The cult of pornography – a black feminist perspective
By Chitra Nagarajan
I was asked to speak at a panel discussion at the Women of the World festival on Sunday 10th March. I want to thank Aurella, Camille, Charmaine, Chatura, Inti, Lola, Nydia, rashne, Sapna and zohra for sharing their thoughts ahead of the panel – what I said was influenced greatly by their contributions (in some cases, copied and pasted directly).
This is what I prepared beforehand – I cut some of it out (notably the paragraph on Sarah Baartman) in the interests of giving time for a full discussion with the audience but am publishing it in full here:
In order to prepare ahead of this session, I asked fellow black feminists about their thoughts on pornography and what I will say reflects a distillation of the thoughts of about a dozen of us – although I do want to stress that I do not speak for all black women on this!
Mainstream feminist discourse often talks about depictions of women and the impact that has but this rarely includes race analysis. In conventional pornography for the heterosexual male gaze, we have the following gender, race and sexuality stereotypes that are inscribed on every ‘body’ depicted:
- the buck: the black man (of African ancestry) who is a bit menacing and aggressive and is always interested in (young / vulnerable) white women.
- the mandingo: the black man (of African ancestry) who is valuable solely because of the size of his penis and whose face is never the focal point. He is interested in ‘gagging’ or otherwise hurting the women in his scene.
- the dumb blond: the white woman who plays up just how young or naive she is. She is always in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus has to face the buck, the mandingo or preferably the friendly white man next door.
- the white man next door: he loves a ‘slut’, any one will do. His size or his physical features doesn’t really matter. He’s really just a prop and thus a representation of white male privilege and power
- the nymph: she can be of African ancestry, white, or Latina. She says all sorts of wild and outlandish things during the sex act, and is up for anything.
- the jezebel: the black woman (of African ancestry) who has a ‘ghetto booty’, loves black men and white men in any form or fashion as long as she can show off how hot and sexy she is and how much her body fits the trope of the ideal black woman.
- the oriental scene: the black woman of Asian ancestry – either the timid Asian woman who is docile and has a frightened look in her eyes, a young girl who is into BDSM, the woman of mystery who lures you in with her secrets or the East Asian trans woman who is depicted as having no physical integrity or boundaries, with whom nothing is not possible. The Asian man? Oh, he’s virtually absent. He’s too asexual to be present.
- the bisexual woman / lesbian: It’s either her ‘first time’ or she is experienced and taking advantage of someone much younger. They are into each other, but they are mostly into the man (imagined or actually there) who’s watching and their acts of pleasure are for his enjoyment.
It should not surprise you to hear that black women in the industry are paid less than their white counterparts. They tend to be marginalised in films that ‘authenticate’ black sexuality – films like South Central Hookers, Ghetto Booty and Pimpformation. The mainly white male producers, directors, publishers and distributors who run the industry rationalise paying black women half to three quarters of their white counterparts because black women are less desirable than white women. There are also fewer black women who work or have worked in the industry speaking and writing about their experiences in mainstream discourse. How many black women have you seen talking on documentaries on pornography or writing about it?
I want to also talk about the impact of pornography.
One of my black feminist friends is a teacher. She was telling me of an A-Level English language class which she was teaching on gender and language. Students were discussing substitutes for ‘girl’ – good and bad – that they used. One word that came up was ‘pussy potential’ – used positively by boys to describe girls they might consider going out with. The girls were shocked. The boys, when encouraged to reflect on what that meant, were also shocked. She believes that this language is something that the normalization of pornography has created.
There was interesting research done a couple of years ago asking communities in eastern Congo about the causes of sexual violence. One of the points people raised was the impact of pornography, especially given community methods of sex education had fractured due to the conflict. Porn – a lot of it produced in America – was the primary way young people learned about sex. We need to look beyond where we live and see the impact that this Euro-American capitalist exploitative industry has in other countries.
As a movement, we need to be thinking and talking about how the industry reinforces gendered, racialised and sexualised stereotypes and the impact this has on what young people think sex and black women are really like. It brings to mind what happened to Sarah Baartman; a woman from southern Africa who was enslaved by a Dutch farmer and displayed as a ‘freak show’ attraction in Europe in the eighteenth century as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ because of her ‘unusual body features’ i.e. her large buttocks and elongated labia. She was then sold to a French man and after she died, her preserved genitals were placed on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains were repatriated after a sixty year long campaign on President Mandela’s request to South Africa in 2002. I would like to think that a black women’s genitals would not be in a museum today but I go into so much detail because I want to stress that black women’s bodies have always been ‘on display’ in a way that is different.
We need to go beyond just saying that porn is oppressive to women. We need to nuance and problematise the discussion a bit more and talk about the industry – how it really operates and the stereotypes it perpetuates.
We need to find a way of talking about pornography that does not play into moralistic arguments about porn and sex. After all, feminists have been fighting against moralistic ideas about women and sexual pleasure for generations! We need to separate morality (enforced by religious and state institutions) from ethics (societal implications).
We need to not play into disrespecting women in pornography – let us recognise the links with women’s economic marginalisation here – and find a way to support the women while being against the companies that make profit from this.
Pornography is a topic that fractures the feminist movement – we really need to move past the ‘porn is good’/ ‘porn is bad’ or the ‘you’re with us or you’re against us’ way of thinking and find ways of talking together.
I was invited to come and speak today because the voices of black women are not often in the debate on pornography so I want to end with talking about why. I wonder whether it is because we do not believe pornography is as important as white feminists do. That is not to say that we do not think that pornography is not important – we do – but the realities of our lives are different.
We have so much that we need to fight against – the sexist, racist, heteronormative immigration and asylum system, negotiating that line between not playing into racist assumptions of black communities and violence while speaking out about violence against women and girls in our communities, police brutality, the racism and sexism our children experience and trying to find ways to build their sense of possibility while reflecting the reality of British society, the hyper visibility of black women in the public sphere as objects for discussion and debate – by black men, by white men, by white women but not by black women and of course the poverty that black women continue to disproportionately experience.
Now there are black women working on gender, race, sexuality and pornography but they are rarely contacted when events on pornography are organised. If a black feminist is asked to speak, she is usually an afterthought when organisers realise they need a black woman on the panel. Now, this is not limited to pornography of course. The mainstream feminist movement is improving in terms of inclusion and reflection of a range of women’s realities but so much more needs to be done to ensure the perspectives and realities of not just black women, but also disabled women, trans women, asylum seeking women and others are placed at the centre of mainstream feminist organising.
Photo is of Sarah Baartman and is from here. It is one of the very few images of her online to show her clothed.