Girls on top: The women leading the adult-industry revolution
When discussing the key misconceptions about feminist porn, director & creator of XConfessions, Erika Lust, declared many people think this means female exclusive. “I have always tried to make my films accessible to everyone, male and female alike, and people really respond to that.”
Herein lies the secret to a subgenre of porn that is rising up past the major tube sites to rework sexual images and conventions in an effort to explore new and more diverse kinds of desires. Film Daily caught up with four of the industry’s major female adult movie producers – Erika Lust, FrolicMe Founder Anna Richards, Sssh Owner & Founder Angie Rowntree, and adult movie writer and director of Second Chances Jacky St. James – to find out more about their journey into the industry and where it’s headed.
Feminist porn: What is it and why is it important?
“To me, feminist porn is made by directors who inject their feminist values into their films,” announced Lust. “They make sure women are behind the camera and get to make active decisions about how it’s produced and presented.
“Women are seen owning their pleasure and taking control of their sexuality – having sexual agency. Men and women are shown as sexual collaborators, not as objects or machines, and [feminist porn] films promote role equality.” Regarding the themes, added Lust, the culture of consent is paramount. There is never any simulation of coercion, pederasty, or fantasies of abuse, and there are no portrayals of violent sex or rape scenes.
It’s safe to say porn doesn’t have the best reputation, with some states declaring it a “public health risk” in recent years. “Porn doesn’t have to be a negative part of society,” declared Lust. “If we offer diversity, represent all the different parts of society and the people in it, audiences will be able to . . . see the sex they have, to be inspired, become educated, and receptive to the huge range of different sexualities out there.”
Anna Richards from FrolicMe – a website dedicated to offering elegant erotica movies & images for women and couples – described how the industry transitioning from top-shelf magazines and videos to the internet and the growth of the tube sites meant producers tried to stay in competition by generating videos en masse. “The sex became more extreme and the images more gratuitous. Subsequently, we’ve got to this point where you say ‘porn’ and you instantly have an idea of cheap, explicit imagery that really is there to shock.
“I think it’s important we start to turn the tables now and offer something to help illustrate what better sex means. And yes, my films are focused on ensuring female pleasure because I think that is important. But at the same time, I equally wish the man to enjoy it, so for me it’s about equality of both sexes. Best sexual practice and better sex is when both parties enjoy it.”
Sssh’s Rowntree offered an equally succinct definition of feminist porn: women depicted in a positive way, as human beings, not just vessels for men. “It also places an emphasis on female pleasure, teaching more diversity in physical appearance and body types, and takes on a more authentic sex-positive approach. If all we ever see is mainstream porn, people will never know that there is something positive and beautiful out there.”
Of course, sexuality is diverse and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to sexual fantasy. Feminist porn offers a wide range of sexual preferences, from BDSM, to hardcore, to anal, to lesbian, to gay, to solo – the list goes on. According to St. James, the difference to some other porn practices is it incorporates sexual pleasure for every party involved and adopts an ethical approach to filmmaking, where the performers are treated with respect on set (more on this later).
An innovative approach to sexual desire
When discussing her mission, Lust’s always was and still is “to change porn for the better and to improve it”. One of the ways in which she does so is through XConfessions – a site where users watch short films based on their own anonymous sexual confessions and stories. Every month, Lust picks two of her followers’ fantasies and turns them into erotic short films. “And thanks to my open call to finance more guest directors, I will be increasing the amount of films I release from two per month to one per week from July.
“XConfessions was a way to get my audience involved and make the experience of making and watching adult films a totally crowdsourced one,” added Lust. On March 24 she’ll be making her U.S. debut with an exclusive director’s cut of XConfessions in L.A. at Mack Sennett Studios. In addition, the filmmaker recently released a taboo and fetish collection including period sex, foot fetish, brother-in-law fantasy, and latex. “We also included two films exploring tech fantasies – renting out your boyfriend’s cunnilingus skills on your friends and a chance encounter with your best friend’s mom on Tinder.”
Rowntree similarly uses a crowdsourced approach to seeking inspiration for the content on her website Sssh. “We’ve been crowdsourced since launching in 1999,” described Rowntree. “All my movies are made in response to feedback from my members in some form or another. It’s really helped me as a director and a filmmaker because I’ve got this road map of fantasies and desires my members want.”
Richards’s approach with her website FrolicMe is to offer high-quality, elegant films that cater to all kinds of sexual desires – but transparency is also an important focus. “I want people to feel trust, so I’ve got my face on there so people know who’s behind the site. That hasn’t historically happened, and now that women are starting to create films and sites, we’re prepared because we understand how important it is – showing a real person saying, ‘Here I am creating films for all of us to enjoy.’ I also feature a lot of couples; it produces the best results. If people are relaxed, they’re going to have better on-screen chemistry.”
