Swedish filmmaker Erika Lust, the reigning porn mogul of the indie world, perpetually remains on the vanguard of sexual politics. Whether she's creating a space for women to enjoy erotic cinema in the early aughts, giving a platform for POC and queer directors to take control of their own narratives well over a decade ago, exploring transgender and non-binary stories of pleasure and identity in her most recent projects or her newest mission to help provide children, parents and everyone in between on the sex education they never received — Lust stays seated on the front line.
Erika Lust built her Barcelona-based production company, Erika Lust Films, to fill a distinct gap in the porn marketplace. Large tube sites, owned by a few behemoth adult film conglomerates, have a monopoly on porn, and therefore bare the weight of representing the spectrum of human sexuality to consumers who internalize their messages in their most pivotal years. "Big Porn," as Lust calls it, does not care about your pleasure. Thankfully, Erika Lust does.
From crafting a lucrative subscription-based company to showing films in art-house theaters across Europe and the United States, Erika Lust has proven that erotic content that feels relatable, ethical and sensual (not just sexual), is not only profitable but life-changing for those who finally feel seen (or finally turned-on). While the transgressiveness of women watching porn is perhaps diminishing in recent years (with #girlboss magazines like Cosmopolitan covering Lust and her porn endeavors with more frequency), to remain on the cutting edge of an industry requires a lifelong commitment to advancing conversations through your art. Now, it's educating our children on human sexuality in a responsible way.
Last month, Erika Lust joined Sex School Hub, the explicit sex education platform created by Anarella Martinez-Madrid, to enter a new online sex-ed era. "Sex School" is a 12-episode explicit sex-ed series co-produced by Lust Cinema and Sex School Hub, directed by Poppy Sanchez and co-created with adult performers and sex educators.
From squirting to vaginismus, "Sex School" uses the wisdom of sex workers and other pleasure professionals to explicitly help viewers explore their sexuality (and maybe even learn some tips). Lust is committed to normalizing people's right to access comprehensive, inclusive and uncensored sex education resources that are not centered on outdated heteronormative standards and focus instead on the importance of ongoing communication and healthy, consensual sexual exploration.
Sit down with Erika Lust and PAPER to talk about the power of porn and how to harness it for good.
Photo by Monica Figueras
Tell me a little bit about how you got connected with Sex School.
The porn world might seem very big on the internet, but independent porn is quite small. We are not many players, so we know the performers, the different creators, different platforms. In the last 10 years, the independent side of pornography has become more important. I've known Anarella Martínez-Madrid, the founder and CEO of Sex School, for many years now and have been following her project for quite a while. She reached out to me last spring and asked if we were interested in co-producing the second season of Sex School.
Previous to your work with Sex School, you created a project called Lust Ed. How does this new season of Sex School build off of what you've been working on at Lust Films?When it comes to sex education, it's something that we are touching base with at many different levels at our company. We have done a few films for one of my projects called XConfessions with more sex educational films. We see the need for people to relate to sexual topics and ideas. It's pretty clear that the sex education most adults received when they were in school was not good enough. And they have learned through life, but with sex education, there's actually a lot to unlearn. We live in this patriarchal world where the way that women are seen is that they are fetishized: on race, on teens, on different body parts that we have. And that vision is living inside of most of us. So it's always a question of getting into your own beliefs and deconstructing what you might have learned in this world we all live in.
What role do our school's curriculums play in sex education?
Sex education is done poorly in so many countries and in so many schools. What do people do? They turn to the internet and they turn to pornography to learn about sex. And these free tube sites, which are the highest-trafficked sites, have doubtful values and harmful messages on gender identity, gender roles, heteronormativity, the sexualization of women and structural violence towards women. We are heavily affected by what we consume and it becomes part of our own visions of sex, making it really hard to break out of them.
How do we unlearn our internalized views on sexuality?
Having porn literacy is understanding that porn is more than just a fictional genre for entertainment, but that it's actually mass media. And that as any mass media, it's sending out messages to you about sexuality, femininity, masculinity, gender roles, race. One of my biggest fears with the young generation growing up is that 10% of kids who are nine years old have already watched porn, and at 12 years the majority have watched porn. In very few cases, these children have adults around them who are there to talk to them about this subject.
And if not for the parents, who ends up teaching them about sexuality?
The problem with most sex education is that it never goes beyond the reproductive system and the fears of sex. Where can you learn about pleasure? Where can you learn about boundaries? Where can you learn about social communication in sex? We don't have these references. The companies that own these tube sites have almost a monopoly on what porn is today. These conglomerates are no different from Big Food or Big Pharma or Big Data. But because this is porn, nobody wants to talk about it because there's shame and stigma around it. So it's not out in the open for people to reflect and think about.
Photo by Monica Figueras
So porn ends up teaching many children about sex?
Yes, and Big Porn is not interested in human sexuality. They are not interested in empowering us and showing diversity. It's important for people who consume porn to start thinking about their porn in the same way they do their food. In the last decade, society has started to reconsider the food industry: Where does the food come from? Who's producing it? What are the conditions for the people working in this industry? What about animals? What about the nutrients? In porn, we haven't reached that point yet where we are talking about the effect that it has on us and on young people in particular.
