When is porn a turn off? There are probably multiple ways to answer this, depending on your proclivity and morals. I’m not here to judge. What I am here to talk about is a movie that, like Lovelace, Boogie Nights, and Wonderland, made me ask that question, and re-evaluate porn in the 21st Century. That movie is called Pleasure, and it’s directed by Ninja Thyberg.
Let’s rewind for a moment. As a red-blooded teenager in the 1980s, porn was a worthy companion in helping me discover my sexuality, as well as understanding more about the female body. Circa 1984, hardcore movies weren’t as accessible as they are today. It took grit, determination, and a father (or friend’s father) with a poor hiding regime which allowed the more industrious teenager to stumble on an eighth generation VHS copy of Swedish Erotica, something akin to watching a sex act take place in a snow globe. Now, porn is instant. It is no less difficult to access than Facebook. And more worrying is that everything and anything is on offer. I make no apologies for saying this, but growing up in the 1970s/80s, porn seemed more wholesome. It was less about extremes and more about regular sex. I’m sure there were copies of Animal Farm circulating in pubs or maybe movies involving paddle boards, but generally porn pertained to places like Dallas and girls named Debbie, not latex-wearing dominatrix pegging a man in a gimp mask. Or maybe I was too guileless back then to release there was more shocking material in circulation. I recall attending a house party when I was about fifteen. A few older guys in their mid-twenties turned up and thought it was a good idea to put on a porn movie involving lesbian prisoners. I was shocked. The lesbian prisoner thing wasn’t the reason, or that three men gate-crashed a house and thought it acceptable to watch porn in front of teenagers. What I found shocking was seeing another person lick an arsehole. I remember letting out an audible gasp, which courted the attention of the older men who offered me a look like I was the pervert in the room. Such acts these days are commonplace. As I say, I’m not here to judge, nor am I a prude. But it was a moment in time that stands out because, had that party been today, and I was fifteen now, I would have probably just shrugged it off and eagerly awaited some extreme fisting. So how does this all tie in with the movie Pleasure? Simple—that movie made me reflect, which I hope was Ninja’s intention.
The story of Pleasure is about a young Swedish woman named Bella Cherry trying to break into the porn industry. She arrives in LA and sets her eye on becoming the next big thing. Not the most original of stories, and if you transpose that to just breaking into acting within Hollywood, it’s been done to death. But what makes this movie resonate is how harrowing, dangerous, and traumatic Bella’s story is. Sofia Kappel plays Bella and is the only non-porn actor in the movie. Having landed in LA, Bella signs up to an agency. The formalities of this seem professional enough—the agent asks questions pertaining to what sex acts she will engage in, and those she isn’t. As a result, offers are given to appear in movies that treat the actors accordingly. But here’s the rub—to make it big in the porn industry, there can be no saying no. You must do anything, something crystallised when Bella sees a Spiegler girl at a modelling shoot. Mark Spiegler, who plays himself in the movie, owns one of the most coveted agencies in the industry, and to be on his books almost guarantees stardom. To the young, and fame-hungry Bella, Spiegler is the apple dangling from the tree ready to be plucked (yes, that’s plucked). Determined to make her mark, Bella realises she feels comfortable in the submissive role during a rough sex scene. The director and male actor involved in said scene, and supporting crew, were very caring and compassionate toward Bella. They discussed safe words, even physical prompts to curtail the male actor’s performance. If Bella felt uncomfortable, or was in too much pain, she just had to let them know and the filming would stop. Stripped naked, and harnessed in rope, we then see Bella subjected to a trial of degradation. The actor repeatedly slaps her in the face, chokes and spits on her, sometimes directly in her mouth. Moments earlier, prior to filming, this same actor is showing Bella photos of his dog and asking if he smells of onions, a simple remark that purveys his own insecurities. Now he exudes all the male toxicity that leaves me, as a man nearing fifty years, horrified and angry. It’s acting, sure, but I couldn’t help wonder why the actor agreed to treat a woman this way. But it also led me to ask why Bella found it acceptable, especially following the MeToo movement. In that one scene, and, in a more brutal subsequent scene involving two men who, though it’s never shown, rapes her, it felt like porn had yet to address the severity and damaging affect this would have on young men and women watching porn. I tried to imagine the consequences of my son and daughter exposed to scenes of this nature. For him, he may come away thinking it was acceptable to hit a woman. To spit in her face. To choke her. Why wouldn’t he? The woman in the scene enjoyed it. She didn’t complain. And for my daughter, maybe she would come away thinking that if a man placed his hand on her throat and restrict her breathing, or called her a whore or bitch, it’s just part of love making. It’s what men do. Ninja offers you this moral dilemma intentionally, I think. She wants you to question Bella, and yourself, as you watch these scenes play out. She wants you to question the porn industry and why it’s still not taking responsibility for its actions. The following day, still reeling from seeing a woman humiliated and hurt on screen, I went to a café and spoke about it all with my wife. I asked the same questions aloud that I had internalised when watching Pleasure. Her forehead remained pleated throughout. Her mouth never fully closed. She, like I, was trying to process it all. Maybe being a parent adds this gravity, or pushes you toward questioning more the intent and purpose of rough sex, but at the end of it all we were both in agreement that neither of us had an answer, and that no matter what happens, women will continue to be the human pinata in the porn industry. Even if they all agreed to take a stand and refuse to be hurt, this would push the filmmakers to maybe exploit more vulnerable girls, because it seems there is an audience who needs to see this.
All of this reminded me of that scene in the movie, The Worst Person in the World, when Renate Reinsve’s character Julie recounts a conversation she had with her friend. The story goes her friend asked of herself why she still enjoyed gagging when performing oral sex on her boyfriend, especially during the MeToo era. In the movie, this becomes the catalyst to Julie writing an essay on the subject, which gleans much interest and plaudits. But in my time of reflection following Pleasure, I did not consider that women will accept certain aggressiveness because they enjoyed it too. Where exactly you draw the line is down to the individual, but for many, regular sex isn’t enough. They need the push. They need to feel a little pain or experience aggression. Bella Cherry said herself she enjoyed the submissive role. She didn’t mind a man slapping or spitting on her. She realised double anal penetration was a good way to get noticed in the industry, and so we see her lubing up various sized butt plugs in the bathroom, and literary stretching herself like a runner would before a marathon. Pain is an occupational requirement, so you either accept it and move on, or get out. For this reason, Bella is the embodiment of all that is wrong in the industry, but also all that is normal. She is the vessel for men to abuse, but also the empowering force of determination and ambition. It’s hard to chastise her reasons or behaviour, in so much as it is difficult to understand the industry and the demands it places on young women.
I will say this, Kappel’s performance never wavered nor shied away from the demands placed on her in any scene. The only non-porn actor in the movie, she went through a lot. You would never see Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins take a mouth full of spit, yet for them an Academy Award is commonplace, whereas for Kappel it will never be in the offing because Pleasure is a movie that many won’t embrace. But that’s not to say she doesn’t deserve recognition for her portrayal of Bella. She, and the director Ninja, did something that very few movies do these days; it made me reflect, re-evaluate, and recalibrate. Whether the porn industry will do the same is highly unlikely. But I hope the actors involved remain safe, that what they consent to is what happens, and more than anything else, the youth of today grow up understanding that pleasure is different for everyone.
Pleasure is available to stream on Mubi.