"Erika says that shopping for videos on her site should be like choosing organic free range eggs, or clothes that haven’t been made by 'little girls working in a factory in Pakistan''" / Francesca Jane Allen

The porn industry is notoriously bad for its treatment of female stars. So what does it take to make a feminist porn film, and is it really possible to produce porn that is separate from the industry?

The following article contains a number of sexually explicit references

It's a hot summer's night in Spain, and Luke Hotrod and Maria Riot are having sex on a makeshift bed. They’re on the edge of a field, in the grounds of a villa about 80 miles north of Barcelona. The sun has just set, and a chorus of crickets and frogs rings around them. Locked in a passionate embrace, their bodies are illuminated by a lamp that swings gently from a nearby tree, as well as a 10-foot-tall lighting rig about 10 metres to their left. Sitting across the field, I watch from a distance and make notes – although I’m not alone, and I have been invited.

This isn’t an impromptu moment of passion I’m watching, but the climactic scene of a porn film. I sit by a small monitor just away from the action, and am surrounded by a film crew. They are almost entirely female, save for one young bearded man helping with sound. Their director is Erika Hallqvist, aka Erika Lust. Tonight she’s continuing the mission that she embarked on ten years ago – to make the world a better place with feminist porn.

Since 2005 Erika has made dozens of short films, won multiple awards, and become famous among Barcelona’s chic and libidinous middle class. She started directing after trying to watch mainstream porn, but finding that it only offended her. So she took matters into her own hands, and has encouraged her viewers to do the same.

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Director Erika Lust with stars Luke Hotrod and Maria Riot (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

“This a proper production,” says Luke Hotrod. Luke is a long-haired Geordie who lives just outside of London with his porn star girlfriend Victoria Summers. He is covered in tattoos; the word “ROCK” is written across his right-hand knuckles, and “ROLL” across his left. For the last five years he says that he has performed in roughly 600 films, primarily within the UK hardcore scene. When I search through his back catalogue, I’m confronted with extensive documentation of his varied sexual and professional endeavours. Some of them include fisting, watersports, and double penetrations (“you get used to it”, he tells me).

As such, Luke seems like an unlikely choice for a feminist porn film. But he is very professional and, crucially, a musician; Erika only hires performers who have pursue interests outside of porn. And as Luke points out, this isn’t the only thing that sets her apart from mainstream porn. “Most porn is shot in two hours,” he explains. “Simple bit of five-minute dialogue at the start, then they don't pay attention to detail like this. If there's a dog in the background they don't give a s**t. This is different. This is real. It's as close to a movie set as you'll get in the porn world.”

At 34, Luke is 11 years older than his Argentine co-star, Maria Riot. Maria isn’t your typical skinny blonde porn star. She has choppy black hair and dark, brooding features. She’s into photography and political activism, has been working in porn for just a year, and so far only filmed a couple of heterosexual sex scenes. But, she tells me, she’s not that nervous, and is excited to work with Erika.

Tonight Luke and Maria are starring in a 15-minute film called “If the Apocalypse Comes, F**k Me”. It will form part of the fifth volume of Erika’s XConfessions series, in which each film is based on a fan-submitted fantasy. Others include “I found your mother on Tinder”, “#SkypeSex” and “Mad Men Porn”.

Tonight’s inspiration takes me by surprise. “Year 2180. I haven’t seen anyone for ages. I’m about to die, I’m so f**king thirsty, clean water is the most difficult thing to find.” it says. “I’m also hungry and horny. And there he is, my first human contact in years. He’s organised, he seems to be well-fed, and he is attractive. He has a nice camp. I’m going to seduce that man, and then, we’ll see… Shoot it Erika!”

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Luke Hotrod and Maria Riot (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

The sun is setting, and Maria begins to traipse across the burnt-out field that sits round the corner from the villa. She arrives at a copse of trees, where she spots Luke. He has a 4x4 car, a bed, a large water supply, and an impressively large penis. Sat on the edge of a circular wooden tub, he has become lost in a reverie, and started to masturbate. He suddenly sees Maria, and she attacks him. They fight over his water. Her clothes come off and they start rolling around in the grass.

