Text: Madita Oeming
Illustration: Diana Ejaita
Porn is a reflection of society. No wonder, then, that it exhibits the same kinds of racism. This applies to the images themselves as well as to the power structures found within the industry that produces them. So, it should come as nosurprise that political movements such as #BlackLivesMatter stir the world of adult entertainment, too. Even though we keep treating porn like an imaginary parallel society, porn does not exist in a vacuum.
Accordingly, the last few months have been eventful in this scene, too. Posts about racism in porn have flooded social media, virtual panel discussions have been organized, petitions started, and extensive coverage has been given to the topic by various mainstream media outlets. The first BIPoC Adult Industry Collective has even been founded recently, unionizing in resistance to the current of racism that has long flowed through the adult industry.
„There has never been a moment quite like this before,“ says the founder of the collective, Sinnamon Love, who has been active in porn for more than 25 years. Why now? It was the unique combination of COVID-19, the massively increased visibility of racist police violence, and the general protest climate, she explains to me.
During lockdown, there has been more time for activism, and the corona-related filming hiatus has led to many performers producing their own content, which sparked the realization that they can make ends meet independently. „Platforms like OnlyFans have empowered many of us,“ says porn performer Demi Sutra.
Financial independence gives rise to courage — courage enough to publicly share experiences of racism and call out directors, agents, and studios. Many voices of color spoke out against the status quo this past summer, saying: This is enough!
Courage on the one side has led to panic on the other. „Companies are now afraid of being called out,“ says Mickey Mod, who has been in porn for 13 years. Certainly not an ideal motivation, but perhaps an effective one, he hopes.
Mickey Mod sees one of the main reasons this industry has been able to get away with obviously racist content and practices for so long in the continuing stigma around porn. As long as the wider culture considers the business as inherently bad, instruments of accountability will remain absent. „As porn breaks so many rules, it is often misunderstood as a space without ANY rules,“ says Mickey Mod.
Indeed, so much goes unchecked in porn that is hard to imagine appearing in today’s mainstream media. For instance, in 2015 the film 12 Inches a Slave received an AVN Award, the so-called Oscars of Porn, for “Clever Title of the Year.” Black performers have repeatedly been asked to pose with bananas. The n*word can be found all overPornhub. No, even in a transgressive medium like porn not ANYthing should go.
„In what other industry would it be legitimate to give White women a bonus for working with Black men?“ asks Demi Sutra. But this is common practice in the ‘interracial’ genre. Maybe the most prominent example is Blacked.com. This site made the fetishization of Black men’s bodies their business model and is hiding its blunt racism behind high production values and 4K quality — „putting lipstick on a pig,” Mickey Mod calls it. However dressed up it may be, it remains a problem – with an Instagram following of over 2 million.
For a long time, this problem has been drowned in collective silence, but now the site is being called out. „The media coverage helps put such companies under pressure,“ says LT, a member of the BIPoC collective. AVN, the leading industry magazine, has already made a change: Going forward, they want to lose the racist terminology and corresponding categories in their annual awards.
Language is an important element of combating racism. Black women in the industry are as unhappy with the commonly used ’ebony’ label as the men are with ’BBC’ (Big Black Cock). “Can’t we just use the same tags as White people?“ asks performer and activist Lotus Lain. „We can also be ‚tattooed‘ or ‚athletic‘ instead of permanently being reduced to our Blackness.“
For now, Lotus Lain sees the anti-racist statements companies are issuing as nothing but „overdue promises.“ As in any industry, there is a lot of virtue signaling going on right now, empty acts of public commitment rather than genuine change. But the fact that the big players are feeling pressured to present themselves as anti-racist is at least a start. What is undeniable is that Black performers have been more visible over the past few weeks than they have been inthe past years.
“I need a day off from Race Talk,” Ana Foxxx replies honestly when I reach out to her. The downside of a moment like this one is, as usual, that BIPoCs are called upon to do strenuous, mostly unpaid, often retraumatizing educational work. As the White author of this piece, who cannot speak for Black sex workers but wants to include their voices, I can’t completely avoid that pitfall.*
In our conversations, the performers reflect on their own male, light-skinned, hetero or cis privileges and acknowledge the complicity that comes with them. In porn, too, discrimination works intersectionally.
“We all need to hold ourselves accountable now. I also took jobs that I regret,” admits Demi Sutra. But being able to reject a role is a privilege, as well. „Sometimes it’s just a question of what’s in the script versus what’s in my bank account,“ says Mickey Mod. As usual, capitalism is at the core of this problem.
In addition, there is often a lack of transparency in how a porn scene will be packaged. Ana Foxxx reports that one of her performances ended up being released as part of a film titled Black Facials Matter, without her prior knowledge. Quite a few performers have experienced something similar.
Even where racism may not be as blatant, White privilege dominates all areas of porn. On set, for example, stylistsand lighting technicians who know how to stage Black hair and Black skin are usually missing. This is just one of many reasons why representation behind the camera is also crucial.
In front of the camera, the ‚Black Girl Quota‘ usually applies, saying that supposedly only one Black female performer can be included per production without the sales taking a hit. „This competitive pressure has destroyed many of our friendships,“ Ana Foxxx laments.
Learning processes are also ongoing within the industry. According to Lotus Lain, the “awareness of our own rights” is only slowly growing. Many issues have been dismissed and normalized over the years with the words: That’s just how it is.
Mickey Mod recalls that he had to go to Europe to understand that he could feel like something other than „an interchangeable Black gimmick“ in porn. “Without the feminist porn movement, my career would have been impossible,” agrees Bishop Black, who – with his bisexual scenes and gender fluid presentation – breaks the barriers of stereotypical Black hypermasculinity.
Don’t expect to find coverage of any of these recent events in the German media or porn landscape. One reason is perhaps because porn discourse in general is lagging behind in this part of the world. But it is more likely due to the fact that a lot of people in this country like to pretend that – whether in porn or in the police force – this is not their problem. „Anti-Black racism was not invented in the US,“ though, as Bishop Black reminds us.
In porn, too, the pejorative portrayal and treatment of Black people has a long history, as US porn scholar Mireille Miller-Young discussed in a recent Zoom talk organized by the BIPoC collective. While the fetishization of Black bodies as the “exotic other” may be particularly drastic in porn, it is also otherwise firmly anchored in Western culture. Ugly age-old narratives of slavery and colonialism manifest themselves in porn.
As in the rest of society, it will be difficult to break with these long-established structures. But not impossible. “America is waking up to a lot of things right now,” says Lotus Lain with a glimmer of hope.
One thing is for sure: „The exploitation of BIPoC bodies for White profit and White lust is a tool to maintain White supremacy,“ to put it in LT’s razor-sharp words. This must stop! Many of the collective’s demands are aimed at studios, producers, agents, and porn sites: book more BIPoCs in front of and behind the camera, pay them fairly, avoid stereotypical representations and racist marketing.
But what can we, as consumers, do? “Learn to recognize racist content in order to reject it personally and, if you can, publicly denounce it,” tells us performer Jet Setting Jasmine. When it comes to porn, it’s hard to tell whether supply or demand is driving the content. Either way, profiting from racism should be a thing of the past.
I keep hearing: Put your money where your mouth is. In other words: Those who can, should donate to BIPoC organizations to support sex workers and spend money on porn which celebrates, instead of fetishizes, Black bodies. Porn has the potential to create a space for Black Joy and a positive identification surface for Black people. For that to happen, we need to understand that porn, its production and consumption, is always political. And that fighting for the rights of the people in this industry is worthwhile.
Let’s decolonize porn!
* I thank everyone who gave me their time and trust.