A League of Their Own, A Night of Lust: Calgary feminist film series to showcase the work of artful pornographer Erika Lust

It’s hard not to automatically associate the seedier side of things with the term “adult theatre.” Neon matinees shrieking “PEEP SHOW” and “LIVE! NUDE! GIRLS!” on a smoky New York street, as leather-jacketed, bell-bottomed, late night denizens of the ’70s city bustle by hawkers trying to lure late-night lotharios inside.

Calgary itself housed various adult theatres right up until the 1980s — the Tivoli Theatre (now Beebop Doughnut Shop) in Mission boasted of its “raunchy film-fare” in a 1977 Calgary Herald article, while the Garry Theatre (now the Ironwood Stage and Grill) in Inglewood, the Globe Cinema (formerly the Towne Cinema), and even the long gone Sunset Drive-In all allegedly featured slasher, kung fu, Blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, and softcore porn films from the 1960s ’til the early ’80s.

It’s a cinematic concept of a bygone era that arguably died the day Paul Reubens (alias: Pee-wee Herman) was arrested for masturbating in a Sarasota, Florida adult theatre in 1991 — and when the ’90s crusade for “family values” began.

But some modern-day porn producers and cinephiles are actively trying to bring porn from out of the shadows and back into the mainstream with public screenings and events in celebration of ethical porn production and consumption, autonomous empowerment, and the body beautiful.

Celebrating feminist film

Count Morgan Cairns, founder and curator of Calgary’s own monthly feminist film series, A League of Their Own, among those hoping to once again create a space for porn in polite society.

“Being uncomfortable around sex leads to misconceptions about sex. People used to watch porn in public a lot. And that’s kind of been lost — maybe because of the Internet. I think it’s one of those weird ways in which people almost move backwards, where once it was kind of normal — you could go out and see porn, but now it’s not. I think that’s interesting that we’ve kind of regressed in a weird way,” she says.

Cairns, who took film studies at the University of Calgary, wanted a way to showcase often overlooked female filmmakers, and began monthly programming at the Globe Cinema in December 2020, screening everything from cult hits like Clueless, to more obscure B-list classics like The Love Witch, independent foreign cinema like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and contemporary endeavours like Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Never before, though, has A League of Their Own hosted a series of pornographic short films.

“It was always a dream of mine to show Erika Lust films — I just never thought that I’d have the chance,” says Cairns. 

Then, in December, Lust, the feminist porn director, producer and educator, screened a showcase of her films for the first time for a public audience in Barcelona, where she’s based. 

Cairns, having caught wind of the screening’s positive reception, inquired about distributing the films to screen publicly abroad, and now Calgary will play host to the world premiere of Lust’s latest, along with five other short films from her XConfessions series on Wednesday, March 8 at the Globe Cinema.

“I think that porn is something that, again, going back to my film education, is a kind of medium or genre that is really underexplored. And I think it’s a really powerful genre. I think we have kind of an idea of what porn is, and we kind of think of it as being, you know, lowbrow, low production, crude production. But Erica’s films are the total opposite. They’re beautiful works of art. For the most part, this is just more filmmaking, right? This is just another woman director and her work that I want to showcase,” says Cairns. 

The XConfessions series began in 2013, when Lust created a blog where people could anonymously confess their kinks and sexual fantasies. It’s since evolved into a collective of directors, filmmakers, artists and performers producing pornographic films that break the mold of mass-produced porn, and instead offer inclusive, esthetically engaging, and ethically produced content for viewers.

“I discovered fantasies from the public that I might never have thought about before and realized that people’s imagination is brilliant and creative. At some point, I thought these stories could make perfect films,” says Lust via email.

For many who submit their confessions, part of the fantasy itself is the possibility that their erotic daydreams could be “translated into a captivating and explicit short film.”

Ten years on, there is still a lot of enthusiasm for the project — Lust still receives enough submissions to select two a month to inspire her next XConfessions productions. 

Ethical porn

But what exactly is “ethical” porn? What makes Lust’s films so different than say, your standard, free, Pornhub fare?

“A lot of people have been asking whether it’s explicit, you know? Is it porn porn? So yes, you will see penetration up close and very large on the screen,” says Cairns. “I want to make sure that there’s no confusion about what this is — it’s porn. But I don’t wanna say it’s like regular porn, because again, it’s beautiful, more intentional, well thought-out porn.”

Lust says there’s “an understanding of consent between everyone on an adult film’s set, including the whole crew, who must be aware of the inherent complexities of sex work.”

While the role of “intimacy coordinator” is a relatively new one in mainstream Hollywood feature films and big-budget TV productions, many people might be surprised to learn that they’re earning a prominent place in the porn industry, too. No longer is porn production simply fluffing, fucking and filming. 

Intimacy coordination on a porn set is a multi-faceted position that offers support to performers, manages sex scenes with the director, and communicates regularly with all cast and crew about sexual health, testing, safety, boundaries and consent, comfort and protection.

Lust is a major advocate for the role — even petitioning the Academy Awards and BAFTAs to recognize the necessity of the work of intimacy coordinators in mainstream film production.

“Ethically produced porn ensures that what you are watching was made with respect to performers’ working conditions, rights and dignity, and with their previous consent to everything that happened on the scene that day. This also means that everyone involved in making the films is compensated and treated fairly,” says Lust. 

Fair compensation means that most ethically produced porn is only accessible behind a paywall. Porn that is produced with proper steps in place to ensure the safety of all cast and crew simply costs more to make.

