How Deep Throat and Pleasure ask questions about safety on porn sets

What’s shocking about Swedish director and co-writer Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure isn’t the softcore, submissive porn scenes featuring an array of real-life adult performers. It’s the uneasy feeling that not every set will be a safe, positive work environment, bringing to mind the controversy surrounding the seminal porn film Deep Throat, released 50 years ago.

Watching Pleasure’s protagonist Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) dealing with the aftermath of an on-set sexual assault, it’s hard to not think about Linda Lovelace’s claims about her experience starring in Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat. The breezy 1972 film ushered in the so-called ‘porno chic’ era and contributed to sparking a general interest in porn, making it accessible to a broader audience thanks to its fully developed plot, tongue-in-cheek humour, and a character arc for its protagonist. It also carries a controversial legacy due to the rape allegations made by its star.

In her 1980 memoir Ordeal, Lovelace (born Linda Susan Boreman) told a different, more disturbing version of the making of Deep Throat. She blamed her husband Chuck Traynor for forcing her into porn and prostitution and coercing her into performing enthusiastically on camera. After going public, the actress was branded a pathological liar for sharing her truth. Her claims, firmly denied by Traynor, were disputed within and outside the industry, despite her agreeing to take a polygraph test and never changing her story.

“When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped. It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time,” Lovelace, by then an anti-porn campaigner, would say before Congress in 1986.

The mixed responses that the actress’s case received go to show how hard it is to believe women coming forward with their history of abuse, particularly when their stories don’t fit conventional narratives. Lovelace’s troubling revelations about the film that brought porn to living rooms and dinner tables uncovered a hard-to-digest scenario for that very same, larger audience who had turned the film into a discourse. They might have witnessed, and even enjoyed, domestic abuse and porn’s misogyny under the guise of glamour and female empowerment.

There’s little of either in Thyberg’s rise-to-fame parable Pleasure, told through the eager eyes of 19-year-old aspiring porn star Bella Cherry (actress Sofia Kappel has no prior connection to the industry). Moving from Sweden to catch her big break in the US, she learns that boundaries have little place in this line of work and that business and pleasure very rarely align, no matter how much she enjoys sex. As viewers witness Bella pushing past her limits, the film lulls them into a false sense of security as she steps onto a BDSM set helmed by a woman (played by real-life adult film director and performer Aiden Starr).

Looked after by a female assistant, Bella goes through safe words as a ball gag sits in between her lips. Yet she feels comfortable and confident. It comes as a nice, unexpected bonus when Starr instructs the male talent starring alongside Bella to make her orgasm before wrapping up, female pleasure being the ultimate goal here.

Shortly afterward, however, our fears about the treatment of women in porn materialise in the jarring contrast Thyberg creates between Starr’s set and a degrading threesome scene Bella films with two male actors and a male director.

Her objections that this violent sequence might be a step too far are met with frustration by her co-stars and the director. Tears streaming down her face, Bella is guilt-tripped into finishing filming. “You’re fucking with everybody else’s money,” the director tells her. Later on, a puddle of vomit on the drive home and a few horrific flashbacks are the only tangible signs of Bella’s offscreen assault.

The juxtaposition of the two sets, if a little didactic, comes after Thyberg’s years-long research on the American adult entertainment business. While Pleasure makes a point of presenting the industry’s safety protocols from early on – before her very first scene, Bella is asked to fill in forms and record a consent video – the film also doesn’t shy away from hinting that protection on the job might not always be a given.

This realisation becomes apparent when Bella informs her agent Mike (Jason Toler), that she was raped, only to be told not to throw “that word” around. More similar in nature to The Assistant than Promising Young Woman, Thyberg’s movie doesn’t U-turn into a rape-revenge fantasy, thus leaving the audience to deal with bitter reality and questions of how to ensure safety and comfort for adult performers.

In recent years, mainstream film and TV sets have been hiring intimacy coordinators to help prepare actors for fictional sex. In 2018, when Pleasure was filmed, companies had only just started to welcome intimacy coordinators on set, and Thyberg has admitted to not knowing any at the time. The filmmaker and her assistant director Fanni Metelius had to double up as intimacy coordinators for Kappel in her first role, which was a demanding one at that.

Choreographing intimate scenes has often granted them a naturalistic, authentic, sexier quality – BBC and Hulu’s Normal People being one of several examples – contesting the harmful misconception that discussing consent and boundaries takes the sexiness out of the act.

As this relatively new role has become a necessity on mainstream sets, it may be just a matter of time before adult productions require intimacy coordinators’ expertise to help actors navigate the intersection of ethics and pornography. Some filmmakers have already brought these professionals to their sets, as ethical porn director Erika Lust tells LWLies.

“Many performers who come to our sets for the first time show to be positively surprised, as they are just not used to working with large crews and to be treated with so much care and respect for their emotional and physical health,” she said. “I’m not saying that mainstream porn sets are always unhealthy. Many performers feel okay shooting without an intimacy coordinator anyway, as it’s the norm of the porn industry.

“What I’m trying to say is that putting this role forward is a further step towards a significant, positive change within the porn industry, which is the reason why I started my business almost 20 years ago.”

“The feminist porn business is challenging the status quo, advocating for more women on set and a more collaborative approach.”

Decades after Lovelace’s accusations, sexual assault allegations still send shockwaves through the porn industry. Post-#MeToo, female (and male, mostly in man-on-man scenes) adult performers sharing their harrowing experiences have been largely ignored. Outside the business, many have been forced to face the stigma against sex workers in its most bigoted, aggressive form: victim-blaming masked as moral righteousness.

Once an anti-porn activist, Thyberg does not reduce Bella’s story to a series of tired tropes about adult performers. Pleasure never morphs into a cautionary tale but treats its subject matter with care and honesty, not passing judgment on the protagonist’s lust for life. By capturing the industry’s most mundane elements, it also quietly reiterates how male-dominated this world is at every level.

In the real-life industry, the feminist porn business is challenging the status quo, advocating for more women on set and a more collaborative approach, as well as diverse storylines.

“When I talk about the female gaze, I’m talking about our mission to smash the stigma that is attached to the female body and to show that female pleasure matters by creating a safe space for women to engage sexually while feeling seen and valued in their needs, without feeling any pressure,” Lust said. “We want to be pioneers in an industry in which ethics have never been seen as a priority by providing a sex-positive space where all individuals feel free and safe to tell their stories and reclaim their right to pleasure.”

Subscription services like OnlyFans are doing a similar job in fostering a conversation on pornography outside the constraints of hierarchical structures, giving creators from underrepresented groups a platform they may not have in more established spaces.

Having more women calling the shots – something Thyberg also seems to suggest – could finally shake the patriarchal power dynamics in place and give female and femme performers agency, no matter how submissive they may play on camera.

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