Home - T Singapore

In the Post-#MeToo Era, Can Porn Lead the Charge for Feminism?

By Bianca Husodo

A collage of stills from Swedish adult film director Erika Lust’s feature, “Female Pleasure Circle”, of which narrative confronts the stigma against female masturbation.
 
Elsa Wong
A collage of stills from Swedish adult film director Erika Lust’s feature, “Female Pleasure Circle”, of which narrative confronts the stigma against female masturbation.

Imagine a scene. A porn scene. A woman, red-lipped and clad in a scanty, skintight dress. Her figure is willowy and slender. Her breasts, however, are voluptuously heaving, oddly proportioned. And a penis, the size of a stallion’s, is placed between her pursed lips. In ferocious passion, she is giving the man a fellatio. Why? Because the nice fellow came to her rescue when her car broke down. 

That is porn to you,” says Swedish adult film director Erika Lust (her real surname is Hallqvist). Laying out one of modern-day porn’s most hackneyed storylines was how Lust segued into her hard-hitting TED talk, “It’s Time for Porn to Change”. She underscored the persisting androcentric reality of the industry that remains unchanged.

In a post-#MeToo era, the world has increasingly witnessed the powerful shift in the role of women in nearly all scopes — at work and at home, in politics and in Hollywood films — but what about in the porn industry?

Porn lustres a negative sheen. Clichéd tropes and stereotypes have been played out, again and again. The mass convenience of instant gratification, by way of the internet, means anyone can consume porn anywhere, anytime. Today, if one watches pornography, one most likely does so through a mobile device via the go-to streaming platforms — Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn. The statistics are, unsurprisingly, staggering: In 2018, Pornhub revealed that it had an average of 92 million page views each day. To put it in perspective, that is the numeric equivalent of the combined populations of Canada, Poland and Australia encountering the unfiltered gush of carnalities on a daily basis. While it remains a huge debate as to how formative porn can be on human behaviour, it is impossible to refute that porn has a gripping clench on the way people view sex.

And what exactly are they watching?

The easily accessible films are brief and almost always hardcore; that is, they exhibit penetrative sex. Several of the most popular search terms are “anal,” “teen,” “threesome,” and — one that would have Freud smirking in his grave — “mom and son.” The current state of mainstream porn is a flurry of gynaecological shots, faceless penises, bad scripts and uninspiring storylines. Its problematic narrative plots portray their female subjects as eager to please, submissive, and at times, unconsenting. 

ErikaLust FilmsErika Lust, 42, erotic film director and founder of crowdsourced viewer-fantasy platform, XConfessions.
Erika Lust, 42, erotic film director and founder of crowdsourced viewer-fantasy platform, XConfessions.

“This massive tide of mainstream porn revolves around male pleasure and completely disregards female pleasure and sexuality,” posits Lust through email correspondence, noting the discrepancy between the evolving openness towards equality in pleasure and porn’s backwardness. “More and more people are looking for more realistic porn and alternatives,” she says.

Despite the widespread prevalence of its presence, porn, an industry entangled with taboos, has escaped becoming a widely discussed topic of progressive conversations. The notion that porn is a stigma, a regaling of the vice of lust, has a lot to do with it.

To the director, porn is a discourse. The medium inevitably impacts — or perhaps reflects — the cultural understanding of gender relations and the notion of desirability; what elicits arousal, what does not. And at the moment, the dialogue’s domineering participants is a tightly knit boys’ club driven by heteronormative men whose common denominator is their predilection for objectification.

“The people creating it are more interested in punish-fucking women than showing a good sexual encounter,” says Lust. “I want to show the diversity of human sexuality.”

“The sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean.”

Lust knows how to make mind-blowingly good porn. As an indie filmmaker, her viewpoint is refreshing and cinematic. When the political science and gender studies graduate first launched her site in 2004, her award-winning debut — “The Good Girl”, a witty skit on the delivery-man-who-really-delivers scenario — was downloaded two million times within the first few weeks it was published. Nine years later, based in Barcelona with her long-time partner and producer Pablo Dobner and their two daughters, Lust went on to start XConfessions, an online platform dedicated to crowdsourced erotica.

On XConfessions, the writer-director rallies an open call for the public to write in “confessions” of their deepest fantasies. These are then sifted and selected for her and other like-minded female directors to interpret into explicit short films that span between 15 minutes to an hour. A new flick is released every two weeks. Unlike the run-of-the-mill adult sites, XConfessions subscribers will not see the same story, character or location twice. 

“There is a myth surrounding women-made pornography that it is going to be boring, romantic or more vanilla. This idea stems from the false notion that women are in some way lacking in desire,” explains Lust, saying that her work challenges this concept. Her female-directed pornography is “just as hot, if not hotter than the typical male-made pornography.” 

ErikaLust Films“The sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean,” declares Lust in her 2014 TED talk.
“The sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean,” declares Lust in her 2014 TED talk.