As the action unfolds, I begin to see what Luke means when he calls this a “proper” production. When talking about Erika’s porn, you can use the word “cinematography” without being a creep. Her crew shoots everything with a Arri Alexa camera they’ve hired, which I’m assured could “shoot an Oscar-winning film”. To buy one would cost at least £50,000. Once they have the footage it’s handed to the post-production team, which Erika’s team has dubbed “the vagina” for their ability to bring it to life.

But it’s easy to feel sceptical towards the idea of feminist porn. The porn industry is famously bad for its female stars. Is it really possible to produce porn that is separate from the industry, while still working with many performers who are part of it? And is there not something fundamentally exploitative about paying two people to have sex on camera?

If you read the various first-person accounts of the porn industry, the answer would seem to be yes. Stories of abuse, discrimination and coercion are rife. The recent Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted has exposed some of the worrying conditions faced by female performers. It follows several women trying to make it in the industry. At first, they're booked to do vanilla "amateur" sex scenes. But the longer they stay in the industry, the further they're forced to go. Before long, they're performing increasingly extreme sex acts in front of the camera, which some of them are clearly not fully comfortable with. We’re told that the average time they spend in the industry is three months.

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Shooting a scene for 'If the Apocalypse Comes, F**k Me' (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

In 2010, Sam Benjamin, a former porn director, described why he quit the industry. “My true responsibility as director was to make sure the girls got punished,” he wrote. “Female ‘targets’ were verbally degraded and sometimes physically humiliated. None of it was written in my contract, of course; it was more of a contextual thing. Like: everyone’s doing it... thus, so shall we.”

One of these woman who was “punished” by the porn industry was Tanya Wynn, who worked as Jersey Jaxin until she quit in 2007. In an interview she described her experience. “Guys [would punch] you in the face,” she said. “You have semen from many guys all over your face, in your eyes. You get ripped. Your insides can come out of you. It’s never ending. You’re a piece of meat, and viewed as an object and not as a human with a spirit. People don’t care. People do drugs because they can’t deal with the way they are being treated.”

Research into porn’s influence on its viewers isn’t that reassuring either. Studies have suggested a worrying link between porn consumption and sexual behaviour, especially among teenagers. “Young people are altering their sexual templates and conditioning their sexuality to internet porn,” says Gary Wilson, the author of Your Brain on Porn. “They’re watching it, and thinking ‘this is how people have sex, and this is how I should do it’”. And he’s right: in a recent NUS survey of students, 60 per cent of respondents said that they watched porn to get information about sex, even though 75 per cent of them said it created unrealistic expectations. Another study on straight teenage couples found that porn was encouraging them to have anal sex, even though neither of them enjoyed it.

As part of her mission, Erika wants to redefine porn so it’s much more beneficial for the people making it as well as those watching it.  “A lot of porn out there isn’t about having fun, but more like ‘smack up the bitch’ or ‘I'm going to punish f**k her’,” she says. “This might not be such a problem for people who have had sex in the real life, and know what it's about. But it may be a bigger problem for teenagers growing up wanting to learn about sex.”

Shopping for videos on her site should be like choosing organic free range eggs, she says, or clothes that haven’t been made by “little girls working in a factory in Pakistan”. “A lot of porn is about using women and having power over them, I think we need to stop that and turn it around, and make something great out of porn. Because I think that porn can be great!”

But what does that actually mean? I try to imagine. In my head, the camera focuses on the man, not the woman. There’s no grabbing or head-pushing, and none of the “oh babies”, “yes daddies” or exaggerated moans that have become synonymous with mainstream porn. But can it really be that simple? I’m about to find out.

The scene has been set for the night’s final scene. Luke and Maria walk onto the set and position themselves on the bed. They get to it, and I realise how far off my expectations of feminist porn were to the reality. There are moments when Luke is reasonably physical with Maria. He pushes her head down while she’s giving him a blowjob, and at one point, while he’s on top of her thrusting away, he grabs her throat. She is also very vocal, and every so often slaps him around his waist.

