Silent No More: A Black Feminist Meditation on Pornography

by Kesiena Boom There is a silence within Black feminism, an empty chasm, surrounding the issue of pornography. There are reams of liter...

by Kesiena Boom

There is a silence within Black feminism, an empty chasm, surrounding the issue of pornography. There are reams of literature by white feminists on the subject of pornographic material and its place (or lack thereof) in an ideal feminist society. One of the most profound divides in the feminist community stems from the the ‘Sex Wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, which pitted pro-porn libertarian feminists against anti-porn radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who sought to classify pornography as an offense against the civil liberties of women.

Yet despite the prominence of this debate there is a decided lack of theorising around the subject from Black feminists and a hush that cloaks this particular facet of sexuality. Porn has been viewed by Black feminists as a frivolous concern of white feminists with too much time on their hands and no real understanding of the more pressing concerns of women of colour. Whilst it may be true that prioritising issues of porn and sexuality—and seeing them as the apex of oppressive behaviour—is a flaw of white feminisms, that does not mean that Black feminism ought to entirely ignore the subject, as seems to be the norm. 

Most Black women have sex. Most Black women have sex with people who have seen porn at least once. This is an issue that currently affects us whether we like it or not. Even if one personally decides to abstain from pornographic material, this does not stop sexual partners from viewing it, nor does it stop the wider world viewing it. It does not stop the transmission of the ideas in porn. It does not stop the multibillion-dollar porn industry and its less than ethical processes of production.

Porn is a conduit for racism, specifically misogynoir. It is made by men raised in a racist society and consumed by men raised in a racist society. It is shaping what people think of us, and what they will take into their encounters with Black women in the future—as well as what they will take with them into the classroom, the boardroom, the shop floor, and the senate.

So what does mainstream pornography say about Black women? It paints us as ghetto bitches who need to be taught a lesson and pacified. We are to be dominated, overpowered, and fucked into our place. We are insatiable, always up for it and ready to go. We are our exaggerated asses and our breasts. We are “ebony,” we are niche. We are a vessel to be filled with the only thing that can quiet us: white men’s penises. We are bitches, we are hoes, we are ratchet. We are born filthy, and so we are ripe for degradation. We probably like it anyway. We are never afforded innocence or purity because that is the domain of the white woman. She is the antithesis of us. She is cast in any and all roles. She is gifted default status. There is no constant backstory to the colour of her skin.

Since white men came into contact with Black women, they have been using us to project their immoral sexual behaviours onto. If Black female slaves were in a constant state of arousal then they couldn’t possibly be raped. White men were just giving them what they desired, what they needed. The onus of responsibility is passed. In Francis Bacon’s 1627 unfinished utopian novel New Atlantis, he describes the ‘spirit of fornication’ as a ‘foul, little, ugly Ethiope,’ and this conception has not changed much in the hundreds of years since. Black women fall short of the standards of beauty that white men impose but we still represent sex. We represent the furthest and most twisted realms of the sexual imagination. Colonial studies emphasise how white men link deviant sexuality with the exotic and the unknown. Black women represent the far off and forbidden sexual wants and fears and curiosities. We are libidinally out of control. We are what the white man is afraid of in himself.

Discussions of porn should note that mainstream porn is not the only porn out there. There is a growing amount of feminist, queer porn, such as, that is created collaboratively and thoughtfully by the performers and the directors. Such porn touts itself as cruelty-free, authentic and moral alternative to the exploitation, humiliation and pain of the mainstream porn world. However it is realistically only an infinitesimally tiny proportion of the pornographic material on the internet. Also, said porn is almost always only accessible for a fee and so it cannot compete with the tons and tons of free porn that’s only a web search away. Queer porn, like mainstream porn, is also largely focused on kink and BDSM practices which hinge on the eroticisation of domination. What are the implications of this when people subdue, hurt, and restrain Black women for sexual gratification? Is it really possible for us as Black feminists to reconcile our wish for liberation from systems that subject us to racialised and gendered violence on epidemic levels with porn (queer and mainstream) that takes said trauma and turns it into a spectacle for pleasure?

The representations of people engaged in sex is hardly the problem; but rather it is the way in which these representations perpetuate and validate racism and violence that calls for a transformation of porn. So what do Black feminist theories about porn entail? What would Black feminist porn look like?

