Racism in porn: influence or imitation?

By James Firkins

Using “Middle Eastern robes,” and set to a soundtrack of Arabic-style music, Conner Habib was ready to participate in a pornographic video that emphasized his heritage to appeal to those on the internet who would find it sexually arousing.

“I knew that part of my identity was being highly eroticized for people who have some type of orientalist idea of what turned them on,” he said. 

Author, porn performer and vice president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee in California, Habib has frequently had his ethnicity labeled and marketed in order to gain more views. 

Pornography, at the best of times, is difficult or embarrassing to discuss. Despite its cultural prominence, it seems to avoid open discussion about its issues within the media, according to Robert Jensen, professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, at Austin. 

Porn’s often racist and misogynistic themes, and the most common defense for its extreme content, is that it is not all real. 

“People often say ‘it’s just fantasy.’” Jensen said. “If I made a Hollywood film that is overtly racist, and I was criticized, would anyone think it’s an adequate defense to say ‘well it’s just fantasy?’” 

Unlike Jensen however, Habib said he thinks porn is often held to a higher standard than mainstream public media.

“Essentially, all you’re asking now is ‘does art imitate culture or influence it?’” Habib said. “It’s an old question that, for some reason, when it’s applied to pornography, is supposed to be more responsible than any other art form.” 

The content found in sexually explicit material is indicative of wider societal norms, he said.

“[Society has] a huge cultural problem with how identities are handled in capitalist consumption; we have no idea how to merge identities and markets together,” he said. 

Because of his workers’ rights advocacy and having starred in porn for more than eight years, Habib knows performers in every aspect of the industry, straight and gay, and has witnessed firsthand the inner workings of

the industry.

“There are problems on porn sets just like any other job,” he said. “It’s not significantly different than any other sector. We absorb problems of labor and identity just like any other industry.” 

Racism in pornography extends much further than clichéd depictions of ethnicity, such as Habib’s Middle Eastern shoot, an Asian maid or sexually fierce Latina woman. It also is reflected in wage disparity and the actors’ on-set treatment treated, as well as how they are marketed.

The phrase “interracial porn” is used to describe content that shows two or more people of differing ethnic backgrounds performing together, but it is frequently used within the industry to describe a scene between a black man and a white woman.

These scenes are considered taboo, with many of these white women demanding to be paid more for their time spent on camera performing with a black male co-star. A 2015 Business Insider article, quoting a black male performer who wished to remain anonymous states, “female stars can get $2,000-plus for their first ‘interracial’ scene,’ which is double the rate for a boy-girl scene involving a white partner.”

It is considered harmful in the industry for an actress’s career to appear onscreen with men of color, as reflected in a study by data journalist Jon Millward published online in 2013. The survey found 87 percent of female porn actresses were willing to “take a facial,” compared with 53 percent who would perform in interracial porn. The study also said that “many women hold out on when they do their first ‘interracial’ scenes until the time and money are right, and interracial scenes are given their own category at [porn] award ceremonies.” 

“The racial politics of the porn industry today mirror those of pop culture in that the majority of the production end of the business is white,” said author, professor and anti-pornography activist Gail Dines in her 2010 book, “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.” 

This view of white men at the top is hard to deny considering that one of adult entertainment’s largest film studios, Vivid, is owned by Steven Hirsch, and generates an estimated $100 million a year in revenue, according to a 2005 Forbes article. Even so, Jenna Jameson, who is white, is the richest porn star in the world with an estimated net worth of $30 million, according to a Celebrity Net Worth article published in 2013—a position held at the top of a list of almost entirely white actresses, although the two non-white stars in this list are of Asian descent. 

According to Millward’s study, among a sample of 5,000 porn stars, 70.5 percent are Caucasian, 14 percent are black and 5.2 percent are Asian. The study states that “the proportion of each race match the general American population almost exactly, despite the fact that race is still heavily fetishized in porn.” 

“We have an overall problem in our culture of racism, and that bleeds into every kind of marketing possible,” Habib said. “People who are in control of larger companies are often white heterosexual men, so we have to deal with that problem off the board.” 

Jensen, who lectures about the harmful effects of porn, echoed the sentiment, saying porn is squarely in the middle of patriarchy, reflecting the dominant culture. He added that this discussion is not as open as it could be, which needs to be addressed from its root cause.

“It’s largely because [America] simply cannot come to terms with how deeply embedded this misogyny and racism is,” Jensen said. 

The discussion needs to be brought to the forefront of society, which Habib suggests can be achieved by breaking sex taboos.

“In a culture that’s so sex-negative, how do you even know what healthy sex can be?” Habib said. “It’s all condemned. If we have a better and more mature sexual discussion in our culture—porn aside—we would have better practices in porn.”