What is your main inspiration and motivation these days? And is being a parent of two teenagers factor into what you're working on right now?I'm the mother of two kids growing up, 12 and 15. I've had so many conversations with other parents who come up to me and say, “Erica, how do you tell your kids about what you do?” Like it's this crazy secret. First of all, don't worry about my kids, they will be the agents of change for a new generation. They are prepared and they are informed. I always tell other parents, this is not only my problem, this is our problem, because whether you like it or not, porn has become mass media. It's one of the only media that is portraying sexuality, because other media is shaming, banning and censoring it. So porn is actually the only media where you can learn about sex.
We started a project called "The Porn Conversation" where we have these PDF files where we explain to parents how you can have these conversations with your children. A way for parents to touch base with pornography, even if they are not prepared to go there yet, at least get the information so they know what's happening. We also added some sex educational guides because we realize that people don't have the information. So to be able to have these conversations with your kid, maybe you have to study a little bit.
Do you see any future where these kinds of explicit sexual videos are brought into curricula, maybe even given as homework clips?
I get this question a lot because I think that many of us think this could be great because we want them to have the education. But the reality is that even if it's education, it's still adult material. And we have decided in this society that the limit for watching adult material is 18 years old. So I definitely think that from that age, it should be accessible for young people to get into it.
What is the age or demographic that this particular series is targeting?
This series is targeting everyone from 18 to 110. The reality is that many people of different ages haven't had access to this kind of information. We are, from a young age, driven by sexuality. We want to understand it, too. The work that we are doing, our company and other companies in this sector, is really important for many people. It changes their lives, it changes the way that they communicate with their partners, that they dare to talk about their fantasies, that they may suddenly feel that a kink is accepted. People are so secretive with their sexual fantasies and experiences. Suddenly, when they are shared by other people, there's a huge power there, there's a feeling of being accepted, of being a part of something and not being the only strange person in the room. And that is one of the taboos that we really have to break when it comes to sex. Not being so scared of communicating who we are and what we want.
What is the next frontier for Erika Lust films?
I'm in a phase right now where I'm kind of trying to understand more about trans and non-binary identities. I made a film for my Project X confessions called New Kings On The Block that is based on a Drag King workshop, where three different performers are trying to understand their masculine side. For me, this was a super passionate project because it got to the core of understanding how we construct identities. It's so fascinating to think that most people today still believe that we are not constructing our genders. It's changeable and it's fluid. I’m trying to get a better understanding because when I grew up — I was born in ‘77 — and I grew up in a very heteronormative world where you were a woman or you were a man. We didn't talk about anything else. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I started to travel and connect with other people and understand queer culture.
Photo by Monica Figueras
How did that change your perspective on porn at the time?
Porn can play a really important role for people to understand their sexuality. I know that most of my gay friends are like, “Thank you, porn, you saved my life when I was a teenager.” Many people didn't see any portraits of gay people in the media and found porn and are like, “Wow, this exists! And I can do this, I can be this, and this is how it all works.” For most of my lesbian friends, they don't feel the same way, because they feel that the way lesbians are portrayed in porn is very far from their experiences. It's used to seduce the male audience and not for the pleasure of the women. We work with different guests and directors because it's important to empower people of different backgrounds so that they have the chance to create the stories that they want to tell. We need people of color doing more films with people of color, we need more queer people, more trans people telling how it feels, what they are doing, seeing themselves in not a fetishized way, but in a sincere and empowered way. This matters a lot to me and I think that these are the things that can change the world.
I love that.
Yes, and what I love so much about porn is that it gives us this opportunity to get into the center of male culture. Then you can surprise them inside their own little world where they are safe. I have to say, I'm very happy with the reactions that I see by many heterosexual cis men who are watching our porn and who are writing to me: “You know, Erika, this is really cool. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to think. And suddenly, I saw this gay film and —
And it was hot!
Yeah! "It was hot!" Cinema has the great potential of helping us to empathize and understand other people. If you do porn, and it's not only in-and-out porn, not only ugly-sofa-in-the-background porn, and it’s actually getting into the minds and desires of the characters, it can help to open your mind and think outside of your own box, your sexuality. That is fantastic.
I also see couples writing to me and saying, “We watched this BDSM film and we had never really talked about sex before and I said to him, ‘You know, what did you think?' I was surprised that I felt great!” And then they dare to try things out. Because in the end, if you never open these conversations up, it's not just gonna happen. There’s so much to learn from the BDSM community and from the kink communities because they have for years been talking about boundaries, rules, safe words, after-care and checking in with your partner. The word “consent” is somewhat new to media and amongst people and now it's becoming more talked about, but still, sex education in schools needs to talk about pleasure, consent, sexual intimacy and relationships. Not only how you get pregnant or how you do not get pregnant.
Or where the fallopian tube is.
Do you even remember?
We need to update our information. And to unlearn things we have learned too.
In America, abstinence is still being taught.
America is a case on its own. I was banned from Instagram and social media last year. Banning is a huge thing. I'm not posting explicit pictures. I'm not posting anything you're not supposed to. But you know, I am who I am and my ideas and my visions are not what they want. Then you go onto Instagram, and you see breasts and asses all over the place. That is very satisfying for the patriarchy. They are happy with these pictures. But as soon as you're putting together two people who seem like they are having real pleasure — that's not okay. Even if they're wearing clothes. We need people to talk about these subjects. We don't have other media.
Check out the Lust Films x Sex School hub "Sex School" series here for a lesson in Sex 101.
Photos courtesy of Erika Lust Films