by Yomi Adegoke 

The general consensus among left-leaning thinkers is that stereotypes, especially harmful, racist ones, are never a good thing. Especially if those stereotypes are being peddled in part for the purposes of sexual gratification and fetishisation. The exception, of course, is when they are solely for sexual gratification and fetishisation.

Then, apparently, it’s ‘complicated’.

Think piece after think piece on the harms caused by the fetishising of women of colour – on dating sites, in film, in music videos, in theatre, even as statues – flood our timelines with increasing frequency. Yet if the same fetishisation takes place on a porn set, it remains almost entirely bereft of criticism.

In a climate that sees the now supposedly intersectional left (rightfully) call out the fashion industry, the music industry and the film industry for their continued stereotyping of performers of colour, the deafening silence from anti-racist activists regarding racism in porn is hard to comprehend. An adult film seems to be the only place where white people can use the N-word with wild abandon and without fear of backlash – and there doesn’t seem to be a rationale as to why this is acceptable.

Several rather unconvincing arguments have been put forward for why porn receives the protection from criticism other forms of media do not. The first is consent – performers involved have consented to partaking in these acts and films, however racist they may be, and therefore any criticism of the films is rendered redundant.

‘I think real racism is awful, just like real incest and real rape, but interracial porn is just as much a fantasy as those other genres’, porn actress Casey Calvert explained to Mic.com when asked about her thoughts regarding porn’s race-baiting. And for many, her commentary remains sufficient reason to remain schtum. But the issue of the consent of performers has never stopped the voicing of valid concerns and critique in the past or present.

2014 saw the cancellation of controversial ‘Exhibit B‘ by South African artist Brett Bailey. His installation featured black actors in shackles and chains in order – he claimed – to ‘confront European notions of racial supremacy and the current plight of immigrants‘. After a #boycottthehumanzoo campaign garnering 20,000 signatures and a protest outside the venue, it was called off, much to the ire of the participants.

‘Sometimes you come across a piece and just go, “That’s it! That’s exactly what I want to say.” We all really saw this as a journey, as a way of changing things’, performer Priscilla Adade-Helledy told Vice News. ‘We were being totally unvoiced by the people who said they were anti-racists. It was really depressing.’

Similarly, Lily Allen’s questionable 2013 single ‘Hard out Here‘ saw Allen sneer at scantily clad black and Asian dancers, panning over their buttocks as she sang lines such as ‘Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain’. Whilst the backlash from critics was severe, those involved saw things differently:

‘Critics will be critics’, dancer Monique Lawrence tweeted. ‘Lily Allen is the coolest, most down to earth and we all had a blast shooting!’

Black wives matterWhen the consent of the performers is present in situations such as these, instances of racism have still been called out – especially when (as with the above two incidents), the individual in the driving seat is white. But it’s difficult to fathom how criticism of Lily Allen’s music video is so widespread while a porn parody of Eric Garner’s death, alongside an adult film entitled ‘Black Wives Matter’ ‘satirising’ the Black Lives Matter movement leaves so-called social justice warriors silent. Why does the consent of performers only seem to matter when there is an erection at stake?

In Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall articulated the point that different types of media representation of minority groups have important and wide-spanning effects, including the reinforcement of existing stereotypes. Whether or not this reinforcement takes place depends on the historical and social context that the media in question is received in, rather than the intent, or indeed consent of those who create it. So porn performers, like actors and musicians, have no control over the potentially negative ramifications of the representations they have individually consented to participating in.

Currently, there is more vocal criticism of blockbusters than of blue films. Ridley Scott’s Gods of Egypt was heavily chastised for its decision to cast black characters in offensive roles. One can’t help but think whether a porn parody of the film featuring the exact same roles would be somewhat more palatable? After all, a porn version of an already racist blockbuster would appear to have less of a chance, by current logic, of being seen as politically ‘problematic’.

A variety of the worst, most harmful tropes are used and amplified within porn: tropes that we are steadily attempting to get rid of from the big screen for good. The submissive Asian woman, the spicy Latina and sassy black woman that we’re gradually pushing out of the mainstream continue to have a home on porn sites. And just like mainstream films, the majority of those at the production end of mainstream porn are white men – though that doesn’t seem to bother many within this context.