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The author watches the scene unfold alongside Erika Lust (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

Between takes Erika spends the night bounding across the set and talking to her team. She’s in complete control, although there’s one key thing she doesn’t direct at all. “"Erika isn't about the sex,” Luke tells me. I wonder if I’ve misheard him, but he goes on. “Yes, it's a porn film. But most companies will write out what you do. Four positions that you do for six minutes each. And every position you have to open up the camera, so me I'm shagging around corners. I'm not having sex like you would at home. But Erika doesn't care about that. I asked her what position she wanted. She went, ‘I don't care, do whatever you want.’ It's real for her.”

Once the sex is over and I’m back at the hotel, I can’t stop thinking about Erika’s lack of involvement in the sex, and the occasional roughness between Luke and Maria. I’m a bit nervous that I’ll blurt this out and cause a scene. But it looked a bit, well, “mainstream” – is that really what Erika wanted? Worried that I’ll offend her, I ask one of her press officers the following day. “One of the most important things for Erika is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to sex,” she says. “The only thing that matters is consent between two adults.” The differences I had envisioned for feminist porn were ones that I could see and hear. But it was actually this simple concept all along.

Consent is what underpins all of Erika’s work. It’s easy to take for granted, but it makes a huge difference. And it’s what sets Erika apart. Which isn’t to say that all of mainstream porn lacks consent, but that in many cases you just can’t be sure. That’s not the case here. Luke and Maria may have indulged in certain porn tropes, but it didn’t matter, because they were happy to do so.

But how does Erika ensure that consent is always there? To begin with, she interviews all of her performers as part of the casting process. During these sit-down (and fully clothed) sessions she asks them about their interests outside of porn, but also looks for signs of uncertainty, and makes sure they know what they’re getting themselves into.

For casting, Erika’s performers provide her with a list of other performers that they’d like to work with. She then matches them based on their preferences. As part of this process, she refuses to cast anyone under 23. “If you are under that age, your decision to work in adult cinema could be taken without having in mind all the consequences,” she says. “I prefer my performers to be sure of what they are doing.”

On top of consent, sexual freedom is an important part of Erika’s work. When the British Government announced that they were banning a long list of sex acts in porn last year – including spanking, female ejaculation and facesitting – she attacked the ruling. “When a lot of these [restrictions] are targeted at censoring female pleasure [...] doesn’t that perpetuate the poor gender education our children are already receiving?” she wrote. “We should be teaching them about the importance of female pleasure, not censoring it.” But this raises a question: if she’s not directing the sex, can her performers do whatever they want to each other on set? Is facesitting and fisting really ok? Over email, Erika tells me that she wants them to be comfortable, so she lets them do whatever works for them. However, she does brief her performers on the kind of characters they are playing and the type of sex she wants from them. “That limits them in some ways,” I’m told. “Because of course if it's sex on the beach, the performers wouldn't suddenly start grabbing whips and chains.”

Erika’s crew is almost entirely female, but this doesn’t mean that women get any preferential treatment on set. The day after the apocalypse shoot, I return to the villa, where she’s shooting the next in the XConfessions series. Called “A Feminist Man”, it’s based on a user’s fantasy about having sex with a gender studies professor. Marco, a handsome waiter from Barcelona, plays the professor. He is joined by Maria, who has returned to the villa after her shoot last night. They’re shooting it in a library upstairs. This time however, I’m not invited onto the set. Marco is shy, and can’t perform with an audience. But Erika does everything she can to help him feel comfortable. She strips the crew back to its bare minimum, and bars anyone from entering the library while filming takes place. Marco can take as many breaks as he wants, and is allowed to go to the bathroom with Maria so they can be alone. Meanwhile the rest of the crew are ordered to sit quietly downstairs, and wait for the scene to finish.

