The deception of “Pleasure”

By Monica Mazzitelli

Ninja Thyberg’s film “Pleasure” depicts a quite simple story: a 19-year old girl from Sweden travels to Los Angeles in order to become a porn star. She starts with more traditional performances but realizes that if she wants a break-through she must do more extreme scenes; so, she agrees to BDSM and double anal, with apparent indifference. The only time she feels violated is during a shoot where the male actors are very aggressive and she reacts showing emotional distress.

The film was recently screened and acclaimed at the Gothenburg and Sundance film festivals and presented as a film about pornography − almost a documentary, as Thyberg introduces herself as an expert researcher on the subject.

But it should be clarified that “Pleasure” only depicts one aspect of mainstream pornography: the content created at the Los Angeles studios with traditional film standards in place. This accounts apparently for less than 25% of what circulates as free content on the largest porn site in the internet: Pornhub.

The remaining 75% would consist of more or less amateur videos that are uploaded without the consent of the protagonists, actual documentation of sexual abuse (oftentimes on minors), revenge porn, videos originally made in a consensual way but distributed without the protagonists’ consent (in general girls or women), videos secretly recorded with hidden cameras in public and/or school restrooms, etc.

The figure is not ballpark: recently the largest porn channel company in the world, MindGeek, which owns a number of sites − including Pornhub − had to undertake a hasty deletion of this amateur material. In fact, after a punchy article written by Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof for The New York Times, the major credit card companies Mastercard and Visa finally took action by excluding Pornhub from their clients, claiming that they would not reactivate the account unless Pornhub removed all material that did not have verified written consent by the adults featured in the content.

Within a couple of days, 10 million videos disappeared from the site − about 75% of the total, according to figures reported by Laila Mickelwait, the famous American researcher who inspired Kristof’s article.

It is important to establish this context because despite dealing only with a partial aspect of the pornographic industry in her film, Ninja Thyberg nevertheless presents herself as an expert in the field as a result of years of research, some of them conducted in situ in Los Angeles.

The protagonist of her film (performed by Sofia Kappel), a young Swede with the artist name of Bella Cherry, is not presented as a girl with a difficult family background, but as a self-aware adult woman who wants to make a career in porn. Why? This isn’t really clear. Bella doesn’t fully explain why beyond remarking that she “likes cocks”. During the course of the film we will see that she also “likes” submission, humiliation, physical and moral abuse, punishment, masochism.

If there is one truth that everyone knows and recognizes (apart from Ninja Thyberg) from the most callous pimps to the social workers/academics in the field, it is that the vast majority of girls and women who voluntarily enter prostitution or pornography have suffered childhood sexual abuse. The directress denied this evidence in a recent interview, explaining that this is not always the case. It would be interesting to know on what she bases this claim, since all studies on incest, for example, explain that the number of years that pass between the time of the abuse and the external acknowledgement of what happened is on average sixteen years.

In fact, it is unfortunately extremely common that the victim would dissociate during the abuse (or suffers more structurally from DID – Dissociative Identity Disorder) so that she is unable to remember on a conscious level, or that she removes the memory as an effect of trauma (one of the symptoms of PTSD or CPTSD − Post-Traumatic Stress or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome), or that she is too young to remember if the facts occurred when she was a toddler. Therefore, if the directress bases her assertion that there is no direct connection between sexual abuse in childhood and wanting to perform in porn because she “has met many girls doing porn” so she knows, this is very poor evidence: many abused women do not even admit it to themselves, as they are full of shame and guilt − especially if they are victims of incest. In fact, incest survivors almost always see themselves as accomplices.[1]

So, to affirm that it is not true that girls who want to become porn stars do not necessarily have a background of abuse is a statement without any validity other than her own questionable personal experience. Especially considering that Thyberg admits that during the months she spent in Los Angeles she never connected with the “actresses”, but only with the actors, producers and technicians of the set − most of them men. Indeed, in a recent interview she says that there was “a wall” between herself and the women.

How could she be in a position to learn about it? On the contrary, one of the most reprehensible moments in the film occurs during an exchange between the protagonist and a porn professional, where (with a tragic tone of voice) she initially declares that she was abused by her father, but then bursts into laughter saying that it is not true, as this is the usual myth. A truly poor taste joke for all those women who do have this background.

Having worked for some years with abuse survivors, I met many women who had experiences of harmful behaviours in their past: transgressive sexuality, prostitution and pornography (often starting in their early teens), behaving as sexually “insatiable” − as a form of self-harm.

