X Close

Pleasure: a disappointing debut Any honest portrait of the industry reveals its brutality

(Pleasure, 2021)


June 15, 2022   6 mins

Should porn be banned? The question would have seemed a perfectly reasonable one during the post-1968 “Porn Wars”, when prominent feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted anti-pornography ordinances that passed in major cities — before being struck down as violations of free speech. Seen as dependent on the physical exploitation of often poor women, and a core driver of violence against them, pornography was one of the National Organisation for Women’s “Big Four” issues. In Robin Morgan’s words: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.”

But the days when feminists were largely against porn are a distant memory. With the rise of the Christian Right in the Eighties — and the rise of home video — so-called “sex-positive feminism” won the day. As a popular Ellen Willis line went: “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to ‘What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.’” In this view, pornography wasn’t about social issues such as the eroticisation of violence against women or their submission, economic and physical. It was just about, well, “what turns you on”.

This view is a pretty simplistic one. As Amia Srinivasan observes in The Right to Sex, it’s not like our desires come inborn, just waiting for their validation and release by streaming. Instead, porn sites — algorithmically overdetermined, like everything else dependent on online ad sales — push site-goers to eroticise whatever’s getting the most hits in their area. Most often, it’s pretty harrowing stuff.

One might object to this state of affairs. The porn industry is worth almost $100 billion worldwide; it is the way most boys and many girls are first exposed to sex in the developed world, and often at preteen ages. Performers are rampantly abused, and women mostly age out by their twenties. Many posit a connection between porn consumption and sexual dysfunction and body dysmorphia. Only the most naive would deny that women feel pressured to accommodate an androcentric ideal of behaviour, and that pornography partakes of and amplifies that pressure.

But despite a recent spate of critiques of “sex-positive” liberal feminism, few today really condemn porn. Co-opted and defanged like so many countercultural movements of the Sixties, feminism has now generally settled into uncritical embrace of choice, wary to articulate any theory of good, bad, or even fair sex beyond the presence of “consent”. This liberal, legalistic framework is something of a fiction, of course; much as the underdogs in capitalism are treated as giving free and informed consent even under the most dire economic duress, women today are treated as giving consent even when their wishes are as minimised and obscured as ever. But the imperative of sex-positive feminism is to not question women’s desires, but instead take them at their word.

Hence the strange case of Pleasure, the feature debut of Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, for which I had high hopes: it is perhaps the most widely released film about porn to actually go “behind the scenes”, hand sanitiser and all. By delving into the actual production of all those mountains of mysterious videos, Thyberg handles a subject ripe for a critical perspective. As lead Sofia Kappel told the Guardian, “I think the porn industry as a subject is very interesting since it’s very present in our lives but we don’t talk about it. We act like it doesn’t exist.”

She’s right. But a promising subject is no guarantee of artistic success. Pleasure, praised to the sky by major critics, is less a work of art than a piece of self-defeating propaganda. It is an attempt at a pro-porn feminist flick that is so violent, so thin, and so degrading for creators and viewers alike, that Thyberg may have inadvertently created one of the greatest arguments yet against so-called sex-positive feminism.

Thyberg is a former anti-porn activist, and Pleasure is an adaptation of her 2013 Cannes short portraying the violent pressuring of a woman performer into an extreme act. As one might expect, its plot reads like an after-school special. Bella Cherry, an attractive 19-year-old Swede with virtually no backstory, personality, or desires, comes to California to enter the porn industry. In short order, she’s pressured into BDSM and then an even more extreme act before, in her own words, being “raped for hours” and finally quasi-assaulting a more attractive rival. She ends up so sickened with herself she crawls out of her limo onto a crowded LA freeway.

But as she has exhaustingly demonstrated on the press circuit, Thyberg has squarely imbibed the dogma of non-judgment. Explaining to the Guardian that she’s changed from anti-porn to judgment-free, she says, “The things that [Bella’s] going through that are bad in the film don’t have anything to do with having sex on camera.” In a New York Times profile, Thyberg declares that “Bad things happen, but it’s not because people are having sex on camera… Abuses of power exist in all workplaces.” To HuffPost: “[Bella is] sometimes the victim or in the bottom of some kind of hierarchy, but sometimes she’s also the one in the top.”

