Pleasure Presents a Conflicted View of the Porn Industry
The film perpetuates stigma, but also suggests that exploitation is linked to labor, not sex.
Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is in some ways a wearisomely familiar morality tale about the exploitive nature of the porn industry. Though many porn performers appear as themselves, the movie has been criticized by porn industry veterans and some reviewers for its “sex-negative” approach, and for presenting an already vilified industry as so…well, vilifiable. Performers who were in the movie have also had mixed reactions; some have said the film is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the industry, while others said they felt they’d been misled about the film’s intention and approach.
Those criticisms aren’t wrong; Pleasure’s view of the porn industry is narrow and it can’t quite shake stigmatizing stereotypes. I think you could at least argue, though that it’s trying. The film is sometimes sex-negative. But it’s also, more insightfully, work-negative. Thyberg films the sex scenes and their off-camera preparation in a matter-of fact style which captures an awkwardness and boredom that drains them of much erotic content. You’re watching labor, not desire.
Linnea, aka Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) is a 19-year-old Swedish woman who comes to America to work in porn in order to—make money, have adventures, become famous? Even she isn’t entirely sure. She’s young and bored at home; she’s trying something different. She lives in a house with other models who work with her agent and goes out to shoots as she dreams of more social media followers, more notoriety, more career success.
The film’s most powerful insight is that achieving that career success in porn isn’t that much different than achieving success in any industry—which is to say, it involves luck, constant self-marketing, and a good bit of self-debasement. To get ahead, Linnea has to network with a bunch of jerks, insist that she’s super happy and okay with everything even is she’s not, and betray her friends.
The film has many painful moments, including a rough scene gone wrong, which turns into what Linneas says is a rape—and while her agent doesn’t believe her, she is the one in a position to know. This scene in particular has been criticizes as unrealistic and exploitive by some performers.
Yet the bleakest moment in the film doesn’t involve sex at all. It’s when Linnea’s friend Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) is sexually harassed in front of her, and Linnea refuses to speak up for her.
Many of the directors and agents portrayed in the movie say they care about consent and that they want the models to feel comfortable. But it’s clear they’re mostly focused on money. That’s not uniformly the case though. A performer Bella meets on her first shoot, Bear (Chris Cock) is genuinely concerned about her; she asks for him to work with her on a double penetration scene, and he is a source of comfort and guidance throughout.
Linnea also works on an extreme bondage scene, in which she’s immobilized and gagged. It looks uncomfortable and painful. But in fact, it’s by far her best experience in the industry. The woman director and the male talent are both careful and caring. Linnea has a a genuinely great time, both off camera (as the guy shows her shark attack video games) and on. It’s also the one porn scene where she seems to maybe be experiencing sexual pleasure (via vibrator).
Pleasure shows examples of how work can, sometimes, be a pleasure—when workers are able to have control over their conditions and when they truly have the ability to refuse consent at any point, rather than being forced to sign away all their rights before they know what they’re getting into. In part because it focuses on studios rather than on the self-produced online porn that makes up the bulk of the market, the movie suggests that such pleasurable work doesn’t often happen in porn. But then, it doesn’t often happen in most other jobs, either.
Porn isn’t most other jobs, of course. It’s extremely stigmatized, which is why people in the industry can sometimes be wary of talking with outsiders about why it (like most work) can be exploitative. It’s also why many of the workers who performed in this film feel like Thyberg herself mistreated and exploited them by deceiving them about the nature of the film they’d agreed to participate in.
Thyberg does dispel some myths; there’s a very direct debunking of the “all sex workers were abused as children” anti-porn talking point. The movie would be better if she’d dispelled more. She could have included porn workers who are also mothers, for example; one common reason people get into the business is that the hours are manageable which means they can spend time with their children. For similar reasons, disabled women sometimes turn to porn—a fact that again the movie simply doesn’t discus
There’s also no indication that anyone in the business has ever done any other type of work. Researcher Mireille Miller-Young talked to many Black porn workers who had worked in healthcare, and switched to porn because they felt they were less exploited and taken for granted than they had been in hospitals and nursing care facilities. Another omission which Miller-Young’s work makes clear is that there are virtually no Black women in the film.
Focusing on the experiences of one very young blonde white woman flattens out the industry, and allows Thyberg to play into sensationalist narratives about innocence corrupted. The film’s last sex scene, in which Linnea has strap-on sex with Ava (Evelyn Claire), a model she envies and dislikes, is perhaps also the most sex-negative. Ava is not in distress; she’s just doing a scene, and experiences no psychic trauma. But the film presents Linnea’s topping as an immoral violation; by taking a stereotypically male position she’s aligned herself with the industry’s patriarchal violence. The idea that women wearing strap-ons become male abusers is homophobic, in addition to its other problems.
Failures like this make it difficult to recommend the film. But there’s also at least some acknowledgement in Pleasure, I think, that when porn is ugly and dehumanizing, it’s because of how workers are treated, not because the workers are working at sex. Thyberg was on the verge of telling a thoughtful story about exploitation in porn that wasn’t itself exploitive. She didn’t quite manage it though.
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