Women who − for the reasons I listed above – repressed the memory of their abuses until the occurrence of a trigger; for example, a flashback, the birth of a child, the death of the perpetrator or other events. At that point only would they finally start to “remember” and/or to acknowledge that they had been victims of abuse. For many of them this happens twenty or thirty years later: the trauma emerges from the symptoms of PTSD and finally the conscious part of the infernal process of elaboration begins.

Almost none of the dozens of women I have known in my years of work have claimed to have ever talked to anyone, ever. Not even with their best friend or their partner.

It is therefore unclear how Nina Thyberg can affirm that, during her “research” she did not have confirmation that sexual abuse was a common background for girls involved in pornography, since she admits she did not form bonds with them. Thyberg has some field experience, of course – a sort of anthropological observation of pornography; however, research does not only mean witnessing but also studying and understanding the profound psychological aspects revealed by in-depth research conducted at a clinical and university level. There are many such studies available online.[2]

But let’s go back to Ninja Thyberg: she is rather cautious in the interviews given for the Swedish press, but bolder in those for the foreign press; for example, this piece for Cineuropa, where she openly admits to be in favour of pornography, as long as it is “ethical” porn. This often means “consensual porn without rape” and performed by actresses who follow a pre-agreed script.

As for the alleged agreement on a script, it is interesting to read the recent interview given by the former “Queen of Porn” Jenna Jameson, who was groomed into porn through a process that began while she was still a minor.

The pay has decreased so much over time that actresses now feel forced to agree to increasingly hard-core scenes so as not to lose working opportunities.

On the subject of bodily experience of abuse, it is also useful to read this article regarding the once fabulous earnings of porn stars, where it is explained that the pay has decreased so much over time that actresses now feel forced to agree to increasingly hard-core scenes so as not to lose working opportunities. In those scenes their physical pain is totally real, so much so that “chunk of their paycheck goes into paying medical bills as a result”.

A depressing example of the toll taken on women performers can be found on porn star Bree Olson’s contact page where a top link (“medical symptoms”) is to a pdf file in which she describes the medical symptoms she battles with − many of them common to PTSD (such as headaches, dizziness, chest and stomach pain).

Thyberg glosses over this aspect of porn: that performing it is not like acting, but it is an extreme bodily performance that causes actual physical and mental pain, which is retained in the psychological and bodily memory of the woman performing it. Only a woman who has at some earlier point in her life lost her personal sense of physical and sexual integrity and boundaries as a result of a violation, can readily accept further abuse. And she gives her consent only because she is paid to, otherwise she would not accept.

Sexuality is something that the average individual would not like to be caught while doing, it is intimate, private and personal. Liberal feminism talks about a supposed need for women to “express their sexuality” as if it were a need, or something empowering, a liberation, but in my experience it has often been a sign of a desperate need to be appreciated, desired − ultimately, to be loved. When you think you are worthless, perceiving that you are beautiful and sexy enough to arouse someone’s lust is a valid surrogate, even more so if someone’s paying for that.

Yet oddly, while Thyberg advocates this supposed liberty of choice and self-empowerment, she equally reports of a situation that she perceived as “awkward” during her stay in LA. She was at a party, scantily dressed, and she “had” to sit on the lap of an unknown man. She quite understandably found that unpleasant but she still considers it fully possible for other women to enjoy double-anal or being whipped in front of a camera, as if other women were made of different stuff: robots? plastic dolls? It is not so much a question of a double-standard here, but an act of dehumanization of these women.

It is also dangerous to accept the narrative of “good porn” and “bad porn”, as Thyberg tries to do, because anyone who uses pornography to masturbate must sooner or later raise the level of transgression in order to continue to get enough stimuli to get an erection and reach orgasm. Because our brain needs to break taboos to be activated (as I explained in this article for Feminist Current), even if we want to defend the theory of “ethical” porn, it would always be just the initial step for a regular consumer of porn: sooner or later there is a need for a more extreme and violent content.

Furthermore, on the subject of the brain, I would also like to add that the most common search term for pornographic content is “teen”, which creates a demand for extremely young women in the trade.

The problem is that neurologists state that the human brain is not sufficiently mature to make definitive decisions before a human being has reached the age of twenty-five. This implies that making a young girl sign a release form before that age involves the risk that she is not able to fully evaluate the consequences.