Reviewers have praised Pleasure as a triumph of even-handedness. In its glowing piece, titled “She’s a Go-Getter”, the New York Times tells us that “women make porn and women watch it, and for different reasons, including because they like it. Because it’s their choice.” The LA Times similarly observes that “Thyberg does well to withhold judgment, approaching the porn industry not as an evil.” Mechanically drawing on the word bank of liberal feminism (“affirming”, “sex-positive”, “consent”, “non-judgmental”), NPR praises a scene where a female director has the lead tied up in rope, ball-gagged, and beaten by her easy-going male costar.

But no one unfitted with blinders could see this as anything other than an anti-porn film. Pleasure’s script is a string of feminist clichés set against scenes of violence, exploitation, and entrapment that collapse the shaky, pro-porn myth of free choice they rest on. Indeed, one wonders whether Thyberg may have been pressured to market the film for a sex-positive age.

In Bella’s first shoot, she meets the counterpart to her “teen” role — a fat, much older man, in what’s essentially a babysitter scene — and while preparing in the bathroom, has a panic attack. The director and crew tell her that she simply has “stage fright” and that “when you’re doing anything for the first time, it’s normal to feel nervous”. They successfully pressure her back on stage. Her final, post-coital triumph involves smearing the desideratum all over her face and posting selfies to Instagram with the hashtag #proudslut. Driving her back to her model house, a male porn star asks her how she got into this industry. “Well, my dad raped me…” she begins to joke in remarkably bad taste, before he tells her to shut up. Then she provides the right answer: “I just want to fuck!”

But for all her claims to concupiscence, neither she nor any other character in this film has any amorous or even amicable relationships: they have sex on camera, in scenes that, from that first one on, are consistently horrifying, and none of which seems entirely “voluntary”. If Bella really just wants to have sex, as she repeats again and again, why does she freeze up before every scene? And why does her vision go fuzzy during every shoot, even the “feminist” one? How, after she is “raped for hours”, can she possibly be saying to her agent that she does porn because “it’s a lot of fun”? How does her triumph over a prettier rival consist of sexually brutalising her? How can the conclusion of a pro-porn film involve the protagonist jumping out a limo in shame?

How is this not satire?

Despite herself, Thyberg has made an allegory for the central contradiction of “sex work is work”: it may be work, but sex is also the main human conduit for intimacy and mutual desire, and its alienation in a free market makes it all the more difficult for one to say what they really feel or desire. Bella’s only consolation is the hope of online stardom, which doesn’t seem to be coming. All she’s done is become a monster.

In her interviews, Thyberg has said that the film was about how abuses in porn stem from capitalism and patriarchy. But is a heterosexual BDSM scene with a female tied up and gagged, so long as it’s filmed by a woman, really all feminism can aspire to?

To Thyberg’s credit, she does emphasise the more craven side of the industry: the pressure to go extreme to get bookings, the pressure to follow through to get paid, the way Bella’s darker-skinned roommate is dismissed as “trailer trash” and abused on set. But in her attempts to withhold judgment, Thyberg has landed in unsettling and unsatisfying territory: there are clearly attempts to make porn seem fun — that Instagram post, that nice female director, that pool party — but the bits of economic reality she allows in reveal those touches as the hollow ornaments they are. “Abuses of power happen in all workplaces”, but in no other industry but prostitution do people’s rent cheques depend on a woman submitting to violent sex acts with strangers, driven by the ever-more-extreme tastes of audiences at home.

Bella Cherry doesn’t have any trauma, apparently. But nor does she have any joy, any desire, or, after the first few minutes, much of any hope. Ultimately, Pleasure is unable or unwilling to develop a positive theory of why she wants any of this, or why anyone wants any of this. Thyberg has said that she wanted to show what Bella “gets out” of porn; to show the moments where she’s on “top”. But even at her highest moment, she is merely a blank face, insecure and overwhelmed, sticking her tongue out at her iPhone as strangers wash up a few feet away. And that is its own judgment.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. Visit her website here.

ann_manov

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

35 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Chadwick
Mark Chadwick
1 year ago

“Performers are rampantly abused, and women mostly age out by their twenties.” Hence why that industry has the highest suicide rate of any industry.

Lori Wagner
Lori Wagner
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Chadwick

More than the military?

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
1 year ago
Reply to  Lori Wagner

This is an *excellent* comparison.

