicit content is the solution to stop female sexual exploitation and that porn and sex work are always particularly exploitative for female sex workers, which is not true. So many female-identifying sex workers are empowered by their work! In the meantime, we are allowing Facebook to host child abuse videos and the general media to present women as sexual objects and fetishise non-conforming sexual identities without ever questioning the ethics behind this kind of representation.
So many people in this society, from conservative groups to governments to media, still tend to conflate sex trafficking, child abuse, and nonconsensual dissemination of sexually explicit material with sex work and porn. This only has the effect of reinforcing the stereotype that sex workers are always victims who end up in the adult industry against their will or because they come from a damaged history.
It seems to me that the only solution possible to this disservice is to include diverse perspectives from sex workers in these public debates. It’s insane how they have no say in political discussions that directly affect their livelihoods. The governments and the media have the responsibility to understand and let people know that sex work is real work. They must start consulting people from the industry whose guidance is fundamental to understanding what is exploitative and what's good within our industry. If we really are concerned about women, we should be asking ourselves, “How are women treated in the porn industry? Do governments guarantee basic labour rights for female sex workers? Are these women fully in charge of their own careers?”
How does your work aim to challenge the dominance of the male gaze? Is there a female gaze? If so, what does it look like?
The female gaze is vital to challenge the porn status quo, confront this industry's male domination, and offer alternatives. To capture it, the crew who works on set to create our XConfessions and Lust Cinema movies are primarily female.
In so much heterosexual, male-directed porn, the female becomes the object of the combined gaze of filmmaker, male performer, and male viewer. When hetero men are making and directing adult films, they'll cater to the hetero male viewer, representing most of the time male desire as a drive to conquer and possess and women as passive objects of a predatory gaze. So much lesbian porn as well, for example, is evidently not made for a lesbian audience but to flatter the male gaze. The thing is that not only porn but media, in general, tend to represent a distorted version of what healthy male sexuality should be.
When I talk about the female gaze, I’m talking about our mission to smash the stigma that is attached to the female body and to show that female pleasure matters; we have our own sex drive, desires, and sexual agency. Our bodies in society are hypersexualised while at the same time we’ve been told that we should be ashamed of being openly sexual and owning our sexuality without a man. We want to portray women that are aware of both their power and their boundaries, that are smart and sex-positive and are in touch with their erotic self without any shame.
From the moment I created Erika Lust Films, I knew I wanted to get more people that are not men in positions of power in all aspects of the business: as producers, directors, and scriptwriters bringing their perspectives into the films. This allows them to rewrite the script about their involvement (not only in sex but also in public life) and do something different from the mass-produced stereotypical porn of the free tube sites. We have a primarily female and queer crew working on set. We want to create a sex-positive space where all individuals feel free and safe to tell their stories and reclaim their right to pleasure.