Erika Lust has produced hundreds of female-friendly erotic movies, authored pleasure guides, and won international awards – all from her adopted home in Barcelona. Now, she’s tackling sex education, helping parents talk to their kids about porn. One thing’s for sure: the plot for this feminist film director’s career story is anything but shallow.
Peer through the stained-glass windows on Calle Diputación, 185 and it’s evident that the new tenants are putting their signature stamp on the planta principal. Beneath the hand-painted ceiling of delicately decorated birds and fruit trees, sits David LaChapelle’s pulse-quickening photograph “Lusty Spring” — a portrait close-up of Angelina Jolie climaxing. Above her hangs a print of flowers shaped like a vulva. And while there are ‘regular’ things – two orchids, headphones, a Modernist mosaic floor – there is also a BDSM bed with handcuffs cinched to the metal rails of the headboard. “Always handy to have around,” smiles Erika, as she talks us through her new workspace.
Better, Not Less
The fact that Erika Lust and her production team have had to move to larger offices is just one indicator of how successful her sex-positive, women-positive movies are. Another is her schedule. She’s been a hard lady to pin down (no double entendre intended): darting from London – where she discussed the future of pornography at the BBC’s 100 Women conference and launched her first VR film – to New York, and then back to Barcelona, where she’s just wrapped a cinema-length erotic film. Today, with every fourth search-engine request looking for adult material, it’s a gratifying sign that Erika Lust’s films are successfully infiltrating what we find at the end of a mouse click.
It’s not that there is less sex in Erika’s movies. It’s just better sex. She insists upon diversity in actors’ body sizes, genders and ethnicities, as well as ethical production methods. The cast is paid, has regular health check-ups, and knows exactly what the plot entails before they find themselves legs akimbo. There are also – brace yourself – actual plots. Twice a month, Erika takes a real fantasy from stories submitted anonymously and turns it into a short film called XConfessions. Plot lines include seducing a sexy stranger on a Costa Brava nudist beach, the forbidden thrill of sleeping with a same-sex housemate, and teasing a partner while they build an IKEA unit. (Maybe those furniture shopping trips don’t need to end in an argument.)
The Good Girl in Barcelona
We know what you’re thinking: this wasn’t an option that any of your school’s career counselors ever flagged up. So, how did a Political Science and Gender Studies graduate from Stockholm end up directing a studio full of naked actors, rubber phalluses, and packs of AAA batteries? The answer, in part, is Barcelona. In 2000, aged 23, Erika moved to Barcelona to study filmmaking. While here, two things struck her: firstly, she read Linda Williams’ Hard Core, an analysis of porn as a cinematic genre, which made Erika realize how much of the televised discourse about sexuality was controlled entirely by men. And, secondly, she watched some really bad porn.
“I realized that I didn’t want to get women out of porn, I wanted to get women into porn. We need women in porn – behind the camera – and that’s exactly what I did,” she explains.
In 2004, she released her first erotic movie, The Good Girl, which took the cliché of opening your door to a sexy pizza-delivery guy, but presented it from the viewpoint of a strong female lead – a smart businesswoman named Alex. The film found an immediate audience. Within months, it had racked up an impressive two million views – including Erika’s mother. “She called and said, What the hell are you doing, Erika? What will the neighbors say?” Erika shares. “And I remember feeling so liberated being here in Barcelona, like I could be or do whatever I wanted. I had no eyes on me. I was away from the standards in Sweden that required me to be prim and proper. Barcelona gave me the creative freedom to start Erika Lust Films.”
Working alongside her now-husband, Argentinian Pablo Dobner, they initially produced films for the DVD market, shipping boxes around the world. Then online erotica took off, catapulting Erika’s exposure with it. Regardless of the platform, her values are solid: female pleasure is prioritized, as is good cinematography, and the plot always has a backstory for believability. For Erika, the ultimate aphrodisiac is when something on-screen reminds you of an encounter or a fantasy from your life off-screen – hence the buzz of XConfessions, which now has over 100,000 members.
