Opinion

Pleasure isn't anti-porn — it's anti-work

A workplace drama that almost could've taken place anywhere

Pleasure is about a young woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg chronicles a Swedish girl's journey through the porn industry, complete with simulated hardcore acts that gave distributors cold feet — A24, which initially planned to release the film in both unrated and R-rated cuts, offloaded Pleasure to Neon, which will release only the filmmaker's preferred unrated version. The film also levels industry criticisms that have left some of the real-life porn personalities in Pleasure's cast feeling "duped."

Thyberg made Pleasure, out Friday, following years of research into the Los Angeles porn industry, and almost all the roles in the film — performers, directors, agents, weird tertiary guys with unplaceable European accents — are played with practiced ease by people you should maybe look up in Incognito Mode. The major exception is her star, newcomer Sofia Kappel, an unfamiliar young face whose casting underscores the Traci Lords-esque innocence-corrupted arc of her character, "Bella Cherry," born in 1999. When Bella takes a post-facial selfie, you notice her sparkly pink phone case.

Thyberg is clear in her intentions: Characters regularly refer to porn as "work" — and taking sex work seriously as work means understanding the ways in which porn shoots, just like the blandest Midtown offices, are defined by gendered power imbalances. In Pleasure, this manifests in ways both brutal and banal, from the performers who choke Bella until she sobs, to the producers who, with a careless veneer of professionalism, throw a bunch of consent forms at her and unconvincingly assure her that they want her to be "comfortable."

Adult performers have spoken about this. In an n+1 essay from 2019, Lorelei Lee writes about many of the same experiences that Thyberg depicts: scene partners and parameters changing without warning or consent; coercion; withheld payment. But it's a delicate thing to point out, because, like many jobs, there is joy in the work, too, and because awareness of inequality and ill-treatment within the sex industry fuels alarmism about sex work itself. As Lee also writes, exploited people need solidarity, not saviors like the lawmakers whose anti-trafficking legislation disempowers and dehumanizes the people it purports to rescue.

Some of Pleasure's cast members, proud practitioners of a stigmatized profession, have disavowed the film as "a cheap shot making us look bad." Porn director Axel Braun, who in the film plays a porn director with the same name, tweeted after an industry preview screening that "we all got duped into helping [Thyberg] make a movie that would have never happened without our support. But hey, Pleasure was a hit at Sundance and Ninja Thyberg got signed by CAA." Conversely, Braun's costar Evelyn Claire argued that much of the most unsavory stuff we see in the film is simply "f--king real," and strong medicine for an industry unaccustomed to seeing itself through "the non-male gaze, for once." (In fact, one of the performers most vocally upset about Pleasure's depiction of the industry, who plays an abusive James Deen type, has, since the screening and Claire's interview, come out as a trans woman. 2018, when the film was shot, was a long time ago — as Claire also points out, platforms such as OnlyFans have given performers more control over their images and careers than was the case when Thyberg began her research in 2014.)

When Pleasure played at Sundance in 2021, Variety reviewer Owen Gleiberman praised the film as "a descent into the nine circles of porn perversion," musing that "the real paradigm shift in porn — it's one that underlies a spiritual shift in the culture — is how extreme so much of it has become. […] I'm talking about the 'rough' vibe that now courses through so much online pornography, and how it has turned porn into an increasingly dark arena for acting out a kind of ritualized, eroticized aggression." This sort of white-knight condescension, which strips performers of their agency, is a misreading of Pleasure, albeit one that the film permits.

Thyberg has been open about her past identification as an "anti-porn activist" in her native Sweden, where second-wave feminism's association of sex work with violence against women still holds sway: The "Nordic model" criminalizes buying sex and treats sellers as victims (who must then carry out their work clandestinely instead of advocating for safer working conditions). Though Thyberg is no Andrea Dworkin, and shows Bella's positive, safe experience in a female-directed BDSM scene, her film regularly conflates rough sex and degradation, the "extreme" and the involuntary. Pleasure shows how Bella's personal boundaries and solidarity with her female friends are compromised by the demands of a male-run industry, and her own ambitions within it, which lead her to work "for exposure," in multiple senses, as an object in someone else's demeaning fantasies.

It's tricky. Thyberg's gender essentialism is embedded in her anti-capitalist critique of sex work, which is really a critique of work as a whole. Bella never has a good answer for why she wants to do porn, just vocal-fried cool-girl avowals that she loves sex, but Thyberg has some ideas. Bella's professional ideal is the icy, glamorous Ava (played by the aforementioned Evelyn Claire), the Gina Gershon to her Elizabeth Berkley, to put the backstage drama in familiar terms. Ava is a "Spiegler Girl," signed to the powerful porn agent Mark Spiegler (playing a version of himself whose power in a ruthlessly aesthetics-driven industry is signified by his total lack of charisma). Spiegler Girls are at the top of the industry; they're so beautiful, and they'll do anything.

Establishing Ava and Bella's relationship, Thyberg may have had in mind philosopher René Girard's theory of mimetic desire, that "we desire what others desire because we imitate their desires." Blonde Bella and brunette Ava are framed in mirrors, regarding themselves and each other, and outfitted in white-swan black-swan lingerie. On her phone in bed, Bella stalks Ava's Instagram, scrolling through evidence of her glamorous life. If, as Gleiberman and many others have argued, porn influences everyday people's sexual practices and predilections, then so, Thyberg insists, does social media groom its users to aspire to narrow standards of ostentatious wealth and heteronormative beauty.

As Bella starts to make it in the pleasure business, she shoots in McMansions instead of motels; she gets hair extensions, professional-quality makeup, and PVC pleasers. At the same time that her life begins to resemble her materialist fantasies, she sells out a female friend and coworker to maintain her status within the entrenched hierarchy of established male talent. Trained for the rat race, she'll do anything to win it. By the end of the film, a strap-on dildo becomes a telling, binary metaphor for masculinity and femininity, dominance and submission, in a brutally cutthroat industry. Bella Cherry loses her innocence — but not her sexual innocence.

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