Porn and Prejudice

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. For many of us, Pornography is a dirty secret, but it’s also a multibillion dollar business. And, like much of American entertainment, perpetuate stereotypes about black people.

S2: For profit images of black women and Pornography and black men really permeate society. These images don’t come from nowhere. Pornography did not create racism, but it amplifies that

S1: racism in porn and how it affects the people who watch it and those who make it. Coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to award a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host Jason Johnson just a warning. Today’s episode deals candidly with the topic of Pornography, so it may not be appropriate for all listeners, though many people don’t talk about it. Millions of Americans do watch Pornography, and credible estimates show the industry generates upwards of 10 billion dollars a year in the United States. That’s more than Hollywood. While there’s a raging debate about how Pornography commodified the exploitation of women. Less talked about is how Pornography can fuel racist stereotypes about black people and how black performers are often exploited inside the industry. Carolyn West is hoping to change that. She’s a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who studies racism in the Pornography industry and its impact on black women. She’s also produced an upcoming documentary on the issue called Let Me Tell You About Black Chicks. Images of Black women in Pornography and Carolyn West joins us now. Welcome to work.

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S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: You produced the documentary! Let me tell you all about black chicks images of Black women on Pornography. Now I’m gonna give the audience some context here. Let me tell you all about Black Chicks is actually a sequel to Let Me Tell You All About White Chicks. The movie came out in 1985, and it wasn’t just the epitome of porn. In the 80s, it featured some ridiculously offensive scenes, with white men dressed as Klan members having sex with black women. Now it had your typical porn scenario of a bunch of black women who were maids or domestic servants, and they were sitting around and talking about their sexual experiences with white men. But I just want to start Dr. West. Why did you use the title? Let me tell you about black chicks for your documentary and what was your introduction to porn and how did that lead to the research you do today?

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S2: I named it that it just seemed to be the app name for the documentary because I wanted to understand what’s going on. And I wanted to understand what were the messages that we’re getting depicted about black women. And if I could unpack that because I’m not only a documentary filmmaker, I’m a clinical psychologist by training and domestic violence and sexual assault researcher. So I wanted to know how those tropes impacted African-American women in our daily lives.

S1: What does it mean that for many African-Americans, the first time they actually see people having sex? Any variation of sex is through Pornography. How does that potentially warp our perceptions of self, our perceptions of body and black women’s perceptions of their own selves and their own sexuality?

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S2: I think it can be hugely problematic because, as you said, we don’t see ourselves in these places. And if you look at mainstream Pornography, often times those images are a historic. And what I mean is a Pornography takes these images and it eroticized is sanitizes historical trauma in a lot of ways. And so let me give you an example. Remember the movie 12 Years a Slave? Pornography loves parodies. And so what they did is they created 12 inches of slaves. And so all of that trauma of a black men being just dehumanized, stigmatized, seen as predators, et cetera. Porn takes that eroticized. Is it sanitizes it? And so the images that you see of yourself or distorted and warped? So then we have no place where we’re seeing ourselves and our healthy sexuality for African-American people.

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S1: How are white peoples prevailing racist and problematic notions of black sexuality? How do those play out in general? What does it mean, then in the Pornography industry? The vast majority of even quote unquote black porn is directed, created by white people and created for a white audience.

S2: It’s just another space. Pornography did not create racism, but racism is effective search engine optimization. So they’re going to drive people to those images that we see that permeate all of society. And so we have to think about how those images really shape how black people are viewed throughout society. So if black men are still depicted as these brutes, think about birth of a nation that was one of the early movie depictions of black men as brutes who were out like marauding and running amok and sexually assaulting white women. And so that image then just gets reinforced and sent out to the entire society, and that shapes how we then see African-Americans. It’s dangerous, sexually promiscuous and out of control.

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S1: Porn consumption outstrips almost every other kind of media. Consumption in America, like pornography is viewed more than Avengers Endgame. Pornography is viewed more than your biggest Hollywood hit, and oftentimes people don’t want to be honest about what they’re consuming and why. Why do you think that stigma about pornography continues to exist, even though it is so pervasive and you’ve had certain adult film stars become nominally mainstream from time to time? Why do you think there is still the shame? Because I think the shame is part of why the industry itself doesn’t break away from some of the most egregious racial stereotypes in the movie.

S2: Well, we don’t have adequate sex education in this country. We don’t have adequate ways of talking about what healthy sexuality, what that is. And so then people turn to porn for sex education, which is highly inappropriate, and there’s a lot of shame around sexuality to begin with.

