What you need to know
The popularity of Erika Lust's 'XConfessions' — short erotic films made by a woman for women — at the recent Women Make Waves Film Festival in Taipei shows the time is now to open a conversation about how women engage with pornography.
Last week, I watched porn in a sold-out theater.
At the door, we were met with disclaimers we had to sign relinquishing the cinema of its responsibility for any psychological and physiological illness caused. We were quietly ushered in and down to the second row. Close up. The opening scenes had already started as we took our seats. Watching erotica on the big screen proved to be sexy, funny and at times awkward, but it felt good. Best of all, it was porn made for women, by a woman.
"XConfessions", directed by Swedish director Erika Lust, is an official selection in this year's Women Make Waves Film Festival (WMWFF) – the biggest film festival in Asia dedicated to supporting women. It advocates for gender equality and celebrates the achievements of female talent, while exploring different aspects of women’s lives. Now in its 24th year, the 2017 Festival (Oct. 13-22 at Spot-Huashan Cinema in Taipei) featured a lineup of documentary, short, feature, experimental, and animated films from around the world. They covered a wide range of genres, issues, and representations of women — including women in porn.
Started in 2013, "XConfessions" is the first crowdsourced project in the history of adult cinema. Each month, Lust handpicks two viewers’ anonymous confessions to produce into explicit shorts. Write to her if you fancy having your desires rendered large screen.
Born Erika Hallqvist in 1977, the new adult cinema maker, writer, mother, and sex educator now works out of Barcelona. A student of political science, feminism and gender studies at Sweden’s Lund University, it was only later that she turned her attention to film and directing. In a 2013 TedxVienna talk, Lust says she first read of the idea that porn is a “discourse about sexuality, masculinity, femininity, and the roles we play” — but that men had hijacked the conversation — in Linda Williams' book, “Hard Core”. Lust’s first short “The Good Girl” — a fantastic play on propriety — was made available for free online. Soon after, she received a call from her mother asking what the neighbors would say. “The Good Girl” attracted millions of downloads in just a few days, and the immediate success prompted her to pursue an erotic film career.
Lust's shorts are based on real people’s relatable fantasies. The scenes build slowly and include thoughtful visuals. There is always a storyline, though often no dialogue or subtitles. Throughout them all, a distinctive tongue-in-cheek humor pervades. “Meow: Kitten’s Orgy” is one of the best performances. Four women languish feline-like around a sunny apartment, slowly stretching out and becoming animated, then increasingly pleasure-seeking. They lap (vegan) milk, paw at curtains — and each other — and when one unearths a vibrator with a furry tail from the side of a sofa, the real fun begins. There is a playfulness and spontaneity that a lot of adult cinema lacks. The performers are laughing and kissing, evidently having fun. Lust pays attention to audio too: there’s a good mix of music and relatable sex sounds. Overall, these shorts show natural-looking people having sex in interesting ways, and while this shouldn’t be novel, it still is.
“I just like to show women as I see them — as sexual complex beings with their own ideas about sex” says Lust in an interview with the Come Curious YouTube channel in May this year. Her philosophy for new adult cinema, as cited on WMWFF, is based on four main ideas: women's pleasure matters, adult cinema can have cinematic value, there needs to be more diversity of body type, age and ethnicity reflected in erotica, and the production process has to be ethical. "XConfessions" proves this can be done.
Taiwan’s sexualscape is experiencing dramatic changes, wherein young people, especially women, enjoy greater gender equality compared to the past. This is reflected in prime time TV commercials that depict males and females in non-stereotypical gender roles, (remember that McDonald’s coming out commercial?) and also in politics, where women are assuming prominent positions of power. There is no better example of this than Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文), and her colleagues in the legislature. Upon her inauguration last year, some 38 percent of Taiwan’s legislators were women, compared with 20 percent or under in the various branches of U.S government. “Everywhere, except in the porn industry, the role of women is under debate” Erika Lust states in her 2014 talk at TedxVienna. “It’s time for porn to change. For that we need women.”
The audience is certainly there. According to one of the world’s most popular free porn sites, PornHub, women make up a quarter of its global audience. As such, the industry is finally starting to take the female audience seriously. So what do all these women want to watch? Adult cinema that better represents their own sexuality and fantasies. Women can relate to other women having a good time so it is easy to see why the lesbian category is a favorite.
Yet almost all heterosexual porn is conditioned to satisfy male fantasy. Erotica is less threatening; it is non intrusive, and generally gentler. “I show touch, intimacy, connection,” Lust says. “I show the eyes. Women look for the man’s expression, not just his body.” When browsing porn online it is easy to stumble upon what Lust describes in the Come Curious interview as “ugly nasty” visuals of women being punished: spoken to in abusive terms, choked, and generally impassive to the sex they are having. Role play is important, sex can still be rough, hard and submissive, fantasies can be played out, and it can still be feminist friendly, she asserts. No sexual activity is “unfeminist” so long as it’s mutually and enthusiastically consented to. Lust maintains that the sex can “stay dirty but the values have to be clean.”
Taiwan's values are gaining worldwide recognition for being the most progressive in Asia. Earlier this year the constitutional court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and on Oct. 28, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Taipei in support of the annual Pride Parade. Meanwhile, Taipei’s Museum Of Contemporary Art hosted a watershed Asian LGBTQ exhibition: Spectrosynthesis, featuring artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Openly gay and lesbian soldiers are free to serve in Taiwan’s military, while the “Ministry of Education requires textbooks to promote tolerance for gays and lesbians,” according to a New York Times report. Moreover, Taiwan has a forward thinking, robust democracy — all reasons why it is considered a beacon of liberalism.
It seemed appropriate, then, to be watching porn made for women in a sold out Taipei theater with strangers, and the experience opened new internal dialogues about sexuality and representations of women on screen. People have grown tired of waiting for change, and with WMWFF, they are beginning to make waves for themselves. From my seat in the crowded Taipei cinema, I can see that women don’t just want to be looked at anymore, they want to look. So Taiwan, who wants to talk about lust?