The porn business is unfortunately full of women who immensely regret having signed consents into contracts that they can no longer legally withdraw: once a video is online, and you have given your authorization, it stays there forever − available to future partners, children, co-workers, friends, bosses, parents of your children’s schoolmates, doctors, clerks, cashiers and so on − some of whom will feel entitled to reproach you, to judge you, to keep you at a distance, to name-call.

This is the kind of nightmare that so many former porn stars (the former happy whores of the sex entertainment industry), talk about. Not even Thyberg will deny this, in fact she candidly recounts that she spent quite some time informing and warning her actress Sofia Kappel about the possibility of regrets afterwards. And Sofia was not even going to be a real porn star! She was just going to act the role of one.

And even if there really were a woman like Bella Cherry, one who really wanted to be a porn star because she “loves cocks”, she would only be an insignificant exception among millions of women trapped in the porn industry because they are psychologically or socially vulnerable, or because they are economically in need.

Presenting Bella Cherry as representative of the “porn star by choice” category is a macroscopic stretch that serves to absolve a whole category, a whole system of coercion and grooming. A stretch that helps porn a great deal: those who watch it (70% of all men) can only be happy that they are destigmatized and can feel at peace with their conscience; those who do not know what it is and do not watch it (70% of all women), may feel reassured that it is not something to worry about or to criticize.

Nevertheless, regardless what type of porn it is − be it the Hollywood porn depicted in “Pleasure” or the filmed crime scenes of rape posted by Purnhub users directly on the platform – all porn (even the so-called “feminist porn”) reinforces the patriarchal stereotype of the objectified submissive woman, and/or the slutty woman in case she would be enjoying what she is doing.[3]

One wonders why, in light of all these irrefutable arguments, there are women who continue to give space to this narrative and make a film like this, in spite of all the suffering that this industry generates.

The answer is quite simple and also sad: because many, many women − including apparently Nina Thyberg – would do anything to obtain approval from men. Showing that one is a “sex positive” woman is an effective means by which a woman can get validation and applause in a patriarchal system.

To be tarred as a bigoted, inhibited, frigid woman with a “vanilla” sexuality is to be doomed, as this article graciously points out. It’s a shakedown and it feels worse when it is a woman who is pushing through this Trojan horse, for the sake of her own popularity.

It’s time to expel these myths about the contented, self-harming woman who destroys herself for her own pleasure, along with the narrative of the woman who loves her perpetrators because of her Stockholm Syndrome − as depicted in another very harmful Swedish film, “Holiday” by Isabella Eklöf.

It feels very sad that both directresses, two exceptionally talented women who are really capable of creating very high-quality films, would stand by the dark side of the Force. And it is a great defeat for Sweden, a country that has been teaching and practicing feminism for over 50 years.

Monica Mazzitelli is an Italian feminist directress and novelist living in Sweden. She has published two novels and some 250 articles, short stories and editorials. She has written and directed some twenty-five fiction and documentary shorts, music videos and promos that have been selected by over 150 film festivals, receiving many nominations and awards. For more information about her work, see:

The writer prefers to use the feminine form of “director” because she believes gendered words to have been excluded by the common use as an effect of a patriarchal vision of them indicating a lesser version of any working category, especially those being considered to be unsuitable for women to undertake.

[1] Furthermore, victims are often unable to recognize certain behaviors as abuse, because they do not have the tools to understand what is actually happening. They only perceive enormous discomfort and fear inside, but they can’t give it a name. For all of these reasons, there is something that any child sexual abuse perpetrator can always rely on: their docile silence. Children hardly ever have the awareness, words, confidence or courage to tell that someone is abusing them.

[2] Had she had wanted to study them thoroughly, she would have found that abused women use their sexuality as a disastrous method of reparation for their past experiences. It sounds like a paradox, but this is how it works: the victims try to overcome the trauma of negative experiences by recreating situations in which they experience similar “risks” of reliving the same abuses, but enact them in a supposedly “controlled” manner. A typical example is “deciding” to “consent” to sexual acts with people they do not fancy, and get paid for that. This act gives a double result: in addition to recreating a dangerous situation under one’s control as an antidote to the feeling of impotence suffered, there is also the certification of their value: the monetary compensation. It would take too long to go into further aspects of this mechanism, but it is necessary to mention it in this context because it is one of the false myths of prostitution and pornography: the myth of the happy whore.

[3] Women are not allowed to be represented as “normal people” that can relish having sex. If they enjoy it, they are sluts. In around 90% of all porn films women are called names. This is why revenge porn works as a form of vengeance: the woman loses her “reputation”. If a man would be caught enjoying sex, that would not affect his reputation at all.

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