The movie PLEASURE and on BDSM and pornography (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

A few days ago, I was at the gala premiere of a new movie called PLEASURE. The director spent the last six years infiltrating or befriending the pornography scene in Los Angeles to the point that she got some of the most influential people to act in her movie. The story is told through the eyes of Bella Cherry, a nineteen-year-old “Swedish girl-next-door virgin” that moves to L.A. to make a career. In a way, it’s about her losing her innocence, quickly emerging herself in rougher and rougher sex, but without demonizing and glorifying. Bella reflects this by being both a fucking awesome superhero and a lost fucked-up teenager. The movie also shows the commercialization of sex and the power hierarchy of a vast industry, where people are fighting for dominance. I think Oscar Wild said. Everything is about sex, except sex; sex is about power.

PLEASURE connects to my area of expertise in three ways:

  1. The availability of more advanced sexual practices.
  2. The question; who is this for, especially when money is involved.
  3. The connection between non-consensual power hierarchies and sexuality.

Weekly musing, here we go, let’s start with the availability of more advanced sexual practices. It’s both scary and fascinating that platforms like Instagram, Pornhub, OnlyFans, Fetlife, and our own Swedish Darkside are opening up the erotic world. In the movie, Bella goes from being a nobody to a rising star in no time, and her repertoire goes from vanilla sex to rough gangbangs and flirting with BDSM. Arguing that more is more and that turning up the volume is always needed to feel something and to be somebody. 

There is a scene trying to portray rape play, I think. In BDSM terminology, that is consciously and consensually acting out a rape scene for everyone’s enjoyment. Read more about it in my text about consensual non-consent. But in the movie, Bella definitely does not enjoy it. She has consented to it, but she is not very conscious of what it is all about. So watching the scene makes me feel sick, and that is obviously the intention of the director. 

The pornographic and fictional product they create inside the movie’s story is also one of non-enjoyment, non-consent, and non-consciousness. And that reflects in much of pornography today that rough sex isn’t about the women’s enjoyment. Some producers make it very clear that it is conscious, consensual and enjoyable, by adding before and after interviews and sometimes breaking the fiction in the middle of the scene, by asking if someone is okay, or sharing a burst of laughter. While others want to run the rape narrative all the way, and then we, as the viewers, never know. So returning to availability, in the movie, rape play as an act available to everyone, as a normal progression in a Bellas career. And then it’s streamed on the internet for free, for everyone. 

In the BDSM subculture, consensual non-consent and rape play is often considered edge play for the advanced and experienced. And in my experience in twenty years of BDSM and ten years as a gateway teacher into sexuality, some people enjoy it and can be conscious and consensual about it. So showing and sharing that side of sexuality is beautiful. But many people don’t. So I usually make a distinction between people “born into” their BDSM sexuality, that had arousing fantasies about bondage and domination long before they became sexually active, and the people who are simply adventurous and curious about their sexuality. 

So, if the dream about consensual non-consent has been brewing for many years, then maybe it’s the place to go. But it shouldn’t, in my eyes, be seen as the normal progression for everyone. So, either pornography reflects our most perverted desires, those that are at the awe between awful and awesome. Otherwise, it is commodifying something pretty extreme and a real niche. But it is also well known that sexual fantasies don’t correspond to sexual peak experiences. Check out the book The Erotic Mind if you are curious. Here I’m still unsure, so the truth lay probably somewhere in between.

Next, so how is it for? In the movie, it seems to me that Bella doesn’t enjoy the sex. That is the physical act. But she is there for the things surrounding it, the adventure and challenge, her friends, and the “glamorous” lifestyle. It was probably one of my favourite elements of the movie that there are many luxurious villas, parties and cars. But, it is only for the rejects and misfits of pornography inside their glass bauble. It reminds me of the BDSM subculture that also has its galas, awards and celebrity. So in a way, it’s kind of rogue, like the cult classic Paris is Burning. Giving the finger to mainstream culture that excludes you, and instead just making your version. Often in a surreal manner. 

I have written about this before, but I think what pulls BDSM and pornography apart is that the primary purpose of kink is the participants’ pleasure. There might be an audience, but they are then serving an exhibitionistic desire. While in pornography, the primary purpose is the pleasure of a paying audience. It is voyeuristic. So there is an apparent external force pushing for more, and the movie shows this in the shape of manipulative producers and managers. Sometimes the purposes overlap; I know a handful of people involved in pornography that is happy about it. And Bella kind of enjoys it in the movie, on some meta-level, and she is pretty empowered in her decisions, as she is not an abuse victim with daddy-issue. But it gets murky and confusing over and over again, and this is her main struggle through the movie. 

It makes me wonder if it’s possible for a commercially driven industry really can portray pleasure because, in the rape play scene, they fail on so many levels. Still, I’m turned on by porn, but mainly to visually experience the fantasies that I don’t act out in reality. Maybe because they are too extreme, or maybe because there wasn’t an opportunity yet, or perhaps because I sense that they will serve me better by staying as a fantasy.

To end, my probably favourite scene in the movie is when Bella starts to realize the non-consensual power that she has non-consciously received and when she starts to use and abuse it in sexual content. I don’t want to spoil more, go and see the movie. Because it is beautiful how it affects her because it’s so clear that is she is not there for her pleasure. I’m curious how she would react to conscious and consensually playing with pleasure and power because, in the movie, she is not there.