Pornography is an explicit form of media that is repressed as much as it is advertised. Porn reflects attitudes, biases, and structural violence that exists throughout society. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia are just some forms of institutional violence that are amplified and sexualized in pornography. Anti-porn advocates acknowledge the violence against women that is perpetuated by the porn industry. Throughout time, feminists have criticized the rampant harm and degradation of women that exists and is sometimes caused by porn. Although studied less often, racial hierarchies are also exhibited through porn. Any porn critique is incomplete without historical context. The ways in which various sexualities are portrayed in the media are integral to understanding porn. For instance, racialized categories in porn must be carefully compared with historical understandings of their status and accepted sexuality. Structural violence and direct physical violence that exists in porn are informed by, and inform, social reality.
The most studied and perhaps most acknowledged argument against pornography is hinged on its promotion of violence against women. Andrea Dworkin, a noted feminist and controversial anti-porn activist, predicated her work on exposing the link between pornography and rape. Since the 1970’s, Dworkin has written several radical feminist pieces that call for the condemnation of the porn industry. She argues that porn is just rape on film, and is an assault against all women. In her book Letters from a War Zone, Dworkin entitles an entire chapter “Pornography is a Civil Rights Issue.” She makes an impassioned plea to the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornograph...
y. Her testimony was founded on the fact that as a woman living in America, women like her were living in an unequal society which profits from and protects their abuse. She asserts that pornography is sometimes a record of trafficking, forced prostitution, and other violent acts against women. These heinous acts are then recorded and protected under values of free speech and entertainment.
Dworkin condemns porn because of its violently misogynistic content. She claims that “Pornography is a civil rights issue for women because pornography sexualizes inequality, because it turns women into subhuman creatures” (Dworkin 284). If we accept that porn sexualizes inequality, then there is no wonder why racism is so evident in porn as well. Porn sexualizes and commodifies a structural inequalities that permeate society. In order to fully understand how pervasive and harmful it is, it is necessary to understand the history of sex and race in America.
Black people have long been the target of violent and deeply harmful stereotypes since their first encounters with Europeans centuries ago. With the development of chattel slavery in the Americas, whites used every dehumanization tactic possible to lower the status of black people and keep them in their place as property. Slave became synonymous with black in the 18th century, and white people used any and every justification to maintain that position. One such justification was equating black people with animals. This association has shifted through time but still remains today.
Another such association is between black men and penis size. There has been a cultural obsession with penis size and an unwavering myth that black men hav
large penises. Although seemingly trivial, this myth bolsters the idea that black men are penetrators, rapists, and naturally hyper aggressive. In fact, during the prime of lynching in America, rape was usually the offense with which black men were charged. Even if it was untrue the myths about black men’s aggressive sexuality and desire to “keep them in place” further fueled the lynching crusade. Sometimes the black man’s penis was cut off prior to lynching to reinforce the sexual and humiliating tone of the crime.
Daniel Bernardi, professor and director with numerous books under his professional belt, has written about the violence that exists in race relations and porn. In his text “Interracial Joysticks,” Bernardi directly confronts this association between black men and the penis. He analyzes the categories and titles of various porn sites attached to “Greenguy Link O’ Rama,” a web collection of free and low cost porn sites. On the website, words like ghetto, thug, stud, are codes that signify porn videos with black men. They are the penetrators, the ones doing the “fucking,” the sexual dominators. In pornography, black men are synonymous with penis. He writes that ““Black men provide the most virulent threat and subsequent pleasure sources in interracial articulations of sex” (Bernardi 233). Without the historic connection, it seems like the use of aggressively connotated words and dominant position may just be coincidence. However, the path between dehumanizing black men and exploiting those stereotypes for sexualized profit clearly shows the evolution of violence. Black men are consistently reduced to their genitalia and only defined by their ability to penetrate.
Andrea Dworkin and other anti-porn activists underscore how porn contributes to the oppression of women. It normalizes and sexualizes violence against women that can have real life implications. Dworkin insists that pornography leads to rape, however critics of hers including Daniel Bernardi look at the violence and porn issue from another lens. He believes that although porn may not directly cause rape, it does promote the consumption and/or ignorance of violent ideologies like racism. In fact, in her assessment of the violence porn can inflict on society, Dworkin acknowledges the racism that exists in porn. She likens black skin to female genitalia because of how explicitly sexual it is treated and simultaneously demeaned (Dworkin 280) . The violence and humiliation exhibited towards female sexual organs is also projected onto black skin itself. Naturally the intersection of racism and misogyny leaves women of color in porn extremely fetishized and victim to violence and shame.
