[TALK LIKE SEX]<br />
Black Porn, White Pleasure<br />

Ownership of images liberates the Black body

On October 22, 2013, the adult film industry was rocked by the news of the untimely death of Carlos Batts, an award-winning African-American photographer and filmmaker. His work crossed all boundaries and could be seen from coffee tables to movie theaters around the world. When I read of his passing and reflected on his work, I began thinking about Black contributions to, and representation, in the adult movie industry—particularly in print and on film, in front of and behind the cameras.

Though African-American adult film stars (and other sex-related workers) have had a defining presence within the industry as a whole, many have experienced prejudice and bigotry in how they’ve been treated, compensated and, more often, in how their images and likenesses have been portrayed. This type of discrimination goes overlooked, in my opinion, because of society’s general feelings about the porn industry. But if the work they’re doing is legal, is that fair?

Celebrating the naked body, for Blacks especially, can be a liberating experience. But it’s all too often something many of us struggle with. Whether it’s because we don’t view ourselves as attractive enough or because we’ve been raised with conservative guidelines for how we should carry and present ourselves, I don’t think we do enough to celebrate the naked Black form. Not only do we sometimes limit ourselves, but we tend to force our restrictive opinions on others.

For example, when woman share candid nude images of themselves, more often than not, they’re viewed as whores or sluts, or are shamed and called “nasty” by both men and women. Rarely do they receive positive affirmations that their bodies are beautiful in their most natural state. Similarly, when men share nude photos of themselves, more often than not they’re perceived to be homosexual (and consequently insulted, as if being homosexual is wrong). Our collective relationship to our Black form has been distorted and is, in my opinion, part of why we continue struggling with developing unique and healthy sexual identities.

In one of his last interviews before he passed, Carlos Batts said, “Art is the strongest form of activism. Art encompasses everything. It encompasses the queer movement, fat activism, racism, all the ‘isms’—that’s our job… My motivation is to cross boundaries and create a dialogue.” Some look at pornography as art, while others look at it as moral debasement and gratuitous in nature. There are photos and films that fit into both categories, of course, and I think being aware of how brown bodies are represented and who controls that representation is important. 

The mainstream adult industry had historically fallen short when it comes to affirming representations of Black bodies and the inclusion of Black visions and interpretations of sexuality.

If art is to be activism, then how our bodies are represented in art of an adult nature matters, because the reclamation of our sexual freedom is revolutionary. We’re not simply “hoodrats” or “thug homies” in random gratuitous encounters; our nudity is dignified and humane, and we have to do as best a job as we can to preserve the positive images.

The mainstream adult industry had historically fallen short when it comes to affirming representations of Black bodies and the inclusion of Black visions and interpretations of sexuality, for sure. Anyone who frequently watches porn notices there’s been a longstanding slant towards depicting Black bodies stereotypically as “gangstas,” “thugs” and “bitches,” or exaggerated for (often racial) fetish purposes.

The men are (often) little more than props—usually for White women and men—and the women are (often) objects of degradation, while the films tend to have lower budgets and less distribution. I have noticed, however, that there are some key differences in the imagery when there’s a rare African-American director or producer at the helm versus someone of another race. 

In an interview with Ms. magazine, Mireille Miller-Young, professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spoke about these very issues. “Surely there’s racism in the porn industry,” she said. “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.”

There are women like Nyomi Banxx, the star of over 175 films, who have become vocal about the need for more romantic representations of African-American sexual relationships and interracial relationships involving Black women. There are African-American men and women working as directors and producers whose names might be generally unfamiliar, but who are recognized by their peers annually at the annual Urban X Awards, which honors the work of ethnic adult stars, many of whom are perpetually overlooked for mainstream awards.

Queer adult industry artist and activist Sophia St. James has complete control over how she’s represented as a queer, plus-sized Black femme by running her own site and producing her own content. A self-starter who began as an exotic dancer, she writes, “I have zero tolerance for racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic remarks, thoughts or gestures.” Ownership of