Sue Whorton
SW
Sue Whorton
1 year ago

The biological functions of sex in biology is for reproduction and for pair bonding. The production of oxytocin of touch and nurture. The sex acts here seem to be more about self gratification rather than relationship. I am deliberately not saying which is better although I am biased towards the mutual comfort version. I just think that biology has more to say about behaviours than we think and that moral choice is not just about mindset.

Sharon Overy
SO
Sharon Overy
1 year ago
Reply to  Sue Whorton

Well, yes. But that depends on you having someone in your life – porn is primarily for those without such a person.

Marcy S.
Marcy S.
1 year ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

I think there are lots of men who have partners who are addicted to porn.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 year ago

Stilettos? In an inflatable dinghy? Madness.

Alfred Eisenstein
Alfred Eisenstein
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

YOU TRIGGERED ME AND I AM HERE TO LET YOU KNOW

London Reader
London Reader
1 year ago

Is this a non-fiction article about whether porn should be banned, or a movie review?
The headline and subhead (which I suppose the author may not have written) and the first couple of paragraphs suggest the author is going to deal with the reality of porn, at least as the author sees it. But the only evidence presented is the contents of a movie about the porn industry, a work of fiction.
“Bella’s” *fictional* experiences are no proper basis for real-world policy changes. Real world evidence is required. And it’s not good enough to claim, without evidence, that a work of fiction accurately depicts the reality. Not in a policy article.
If you want to make the case for banning something, you need to do better than this.

Laney R Sexton
LS
Laney R Sexton
1 year ago
Reply to  London Reader

I think Bella’s fictional example is explicitly representative in mainstream porn. The film could have easily swapped the artistic representation for a real one in a snap.

John Murray
JM
John Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  London Reader

Yeah, I was a little confused as to whether the movie was a fiction or perhaps a documentary about an actual performer. It does rather make a difference if you are going to talk policy responses. I am quite prepared to believe that the porn industry is awful as is often said, but there does need to be some clarity about sources (I am sure Julie Bindel could provide a veritable library if asked).

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
1 year ago
Reply to  John Murray

Which is probably why she’s Julie Bindel, librarian, and the rest of the world is not

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

There could be some effort to persuade girls and women to make better choices. Stop telling them that they can do anything they want, and that they should expect to be shielded from any negative consequences of their own actions.

I’ve also noticed a distinct inability to tell the difference between attention and admiration in too many women.

Porn will continue as long as there are people willing to be in it.

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

Is it the film which is disliked? The director’s treatment of the material? The short from which the movie was derived/extended? The subject of the film? The vulgarity? The nudity? The grotesque nature of the story and the explicit crudity of this particular cinematic experience?
Is it the presumed connection between this fictional ‘depiction’ of a pornographic film and what Thyberg implies is an actual pornographic film which may or may not treat its actors and actresses in the same mechanistic & exploitive manner that Thyberg treated hers?
We have no real idea, of course. But that is not surprising because we equally have no real idea as to what is real, what is imagined, what is mirror, and what is perverted fantasy in the construction and selling of Pleasure itself.
The ‘nod & a wink’ nature of so-called porno exposés is that the expose itself exists and is consumed as porno (albeit a self-aware porno) by the very audience who would find the porno so ‘cinematized’ as cheap & exploitive in its original form, but not when looking at it in an ‘artistic’ mirror. Perhaps it’s OK, now, to be cheap & exploitive if by doing so we end-up at Cannes & Sundance?
In the end it probably doesn’t matter.
Based on the description and what is revealed by a quick, unfiltered Googling there is nothing here of value or interest. And that is too bad. it’s too bad because, as the author first hints and then abandons — there is substance in a careful & reasoned consideration of what is and is not pornographic / erotic (and how we humans negotiate same). There is substance in the consideration of the extent to which voluntary participation in so-called exploitation (of any sort) truly is or is not exploitive.
Do we ‘exploit’ LeBron when we fill our coliseums to watch him play? Or does LeBron exploit us, by selling us his BBall talent at insanely exorbitant rates. Is a beautiful women exploited when she agrees to share some portion of her self, her beauty, her form, her sensuality (real? Memorex?) for buckets of dollars? Or is it the size of the bucket which determines the degree of exploitation?
Like the old joke whose punchline ends, “we’re just negotiating price!”
There is much which could have been done here with a subject ripe with potential and interest — maybe next time.

