Silence falls on set as filmmaker Daniella Vale brings her hand to her chin in a display of focused contemplation, or maybe it's nerves. The New-York-City-based 30-year-old is shooting the climax of her first-ever adult film, which she has written and is now directing for Swedish director, screenwriter, and producer Erika Lust, one of the biggest names in porn. Lust has offered Vale her support and funding for the project, but the success of today's shoot is in Vale's hands.
The female lead has let her jumpsuit fall to the floor of the rented Brooklyn loft, revealing a taut torso, pierced nipples, and unstyled pubes. Wearing only black platforms, Tourma Selene lowers herself into a chair and drapes a tattooed arm over its back. She directs a sassy half-smile at her male co-lead.
"I want you to objectify me," she says, her voice slightly stilted but infused with a seductive charm. Selene's character has just accused the male character, an artist who exclusively paints nude women, of objectifying women through his work. Criticisms aside, she's intrigued.
The "artist" walks over to her, brush in hand, and runs a streak of black paint down her neck and shoulder. A few moments later, both actors have stripped down and are on the floor, their limbs twisting around each other's as the camera follows the action. There's a distinct shift in the room's energy as the director and camera operator work with quiet, hurried motions to capture the on-screen couple's adrenaline. No going back now: Vale isn't shooting second takes of any specific movement or line.
Tourma Selene and Jay Smooth.
The only person on set who has even witnessed a real sex scene firsthand is Jay Smooth, the Los-Angeles-based professional model, actor, and adult entertainer playing the male lead. Even so, no one on the eight-person film crew looks uncomfortable; of course, they're not the ones having sex in front of an audience, and after Smooth finishes performing oral on Selene and the cameras stop rolling, Selene needs a moment. Smooth guides her through some deep breaths as Vale crouches down to check in with her stars.
A sexuality educator, Selene describes herself as an "erotic alchemist," which, she says, refers to her practice of using her own sexual experiences to prompt transformation in others. Still, a public display of such raw intimacy is anything but typical for her. Afterward, however, she tells me that her adult film debut could not have gone better. "It was the best possible experience for me. Vale's team created an extremely safe space for me to perform in," she says.
Vale, for her part, admits she was so concerned about creating a comfortable environment for the actors she woke up the morning of the shoot in tears. "I was just so out of my depth," she tells me.
Vale and members of her crew on set.
Novices or not, Vale's predominantly female crew is all too rare in porn. A 2008 study published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly found that only four to five percent of porn directors were women. It's true that over the past decade, more female porn directors have made names for themselves, including Jacky St. James and actress-turned-director Stormy Daniels (who is now in the news for other reasons). Also among them is Lust, who doesn't think the gender gap is closing fast enough.
Vale's predominantly female crew is all too rare in porn.
"The adult industry is completely male-driven," Lust tells me over the phone from her office in Barcelona, where she is based. "There are more women [making porn] today than 20, or even 10, years ago, but we need even more." Lust, who studied political science while in university in Sweden, cites the sociological concept of critical mass, which holds that a minority demonstrates influences only once it captures some 30 percent of a group. When it comes to female porn directors, "We are far from that number," she says.
But maybe not for long, if Lust has anything to do with it. In 2016, the filmmaker launched an ambitious initiative to get more women directing porn. Her XConfessions videos, which are based on sexual fantasies submitted by fans, were growing in popularity — according to Lust, the series has 10,000 subscribers — and Lust saw an opportunity to take her "crowdsourced porn" concept even further: She would invite the crowd behind the camera.
Lust saw an opportunity to take her 'crowdsourced porn' concept even
further: She would invite the crowd behind the camera.
Since then, Lust says she has invested upwards of $300,000 in 24 films written and directed exclusively by women and distributed under Erika Lust Productions. She accepts applications from director hopefuls on a rolling basis, and with agreements signed for eight more films this year and conversations underway with 20 more directors, Lust's new program is gathering momentum.
For most of Lust's guest directors, it's their first foray into the adult entertainment industry. This includes Vale, who between freelance projects and a full-time corporate gig, is the creative mind behind the steamy short filming today, titled Objectify Me. It tells the story of an erotic painter (Smooth) and his encounter with a woman (Selene) who overlooks her misgivings about the painter's work in favor of an erotic connection with him.
Vale says that if it weren't for Lust, whom she connected with through a mutual friend, it's doubtful she would have ever made an adult film. "When I looked into Erika's work, it was just beautiful filmmaking that happened to have sex in it," she tells me. "That was the thing that drew me to this project."
Vale sees her film as a snapshot of complex gender dynamics. The female character is at first critical of the artist's habit of painting women as if they're sexual objects — a charge both he and David Aronson, the artist whose paintings are used in the film, deny. On the other hand, she's also aroused by the prospect of being one of his nude subjects and ultimately finds herself having passionate sex (and an orgasm, of course) with him on the floor of his studio.