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Marco Morato (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

As well as paying her performers some of the best rates in the industry, Erika also pays them all equally. This beats the porn industry’s pay gap, but not in the way you’d expect. While women are paid an average of 19.1 per cent less than men in the UK, female porn stars usually earn twice the amount as their male counterparts. But Marco and Luke will both be getting the same as Maria for their work – in this instance, the equality of feminism works both ways. I’m reminded of this when I talk to the porn expert, business consultant and entrepreneur Cindy Gallop. “I always say, 'Men, you have no idea how much happier you would be living and working in a world that was 50:50, where women are treated the same as men. And the same is true for anything crafted by women. Hollywood thinks that men won't go to films made by women about women – b******s to that. And people think that men won't get turned on by porn made by women for women – f**k that.”

Cindy also tells me about the logistical problems pornographers like Erika face. Through her company Make Love Not Porn, Cindy invites people to upload their sex videos to her site, which visitors to the site can then rent out. Each video must conform to a set of guidelines, which are divided into “musts” and “extra credits”. “Context” is one must – uploaders have to “show and tell a backstory”. On top of this, videos must also be ”cliche free” and “free of porn tropes’, and “consensual: obviously”. For extra credit, you can “roll with condoms” and be “comical”.

While she’s not curating people’s homemade videos, Cindy also campaigns against the stigma around porn, and wrote a letter to David Cameron in 2013 urging him to “disrupt” the porn industry by supporting entrepreneurs like Erika. One of her demands was for the PM to “make business services open and available to adult ventures on the same basis and terms as everyone else.” This is a huge problem for pornographers who want to improve the industry for both performers and viewers. As Erika tells me: “when you're involved in something that has to do with adult content there are so many restrictions and it's so complicated just to make a business out of it, and that's probably why there's not so many serious people involved in it. Because it's the banks, it's PayPal, it's everywhere you want it to work. I was denied by a lot of banks until they understood what it was I wanted to do.”

This is what Cindy calls “the fear of what other people think”. "Our hands are tied at every f**king turn,” she says. “My argument to investors on why they should fund it is this – what's it worth to you to have your kid not grow up f**ked up? Would you like your daughter's first sexual experience to be a positive one? Would you like your son not inadvertently being part of rape culture? How many more f**king reasons to fund a venture are there?”

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Luke Hotrod and Maria Riot (Photo: Francesca Jane Allen)

However, if young people are being badly affected by porn, we can’t just rely on small independent porn studios, and Erika knows this. “If we can't change the majority of tacky, ugly and repetitive porn out there, let's educate young people. In the same way we teach people to be careful with what they put in their mouths, let's be fully aware about the sex we watch.”

In other words, feminist porn can’t teach a teenager the meaning of consent, or that anal sex isn’t that normal. “You can't change the pollution, but you can educate people to be responsible with nature,” she says. “You can't change the fact that there's trashy food all around us, but you can do like Jamie Oliver and try to change attitudes and mindsets.”

Erika’s work is important because even with the right education, young people will still need healthier alternatives to mainstream porn. Otherwise it will always fill the gap. Yet the legal age to watch any porn is 18, and the average Erika Lust film costs just over £10 – even if she could market her films to them, how many teenagers have credit cards, or would be able to afford them? As Cindy tells me: “It doesn't matter how much brilliant work people like Erika are producing. If you're a horny 14-year-old boy from Swindon you're going straight to YouPorn and you're staying there.”

This poses a problem. Erika’s porn may be beautifully-shot. It may champion consent, and feminist principles. But against the behemoth of free online porn, it’s too niche to make a difference, isn’t it? Erika agrees to an extent, and acknowledges that she could be seen as an elitist outsider. But, she says, isn’t it these elitist outsiders who end up changing things? “My kind of way of looking at sexuality needs to be the mainstream way,” she says. “Mainstream porn needs to be the niche. Because sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you're in this niche’. And I'm like, ‘I'm in no niche, what are you talking about?’ The YouPorn people, they’re in a f**king niche!”

All photos shot by Francesca Jane Allen. To see more of her work go to: www.francesca-allen.co.uk

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