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago
Reply to  B Davis

We have been in this drama for a very, very long time using whatever media was available. One might imagine that today’s teens find it boring. By making the act so common place, it subtracts from the reality of humanity itself.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

If there is actually a central message in this article, other than porn is bad and feminists shouldn’t support it, I’ve been unable to find it.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I can’t find a reason to watch the production. PornHub has already saturated the market with home made stuff.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
1 year ago

What i object to is the apparently basic premise made here that in going, moving, shifting herself all the way from Sweden to California, the protagonist can yet have no desires of her “own”. All admissions of mimesis at play aside, may i ask how such non-motivation is even possible?

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
1 year ago

Although this article doesn’t really deal with it, I’d have thought that feminists main complaint about the porn industry is that it’s misogyny at its worst. The women are all ‘bitches who need a good seeing to’ & they all apparently enjoy being treated as such. Those of us who are adults know this isn’t reality. I do worry for a generation of teenage boys for whom this has become normalised.

George Kushner
George Kushner
1 year ago

How about self-produced porn, OnlyFans etc? Where’s a coercive structure there?

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago
Reply to  George Kushner

A lot of young ‘performers’ with great hopes that eventually get squashed by reality. A very few seem to do well because they really do have an edge. That leads to a lot of people trying and likely losing money along the way. Still some persist because they enjoy the thrill of exposure. Takes all kinds to make our world.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

“But the days when feminists were largely against porn are a distant memory. With the rise of the Christian Right in the Eighties — and the rise of home video — so-called “sex-positive feminism” won the day”

I’m sorry, but is she really trying to say that the Christian Right in America is pro-porn? And trying to say it in an article accusing others of not speakimg the truth?

Does ‘history’ now completely trump reality?

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
1 year ago
Reply to  David Giles

I understood her to be saying – indirectly – that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Feminists dislike and oppose the Christian Right; the Christian Right wishes to ban pornography; therefore feminists will support it. The mention of home videos confuses the issue, of course, and shouldn’t have been shoe-horned into the main point as a parenthesis.

N T
N T
1 year ago

Perhaps some statistics go to with the lurid claims would be helpful.

The Gries
The Gries
1 year ago

porn is probably not going anywhere but more mainstream….look at my fans popularity……sex drives most everything in life….the puritans have no chance on this issue…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

yes.. ” ban” everything…Define ” ban”?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

The “rise of the Christian Right in the 80s”. Weird article attempts to make some sort of point. Fails.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

An attractive woman such as the one photographed could get as much sex as she wants with whichever attractive partners she chooses. If free to choose, she would only do porn – doing whatever sex act with whoever the director chooses – for the money. The exceptions to this rule are those women who enjoy BDSM.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

I’m sure the porn industry is quite awful. So is the textile industry, though we rarely hear about that in the west because those jobs left decades ago. If workers are being exploited, that’s bad, whether it’s in a porn studio or a steel mill. We’ve largely solved the latter through workplace safety laws and the creation of labor unions. It’s unclear to me why these remedies wouldn’t work for the porn industry. Consider the situation with Amazon, also accused of exploiting their workers and unfair labor conditions. Activists are trying to unionize the workers, not ban online shopping. The author is using the sad stories of workers to justify the same old dead horse ‘sex is sacred’ argument. We’ve heard all this before, but moral outrage is not sufficient grounds to ban anything, and it never works anyway. See prohibition, drugs, prostitution, etc.

Alastair H
Alastair H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

People need to wear clothes, they do not need to watch other people have sex.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Alastair H

They do not need to watch other people kill each other either. Are we banning war movies? For that matter, people do not need smart phones. What point are you making?

Lori Wagner
Lori Wagner
1 year ago
Reply to  Alastair H

Of course people need to have sex. What are you talking about?

Sandra Currie
Sandra Currie
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The textile workers are selling their labour. Porn is women selling their bodies. Big difference.

Ellen Finkle
Ellen Finkle
1 year ago
Reply to  Sandra Currie

No more than any attractive actors are selling their bodies.

po go
PG
po go
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Ask yourself why it’s the women and not the men who feel exploited and degraded by porn… anatomical differences perhaps?
Sex is sacred. What a callous, cynical, and commodified view to say otherwise.