[TALK LIKE SEX]<br />
The History of Black Porn Actresses

No, not that kind of ebony...

“Using sex as labor is one way that some Black women, working and middle-class, have been able to survive economically and attain mobility while engaging in work not traditionally associated with wage labor.”—Mireille Miller-Young

Adult filmmaking is a multibillion dollar industry, and Black women have been working it out and getting their slices of the pie for over 40 years. In 1973, Desiree West became one of the first African-American adult film industry star to be consistently cast in hot and heavy scenes. With her caramel brown skin, voluptuous curves, and enticing eyes, the “Double D Soul Sister” appeared in Teenage Runaway and quickly became one of the go-to ebony starlets of the time. After creating a colorful presence in supporting roles for several films, West retired in 1980, but not without leaving her mark on the industry as a whole and blazing a trail for more porn actors of color to come. 

“Ebony,” interestingly enough, remains the most commonly used term to categorize adult films featuring primarily Black actors from around the globe. Earlier films depicted women of all shades and sizes, with everything from kinky Afros to straight press-and-curls to the notoriously extravagant wigs made popular in the 1960s and 1970s. One would also be hard-pressed to find a scene from the 1970s starring a sista with a bald pubic region, as hairy mons pubi were kind of a big deal back then (ask your mom… or maybe don’t). 

It was still “taboo” for interracial scenes to be filmed, but one could definitely find videos featuring White men getting their chocolate fill from actresses like Desiree West. For women finding themselves locked out of a number of employment opportunities, the adult film industry provided quick and often steady income to help them keep mouths fed and roofs over their heads.

Hailing from Chicago, Jeannie Pepper debuted soon after West in 1982, and became the first African-American woman inducted into the Adult Video News Hall of Fame. She’d go on to make over 200 films in her career, which spanned 25 years until 2007, 10 years after she was inducted in AVN’s Hall of Fame. Pepper is one of the most popular Black female porn stars of all time, primarily because her early presence was exponentially greater than that of her predecessor West, and her roles were plentiful and diverse.

Pepper’s efforts to establish herself in the industry were not without risks, however. In a 2012 interview for Vibe, Pepper recalled the heightened fear around the spread of HIV/AIDS and its potential effect on the industry. With little info known during the early 1980s, many stars were vulnerable to contraction, and Pepper noted they were responsible for taking their own tests; providing results was not yet required.

Early films depicted women of all shades and sizes, with everything from kinky Afros to straight press-and-curls to the notoriously extravagant wigs made popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1990, Bronx native Heather Hunter became the first Black woman to become exclusively contracted with a film production company. Till then, sistas found themselves regularly discriminated, often told they were too unattractive to be cast or that no one was interested in seeing them on film, despite the growing popularity of “ebony” porn. Hunter’s negotiation of that contract was groundbreaking. She’ll forever hold her place among the most well-respected and well-known adult industry stars of any race. Since retiring from porn, Hunter has opened an art gallery (Artcore-NYC) and published Insatiable: The Rise of a Porn Star.

Like Hunter, Sinnamon Love had a long and successful career in the adult film industry after changing her career plans from becoming a nurse. Growing up in Michigan, Love found herself in school with two children to feed and a job that simply was not cutting it. She capitalized on an early opportunity presented to her to do some nude photos, and the rest is incredible history. After appearing in over 250 films and winning awards and accolades for her work, Love now focuses on advocacy as a “feminist pornographer,” contributing to sex work anthologies and appearing on panels and at conferences. She also currently works to bring awareness to autism, and focuses on healthy cooking and loving her grandchild.

Needless to say, sistas be doing it for themselves, and many have found fame and fortune in adult films. Of course there are downsides, as Vanessa Belmond (a.k.a. Alexa Cruz) talked about on the British documentary, Date My Porn Star. She now campaigns against the porn industry and tries to discourage women from becoming involved, because she doesn’t want any more people to have the experiences she did.

Certainly it’s an obviously risky occupation. Women shouldn’t try to get into the adult film industry if they don’t feel truly committed and reconciled with how it might affect them and their loved ones. It’s always about personal choice, however, and there are some pretty awesome Black women who have made the most of their adult careers, and continued to live life fully and happily.

Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.