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S1: You’ve also studied domestic violence. That’s part of the research that you go into when you have young people who get access to pornography. Because again, you know, if you’re Gen-Xer, if you’re even a millennial porn used to have to be something, you’d have to go behind the curtain at the video store and get a VHS tape and everything else like that. Current Zoomers have had access to this since they were 13 14 years old. It has led to porn addictions at younger ages, people suffering from sexual dysfunction and impotence. But also, what is the connection that you see with sexual? Violence, assault and domestic violence, do you think that it is increasing because people are consuming certain kinds of Pornography? Or do you think that the ability to consume Pornography may lead some people to satisfy those desires before they take them out on someone else?

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S2: All of those things are linked. We’re seeing perpetrators who are using Pornography and domestically violent situations filming their victims. There are lots of websites where you can post images and videos of revenge porn. We’re seeing kids watching pornography in school settings and then also sexually harassing their peers. All of this is linked to domestic violence, and I’m not saying again, porn causes those things, but it’s certainly not the foundation for healthy relationships. So we have to look at how those things are linked because it’s not creating a healthy environment and healthy society.

S1: Certainly, we’re going to take a short break when we come back more confronting racism in the porn industry. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson host of a word slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing. Has got a word at Slate.com? Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking about confronting racism in the porn industry. Our guest is Professor Carolyn West. There’s a lot of discussion in and around Pornography as to whether or not it’s abusive or empowering. And you hear, especially now that we have social media. You hear young people in Pornography young porn actresses saying, No, no, no, I chose to do this. This is something that I want to do. You have some men say, no, this is the greatest thing in the world. What’s your sort of take on it? Is Pornography empowering or is it abusive? Are these people just victims rationalizing their own sort of bad situation?

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S2: I think it’s really complex, and when we talk about choices, we really have to be asking, are these real choices or constrained choices? Do people really get involved in the porn industry because they’re deciding? Or should I go to an elite private school and become a doctor? Or should I store in Pornography? Times, it’s really not a choice. It’s driven by economic considerations. So if people have other choices, they may make other decisions. So that said, I still want to accept that people do have choices and respect those choices. So it gets really complex. But what we do know is that there can be a lot of harm for people who participate in this industry, and we can’t ignore that either.

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S1: What are the actual harms on set? We’re not just talking about, Hey, if you do porn, somebody may find it years later. What are the actual harms on set to people who are participating in this kind of work?

S2: Well, some porn performers have actually sued production companies because they’ve been called the N-word on set. Talk about a hostile work environment. So they’re not certainly signing up for that. So the emotional weight of doing that work can still be challenging, an understanding that many of them, they don’t select what they do. The titles are selected by the porn companies. So you think you’re participating in a scene and then they change the title to Black Lives Matter? It’s like, Oh, I didn’t sign up for that, but here you are.

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S1: Talk a little bit about the abuse of black men in Pornography and how that plays out above and beyond simply being called the N-word.

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S2: It plays out because again, it harkens back to those stereotypes that are deeply rooted in slavery. And even after slavery were black, men are depicted as pimps, as predators, and now they sort of sanitized it and call them gangsters or thugs. But the message is still very deeply the same. And my concern is that it tells black men it reduces them just to their genitalia. And if you’re operating in a way like that in the world where that’s how you see your sexuality, that’s not going to be the foundation for healthy relationships.

S1: One of the new trends in porn over the last several years has been superhero parodies, right? And they’ll redo an Avengers movie, they’ll redo a Batman movie. There was a story that came out about two years ago, 2020, where large numbers of adult film stars said they would not do a porn parody of Black Panther. How empowered do black porn stars feel to stand up for themselves in an industry that is so not regulated, so incredibly racist, and oftentimes the rules are decided, as you’ve suggested, when you get to set?

S2: So now some porn performers are just creating their own companies. I mean, it is a capitalist industry, and so they’re stepping back or maybe doing only fans as a way of doing that. So that’s a way perhaps some porn performers have taken their power back and they’re pushing back on the porn industry. But it’s again, it’s pretty difficult to do because those racial terms drive traffic.

S1: So when you say those racial terms drive traffic, I want to get into that a bit. One of the things that’s very interesting if you look at Rakim Dot Net, which is sort of the IMDb of Pornography, one of the things that it shows is if you’re looking for a film, a film is only called interracial, it’s only listed as interracial when there are black penises involved, basically. So a movie with all white men having sex with Asian women, all white men having sex with Latina women, black women. That’s not interracial, but you have one black guy’s penis involved and suddenly it’s an interracial film. Talk to us a little bit about. That sort of characterization of Pornography and what it speaks to about sort of how the black body is used in this industry and how that reflects on how the black body is used in society as a whole,

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S2: it makes sense because if you look at history, that was the ultimate taboo. Black men were lynched, 6000 were lynched over a period of decades. And so we have been fascinated with the contents of black men’s pants for hundreds of years. And so that is the ultimate taboo. So most of the interracial Pornography features black men and white women. And that’s the most dangerous, most taboo thing that film kind of depicts. So we still see that history even today.