When it comes to St. James’s films, her initial exploration into the world of writing porn flicks was helped by a piece of advice from adult director Eddie Powell: “Don’t write porno – write a story that has sex.” “It was the best advice I could have received,” declared St. James. Following the conversation, the writer drafted her first screenplay, Dear Abby, and has gone on to direct a range of award-winning erotic & adult movies, including Submission of Emma Marx, The Sex Therapist, and Darker Side of Desire.
Porn and the #MeToo movement
As many of you well know, the #MeToo movement has grown in prevalence since launching in October last year as an increasing number of people continue to come forward with stories and allegations of sexual assault & harassment. In Lust’s eyes, the movement shows there’s a power imbalance in society. “If there is something valuable and important that we can take out of the #MeToo movement, it is that (only having) men in power creates a climate of serial sexual predatory behavior that we must confront.”
There have been some rather controversial takes (or should we say finger-pointing?) on the #MeToo movement, with some reports suggesting porn has “mainstreamed sexual assault” – a very reductive argument, to say the least. As Rowntree blended metaphors, this generalization rooted in thinking that all porn is the same simply isn’t true. “There’s an enormous range of different porn genres out there and you can’t tarnish them all with the same brush.”
In contrast to this opinion that porn mainstreams sexual assault, St. James argued porn is one of the industries where a balance of power and representation can be seen both in front of and behind the camera. “Right now, almost half of the directors nominated at Adult Video News for Director of the Year are women. You don’t see that in Hollywood. Porn is really where women are taking hold of a once male-dominated industry and carving out a new path for themselves and women everywhere.”
Ethical porn and the treatment of performers
One place where lines may have blurred is in the treatment of erotic performers on set. Some of the main issues the media & government highlight surround the lack of regulation in mainstream porn. As performer Rachel Bernard admitted, it was common for her to walk onto a set without being given the full details of the job, and in some cases she felt pressured to perform acts she was not comfortable with.
Freelance writer, activist, and queer sex educator, Kitty Stryker, told Film Daily, “I feel like while some companies are striving to be ethical workplaces and making strides towards that goal, others are seduced by the ‘but this is what sells’ line and aren’t interested in change unless it’s financially benefiting them.”
Falling into the former camp are the aforementioned directors, who strive to create a safe working environment. A unanimous focus for Lust, Richards, Rowntree, and St. James is the fair and appropriate treatment of their performers. Lust outlined, “Nowadays there is real noise coming from the ethical & feminist adult-cinema movement that encourages an ethical production process both in what we produce and how we produce it. Since the first moment I created Erika Lust Films, I knew by putting more women in leading roles, more women behind the cameras, on set, in pre-production – basically in positions of power – I would be able to offer a safer sex environment for performers in the industry.”
Likewise, Richards stressed the importance of ethical treatment of her performers. “I know the people I work with, and I have a very ethical working standard. Every industry has a good end and a bad end, but working in my films with me, I wouldn’t have someone who didn’t want to perform or didn’t feel comfortable – you couldn’t portray good sex if someone wasn’t happy and enjoying what they did.”
Rowntree expressed how the actors on her films never walk into an unknown situation thanks to a “performer Bill of Rights” where everything is prenegotiated. “I make it clear to the cast & crew the performers are in charge of the sex scenes. So I’ll direct, but if they think it’s going to be stronger another way, I’ll adapt it. We also provide meals and snacks. But most importantly, the consent is there. It is important for them to feel safe, comfortable, and for them to enjoy the experience.”
The use of VR in feminist porn
What about the future of the porn industry? Rowntree felt VR will continue to drive both the mainstream and indie productions. “VR is already transforming porn by adding elements of interactivity and immersion that were unthinkable in the past.”
Although these technologies offer opportunities to add depth in storytelling, Rowntree felt disappointed with the VR content offered on the major tube sites. That’s why she decided to ditch the POV perspective in her film Empowering Ava: A Virtual Reality Experience and replace it with a 360-degree view so that audiences can explore the scene. This way viewers are not spectators, but are instead part of the sexual experience shared between a man and a woman, which Rowntree said “had an element of realness that I had not seen before.”
Meanwhile, Lust declared she will be embracing VR technology this year. “In May I will be filming our first virtual-reality erotic short film for XConfessions. It will be nothing like you have seen the mainstream porn companies do so far. With VR I want to combine representation as I have done until now with full immersion. It’s very immersive, very realistic.”
You can get satisfaction
Lust ended our conversation by stating, “More women and men, especially during the last decade, have joined the ethical porn movement. I feel this movement is reaching more and more people every day regardless of gender and sexual orientation . . . over the past five years, searches for the phrase ‘feminist porn’ have nearly tripled.”
While this rise in popularity might not mark the death of the tube sites, it does suggest society is opening up to the variety on offer as more people seek inclusive & diverse depictions of sexuality like those provided by directors such as Lust, Rowntree, Richards, and St. James. All these directors indicate it’s important to find a style that suits your needs. Ask yourself what turns you on and what makes you feel comfortable – there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to porn. And with so many alternative sources available, the line “I can’t get no satisfaction” no longer applies.