Whether or not the male character's work (or Aronson's, for that matter) is truly the product of objectification is up for viewer interpretation. Along with arousal, a discussion is exactly what Erika Lust seeks to provoke with the films she produces. Objectify Me is part porn and part conversation starter: It hits on nuances of desire by showcasing the apparent conflict that can play out between feminist principles and personal sexual fantasy. Yearning to be submissive, for example, might feel at odds with also rejecting the connection between femininity and docility.
"I think a lot of women are turned on when a man takes control. But we've been raised to be independent, and so we don't know how to make space for that desire without feeling like a 'bad feminist,'" Vale says. "What I try to demonstrate in Objectify Me is when that 'masculine' element of control shows up in a tender and intimate way, it allows for the 'feminine' to surrender. So this film is really about the dance of masculine and feminine roles, and how we navigate the nuances."
Lust behind the camera.
Lust, for her part, says she does her best to avoid stereotyping in her films. At the same time, she emphasizes the importance of eradicating the shame many women feel in response to their sexual preferences. "[Female desire] is not so clear," she tells me. "That's why it's important that we, as women, get involved in this genre that is adult cinema, and that we get to play with it and explore and see what we like and what we don't like. When we start seeing things that we connect with, then it gets interesting for us."
Women still make up a decided minority of porn viewers — in 2017, just 25 percent of Pornhub's U.S. audience was female — but they appear to be getting increasingly proactive about finding what they like. The top trending search term on Pornhub over 2017 was "porn for women," which increased in popularity by over 1,400 percent from the year before.
This indicates that women's interest in porn is expanding, but that they're not necessarily looking for traditional, mainstream content. Quality, subscriber-only content is Lust's response to an industry flooded with videos on tube sites, which she compares with fast food (and which can also be frequently stolen from creators). "What we are doing is about so many other things, and not only the ethical values, like fair working conditions. It's also about the artistic values — the creativity, the cinematography. I think that it's obvious that what we're offering is very different," she says.
Women's interest in porn is expanding, but they're not necessarily
looking for traditional, mainstream content.
Critics have long accused the mainstream porn industry of selling unrealistic, aggressive, and violent depictions of sex to a predominately cis male audience, pointing out that teen boys, in particular, may try to enact what they see without the opportunity to develop their understanding of consent. Lust's mission to shift the porn industry not only includes recruiting and incubating female porn directors but promoting diverse characters and storylines, realistic depictions of women, and safety and comfort for porn performers.
Performer treatment is more than an industry concern: Viewers care about it, too. A 2015 Marie Claire survey of over 3,000 women on their relationships with porn, 59 percent of those who reported negative feelings toward porn expressed concerns about the porn industry's treatment of women and its perpetuation of stereotypes. Meanwhile, 46 percent of respondents with negative feelings toward porn reported feeling bothered "that men seem to conflate porn with real-life sex."
Smooth, for one, says he'd love to see the porn industry include more female perspectives. "If young men have access to pornography, that's what they look at. There's no foreplay, just happy girls that want to take huge penises," he tells me. He adds that communication about "what she likes" and "how she feels" is missing from most porn. Still, the industry veteran — Smooth has been in at least 500 sexually explicit scenes and has acted in several Erika Lust films prior to Objectify Me — doesn't believe that it's up to porn creators to draw the line between fantasy and reality. "It is the responsibility of sexual education to actually [make that] distinction. This is fantasy," he says. Sex ed, he adds, is where we can "have a conversation about how, from a biology standpoint, your body works."
Lust comes down on this point differently, viewing her work as education as well as entertainment. While there are "so many people making porn that don't want to take that responsibility, it's very individual," she says. "I am a person who feels responsible. Bottom line, porn is sex ed, whether we like it or not. The best solution is to talk to children and to teenagers [about porn] the same way you do with other issues."
In that spirit, Lust recently launched "The Porn Conversation," an online platform of resources to help parents talk to their kids about porn.
Vale is hopeful about porn's potential to depict sex in a positive
light and educate viewers about healthy intimacy.
Vale is also hopeful about porn's potential to depict sex in a positive light and thereby educate viewers about healthy intimacy. "As we can see with the #MeToo movement, there's clearly a lack of communication between men and women. And as long as we relegate all sex to this dark place of shame, there's going to continue to be disproportionate power dynamics that result in hurt and trauma," Vale says. "Showing sex through beautiful, poetic films is a step toward healing these underlying issues."
Vale's film will go live on XConfessions.com soon — for a taste, view the trailer below — and the director says she's happy with the end product and the experience of creating it. Whether Objectify Me will lead to more adult filmmaking for her, she's still not sure. "There was definitely something incredibly freeing about the raw and unlimited expression of this process that I find myself wanting to go back and explore," she tells me. "I just don't know how that will manifest in my future films." In the meantime, her film will provide viewers with a statement on objectification and desire actualized through thoughtful cinematography, a complex narrative, and, of course, hot sex.
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