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‘Pleasure’ Claims to Depict the Porn Industry Authentically, but Some Stars Question Its Reality

The fictional drama set in the porn industry is being praised as "authentic," but some of its real-life adult performers say they don’t see their profession accurately portrayed.

“Pleasure”

Neon

There’s a lot of talk about authenticity in Hollywood these days. Whether it’s media about the lives of people of color, LGBTQ folks, first-generation immigrants, or another marginalized group, the industry has finally learned that authentic storytelling starts with, though it seems obvious, who is actually telling the story. Perhaps a white creator isn’t the best choice to lead a show about inner-city youth, and a trans film should have trans people working on and in it. Though this is far from prohibitive — plenty of straight white guys have earned praise and success for telling other people’s stories — both audiences and critics are starting to pay closer attention.

Why should the sex industry be any different?

In “Pleasure,” Swedish writer/director Ninja Thyberg dives head-first into the Los Angeles porn industry to tell the story of 19-year-old Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who dreams of becoming the next big porn star. When the film premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival, the headline for Variety’s review, written by Owen Gleiberman, called “Pleasure” a “documentary-like drama,” describing it as a “disturbingly authentic … explicit piece of anthropological voyeurism.”

Thyberg has never worked in the adult industry, nor has her co-writer Peter Modestij. “Pleasure” is her first feature film, and it is based on a short film of the same, an award winner at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Her interest in the topic stems from the anti-porn activism of her youth.

“I started out as a very radical activist when I was 16, and at that point I was super anti-porn, and I was part of an anti-porn activist group because I felt that that was degrading towards women,” Thyberg said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “Then, after a few years, I started to question this very black and white view and I became interested in feminist pornography instead, and I was part of that community for a while. But there was something very elitist in … women saying that our porn is liberating for women, but mainstream porn is oppressive. So I became interested in trying to understand mainstream pornography more.”

“Pleasure”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Her short was not based on any firsthand knowledge of the porn industry, which she set out to correct for the feature.

“I felt like a hypocrite when I did interviews [for the short], because I kept saying that I wanted to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes, but I had never actually met anyone from the porn industry,” she said. “I made it like how I thought it would be on a porn set based on watching documentaries and reading biographies and stuff like that. So I decided for the feature-length that I had to do proper research.”

Starting in 2014, Thyberg began conducting interviews and making connections with major players in the adult industry. Many of the people she met during that time, like super-agent Mark Spiegler and director Axel Braun, play fictionalized versions of themselves in the film. But many of the adult performers in the film take issue with its characterization as documentary-adjacent.

In the summer of 2021, when A24 was still attached to the film (it is now being released by NEON), the distributor held an advance screening for the cast and crew, which included many prominent adult industry figures. After the screening, a number of cast members voiced their criticism of the portrayal of the industry. (A24 declined to comment for this story, Neon did not provide a comment by the time of publication.)

“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,” Braun wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “Instead we got a shock-value cautionary tale showcasing in great detail the negative side of our industry and zero of the positive. I’m very disappointed to say that while ‘Pleasure’ may be morbidly entertaining to watch, Ninja Thyberg has failed us.”

“Pleasure”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Lucy Hart, an adult performer who appeared in “Pleasure” before her gender transition, played a porn star named Ceasar, who gaslights Bella and terrorizes her friend Joy (Revika Anne Reustle). Hart says she agreed to play such a despicable character based on Thyberg’s promise that the film would be a feminist, sex-positive portrayal of the adult industry. Having never seen a full script, she was hurt and disappointed after she saw the film.

“It’s a savior movie. The main character was saved by Spiegler’s character. The only win she had was, I’ll go way out of my way and do work for free in order to get this cis male to save me. That was my takeaway,” Hart told IndieWire. “In reality, [Thyberg] was surrounded by women who didn’t have to do that. There are so many super-empowered women in porn who don’t need a dude for shit, so it seems to be that may have been the agenda … but the takeaway was not very sex-positive.”

While Hart emphasized that she has great respect for Thyberg and the film’s star Sofia Kappel (the only non-adult performer in the film) creatively, she is “miffed” that none of the adult performers have been thanked or even mentioned in the lead-up to the film’s release.

“This is just another example of mainstream media taking advantage of sex workers,” she said. “A bunch of sex workers were teased with, ‘You’ll finally be in a mainstream thing and get some respect.’ At the end of the day, we worked our butts off, we showed up, we were respectful of everyone, and all the glamour and money goes to someone else, and we get kicked to the curb.”

Thyberg is aware of the criticism from many of the cast members and notes that most of the people taking issue with the depiction are men.

“It’s been divided. Some of the men have been a bit uncomfortable with seeing themselves in that way. … At first, one of the guys had a really bad reaction, but then saw it again and changed his mind,” said the filmmaker. “I’ve gotten so many emails and messages from women who have been, or are in, the industry who really feel that the film is on their side and telling their story.”

“Pleasure”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Notably, one of the film’s biggest supporters is Evelyn Claire, who plays the film’s villain, a rival performer named Ava. Though Claire has also since left the industry, she felt the film was mostly accurate based on her experiences in porn.

“[Thyberg] did a really good job of doing her research and staying true to the subject,” said Claire. “I think some people have a hard time seeing themselves outside of porn when they’ve been doing porn for so long. I think not seeing themselves the way that they’ve controlled their image before, playing a character could be difficult for some.”

In one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, Bella takes on a so-called “hardcore” shoot, but with none of the protections in place from her previous shoots. Over a painfully long scene, she is abused by two men while yelling “stop, stop, stop.” Though she says the film is “honest,” Claire says situations like that scene almost never occur.

“There’s ways to make sure it never does. There’s protocols,” she said. “There’s so many measures that can be taken to ensure that rough scenes, like in ‘Pleasure,’ don’t happen.”

But the protocols in place during the shooting of “Pleasure” didn’t look much like Hollywood’s protocols, either. And most of those sex scenes don’t involve multiple erect penises. One possible reason? There was no intimacy coordinator on the production. Instead, responsibility for making sure Kappel felt safe and comfortable fell mostly on Thyberg, who was in charge of managing Kappel’s boundaries.

For parts of shooting, Kappel’s mother and best friend were on set. During the hardcore rape scene, she was told to make eye contact with her best friend, and that would mean “cut.”

“We didn’t know about [intimacy coordinators]. We shot all of the sex scenes in 2018. So at that point, we had never heard of an intimacy coordinator because … it wasn’t an established thing. But that would’ve been really good to take that weight from my shoulder,” said Thyberg.

“Pleasure”

Courtesy Everett Collection

“Now it seems crazy that we didn’t have one,” Kappel said. “And I think if we had one that would’ve made especially [Thyberg’s] life a lot easier, most of that responsibility ended up being on her… For a lot of scenes, we worked as a collective and everyone really helped out to make sure that everyone felt safe.”

(HBO adopted its policy of using intimacy coordinators for all sex scenes in 2018, but the profession has been around since 2006.)

“We had mostly women in the key positions and then everyone really tried to care for [Kappel] together as a group,” Thyberg said. “But it was also really helpful to have the adult performers, because they were really helpful in making sure that she was comfortable.”

The adult performers were relied on for more than just authenticity, in many cases leading the discussions around consent and boundaries as well. According to Hart, they also stepped in to direct and write.

“[Thyberg] created the box for us to be in and got us together, but then asked, ‘OK, what would you do? Just do that,’” said Hart.

Of course, many independent films these days are made without a formal script, often blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Films like “Tangerine,” “American Honey,” or “Skate Kitchen” drew inspiration from the lives of the performers. In most cases, these films hail from a writer/director who isn’t from the world they are trying to depict, and the actors lend an air of that ever-elusive authenticity.

But in each of those films, the performers felt respected, were happy with the end results, and were included in the promotion of the film. Some of the sex workers and adult performers in “Pleasure” have not been given that same respect.

“It’s always subjective what you interpret and what you read into something, and you project so much,” said Thyberg of the reactions to the film from her cast and collaborators. “Something could be super-liberating to someone and feel super-degrading to someone else. So everything is context. It has to do with context and culture.”

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