Mother Knows Best
Being an award-winning film director, though, is now only one of Erika’s many roles. She is a TEDx star. Her talk, It’s Time for Porn to Change, has had almost one million views. Not to mention, she’s the also author of female-empowering pleasure manuals, including Good Porn: A Woman’s Guide. Oh, and by the way, she’s a mother to two daughters – Lara, 11, and Liv, eight. So how does the job title of Erotic Film Director go down at the school gates?
“Some attitudes have evolved, and a lot of this comes from receiving recognition from outside of the adult industry. When the BBC or the Berlin International Film Festival notices your work, you gain credibility. However, there are still definitely moments of shock, especially when it comes to parents at the playground,” she explains. Their first reaction? “Usually, ‘How are you going to tell your daughters what you do?’ I reply that my daughters know that I’m a filmmaker, and that in my films there are often naked people having sex,” she describes.
“But I try to remind other parents that, yes, my girls are going to have access to porn because I make it – but all the kids in the world will have access to porn. The age of watching porn for the first time has dropped to 9 or 10 [years old].”
As a mother of two children around that age group, Erika became concerned that nobody was discussing how kids are being shaped by such early exposure to porn. Concern turned to action. Two years ago, Erika and Pablo launched The Porn Conversation – a website designed to help parents bring up the, ahem, nuts and bolts, with their children. Age-specific guides (under 11, 11- to 15-years-old, and over 15) detail exactly how to broach the subject of porn, while short videos cover everything from the meaning of consent to anatomical information, all explained in teen-friendly terms.
“Young people will definitely see free online porn, whether it’s by accident or because they have gone looking for it,” explains Erika, matter-of-factly. “It’s so important to give them the tools they need to be prepared for the first time they do see it.” She continues, “I talk to my girls about sex the same way as I talk about gender roles, racism, food or body size. I tell them the information and the technical words. I want them to know that they can come to me whenever they have questions. And they do have questions, as do their friends.”
She makes it sound simple – but Erika knows that chatting about the intimacies of sex isn’t always easy, especially when one question leads to 176 more. She recommends starting conversations young, and being open and responsive. She notes that by age five or six, for instance, a lot of children touch their genitals. Don’t berate them; instead, use it as an opportunity to remind them about the difference between public and private activities. “Explain that having a bath or going to the toilet are things we do in private, and that exploring their body is similarly so. Discussions of privacy can then lead to basic discussions of consent,” Erika suggests.
When you explain that their genitals are private, you can also explain that this means that other people are not allowed to touch them without their permission.
With older children, she advises honesty above trying to shelter them from information – which they will stumble upon themselves, often from inaccurate or dubious sources. The erotica on the Erika Lust website, for example, sits behind a paywall in order to generate an income to pay performers and crew. But it also means that when curious teens go looking for porn, it’s not her female-positive, body-diverse, ethically made material that’s going to show up. In other words, they’re not going to find the sexiest stuff – just the sexist stuff.
Erika’s mission to redress equality in porn isn’t done yet. Going forwards, she wants to change consumption habits – encouraging people to apply the same sustainable living practices they use in, say, avoiding cheap throwaway fashion, to how they acquire adult material. “We have all become more conscious of what we consume, and ethical and sustainable businesses have boomed. I really hope people think more about the bad consequences of using free tube sites. I urge everyone to pay for their porn,” she presses. “In doing so, you ensure performers’ work is done in a safe environment. You contribute to their livelihoods. Sex work is a real job, and the workforce deserves to be paid fairly.”
Adult material might not be going anywhere, but the conversation about what it shows – and how it’s made – definitely is. For years, it’s been a mindless yes-yes-yes, without regard to quality or ethics. But now the conversation is changing. Erika Lust is the voice, and Barcelona is her megaphone.
Erika’s Quick-fire Barcelona Guide
What’s the most underrated tourist attraction?
Gaudí’s beautiful Casa Vicens.
What’s your favorite thing about Barcelona?
There are amazing people from all over the world.
Where do you go to find peace in the city?
The beach. I live by the sea in Port Olímpic and it’s the place that I feel most calm and peaceful. Failing that, you’ll find me in the Cowshed Spa at Soho House.