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Pornography and Race

Thursday Sep 10, 2009

Published in the  Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. New York: Gale (2007).

Much of the academic analysis of pornography has focused on the ways in which the text operates as a regime of representation to construct femininity and masculinity as binary opposites. This type of theorizing assumes a gender system which is race-neutral, an assumption which cannot be sustained in a country where, as Robin Wiegman argues, “gender has proven to be a powerful means through which racial difference has historically been defined and coded” (1993: 170). From the image of the Asian woman as Geisha to the black male as sexual savage, mainstream white representations have coded non-white sexuality as deviant, excessive and a threat to the white social order. These images, while somewhat muted in mainstream Hollywood movies, are very much dominant in pornography that is defined as “interracial” by the industry. The absence of critique of these overtly racist images by academics studying pornography suggests that they have become so normalized that they now constitute common-sense assumptions regarding the sexuality of people of color.

Although in our image-based society images of sexuality circulate in advertisements, movies, television and music videos, pornography continues to be the place where cultural notions of sexuality are most clearly articulated and rearticulated.  Moreover, images of sex never just portray “real” sex, but rather construct representations that are based on collective ideologies of what constitutes “normal” versus deviant sexuality. James Snead, in his discussion of images of African Americans in white film, argues that “in all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks … the political is never far from the sexual” (1994, p. 8). Indeed, it is also true to argue that the sexual is not far from the political, as one of the ways in which whites demonize people of color is to define their sexuality as deviant, and thus in need of (white) policing and control. While all pornography attempts to push the limits of what is acceptable sexual practice, representations of people of color operate within a regime of representation which defines them as “other” and thus outside the realm of “normal” (white) humanity.

Definitions of Pornography

There is considerable academic debate concerning the boundaries of what constitutes pornography. Definitions are often political in nature, with pro-pornography writers such as Wendy McElroy defining pornography as “the explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings.” (1995, p. 43). However, anti-pornography scholars such as Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin (1988) tend to take a more critical perspective, seeing pornography as material that sexualizes subordination through pictures and words. An example of such a definition that is widely accepted within anti-pornography feminist literature is Helen Longino’s, which states that pornography is any material that “represents or describes sexual behavior that is degrading or abusive to one or more of the participants in such as way as to endorse the degradation” (Longino, 29). While Longino points out that in most cases it is women and children who are the ones degraded, we need to include men here as they are the ones degraded in gay pornography (see below).

While debating definitions may be an interesting academic practice, the reality is that we now have a massive global pornography industry that generates estimated revenues of over $57 billion dollars a year ( Those working in the industry know what constitutes pornography, for as Dines and Jensen document (1998), its products are highly formulaic and genre bound. A useful working definition for any discussion that attempts to map out specific genres of pornography is thus those products (in print or image form) produced, distributed and sold by the industry that aim to sexually arouse the viewer.

Pornography and Race

The two largest moneymakers for the pornography industry are feature films and Gonzo movies. The former attempts to mirror mainstream movies with some story line and plot, and employs a high degree of technological sophistication. Gonzo pornography, on the other hand, strings together a number of sex scenes devoid of a story line, and looks quickly made and amateurish. The aim here is to facilitate masturbation in the male user as quickly and economically as possible. People of color are mainly found in Gonzo, which has none of the status or “chic” associated with the up-market features produced by companies such as Vivid, which boasts porn star and best-selling author, Jenna Jameson as its “poster girl.” Indeed, in the emerging world of celebratory pornography, it is white women who are fronted by the industry with regular appearances on syndicated television shows such as Howard Stern, and photo shoots in mainstream, best-selling men’s magazines such FHM and Maxim.

The Gonzo pornography, with its emphasis on hard-core, physically punishing sex, has a sub-category called interracial. Although there are films with Asian and Latina women, much of the focus is on sex between black men and white women, with emphasis on the size and power of the black man’s penis. Films such as Big Black Cocks in White Holesard Black Poles Do White Pussy, and Ebony Dicks in White Chicks, trade in the long-standing racist myth that black men are more animalistic, sexually violent and less evolved than white men. A central part of this myth is that black men use their sexual savagery mainly against white women, who are coded as “sluts” for their fascination with black penises. One recurring sentence on many interracial pornography sites is “once they go black, they never go back,” thus suggesting that black men are sexually more enticing, and exciting because of their lack of restraint.

This visual depiction of black men is actually part of a much larger regime of racial representation which, beginning with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and continuing with pornography, makes the black male’s supposed sexual misconduct a metaphor for the inferior nature of the black “race” as a whole. Hustler, the most widely distributed hard-core pornography magazine in the world, regularly depicts caricatured black men as having oversized penises but undersized heads, thus signifying mental inferiority. They are frequently shown as pimps with gold chains, expensive cars and a stable of black and white women. When not pimping women to make money, the black man is often shown as cheating the government by claiming fraudulent welfare checks. The Hustler images  clearly speak to the dominant racist ideology that black men are criminals and if unchecked, will financially drain law-abiding whites.

Black women do not do much better in the racist world of pornography. Repeatedly referred to as ebony whores, sluts from the ghetto, and bad black “sistas”, black women are depicted as less attractive than white women, and therefore desperate for sex with anything or anyone. One site, for example, focuses on the supposed inability of black women to dress in a way that attracts men. Called Pimp my Black Teen, we see “before and after” pictures of young black women who need the “help” of pimps to look sexually inviting. Accompanying one such picture is the text “We scooped Nene straight out of the projects looking totally ghetto. We sexed the bitch up in a hot pink outfit  …” The text goes on to explain how the makeover worked as she now can find “black cock” anywhere she goes.

In contrast to black women, Asian women in pornography are constructed as the feminine ideal. Referred to as sweet, cute, shy, and vulnerable, these images trade on the long-standing stereotype of Asian women as submissive. A magazine called Asian Beauties tells the readers that these “exotic beauties” are “born and bred with the skills to please a man.” Many of the Internet pornography sites make veiled reference to trafficking in women, but rather than depicting this as sexual slavery, the men are told that “she was imported for your delight.” Totally commodified, these women cease to have any humanity but are instead goods to be traded internationally for the pockets and penises of white men.

Interestingly, Asian men rarely appear in straight pornography but are a major commodity in gay pornography. Again, referred to as submissive, shy, and in many cases young, these men are offered up to a presumably white gay male audience. Black men in gay pornography, however, are represented in the same way that they are in straight pornography. With their supposed big penises, insatiable appetites, and violent tendencies, black men are as hyper-masculinized in gay pornography as Asian men are feminized.  Commenting on the racialized hierarchy in gay pornography, Christopher Kendall notes that such imagery “justifies through sex the types of attitudes and inequalities that make racism and sexism powerful and interconnected realities (Kendall, p. 60).

Indeed, all pornography uses sex as a vehicle to transmit messages about the legitimacy of racism and sexism. Hiding behind the façade of fantasy and harmless fun, pornography delivers reactionary racist stereotypes that would be considered unacceptable were they in any other types of mass-produced media. However, the power of pornography is that these messages have a long history and still resonate, on a sub-textual level, with the white supremacist ideologies, that continue to inform policies that economically, politically and socially discriminate against people of color.

Kendall, C. (2004). Gay Male Pornography: An Issue of Sex Discrimination. Toronto: UBC Press.

Snead, J. (1994). White Screen, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side. New

York: Routledge.

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