Porn and the racial pay gap

Recent events have shone a very bright light on the dark rift between two worlds. First, is the world in which we strive towards a post-racial existence, bereft of prejudice and racial tensions. Second, is the world where white supremacists march through the streets of America’s south, where right-wing fascist parties hold parliamentary seats in Berlin for the first time since the 1940s, and where the racial pay gap is extended to the $94 million porn industry – a place where black porn stars are paid less than their white counterparts to be called the “n” word on camera.

Since 2016’s #OscarSoWhite outcry, addressing that no actors of colour were nominated for an award for the second year running, the issue of racial diversity in the media has been hotly contested across the globe. It extends beyond just the lack of opportunity for people of colour to be cast on screen or the lack of recognition, to the disparity in the pay they receive. But racial pay disparities are a problem not solely reserved for Hollywood. The porn industry, as a subset of the media industry, increasingly appears to have a similar problem.

Let’s look at the economics of porn. Author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, Dr. Mireille Miller-Young, explained in a 2013 New York Times article that actors of colour in the industry – both men and women – expect to be paid as little as half of what their white co-stars are paid for the same scene. With some of the highest earners in the porn industry worth around $30 million (£21.5 million), a pay discrepancy of up to half is a substantial shortcoming. This becomes more problematic when you discover that some white women porn stars are paid more money for filming scenes with male black porn stars.

Pornography still finds itself hidden in the shadows of our post-sexually liberated era. The fact is, the taboo of pornography protects it from upholding the standards we expect from mainstream media: equal opportunity, equal pay, racial and sexual freedom and protection.

“Actors of colour in the industry – both men and women – expect to be paid as little as half of what their white co-stars are paid for the same scene”

The pornography industry prides itself on catering for every taste, fantasy, and fetish. Where there is demand, there will be fantasies supplied. But where is the line drawn on porn fetishes that revolve around the exploitation of people of colour?

Women of colour, particularly black women, belong to a long history of fetishization and sexual exploitation; we exist in a permanent sexualised state in the male gaze, but are forbidden to be sexual for our own. Cuckolding is a genre of porn where a man is emasculated by watching his wife have sex with another man, often involving a white couple and a black man as the third party. Race-play is another genre of porn whereby a person of colour is subject to racial slurs that would spark outcry on other mainstream media platforms. It is expected among performers of colour to conform to racial stereotypes, be subject to racial slurs, and be exploited for half the price as their white performers.

Like every other content industry, consumers drive the market. Black performers, supposedly, can be paid less because there is “no audience”, the same argument made by Hollywood film studios to not back films centred around black actors – an argument dispelled by films including Jordan Peele’s 2017 history-making thriller Get Out and box-office record breaking Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler. So, what is astonishing is the concurrent rise in demand for interracial porn alongside the disparities in pay between white performers and performers of colour. Racial inequality has found itself manifested in a yet another way.

Dr. Miller-Young calls for consumers of porn to address this issue directly with the industry. Much like Hollywood, and almost every other major industry, white men make up most senior roles. Lexington Steele, perhaps the most successful black male pornographic star, told The Root he lays the blame for the injustice at the feet of the “managers, boyfriend or husband or family members,” of white women performers. Misty Stone, another wildly popular black woman performer, also told The Root she recognised that change would only come with the diversifying of decisions makers.

“What is astonishing is the concurrent rise in demand for interracial porn alongside the disparities in pay between white performers and performers of colour”

Racial slurs are a violation of PornHub’s terms and conditions, the largest pornography site on the internet. Despite this, the word “n***er” features in over 300 video titles and descriptions, and that is without including any spelling variations. Whilst this is a violation of terms and conditions, PornHub does not actively monitor its site for violations, unlike porn site xHamster. The third most popular site on the internet, xHamster actively monitors the site for use of racially sensitive material in an attempt to make a stand against racial inequality in the industry.

Ethically produced pornography is creating as safer space for performers. Genderqueer porn star and marketing director for Pink & White Productions, Jiz Lee, along with other PoC performers, acknowledged the lack of positive representations in porn and are changing the game. “We get to choose our own words to market the films, and in the same way we can highlight films that include PoC without tokenism or fetishization.”

Pornography does not exist in a vacuum. With the UK holding the number two spot in Pornhub’s traffic ranking for 2017, it is both reckless and intentionally ignorant to assume the porn industry does not impact people of colour in the same way it does across other industries. The larger media industry is crawling toward gender, racial and sexual equality, but the time has come to stop dragging its feet. The struggle to ensure equal pay is a long way from over. Consumers of porn, of all genders, races, and sexualities, need to decide whether their sexual fantasies are worth the racial pay gaps that men and women of colour in the porn industry are being forced to endure.

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