Is Porn Racist?

Stereotyped fantasies, inequality and exploitation are the norm in commercial pornography. But not all porn is created equal.

In her new book, Pornland (Beacon Press), author Gail Dines argues that our sexuality is hijacked by the multi-billion-dollar-a-year porn industry. (See my three-part interview with Gail here, here, and here.) Dines also argues that pornography is racist. But not everyone agrees.

In the Pornland chapter titled “Racy Sex, Sexy Racism!” Dines writes that women of color are generally relegated to gonzo–a porn genre lacking any plot–which provides little glamour, security or status. According to Dines, porn racializes the bodies and sexual behavior of the performer with lines like: “Saxxx tried to clean herself up [but] she was still a low-down dirty ghetto ho! So I rammed her.” Web sites and videos commonly feature race-biased titles like, “Me Fuck You Long Time,” or “Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom.” To Dines, rampant racism in the porn industry is caused because most people working in the production end of the business are white.

Pornography scholar Mireille Miller-Young of the University of California, Santa Barbara, sees reason for concern, but disagrees with Dines’ anti-porn conclusion. Says Miller-Young:

Surely there’s racism in the porn industry. It affects how people of color are represented and treated, but there are counter-stories–especially among women of color who are creating and managing their own product. This doesn’t get enough attention.

Stereotyped fantasies, inequality and exploitation are the norm in commercial porn. Yet women-of-color directors and Web mistresses such as Vanessa Blue, Diana DeVoe and Shine Louise Houston provide alternatives that are potentially feminist and anti-racist. These counter-stories involve much more complicated representations of women of color, authored by themselves. In any case, Miller-Young points out, “If you really want to understand porn from the view of women of color you need to talk to them, not just evaluate their experiences based on the titles of the movies they appear in.”

Companies such as Heatwave Entertainment and VideoTeam (now Metro) built their brands not only on ethnic contract stars, feature films and product lines, but set the bar for women of color as viable forces in the industry. Kaylani Lei, Wicked Pictures contract star, is Asian-American; Vivid Video has had African-Americans Heather Hunter and Chelsea Sinclaire as contract stars; andTera Patrick, who is of Thai, English and Dutch descent, has been a contract star for Digital Playground and Vivid Video.

When asked about her views on racism in the industry, porn actress Sinnamon Love (pictured above) had this to say:

Current company owners like Lexington Steele and Justin Slayer produce quality gonzo featuring women of color that showcases the beauty and sexuality of women of color without racial degradation, and Black-owned video company West Coast Productions employs the prolific director Bishop, who produces some of the highest quality ethnic features with comprehensive story lines and excellent production value.

Hardly the racial one-way street that Dines (who is white) describes in her book. Says Sinnamon Love:

For Gail Dines to generalize that this type of product doesn’t exist is an overzealous exaggeration of the truth and is dangerous and irresponsible. This generalization completely disregards the efforts of so many performers, directors, company owners and production companies that put forth the energy into making a wide range of product available to the consumers who buy and enjoy these movies.

Sinnamon Love, whose newest gonzo film, Rough Sex 2, comes out under Vivid’s imprint next month, describes herself as multi-ethnic, self-identified African-American. In her words:

Ethnic female directors like Mika Tan have spearheaded [movements to produce] quality movies that showcase women of color without stereotypical roles and images. … Racism is a symptom of the bigger problem of society and porn no more contributes to that than any other form of commercial media. While there is certainly an element of racism in some adult movies, this is by no means the barometer to judge all pornography. This would be like judging all priests based on a few child molesters or all Southern white males based on a few members of the Ku Klux Klan.

So, to return to the original question: Is pornography racist? It certainly has racist elements, just like all forms of media and pop culture. But it also depends on who you ask -- and we should be asking women inside the industry as well as its critics.

This story originally appeared on Ms. Blog, the Web log ofMs.magazine.

Shira Tarrant, Ph.D., is an associate professor with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. She is is the author of Men and Feminism (Seal Press 2009) and When Sex Became Gender (Routledge 2006), and editor of Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge 2008). Her co-edited anthology, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, is forthcoming (SUNY Press).
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