Orientalism, othering and white supremacy are rife and at times, central themes. ‘Watch these latin putas gag on white guys cocks in the most abusive throatjobs you will ever see!’ one site called ‘Latina Abuse’ shouts. Titles such as ‘Two Hot Black Men Get Jiggy and Wild, Robbery Style’, ‘The Heiress’ Black Slave Boy’, ‘Ebony Cum Dumps’, ‘Exploited Black Teens’, ‘Exploited Africans’, ‘Teen Slaves of Saigon’ and ‘Raped By Arab Terrorists’ litter X rated sites all over the web. The usually critical voices remain silent.

There appears to be no concern that actors such as Lebanese-American Mia Khalifa’s appeal plays on orientalist and xenophobic tropes. As blogger Mira Abouelezz so eloquently puts it, ‘It is a white fantasy in which the agency of brown people is taken away. The brown woman has no voice or real identity, she just symbolizes something ‘Other’ to be conquered.’

The practice in which characters belonging to a marginalised group are played by those who do not share their identity in real life has been increasingly objected to, especially when the portrayals are likely to cause offense to those in the relevant community. Mia Khalifa, for instance, who often performs scenes in a hijab, is not a Muslim and claims that these performances are ‘satirical’. It is difficult to imagine that the same practices could be so silently accepted within any other medium. Yet supposed allies appear sated by the ever-present idiom ‘It’s not racist, it’s just a fetish!’, suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive. A ‘Hi there Beyoncé ;)’ or Rihanna, or Nicki — or another black pop cultural icon you bear absolutely no resemblance to — message on Tinder is considered a micro-aggression of epic proportions. But if the same man then decides to go home and masturbate over the very fetishising that saw you swiftly block him from Tinder, to challenge him would be kink shaming. Just how is it possible to object to fetishisation in every other conceivable context, but then ignore or even accept it in pornography?

The double standard at play is that racial denigration is supposedly somehow neutralised by the sexual element as opposed to exacerbated by it. Writer Jamel Shabbaz describes a scene from the popular site Ghetto Gaggers, of which violent racial subjugation is the primary selling point:

‘During 90 minutes of barbarism, the perpetrators spit in their faces, slap them, stomp them and force some to crawl on all fours with chains around their necks. In other scenes, the women have watermelons smashed on their heads and then are forced to eat the melon, along with the men’s semen. There are now hundreds of sites specializing in the sexual destruction of the “ghetto bitch”.’

A now defunct site called NaziNiggers showed white men in Nazi gear physically assaulting black women. The Mandingo, thug and sex pest stereotypes that have seen black men targeted and slain in real life remain central. And scenes primarily hinge on white supremacy, neo-colonialism and bigotry without challenge.

Alex Pesek writes about one site, ‘Thug Hunters’, which sees white men scouring the most deprived parts of cities ‘to find black men willing to fellate them for cash’.

‘We found a thug wandering the rough streets of Miami’, describes one of the studio’s hunts for a black man, as if he wasn’t a human but a creature in his natural habitat. ‘We … fed him dreams of money, bitches, stardom (sic) and rap songs sung in his honour and he was like sweet milk chocolate in our hand’. Pesek notes that it is such real-life racialised power dynamics that appeal to most of its viewers. And that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

‘But it’s just a fantasy!’ detractors will huff. Yet, even if that is true, isn’t almost all the media we consume? Is a Lily Allen music video somehow more real than a porn film? Is an exhibition? Other ‘fantasy worlds’ – fashion, film — that peddle the same argument as a means of absolving them of any real world responsibility are immediately dismissed as sub-par attempts to excuse bigotry.

Border patrol sex whyAs with porn, pleasure can be taken from viewing any politically ‘problematic’ media. But most are not exempt from a critical analysis of why they are enjoyed and how what they represent may still be harmful. Many viewers took offense to Chris Rock and Ali G’s racially-insensitive recent speeches at the Oscars – but others responded with stock arguments that ‘what we find funny is involuntary’. The same is said of what turns us on, but certain strands of the modern left only remain broadly critical of one. A porn webseries called ‘Border Patrol Sex’ made light of the rape of migrant Mexican and Central American women – if it had been a comedy skit on SNL, the outrage would have been widespread.

Fantasies do not form within a vacuum but are shaped by a world that we all know is violently misogynistic and racist. Racist scenarios remain pervasive fantasies first and foremost because they are based on deeply-entrenched social structures, stereotypes and power dynamics. And whilst minorities may indulge in these fantasies too, it takes an alarming level of intellectual dishonesty to suggest that that this somehow negates racism while at the same time ignoring racism among the primary creators and consumers of these particular products. The Ghetto Gaggers twitter account recently tweeted the message ‘Merry Christmas! #BlackLivesMatter remember that in this time of joy’, accompanied by an image of a black woman being double penetrated by two white men, whilst holding up a sign reading Black Lives Matter – it’s not hard to imagine what it’s creators’ politics are.

