'Feeding the Female Gaze' by Sophie Cundall

Feminist Lust: Erika Lust and feeding the female gaze

In both sex and life:

Women fuck, women swear women scream women spit.

Women eat, women shout, women whip.

Women take control, and women...submit.

What happens, then, in the case of pornography? Teenage boys, men, women, anyone who has a access to the internet is fed Male authored and Male directed porn. A man’s image of ‘women fuck’ is unpleasantly different than the reality. Let alone adding in the poisonous ingredient of sex trafficking and the blurred question of consent. If you don’t pay for your porn (as most people don’t) then you’re symbolically buying in to an industry and cycle of abuse and anonymity. Just as we can’t trace who made our clothes in toxic fast fashion, for lack of an ingredients label, we cannot trace the makers and the source of porn that has been reloaded and often pirated onto sights that charge nothing for porn about which we know nothing. The porn industry is a patriarchal mess, and the pursuit of its betterment has become a defining debate in 21st century feminism. The patriarchy is in the algorithms, as they say. Sex work is work, and sex workers are the original feminists: it’s about time the industry reflected this.

Enter Erika Lust, the bubbly Swedish filmmaker changing the industry from the inside. Seeing her speak it is impossible not to be charmed, even enchanted. Her eyes sparkle with a glimmer of something that makes us buy into her infectious hope for change, and a total remodelling of an industry that isn’t going to go away. When she offers an open call for actors, directors and cinematographers at the end, it’s hard to stop yourself signing up. Even the most conservative (indeed, British) types lurking in the audience can’t help but be seduced by her utopian corner of one of the darker sections of the internet and modern (even post-modern) culture.

Lust’s mission, in short, is to create entirely ethical pornography, from both young, fresh directors’ imaginations, and those of her (mostly female) audiences. Her long-running series X-confessions features plot lines spun from confessions submitted by this young female audience, whose voices trembled with excitement as they asked their icon questions in the Q&A at the end of the talk. She has created everything from period porn that reads like a post-watershed Downtown Abbey (Sex and Sensibility, need I say more?), to a concert pianist’s fantasy of fucking whilst performing. I use the term ‘fucking’ here because this is how Lust describes the sex in her work: we need to radically re-appropriate this term for the female gaze, because women don’t just ‘make love’ as fragile creatures told to ‘think of England’ as a result of poor sex from uneducated men. Women can fuck (and also fuck each other, not just cis men), and do so brilliantly and freely in Lust’s movies, so why isn’t this what we see in ‘mainstream’ porn?

Another stand-out element of Lust’s manifesto, aside from using female fantasies rather than just male ones, is the queer and sex positive casting and agenda. A browse on the Instagram of any of her performers reveals their status as loud and proud voices in the sex work is work debate, and sex educators filling a gap institutional sex education completely fails to fill. They are accessible icons, changing the discourse piece by piece around female sexuality. Not just that of straight, cis women either: Lust’s work is quite possibly the only one to involve queer female scenes that are not just written for the male gaze. The ‘that’s hot, can I watch’ comment that so many queer women receive and seems to drive most ‘lesbian’ porn is banished. This is pornography for women, by women.

Though the is-sex-work-actually-empowering branch of the sex work is work debate rather misses the point in this feminist discourse (all we are calling for is sex workers to be protected as any worker is, well paid, unionised and safe from exploitation) there is something incredibly empowering about circles of women exploring each other’s bodies free from the male gaze. Lust is helping break the age-old stigma around female sexuality, alongside her performers who become icons for a new generation of young women, queer, straight or otherwise who are free to embrace and enjoy their burgeoning sexuality.

Lust’s pornography is art: sex is art, actually. Soft purple lighting and supple flesh dancing to gentle orchestral soundtracks, bodies of all shapes, colours and sizes come together in orgiastic bliss in visuals that could win the Turner prize. Perhaps treating pornography as cinema is the way forwards in an industry that mostly displays aggressive, fast sex with male pleasure prioritised, shoved into problematic, grotesque categories like ‘interracial’ and ‘teenage’.

Pornography should be art: for centuries artists have obsessed over the nude (mostly female) form, in varyingly problematic measures, so why should we not appropriate this obsession in pornography, and intertwine the two usually separate disciplines? Sex should be beautiful, feminist and unite us; if you have a body, you can enjoy it, and Erika Lust is finally offering a lens into this utopian and in fact more realistic approach to sex. Long may it last.