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Meet the Swedish feminist bringing ethical porn to Spain and the world

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Swedish porn director Erika Lust, based in Barcelona. Photo: Private
07:59 CEST+02:00
Erika Lust has spent the last 14 years creating feminist, ethical porn. In 2004, discouraged by the mainstream porn she found on offer, the Barcelona-based Swedish filmmaker set out to put forward an alternative to adult content.

"The men who control the porn industry seemed to have the emotional intelligence of a teenage boy," Lust tells The Local. "I wanted to make an alternative to the degrading mainstream porn gaze; something that would express my ideas and my values. Something that I would like myself and that I thought other women and men looking for something more sensual and ethical would also like."

It was clear from the outset that there was an audience for her films – her first pornographic short, titled The Good Girl, was downloaded by millions of people in the first few weeks after she put it online. From there, her career grew. She set up her own adult film company, LustCinema, and in 2013 launched XConfessions, a collection of erotic videos with storylines created by submissions from members of the public, to reflect the broad tastes of those watching them.

It was in Lust's native Sweden, while a student at Lund University, that the first seeds of her unconventional career in the adult industry were sown. "I studied Political Science and Gender Studies 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." This sparked her lifelong interest: promoting sex-positive feminism.

Though the definition of feminism has been widely debated, Lust sees it as simple: "For me feminism is the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities in all aspects of life. It is sisterhood. Supporting another woman's right to do whatever she wants – however different another woman's expression may be from yours. That includes sexual freedom, which is a basic human right."

Watch Lust speak about the need for ethical porn at TedxVienna:

The focus for Lust on ethical porn is at the heart of her work – ensuring the environment for all of her teams emphasizes safety, mutual respect, and the culture of consent.

It's a particularly sensitive topic at the moment, with the #MeToo campaign continuing to dominate headlines across the world following widespread accusations of sexual assault, but Lust is reluctant to consider pornography as having a negative impact in and of itself.

"Porn is a discourse but I don't think we can say that porn alone has mainstreamed sexual assault. Across the world, the film and TV industry continues to foist outdated gender roles upon viewers. The adult industry definitely mirrors our society which blatantly neglects female autonomy and pleasure but the media sexism also demeans women and fuels abuse by men.

"Movements such as #MeToo show what we all knew before: that there is a gender dysfunction and a power imbalance in society that is visible in every single field but this is not a new phenomenon. Power abuse is not a male trait; it's a human trait, and we have always lived in a culture of toxic masculinity that allows and encourages men to perpetrate acts of violence and disrespect towards women. This is the story of humans," she adds.

READ ALSO: What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about Swedish feminism?

However, the director is hopeful that taking porn away from a more traditional 'male gaze' offers a chance to change society's accepted vision of sexuality as a whole: "By making porn which represents individuals having sex, not men 'doing' sex to women, we can squash the belief that women are not aroused by representation of sex or sex on screen as much as men. We can help society to overcome sexist gendered stereotypes and show a more realistic and relatable version of sex and human sexuality."

"With more female pornographers making films, we can offer diversity and represent all the different parts of society and the people in it, people will be able to see themselves in those films, to see the sex they have, to be inspired, become educated, and receptive to the huge range of different sexualities out there. And most importantly they won't be exposed to one version of sex, sexuality and gender representation."

Having experience of living both in Sweden and Spain, Lust has observed noticeable differences in attitudes to sex between the two countries: "Sweden is one of the more progressive parts of the EU in terms of attitudes towards sex education. Swedish people are definitely more willing than Spaniards to speak about sex and sexuality since sex education is treated with ease and it has been compulsory in schools since the 1950s; something that is hard to understand here in Spain."  

She is quick to note that Sweden should not yet be held up as a prize example of a flawless approach to gender and sexuality, claiming that Sweden's approach to sex work is "completely off. The 'Nordic Model' [in which the act of selling sex is decriminalized, but buying sex is punishable by the law] does not understand, nor care for, the well-being of sex workers."

"Sex workers have repeatedly stressed that the legislation is not beneficial for them at all. In fact Amnesty International conducted research with sex workers living under these laws and found that criminalization laws of sex work lead to human rights abuses against their community. I firmly believe decriminalization is absolutely essential to improve working conditions in the sex trade and I feel Sweden is very far from this point and shows no willingness to speak about it."


Erika Lust and her crew on set. Photo: Private

Lust sees attitudes towards sex and consent in Spain progressing much more quickly:

"Spain has typically been behind Sweden in this area, but things are definitely starting to change. I truly believe that this is the year feminism will take centre stage in Spain. This International Women's Day in Spain was overwhelming; there were hundreds of protests across the country, a general 24-hour strike, walkouts by five million workers, and huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. There was a lot of media coverage and its success placed Spain at the cusp of a global movement. And especially in the wake of the awful La Manada ('Wolf pack') case, the discourse is starting to evolve."

READ ALSO: Victim of Spain sexual abuse 'wolf pack' speaks out for first time

Lust's community is growing and evolving, too. In 2016, Lust invited aspiring adult filmmakers to pitch their own story ideas via her website, with successful applicants offered the chance to see their concepts made reality. So far, she has financed more than 25 guest-directed films, with an investment of more than 250,000 euros.

In looking to the future, Lust is hopeful. "As porn becomes less of a taboo in society and women are able to speak more openly about their own sexual desires, more people are exploring different types of adult cinema. They're starting to look for something outside of  what the mainstream offers. Different types of porn are being made and we are starting to see that sex, sexuality and gender roles aren't limited to a narrow idea. There is a huge female audience for porn, it is bigger than has been assumed so far, and it is continuing to increase as our society overcomes gendered stereotypes in general."

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