Porn objectifies women of color and uses racially derogatory words and stereotypes to sexualize historic violence for consumption. Black women are described using words like ebony, ghetto and taglines like “It’s All Pink Inside,” dehumanize black women and invoke harmful tropes. The central focus of black women Daniel Bernardi found in his research, their butts. Several links advertized the voluptuous butts of black women, which was eerily reminiscent of Sarah Baartman. Saarjtie “Sarah” Baartman was a South African woman forcibly put on display across Europe. She was named the “hottentot venus” and advertised as a freak show because of her large body and ethnic features.
Although Baartman died in 1815, her skeleton, brain, and sexual organs were displayed until 1975. Sarah Baartman represents how violence, race, and gender can manifest exoticism and objectification.
Without acknowledging an understanding the history of race, gender, and sex in the Western world, studying pornography and its impact only covers half the picture. The history of racialized violence makes ethnic porn categories even more harmful. The fact that one can choose “Latina” and “Ebony” alongside “Anal” and “Cumshots” as choices for sexual humiliation and consumption is vile. People of color may not be welcome in mainstream society, but their body parts and features are as long as they service European desire.
Racial stereotypes and violence do not only exist for black people. Asians are fetishized in the pornography industry as well. Regardless of gender, Asians are portrayed as submissive partners who will tolerate anything. Asian women are not just willing to please, but tolerant of degrading sexual acts like anal and facials that reinforce their subservience. Latina women are described as “spicy” and “exotic” and available for fast and easy consumption. Some argue that racial categories in porn empower otherwise ignored or belittled ethnic groups. But empowerment is not helpful if it reinforces existing power structures and inequalities. Race pornography only emphasizes the unequal treatment of races in our society.
Explicit race categories in pornogrpahy are not the only way in which racism is upheld. Categories like “cheerleader” and “barely legal” uphold the standard of whiteness through their relative exclusion of people of color. These descriptors are used to indicate youth, purity, and inevitably whiteness. White women are the only demographic that automatically invoke images of purity and innocence. Women of color are relegated to their respective categories that are hypersexual, available, and raunchy. White women throughout history have faced the perils of misogyny but use their whiteness to still hold power over people of color. This dynamic is clearly evident in American slave society.
Rape was rampant in early America, and slavery only created more and more victims. Slave masters would use their status to take advantage of their female slaves. At the time, black people were excluded from the legitimate judicial system, so they could not seek legal action when they had been raped. The wives of the slave masters were stuck as witnesses to their husbands’ wrongdoings, but their gender made them nearly powerless. White women were oppressed by the system that did not allow them to file for divorce or survive if they obtained one. Racism and misogyny, also known as misogynoir, allowed for black women to be raped and then punished by the white woman. Some white women took their anger out on their slaves, because that is who they had control over.
Harriet Jacobs was an American slave and in 1861 wrote about her experiences with her master and mistress. Her master relentlessly pursued her against her wishes, and even defended her from his own wife. Jacobs became the subject and victim of her mistress’ wrath because of her jealousy and frustration. Sexism trapped the white woman, but sexism and racism decimated the black woman. This dynamic was common
and evolved past the outlaw of slavery. Black women undeniably face compounded oppression that continues to exploit and dehumanize them. Sexual agency has been stripped from the black female in America because of the structural and social inequalities working against her. Pornography highlights and profits from this cycle of oppression and violence.
There are plenty of arguments against pornography. Violence against women is one of the strongest reasons to condemn pornography. Understanding historical context and societal implications of some of the violence in pornography is key to understanding its role today. Pornogrpahy is not only complicit in racism, but it reinforces harmful injustices and sexualizes the pain of marginalized communities. As Bernardi succinctly writes, “Pornography today is very much about yesterday’s ideology of hate” (Bernardi 240). Historical realities become fetishes through porn, which further “others” ethnic groups and promotes violence against women and people of color.
- Bernardi, Daniel. “Interracial Joysticks: Pornography's Web of Racist Attractions.” Pornography: Film and Culture, by Peter Lehman, N.J., 2006, pp. 220–244.
- Parkinson, Justin. “The Significance of Sarah Baartman.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Jan. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35240987.
- “Pornography Is a Civil Rights Issue.” Letters from a War Zone, by Andrea Dworkin, Lawrence Hill Books, 1993, pp. 276–308.
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