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Generation XXX: is there such a thing as feminist porn?

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A new wave of porn is increasing in popularity. Its niche? Feminism. Stylist’s Alexandra Jones goes on set to find out if porn can really ever be pro-women

“This is by no means a guarantee, but the only time I’ve ever squirted before I was in this position.” Twenty-five-year-old Leeds-based artist and porn actor Vex Ashley has her legs up in stirrups. Save for a pink leather belt and a pair of pink stockings, she is completely naked. I feel cold just looking at her. 

It’s 10.30am on a frosty Thursday morning in a grand old house in the centre of Barcelona, and I’m about to watch the climactic scene of Dirty Doctor, a new short by feminist porn filmmaker, Erika Lust. It’s fair to say I’ve never stood next to a couple as they have sex before. The family who live in the house have retreated to an upstairs wing for the duration of the filming, and for the purposes of Dirty Doctor the kitchen has been transformed into an examination room. In a white-tiled corner sits an antique doctor’s chair on which Ashley is currently perched. In the opposite corner, the family’s cereal boxes, toaster, microwave and spice rack are all piled up just out of shot. 

A crew of women stand around Ashley. It’s a strangely mundane atmosphere – the lighting technician eats a sandwich, the make-up artist searches for a pack of baby wipes. Lust stands beside them, nodding thoughtfully at Ashley’s “squirting” comment. “Well, if it’s good for you, it’s good for me,” she says. 

Lust – aka Erika Hallqvist – is a no-nonsense, 38-year-old Swede. She has been making what she calls “female-positive erotic films” for the past decade as a riposte to the mainstream porn industry. “I started watching porn as an adult, both alone and with partners, but didn’t like what I saw,” she explains. With its at-times shaky grasp of consent, preoccupation with male pleasure and cast of hairless, slim, surgically enhanced and often white performers, the films left her despairing. “I kept wondering why the women were only pleasing the men? It’s not like that when I have sex.”  

Lust studied political science at Lund University, but found herself drawn to the film industry. Her first film in 2004 – an erotic short called The Good Girl – took a wry swipe at the predatory pizza-delivery-guy storyline, re-casting the woman as the active agent, the one who was driving the encounter. Within two months of its release online it had been downloaded two million times. Her films have gone on to win 28 awards, including three Movies Of The Year at the Feminist Porn Awards, and in 2013 she founded Xconfessions.com to make films based on real people’s fantasies. Every other Thursday she uploads a new film based on the sexual ‘confession’ of one of the site’s members. “I wanted normal people to have a voice within porn,” she explains. “If you look at the people who are behind adult films, it is still 99% men. They are the producers, directors and distributors. Their fantasies are very far from my fantasies and from those of people around me.”

Today’s storyline follows a woman who fantasises about her boyfriend dressing up as a doctor and… well, having sex with her. Not your thing? Then maybe you’d prefer professor-student fantasy A Feminist Man (“Is there anything sexier than a feminist man who can lick your p***y… [and] also sustain a conversation about Judith Butler?” asks the film blurb).

Beautifully shot and produced, Lust’s films have been shown at international film festivals

Beautifully shot and produced, Lust’s films have been shown at international film festivals

Sitting on a stool with his face just inches from Ashley’s vagina is the dirty doctor himself. Softly spoken Californian (it’s always the quiet ones) Mickey Mod – a 36-year-old porn actor – definitely looks the part in a white lab coat and glasses. “Right, I’m happy as long as you’re both comfortable,” Lust assures them as a lighting technician adjusts a spotlight to shine on Ashley. “Just don’t forget,” she adds, taking her seat in the director’s chair, “I want plenty of cunnilingus.”

It’s not the usual request on a porn set. If you’ve ever googled ‘porn’ – and a third of women watch porn at least once a week – you’ve most likely ended up on a tube site like PornHub or RedTube, where videos are free to view. Even if you’ve never actively sought it out, it’s likely that you’ve stumbled on explicit content at some point: a third of the internet is porn, after all. Yet in many mainstream porn videos, it’s not uncommon to see women choked, slapped or otherwise humiliated. In fact, a quick cruise around either site makes it clear that if you discount derogatory content, you’re not left with much, if anything, to watch.

It’s this void that Lust and a growing community of female porn filmmakers hope to fill, catering to viewers who feel – to quote Lust – that the mainstream has become “too homogenised”. Last year, more than half of the filmmakers at the renowned Berlin Porn Film Festival were women, and though still a long way off giants like PornHub (whose estimated net worth is $2billion) Xconfessions already has a yearly turnover of €2million – proof that there is an appetite for her films. In fact, even PornHub reveals around 25% of its visitors are women and that the content they overwhelmingly search for (“guy licking p***y” and “p***y licking orgasm” all rate highly), shows female pleasure – something the mainstream is rarely concerned with.

‘Feminist = woman gets plenty of oral’, I scribble in my notebook as the scene gets underway. “Actually, most ‘feminist’ porn follows a certain set of rules,” says artist Lora Hristova, who recently explored the issue in her documentary Interviews With Feminist Porn Filmmakers. “Female enjoyment is put at the forefront, and of course, consent is explicitly shown, even if it’s in outtakes of the actors laughing.”

“The production as a whole should be ethical,” continues Hristova when I speak to her after visiting Lust’s set. “So that means that actors are paid equally and treated respectfully.” Perhaps surprisingly, women in mainstream porn, unlike Hollywood, are generally paid more than men. Depending on what she’s being asked to do, a woman might earn between €250 and €750 per shoot, with men earning around a third less. Lust pays each of her stars around €500.

