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Culture

Why is porn the only multi-billion dollar industry allowed to be so openly racist?

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The porn business is given a free pass on racist stereotyping and unequal pay structures because it is deemed an 'unacceptable' workforce by mainstream culture

Anna Freeman

12 Abril 2018 15:51

Racism and ethnic type-casting within the world of pornography - both on and off camera - is given little outside critical attention. The industry’s high stigmatisation as default allows racism to flourish with almost no scrutiny. It’s hard to imagine any other multi-billion dollar business playing upon and cashing in on racial difference like pornography does without grassroots activism or public outcry. As a powerful touchstone for education about sex and pleasure - especially for young people - does this reinforce wider understandings of racial fetisishation and unequal power dynamics?

I spoke to four incredibly successful adult actors of colour - Ana Foxxx, Mickey Mod, Cindy Starfall and Kelli Provocateur - about navigating the predominantly whitewashed porn industry, creating space for diversity, and how the marketability of ethnic typecasting makes it hard to affect change.

I. Fetishing the other: race on-screen and beyond

There is a segregation of content, not just performers. White is the default, so if there is someone who isn’t white in a production it needs to be pointed to and emphasised.

Mickey Mod

Pornographic productions almost always explicitly refer to a performers’ race or ethnicity in both title and content. It is a way of signifying cultural conceptions of race without much explanation. Black masculinity, in particular, is consistently presented as aggressive; a threat to the natural order of white dominance. Mickey Mod says the demand for black men with white women is huge. And, in fact, the category of ‘interracial’ is only applied when a black person is paired with someone white. An Asian woman with a black man, for example, wouldn’t be titled interracial, even though the term is supposed to be inclusive of race.

The ‘interracial’ market is centred around white female fragility and black male aggression, according to Mod, which ‘is problematic because there is already a huge problem with hypermasculinisation and the harmful way black men are represented in pop culture and beyond’. Drug dealers, criminals, and gang lords are just some of the recurrent themes that permeate the industry.

Mickey Mod and Vex Ashley/ copyright Erika Lust & Instagram

In the porn business, an actress is usually advised to slowly build up the acts she is willing to on camera. Ordinarily starting at solo or lesbian scenes, then ‘boy-girl’, working up to anal sex, gang bangs and double penetration. How much the actress gets paid is predicated on which is considered most taboo or potentially harmful. ‘Interracial’ porn, even in a normal ‘boy-girl’ framework, is frequently seen as the last taboo and often comes with an even higher price tag. It is the ultimate milestone for a white female performer - not because of how extreme an act it is, but because of the colour of the person’s skin.

Mark Spiegler, one of the industry’s top talent agents (known as the ‘Ari Gold of porn’) explains that a standard ‘boy-girl’ scene earns a female star around $1,000, anal sex roughly $1,200, and double penetration upwards of about $1,400. Although Spiegler’s agency doesn’t charge more than the top-tier for ‘interracial’ scenes, many others do. An African-American actor who did not want to be named said a female star once asked for an extra $500 to do a simple ‘boy-girl’ scene with him.

Ana Foxx Instagram post

Pornography is in many ways a more exaggerated reflection of social dynamics in mainstream culture. Ana Foxxx, a rising star in LA’s porn industry with a Twitter following of nearly 200,000, says there is no problematic porn without demand. Blaxploitation scenes make big bucks. Foxxx is one of the most successful black actors currently working in the industry, but still believes she often gets work because directors are specifically looking for a person of colour or stereotype - not just a great performer. ‘It’s good I’m getting work but people of colour have to get used to tokenism and that they might be portrayed in a negative way,’ Foxx tells me.

Likewise, Cindy Starfall, originally from Vietnam, has become accustomed to - and actually embraces - the porn industry’s demand to ‘play up’ her ethnicity. She has done countless massage scenes and schoolgirl videos because there is an audience appetite for it. ‘I see it from a director’s point of view, it’s about giving the audience what they want,’ she explains, ‘You show up on set to perform - it’s a fantasy. Directors don’t pick you for having opinions.’ Starfall has generally welcomed her appeal as a Vietnamese star, but she recalls one incident where she felt uncomfortable on set after she was asked to use chopsticks while giving a man a blowjob. ‘That was too much, I thought.’

Cindy Starfall posing in a school uniform/ copyright Cindy Starfall

II. The economics of ethnicity

Marketing is imperative to the success of any starlet or film company, but the problem is it is usually done post-production. Mod explains that performers often turn up on set and do the job without any knowledge of how it will be advertised; even the title is omitted, meaning that offensive, and racist, terms are added without the permission of the actors themselves. ‘We have very little say over what the final product will be,’ he adds. One particular film title - which won the clever title award at the 2016 AVN Awards - sticks out in Mod’s mind: Black Loads Matter.

A skewed payment structure is at work in the industry as well. It’s no secret that caucasian women are still seen as the pornographic ideal, creating less space for people of colour, and less cash flow for these performers as well. African-American women are thought to earn half to three-quarters of what white women make in porn. Not just because they can get paid less for the same work, but because there is also generally less work available. Foxxx says on average white performers at the top of their game, as she is, shoot 300 days of the year. Foxxx can only shoot twice a week. Even more baffling is the fact only one person of colour can be ‘big’ at a given time.

Kink star and former bodybuilder Kelli Provocateur admits the relationship between porn and race has generally been negative for her when dealing with big production companies: ‘You’re not what we’re looking for’ being a stand-in for ‘you’re not white enough’. Provocateur says that black stars in the 1990s would tell her that they were habitually getting half the rate of pay for doing the same scenes as white women, and since the industry was damaged by the internet boom, conditions are even worse. Because competition is very high for fewer roles, there is a conveyor belt of talent who are willing to do the same scenes for less money. Performers are told they are replaceable; dispensable.

Ana Foxx/copyright @Iamjtphoto & Instagram

III. Capitalising on difference: the catch 22

A huge obstacle to changing the system is that the system works - or the system sells, should I say. Keywords porn viewers use to search for videos do further perpetuate racism (for example, if you search ‘thug’ a plethora of black male actors will pop up), but they are also fundamental to making money. While actors of colour would most likely relish the opportunity to move away from reductive ethnic typecasting, the truth is these keywords essentially sign paychecks. It is a double-edged sword.

The stars I spoke to also made it very clear that the discussion about racism in the industry should not follow the same tired rhetoric that claims pornography equals exploitation, and race in pornography equals yet more exploitation. It is more complex than that. One of the reasons it is so hard to change things is because of that recycled line of argument. How can you galvanise social and economic change within the industry when those outside deem your work to be unworthy of transformation? Until the ‘outside’ world sees sex work as work, racism and tokenism will prevail almost unchecked.

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