Firstly, I would posit that it is grounded in reality. It doesn’t get caught in the trap that white feminists (particularly of the postmodern ilk) can sometimes fall into when discussing things in the abstract or the “perhaps” or the future. It is not obscured in overly academic or complex language. It is accessible and deals with the “right here and now” and how we can improve lives for Black women who exist presently, alongside more idealistic notions about the liberated society we are working towards. As such, it would have to make room for porn because porn exists and is seemingly not going anywhere. So Black feminism must focus on porn being the least harmful that it can be. There is no way on G-d’s green earth that people can be discouraged from making films of themselves fucking. This is the reality of the situation and to pretend otherwise does a disservice to everyone.

A Black feminist praxis does not focus on sex and sexuality as the be-all and end-all. It is not uncritically and unwaveringly sex positive. It does not see sex as something that is inherently good and pleasurable and is only ever a site of trouble or discontent due to patriarchy. It has room for those who don't fuck, can’t fuck , won’t fuck. Whether because they are asexual, or survivors of sexual violence or because they simply don’t want to. It sees those who have no interest in porn without affixing assumptions of brokenness or ignorance upon them.

Simultaneously it recognises the current reality of the world and how that influences the sphere of sex and sexuality and this means that it acknowledges Black women who don’t want to watch porn because they believe it to be too wrapped up in problematic tropes. It also avoids the view of porn as intrinsically liberatory. It does not emphasise a disdain for porn as indicative of prudishness or closed-mindedness. It does not prescribe porn as a cure all. White liberal or third wave feminists tend to see porn as a way to fix all that is wrong with one’s sex life. Can’t come? Watch porn. Not interested in having sex lately? Watch porn. Feeling bored with the sex you’re having? Watch porn. Your husband wants you to ‘up your game’? Watch porn. Black feminist conceptions of porn would be more individualised and accepting of the limitations of porn, especially in our sex saturated culture. Perhaps watching even more sexualised images isn’t what is always required. It does not see porn as a way to bring everyone up to the same level of sexual interest, or as a way to mend sexualities that do not live up to the accepted norm.

It does not have room for plaintive cries of ‘kink shaming’ in the face of acts that are clearly not conducive to creating a more equal world. It sees race play as inherently wrong. It does not prioritise orgasms over ethics. It does not stand for adult/minor age play or anything that fetishizes and perpetuates pedophilia. It does not see sex as something that gets to be free of criticism. That is not how Black feminism conceives of anything else, so why should we extend that courtesy to sex and porn? In an interview with Susan Leigh Star entitled ‘Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation,’ Audre Lorde says:
[W]e must observe the implications of our lives. If what we are talking about is feminism, then the personal is political and we can subject everything in our lives to scrutiny. We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society, and we should be about the process of reclaiming ourselves...
A Black feminist view of porn does not subscribe to the neoliberal, atomised model of consent in which any sex act between adults who agree to it is acceptable. Because what does consent truly mean in a system that conditions us to be racist and that tinges and taints us and shapes us from the second we’re pushed into the world? Thus it casts the light of scrutiny on Black women who might agree to feature in race fetish porn, or those who find it a turn-on and reminds us that we can only judge things by the skewed measures we have been given by society.

Black feminist porn places Black women behind the camera, and Black women only in dominant or equal positions. It does not sexualise the degradation of Black women. It shows us fucking other Black people and people of colour, rather than just performing as a white man’s plaything. It is made by Black women and non-binary people for Black people of all sexualities. It does not exploit the performers. It ends when they want it to. It does not employ underage girls. It seeks to display sex as something more than using our Black bodies as a way to get off and recognises our humanity and agency.

The lack of discourse surrounding pornography offered up by Black feminist theorists is something to be lamented. Whilst it is laudable that we as Black feminists concern ourselves with the meat of oppression, such as state violence, cyclical poverty and the abuse of Black women’s reproductive rights—we mustn’t let that make us leave areas of slightly more insidious and sly oppression left to continue their rot in our bones. A Black feminist stance on pornography says that we have put up with too much for too long, and we wish to turn the tide.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty years old and also writes for You can tweet at her via @KesienaBoom. 

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