A recent release titled “Female Pleasure Circle” is inspired by a submission of an anonymous, who goes by the pseudonym of Masturbella, about an all-day female masturbation class she chanced upon. “It was so powerful seeing these women pleasuring themselves, discovering their own bodies and minds in such an open space without shame or reservations, even though none of us knew each other beforehand,” she writes. Directed by Lust, the film, aiming to subvert the cultural smirch around female masturbation, scouts a diverse all-female cast of six. The story develops as the group of women tentatively explore themselves, before, subsumed with pleasure, they begin to merge into one another, bodies intertwining.

While the undercurrents may be implicit, the stark difference between Lust’s work and the mainstream erotica is the thoughtful female perspective she injects to her frames. Labial shots are sensuous and intimate, rather than clinical and exploitative. The female pleasure is given equal emphasis, rather than being secondary if not snubbed altogether. Women are depicted as decisive masters of their own, rather than as inherent submissives lacking in any agency. 

Making porn ethical, diverse and tasteful

“Another thing that I didn’t like about [mainstream] pornography was that most of it was so badly done. It didn’t feel like they had cared about the cinematic vision on it,” says Lust in Netflix’s “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On” first episode, which delves into her process of erotic filmmaking. Lust’s films are bolstered with her thoughtful, artistic vision that necessitates high production value.

An average production budget of US$19,000 (S$26,000) is allocated for each of her short films. In comparison, an average scene produced in Los Angeles, Lust says, runs on a paltry budget of US$5,000 to US$7,000 (S$6,800 to S$9,500). Aside from aesthetics, the financial constraints take a toll on the crew and performers.

“They are not investing in things like catering, a talent manager on set that can take care of the performers’ needs, sexual health testing costs, accommodation, flights and transport to and from the shoot,” lists Lust. “These are not good conditions to work in when you are having sex on camera.” Lust employs Kali Sudhra, an experienced performer herself, as her talent manager to ensure that the performers are looked after.

Consent is as central to her set culture as it is in her films. She runs through her performers’ personal boundaries prior to filming, paying a fair wage on a fixed rate that is based on the number of workdays, as opposed to extremities of the sexual acts performed. This strips the pressure from the performers of doing scenes they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with to earn more money.

Lust’s pool of performers consists of real people with real bodies, not just seasoned porn actors and actresses. “The interesting thing when I work with people who are not professional performers it that they are not performing porn — they’re just having sex,” Lust posits. “I think that’s more powerful.”

ErikaLust FilmsAnnie and John Campbell, the real-life 70-something couple in Lust’s “Soulsex” short film.
Annie and John Campbell, the real-life 70-something couple in Lust’s “Soulsex” short film.

This perhaps reverberates best with another one of Lust’s recent releases, “Soulsex”, starring real-life couple Annie and John Campbell, who are in their seventies. The byline of the film reads, “There is no age limit on good sex.” The Campbells wrote in a submission to XConfessions that “soulsex” is “another way to fuck... [where] everything is slow; each person focused on their own sensations, their body and mind,” ending with a proposal for a collaboration with Lust.

“I would challenge anyone who dismisses it as a fetish to actually watch the film. Although senior sex is something that we rarely see represented in mainstream porn, watching John and Annie seems like the most natural thing in the world. The sex they have is far more tender than a lot of the sex you would normally see in pornography,” says Lust. In the 26-minute film, the Campbell couple, lazing in a sun-dappled bedroom, gives each other compliments, spends time caressing, holding and gazing at each other. The sex is slow-paced and communicative. They tell each other what they enjoy, constantly smiling at each other. Lust recalls of the shoot, “It was a very beautiful, fulfilling and emotional day for everyone involved.”

Fetishisation is not the point of Lust’s work. “I try to champion diversity and give a voice to people who would not normally have one,” she explains. In the porn stratosphere, the white male gaze dictates the benchmark of what “normal” beauty is. Interracial sex and people of colour, for instance, are fetishised, exoticised or set apart from the mainstream. In the same vein, representations of bodies determine the idealised construct of how bodies should look like.

“Women should be slim with large breasts and should only have hair on their heads. Men should have gigantic penises and six packs. Anything that diverges from this norm is considered niche,” says Lust. “I want to deconstruct this.”

Claiming the female gaze in porn

On her set, Lust has approximately 80 per cent female employees. “I have women working as camera people, producers, editors, runners,” she says. “The perspectives really change when you have a woman controlling the camera.”

ErikaLust FilmsLust directing one of her performers, Viktoria Vaar, for “Dirty Laundry”, her neon-soaked take on laundromat liaisons trope.
Lust directing one of her performers, Viktoria Vaar, for “Dirty Laundry”, her neon-soaked take on laundromat liaisons trope.

Pornography alone cannot be blamed for the patriarchal environment, any more than the film, television and advertising industries. These cultural products play a part within the fabric of society, some more than others. And porn happens to be one of them. Lust’s ability to break free from the stereotypes that have plagued porn; to demolish taboos and harness the medium is a step towards a bigger shift.

So what next? “We need women in leadership roles. I don’t want to get women out of porn,” answers Lust. “I want to get women into porn.”

T magazine

T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore’s best videos: digital house tours from around the world, behind-the-scenes looks of cover shoots and more.