And as well as a strict no-silicon rule (ethically made porn demands that actors look like you or I might in the sack, hair and all), Lust often picks people who have worked together before and therefore feel comfortable with each other. I notice, for instance, that Mod and Ashley greet each other like old friends and head out for noodles once shooting wraps. As Mod tells me, “The sex is a big part of it, but [with Lust] it’s more about conveying the connection between people. It’s why, once we start a sex scene, she doesn’t interfere, she just lets us do what seems natural [in mainstream porn, scenes are often cut and re-set to get better angles].”

The crew is made up almost exclusively of women – today the only man on set is Alesh, the editor. Lust says she found that men focused too heavily on the mechanics of sex – the penis, the vagina etc, and not enough on the expressions of the actors, or the ‘gentle blush’ that a woman gets while climaxing. (During Dirty Doctor when the camerawoman focuses on Mod’s penis as he climaxes, I hear Lust whisper, “face”; she wants to capture his expression). 

Two hours in, after the dialogue has been dispensed with, the actual sex gets underway. Ashley is still wedged in the doctor’s chair, though she certainly seems to be having a great time (I count two orgasms), and the crew gather around the monitor. “He’s very good, isn’t he?” murmurs art director Angela. The sex is energetic and intense; in fact, it lasts so long that I go off to get myself a sandwich. Rather than being awkward it feels more like hanging out in a gym changing room – there’s a lot of nakedness, but it’s perfectly natural. At one point I peek over and PR manager Sam is Whatsapping pictures of the monitor to her mum. 

Director Erika Lust gives some notes to her leading man

Director Erika Lust gives some notes to her leading man

The mainstream porn industry has long been plagued by reports of abuse towards its female stars. Last year’s Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted followed 18- and 19-year-old women trying to break into the industry, charting careers that rarely lasted longer than three months, in which time they were coerced into performing increasingly extreme acts. 

And within the past three months alone the industry has been rocked by a high-profile actress alleging a co-star raped her, leading to other female porn stars making similar claims. Some, like Kora Peters, say they were abused on-set during filming for ‘ethical’ BDSM site kink.com (kink.com have since severed ties with the accused co-star, who denies any wrongdoing). Can anything that’s part of such an industry, no matter how peripherally, ever claim the title of ‘feminist’?

Not according to Dr Julia Long, author of Anti-Porn: The Resurgence Of Anti-Pornography Feminism. “The porn industry is socially sanctioned rape on an industrial scale,” she tells me emphatically. “It’s not useful to ask where feminism fits into porn. Instead we should be asking, ‘What is the feminist perspective on porn?’ And the reality is, porn is inherently misogynistic where men are overwhelmingly the consumers and women the commodity. Reducing other humans to a commodity which you then consume for sexual stimulation has no place in feminism.”

When I speak to Ashley after the shoot, I’m surprised to find that she’s also reluctant to make a case for feminist porn. “It’s a buzz-phrase,” she says bluntly. “For it to be considered ‘feminist porn’, I believe the film has to be actively subverting patriarchal concepts, throwing away gender roles, and any attempt at pleasing a man. I’m a feminist but I wouldn’t describe what I make as ‘feminist’ porn.” Then again, as Hristova says, “We have our politics on one side and our desires on the other. And even though they might not match up sometimes, that doesn’t make us bad feminists.”

Even Lust admits that the label ‘feminist porn’ is complicated. Yet she’s quick to point out the big differences between her films and mainstream porn. She finds her actors largely through the recommendations of people she’s worked with and interviews each one, opting for performers who have interests outside of the industry. Vex Ashley, for instance, is an artist, Mickey Mod, a filmmaker. Also, her films have sufficient cinematographic credibility to have been shown at film festivals around the world. At last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, she showed The Xconfessions Theatrical Cut, a 45-minute film featuring eight shorts, to sold-out audiences. The sex is almost incidental – a small part of beautifully shot and produced erotic arthouse movies that take the storyline and acting as seriously as they do the sex. 

Whatever you want to term her movies, Lust says she feels a strong responsibility to women to make her films. “Pornography is very important in our society today,” she says. “As women, we need to start a war against bad material and the only way we can do it is by making good material, material that celebrates intimacy and shows that women are not just objects to be used for male pleasure. People definitely want it. But if there’s no other choice, then they’re going to go to the bad material.”


Perfect for newbies – or anyone who wants to take some X-rated material wherever they go – this database has thousands of erotic stories written by amateurs and professionals alike. The stories are split into categories and the site also features ‘adult audio’ (audio of people having sex). literotica.com

If you like your porn the way you like your flat white (made by a hipster in an indie coffee shop), then check out Four Chambers. This alt-porn focuses on the aesthetics – from Scandi-chic sets to Insta-appropriate filters. The actors are also artists and treat the videos as extensions of their work. afourchamberedheart.com

This site, dedicated to ‘the beauty of the orgasm’ doesn’t feature any sex, but videos of people’s faces as they orgasm. The videos can be a little funny, but they offer a level of intimacy you rarely get with porn – there’s something incredibly sexy about someone in the final throws of passion. beautifulagony.com

This sharing-economy take on porn celebrates #realworldsex by featuring only user-generated videos and every time someone watches, they get a share of the profit. It’s intimate, intense and comforting that most people are having clumsy, non-porny sex. makelovenotporn.tv


Photography: Adriana Eskenazi (eskenaziencursiva.com) for Xconfessions.com

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