“Ethically produced porn also means that the dignity of the people involved is respected in how the films are distributed. We don’t use fetishizing, racist or misogynistic language when titling and promoting our movies, but rather focus on encouraging a positive approach to sex,” says Lust.

In fact, Lust’s films are classified not by the physical characteristics of their performers, but by the scenarios and the themes within their storylines.

“We see different body types — not just the same, thin, white body that is common in porn. It’s really empowering,” says Cairns. “I’m fat, and so it was one of the first places that I saw fat bodies having sex in a way that didn’t feel like it was fetishizing or gross. It was like, ‘Oh, there’s a fat woman, and she’s having sex, and she’s OK with her body and her partner, and the person she’s having sex with is into her body,’ so it made me feel really good in that way. It’s just people having sex and enjoying sex.”

A night of big screen sex

A Night of Lust will feature five of Lust’s previously released short films, and the world premiere of her latest (and top secret) release.

• Dirty Martini Sex Party is a ’60s swingers-inspired romp, which Cairns described as, “highly stylized, with very bright colours. Very Wes Anderson-looking, but then, you know, group sex, which is fun.”

• Impregnation Nation centres on a couple trying to conceive, who take part in a beautiful, but erotically charged fertility ritual.

• My Moaning Neighbour suggests a creative way to deal with that one obnoxiously loud upstairs neighbour we’ve all had to endure.

• Gender Bender is a gorgeously shot black-and-white film about a couple exploring outside of their relational, gender and identity roles.

• And finally, there’s Don’t Call Me a Dick, a purposefully shot homage to the body beautiful — in all its various shapes, sizes, parts and forms.

It’s a risqué proposition: publicly screen six short adult films in a city gaining a reputation for even more increased intolerance? One has to wonder if Calgary’s self-appointed morality police will find time in their busy schedules to protest this, too. 

In December, Lust hosted a similar screening at the Phenomena Experience in Barcelona and sold out the 500-seat theatre.

“To see such a big audience watching porn on a big screen the same as they would any other movie (as it only happened during the short Golden Age of porn in the ’70s) was truly rewarding and inspiring. It gave my team and me much insight into what people seek in sexually explicit content,” Lust says of the event.

“Our mission is to inspire people to redefine their relationship with porn. Encouraging them to see it as something enjoyable that has the power to raise crucial questions and a shared debate about how we live sex, intimacy and consent in society and our everyday lives.”

But of course, Barcelona is known to be one of the most sexually liberated cities in the world. Calgary … not so much.

Local backlash expected

At time of interview, Cairns says she hadn’t yet received any public pushback, but acknowledged that her promotional reach was limited due to the sexual nature of the event. Censors at both Facebook and Instagram would not allow A League of Their Own to purchase any online advertising.

Since speaking with Cairns, the event has started to attract some unwanted negative response. 

A League of Their Own posted an Instagram story reminding commentors that fatphobic and misogynist language would not be tolerated — presumably in response to negative comments on a Feb. 28th post featuring Don’t Call Me a Dick, which stars Heidi Switch, a porn performer and size diversity advocate, who, at 5’10” and wearing a size 20, does not fit the porno hardbody waif stereotype internet trolls have come to expect.

At time of publishing, A League of Their Own’s Instagram account appears to be under a newly imposed shadowban, preventing users from finding their page in the Instagram search function. This can be imposed as a result of their page being reported for “offensive” content, or for using commonly flagged words in their posts such as “vagina” and “sex” without conveniently censoring some of the spelling with asterisks, lest they offend someone — be it human or algorithm — who is not familiar with human anatomy. 

This is an example of “biased banning,” a term coined by Lust to denote patriarchal bias and coding that affects our everyday life and interactions.

“If I post a picture of someone taking power over their sexuality mildly suggestively, it’s seen as harmful according to social media community guidelines. But on that same feed, I will see a picture of a white, skinny female body, with very little clothing, posing for a perfume or a retail advertisement. The problem with the current biased banning is that this unfair censorship causes a ripple effect in our offline, everyday lives.”

For sex workers and other sex industry professionals, social media censorship can stifle self-promotion, in turn, affecting their livelihoods and incomes. Some sex workers are unable to open bank accounts, and for Lust herself, an unfinalized lease on a studio property that had taken months to negotiate was unceremoniously cancelled after someone at the property management company objected to her occupation.

“Biased banning reflects the dominant values in our society,” says Lust. “A suggestive picture of a white, non-disabled woman will be in magazines and on TV, while if that picture is of a BIPOC person with a diverse body size, it will be frowned upon.”

Cairns says she would be both surprised and not surprised if there was pushback from the public, but noted that it’s a paid, ticketed event, for adults only.

“You can come or you don’t have to. I would never push someone to do something that they’re not comfortable doing. I know that sex and sexuality is incredibly personal, and if you don’t want to sit in a crowded theatre and watch porn, I understand that.

“I think for events like this, it’s just making sure that people understand that this kind of work, yes, it’s porn, but it’s still art. It still took a lot of work. It still requires a lot of creativity and innovation and talent to make it, and again, I think it’s a very unexplored or, you know, kind of hidden in the shadows art form.

“Like, I’m like in film school. I’m sick of talking about Hitchcock. We’ve talked about Hitchcock, talked about Orson Welles to death. Let’s see some new things that we can talk about.”

And for the brave souls who dare to experience this one-night-only porn house revival?

“It’s still porn and it’s really sexy,” says Cairns. “Hopefully you’ll leave a little turned on.”

Tickets to A Night of Lust, presented by A League of Their Own and the Globe Cinema can be purchased at: