Written & Directed by Ninja Thyberg
The adult film industry and sex work, in general, have become propelled into the mainstream in the United States in a way that hasn’t been witnessed since the early-mid 1970s. With platforms like PornHub, these videos are easily accessible at home on a myriad of devices. OnlyFans has empowered many young people to take back their labor by profiting from sex work instead of other forms of physical labor. They are enriched as a result of both a Puritanical culture that seems to only experience sex in extremes of complete sin or hedonism rather than just a part of life & a stratified class structure that leaves some with enough disposable income to pay others for videos or perceived personalized performances. Nothing about this is entirely new; it’s more the delivery of sex that has changed. Decades ago, you might have gone to a peep show to watch a person undress, and now you just go to a website. Swedish director Ninja Thyberg has set her debut feature film in the American adult film industry and explores how this business operates.
Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) is the name a young woman gives when she arrives from Sweden to Los Angeles. Her goal is to become an adult film star, and she’s starting from the bottom of the ladder. The 19-year-old is housed with other female adult performers but is advised on her first gig to not befriend them. They are only into drama, she’s warned, and for the most part, Bella does distance herself from these other women. Once Bella becomes aware of a prestigious class of models, nothing else will do, and she puts herself through extremes to prove she is deserving to join this stable of workers. This involves doing what has been labeled “extreme porn,” which resembles rape but is ostensibly consensual. Eventually, she does work her way to where she wants, but the promises it seemed to preclude may not be as shiny as Bella thought.
I am a full supporter of sex workers but don’t pretend that the sex industry in America isn’t a highly exploitative field. It is rooted in the scourge of capitalism, so of course, it chews up people and spits them out, extracting their labor with little benefit and great harm. Platforms like OnlyFans and their spin-offs are a move towards something better but still stink of exploiting the dominant system. When Bella first arrives at LAX, she’s asked if she is here for business or pleasure and responds with pleasure. Almost immediately, we see she is here for business. Every move she takes is rooted in gaining wealth or prestige. But, of course, that doesn’t mean sex isn’t pleasurable for Bella.
Early on, she takes a job with a female director who specializes in bondage films. Bella ends up bound in rope, hanging from the ceiling as the male talent uses her. Her takeaway is that what she was told isn’t so bad. Her next gig has her brutalized by two men for hours with multiple breaks where the director and cast both comfort her but ultimately pressure Bella into continuing the shoot. She’s constantly told she chose to be here; therefore, it will be her fault if a fully shot video isn’t produced. In these moments, Pleasure shows itself as more than just a film about sex work; instead, it’s a movie about capitalist exploitation. How often are people told they will be letting their fellow workers down if they take a sick day off or go to a parent-teacher meeting? Working in America is an incredibly manipulative experience, with workers regularly being coerced with a false sense of “family” in the workplace or the terror of being left destitute.
Interestingly, the discourse around this film is focused by prominent outlets & critics about the sex, but they won’t talk about it beyond the surface-level content. This is that Puritanical strain coming through, that American mix of repulsion & arousal unable to see sex work as just another kind of work. Just this weekend, a Wisconsin judge ruled that healthcare workers at one facility cannot take jobs at a “competing” hospital. These health care workers’ labor and their ability to choose who they work for is being wrested from them. I don’t see any difference between Bella being coerced into her violent sex scene and these people being told they are not allowed to leave (even when their former employers refused their opportunity to counter offer). Work is work, and it can be argued that slavery in America was never made illegal, just rebranded under things like the 13th amendment and “right to work” legislation.
The sex worker’s struggle for labor rights is side by side with the factory worker, the teacher, and the hospital employee. They all have a right to food, shelter, safety, and a right not to be exploited and be paid a fair wage for their work. Bella’s great downfall is when she chooses to not show solidarity with a fellow sex worker who is being humiliated and bullied on set by a vindictive male co-star. Bella weighs the cost in her head, seeing her status as a premier actress being compromised, and pretends she sees nothing. There’s a persona Americans adopt so often in the context of reality shows or online interactions that they are just out for themselves, the “I didn’t come here to make friends” proclamation. This false independence encouraged by the people in power assures a constant dissolution of solidarity. Keep individuals scrambling for crumbs, and they will never help each other rise out of decaying circumstances. Unless this happens, labor in America will worsen, and worker autonomy will fall further and further away.