"Pleasure is the point...it is freedom."
These are the wise words of pleasure activist Adrienne Marie Brown.
And the opposite of freedom is control.
When we think about the ways humans have been controlled, it’s easy to see why pleasure has become something we restrict, avoid or punish. One of the core ways we control ourselves and each other is in the controlling relationships we have with our bodies. Our bodies have been scrutinised and criticised. The idea that we want to change and control our bodies is so prevalent that it’s become “normal”.
I believe one of the paths out of this constant and consuming drive for control is pleasure. But one of the things that stops this is shame.
There is a thick vein of shame running through the characters in our film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and it presents in different ways in each of our two central characters. The film is set almost entirely in one hotel room and follows the meetings between Nancy, a 61-year-old retired teacher who decides she hasn’t ever had satisfying sex, and Leo, the 20-something sex worker she hires to address this problem.
Leo (Daryl McCormack) is a young man. He works as a sex worker and has found a way to do this in a way that he enjoys. But in his teenage years he was shamed for his sexual desires. One thing I love about Leo, is that at some point in his life, despite this shame, he has decided to - and found a way to - turn toward these desires; to trust them, to pursue them. Leo even believes in our desires and the way they can be a path to liberation. And he wants to offer the freedom of desire and pleasure to others.
Nancy (Emma Thompson) has been taught to feel shame about her body. Like many of us she is raised in a culture that reminds us constantly that our bodies will never live up to the impossible ideals prescribed to us. She lives inside this overwhelming feeling all the time. Even moments before Leo arrives, Nancy is practicing how to present herself to him; she becomes fixated on the idea that he will have to force himself to have sex with her, even though sex is a regular part of his job and what he has arrived to provide. She is soaked in a shame that teaches us our value is in our appearance, in how desirous we are to others physically.
But both Nancy and Leo find ways to turn their back on - or at least quieten their shame - in the hope of connection, freedom and pleasure.
I think pleasure is the way to reject shame. And I think pleasure leads us toward liberation.
Working with Daryl and Emma on the film was such a delight. One memorable rehearsal day we each peeled off our clothes, introducing each other to our bodies through stories - “this scar is from...”, “this part makes me uncomfortable…”, “I love this…”. Being naked together we acknowledged the insecurities each of us had and also saw how human and beautiful each body is. And it was an attempt to reject the shame that says we should hide ourselves. We felt very close to each other after this. Watching the two of them deal with nakedness on the film set after this was really great. The crew would leave and Emma and Daryl (with me there) would get naked and comfortable and then everyone would slowly rejoin us. We rejected the idea that they should keep hidden until absolutely the last moment, de-robing just before the camera rolls as we usually see on a film set. Their comfort meant that we all understood their bodies as necessary tools in telling the story, not as something that needed to be hidden or ashamed of. I found this liberating. In fact, I think for them, as for me, there was a liberation in telling this story. I hope that is true for the audience too.
Nancy and Leo also explore pleasure too. One of the things I love most about this story is the way the characters take time to explore what it is that Nancy likes. At one point in the film Nancy pulls out her list of things she wants to try, a checklist of things she believes she should have experienced. The joy of Leo is the way he acknowledges that she wants to try these things but also reminds her that it is simply about that; trying it to see what you like, what feels good, rather than ticking off a check-box of experience. I think we often forget that we might not know what we like and that it’s great to give ourselves a chance to explore it.
Those of us raised as women are taught from a young age to put other people’s needs above our own. To check that everyone in the room is okay, to consider how our behaviour will be seen, to feel the feelings of others. This means that it’s often hard to even determine what we want. Is this really what we want or is it what we are expected to want? Or do we want it because we’re not supposed to? Or is this what we’ve been told someone else wants and that will make them desire or like us?
So, deciding to go after pleasure, to look for it, to explore what brings you it and to relish it, means rejecting a whole lot of limiting stuff.
Nancy’s lucky because she gets to do this with someone very experienced and focused on her. She is paying for this level of skill. I have always loved how good Leo is at his job and how much he values providing quality service. I like watching people try to do things well. Like Leo, I believe that having access to sex workers would make many people’s lives much better. But, the shame we place around pleasure has also led to the criminalisation of sex work in so many places around the world. I believe many people could benefit from the decriminalisation of sex work, taking something that still exists in the shadows and bringing it into the light. During the making of this movie I had the great pleasure of speaking with many sex workers and this was crucial in informing the story and character. I believe we must listen to sex workers and sex worker-led organisations who have clear ideas about what is needed in terms of legalisation and regulation and follow their lead. It’s vital we first protect the rights of these workers before engaging in a proper conversation about transactional sex and what clients might get from it in addition to the the physical satisfaction.
It feels connected though, right?
Our fear of pleasure, our shame around our bodies and the fact that we criminalise those that have capacity to help us shift from this. For too long pleasure and shame have been interwoven. To free ourselves from control and experience pleasure can feel like a revolution. I’m here for it.