Liberal sites are not, admittedly, entirely silent on the issue of racism in porn and have written about how it is manifested between actors, the pay gap and in categorisation – but never regarding the content. The story of porn actor James Deen’s (who has had a number of sexual assault allegations made against him by female colleagues) trouble casting women opposite black male performers made every site imaginable. There have been write ups of how black female performers are continually short-changed. The perceived taboo of interracial/cuckolding scenes is constantly discussed but the nature of the scenes, and thus the actual product, is never interrogated. Where there is any attempt to do so, only half-hearted justifications are offered. Mike Stabile and Jack Judah Shamama, owners of Gay Porn Blog acknowledge that porn has ‘strains of racism’ but argue that so do ‘politics, so does larger culture.’

‘If you’re looking for racism, you’ll find it – that’s what free speech is about. Sometimes it’s ugly, but it’s wrong to paint with too broad a brush’, Stabile continues. A left led by student groups — who are now being characterised as the natural enemies of free speech — have somehow found themselves in bed with the very ‘Je suis Charlie’ advocates they usually abhor.

Meanwhile porn actor Mickey Mod recently discussed the unequal labour practices that take place within the industry, stating, ‘America consumes race-based content because it has a long way to go in dealing with race issues, but that content doesn’t have to be made in a racist way’. If Hollywood were to vastly increase the ethnic diversity of both actors and directors in Hollywood, along with their pay cheques but still churn out the same stereotypical, offensive and overtly racist films, I wonder if it would be considered a step forward. As Stuart Hall made clear, ‘films are not necessarily good because black people make them.’ In every other industry we interrogate and critique both the institutional structures and the output but whilst some of the shortcomings in porn are addressed, the issues regarding what we are actually viewing are not.

A minority of BAME women actors are now creating and managing their own less racist product. Although these women have been continually wheeled out as evidence of a changing porn landscape, this type of rationale is no more satisfactory than saying Hollywood isn’t racist because Ava Duvernay exists or that there is no issue within modelling because of the success of Naomi Campbell. It feels like most of the other arguments: an unapologetically neoliberal rationalisation. Focusing heavily on a small number of exceptions without acknowledging that they are exceptions and not the rule is usually the tactic of our hard-right detractors. We don’t accept these arguments anywhere else – why would we in porn?

There are real tensions regarding race and porn that have not been addressed critically, and the unwillingness to do so openly and honestly is deeply disappointing. Highlighting the problematic representations and power relationships within the porn industry is not anti-porn. I have yet to come across a convincing argument as to why porn should be excluded from critical analysis. A sex-positive stance should not mean an inability to stand against the blatant racism in porn along with all its other problems, or an indifference to the experiences of those who work within the sex industry.

‘Contemporary portrayals of Black women [and men] in pornography represent the continuation of the historical treatment of their actual bodies’, Patricia Hill Collins explains in her book Black Feminist Thought. When will critical thinkers and activists begin to openly acknowledge this without reverting to apologism for an industry that continues to degrade, exploit and ultimately mock us?

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Yomi Adegoke is a journalist and multimedia producer. She writes regularly about feminism, race and the intersection between the two. You can find and follow her on Twitter @YomiAdegoke

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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2 thoughts on “Porn: Our colour blind spot when it comes to racism

  1. Two thoughts:

    I suspect criticism is lacking here because the groups who normally would be at the forefront of such discussions would not like to be associated in any way with pornography, fearing it will taint their image. I think of sexually repressed countries like the United States not wanting to have pornography be a part of the very necessary conversations we need to be having about race. Perhaps it’s strategic: sacrificing pornography for the broader social goal of racial equality.

    And on a personal level, I find such racism and stereotyping in adult films to be repugnant but I’m not watching porn for the story and what that means, of course, is that I’m indirectly aiding and abetting because I find the girl in that particular vignette really hot though I don’t care at all for the theme of the vignette. (if that makes any sense at all)

    Like

  2. Fantasies do not form within a vacuum but are shaped by a world that we all know is violently misogynistic and racist

    This. So much.
    But don’t you dare to voice the opinion that we should look critically at our fantasies and at least own their problematic aspects. Even at the expense of your boner or clit.

    Like

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