S1: How does racism sort of manifest itself in the pay inequality for black actors and actresses today? How were they mistreated because of the overall racism in the industry?

S2: They’re mistreated because they’re certainly paid less, and because the notion is that they are worth less. And so black farmers were oftentimes featured in videos that we call gonzo. So low paid just one simple camera, not very much talking. They’re not going to be in the features where companies put a lot of money behind those particular productions. So the low quality productions, so they end up getting paid less and just not featured as much as white performers are.

S1: What are the long term consequences, oftentimes of women who have left this industry? What kinds of emotional and physical and psychological scars do they have because a lot of people get into adult film industry? They don’t stay very long. What are some of the long term issues that they face?

S2: I’ve seen everything from depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse and also people turning to other types of sex work in order to make a living. Too many of the young women I have worked with have also been been victims of sex trafficking. And so they’re making Pornography as a part of that work. And so they are deeply harmed and disturbed after participating in this industry.

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S1: What kinds of medical issues have you heard people having to deal with above and beyond the psychological?

S2: OK, so we saw an HIV outbreak in the porn industry, so we know that STDs, all kinds of physical and mental health problems as a result of that and injuries, we’re seeing more strangulation in Pornography. And so choking has become a big thing in the more extreme forms of Pornography, such as ghetto gag or set targets, young black women. They’re being strangled, they’re being called racially disturbing. Names are being hit and struck. So physical injuries, they’re independent contractors. They have no health insurance, so they’re responsible for taking care of whatever injuries sustained on set.

S1: We’re going to take a short break, we come back more on racism in Pornography and what can be done to stop it. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word Will Jason Johnson today we’re talking about racism in porn with psychologist Carolyn West. Dr. West racism is, of course, endemic throughout all of American society, but in particular we see it manifesting it in the themes, the actions, the titles and Pornography. The Black Lives Matter movement has also led to an explosion in a particularly egregious and exploitative kind of Pornography. How has that changed adult films and porn? What kind of movies have we seen and what does it say about the racist psychology of many of the consumers that they want to see black and white porn or interracial porn in the wake of massive protests for racial justice?

S2: Porn has a history of sexualizing social justice movements when. Women were depicted as pieces of meat in the 70s, they started to push back on the porn industry and they said, Stop doing this. This is offensive and the first thing that they did was create, I think it was penthouse or hustler women hanging up as pieces of meat. And so they’ve done the same thing with the Black Lives Matter movement, and they’ve sexualized that. And I really think it’s a way of saying we don’t have to take these movements seriously. We don’t have to take racism seriously, and it’s a joke. So it’s as it becomes a site where people can be as politically as incorrect as they want to be. And so they can say the things that they really want to say publicly, but they can say that in porn, because porn gets a pass

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S1: for a lot of people who don’t consume pornography. They often say, Hey, we should just get rid of porn entirely. It should just be made illegal. Do you think the porn should be regulated more or less out of existence? Not whether that is possible because it’s almost impossible to do. But do you think that would be an ultimate good if porn were highly regulated and reduced to almost nothing else by the government?

S2: Well, as you said, that’s not going to happen, and I think the key thing is to be healthy consumers, critical consumers of what we’re watching and a push back on those racial stereotypes and to have sex education that’s healthy and shows healthy sexual interactions. I think that’s what’s needed. And Pornography too often feels that void.

S1: What is an ethical way for people to consume porn where they don’t feel that they’re contributing to the exploitation of women? The exploitation of men and the perpetuation of violent racial stereotypes? How can you still consume it and not contribute to this thing?

S2: Yeah, and that’s a challenge. Is Pornography producing what people want or people seeking that out because porn produces it? And it’s really difficult to notice. Now there are organizations that say they produce what we call ethical porn or feminist porn sites. It sort of try to do that. But in mainstream porn, that just really doesn’t seem to be happening. Those racial stereotypes are just so deeply embedded there. It’s almost difficult to separate those out. So for some people consuming porn just in an ethical manner, they don’t see a way to be able to really do that.

S1: When you think of the long term impact of your work, what do you want people to take away from your research about the depictions of black women and black bodies, in particular in Pornography?

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S2: I really want people to take away that representation matters and that. Images of black women in Pornography and black men really permeate society. These images don’t come from nowhere. Pornography did not create racism, but it amplifies that and really wanting us to think about what the impact those images have on young people who are getting their sex education from consuming pornography and how that contributes to sexual violence in this culture. And I want people hopefully to be critical consumers of the images that we see throughout society and start having a conversation about this because it’s not going away.

S1: Carolyn West is an award winning author, filmmaker and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. She’s featured in the documentary Let Me Tell You All About Black Chicks, Images of Black Women and Pornography. Professor West, thank you so much.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.