Get Off: A Conversation on Black Women and the Politics of Porn and Pleasure

Black women are afforded little space to talk about our desires. With loads of historical baggage heaped on our shoulders from birth, we learn to conceal, suppress, and deny our sexual pleasures. This makes societal taboos like porn, for example, even more difficult to discuss.

Through her scholarship, Dr. Mireille Miller-Young tackles the erotic lives of Black women through a historical study of their involvement in the adult entertainment industry.  Her works helps us to unpack the fraught relationship between race, power, and sex. We explored all three in our conversation.

-Kimberly Foster

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation here

Dr. Mireille Miller-Young
For Harriet: Before we jump into the conversation, could you tell me a little about your background and your research?
Mireille Miller-Young: Yes. My degree is in history from New York University, in US and Africana studies.  I'm a professor at UC Santa Barbara in Feminist Studies.  My research is in pornography, sex work, and black women's sexuality. I have always been fascinated with porn so it makes sense that I became a porn scholar, as some of us in the field call ourselves. I think I've been interested in porn, since maybe seven or eight years old, which was around the time Vanessa Williams had her infamous risqué Penthouse magazine shoot published and ended up falling from grace and had to give up her title for Miss America. Anyone from the 80s remembers this was a huge touchstone in black cultural politics at the time.

FH: Just to clarify, Vanessa Williams was the first Black woman to win Miss America. Do you remember what year this was?
Mireille Miller-Young: I believe the issue came out to coincide with her winning, which was in 1983. 

FH: Once it came to light that she had posed for nude photographs, she was stripped of that title?
Mireille Miller-Young: The way that it came out was that she resigned and stepped down. At least that's what they allowed her to say. Everyone who was young at that time remembers this was something the adults were talking about, but we weren't really allowed to know about it. So from my earliest memories I knew that there was a scandal that had to do with this gorgeous Black woman who I had seen win the Miss America pageant, which was kind of like Barack Obama winning the presidency. It was such a big deal at the time. But soon after that she lost all of it because of some images. When everybody got their hands on the magazine it was passed around. I had a friend who was a couple of years older who snuck into her stepfather's closet because he had a really expansive collection of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler that we used to consult regularly as naughty kids. I got to see that photo shoot, which was actually quite beautiful. For me I was really fascinated with why something so beautiful and so exciting could be so bad. 

So that's something that actually stayed with me as I grew up and started thinking about my own sexuality and other Black women's sexualities. When I went to graduate school there was an amazing professor who was offering a course on porn and I thought, “Hey, why not? This sounds so different and interesting.” I tapped into a fascination that I've had for a long time. 

FH: You mentioned that your interest in pornography was piqued when you were pretty young. Did you have open conversations about sexuality as a child or as you were growing up?
Mireille Miller: I think it was probably common for a lot of black girls growing up to hear the keep your legs closed approach. My mom was a single mom and very hard working. Her whole emphasis was education and telling me to keep my mind focused on my studies and not on boys. When I did ask questions she had me sit down and watch a documentary on the mystery of life kind of thing. But there wasn't so much a conversation on the mechanics of it or the importance of discovering my own eroticism. And I wish that there had been, I think this is something that is common in our communities. We have a lot of trauma and a lot of focus on respectability as a result of that trauma. So I understand that my mom was trying to protect me and keep me focused on what she thought I needed to do to be successful instead of a case of teen pregnancy. It's something that you then talk to your friends and your cousin about. So like me, a lot of us go to porn to get our sex education. It's a form of media that’s not supposed to be accessible to children, but children definitely have ways to access it. It's visual and interesting, but it doesn't tell the whole story. And it's not designed to be sex education.That's the other side of the problem.

FH: We talk a lot on the site about how the conversations about sex that we have growing up in our households with our mothers and mother figures often intentionally leave out pleasure. They intentionally leave out that sex is fun for a lot of people, that sex can feel good. You can be empowered by being sexual. And the damage, like you mentioned, that that causes. 

So I would love to get into your work. You published A Taste of Brown Sugar: Black Women and Pornography in 2014. And I'm interested to know if the ways that black women's sexuality are depicted in porn differ that much from the ways that our sexuality are depicted outside of porn?

Mireille Miller-Young: First I just want to say, thank you so much for what you said because I do think our sexual education is all about the danger and the risk and the ugliness of sexuality instead of the pleasure and the empowerment and the beauty that emerges from it. And that's one of the great struggles that we need to focus on as an issue of justice, womanism, and feminism as black women. 

To respond to your question, I think porn is like Hollywood in some ways. You have this huge, vast dynamic corporate industry and there are certain kinds of go to stereotypes that the industry constantly produces even though it's so diverse. You constantly get some of the same narratives. But with porn it's probably even more explicit than what you're getting in Hollywood because porn is about going to the most extreme space and the space where people's real fantasies lay. 

Throughout time and different technologies of porn from early silent films to loops that were shown in theaters to theatrical films to VHS to DVD to the Internet. The story of racial desire in this country has remained so central. 

To answer your question more cogently I would say that what stayed the same over time is that the porn industry has relied on the most easy, accessible and common stereotypes of black women.  At the same time that these stereotypes exist, I've seen in my readings that black women are always pushing back against the limits of the rules. And they're always finding ways in their performances to express something that's a little bit different and pushing against the grain.

FH: So you've done lots of interviews with women in the adult entertainment industry. Those of us who are outside of that industry make lots of assumptions about these women and who they are and why they do it. Was there anything during the course of your research that surprised you when talking to them?
Mireille Miller-Young: Absolutely. People make so many assumptions about porn stars, particularly black women. People think that they're women who are down on their luck, that they're women that have some kind of history of abuse, that they're addicted to drugs, that they're not intelligent, that they're not educated, that they're all being abused by boyfriends who are acting as pimps and putting them in that situation. What I've found is that there's a huge diversity in experiences and backgrounds with these women. Some women are coming from working class backgrounds, some women are coming from middle class backgrounds, some women have college educations and higher professional degrees and others have just a high school education. Some of them have darker stories in their past about the way that they were raised and experiences with abuse and others don't. So one, there's a huge diversity in the women who are coming to porn. But what they share in common is an incredible resilience and savviness and intelligence. 

What I want people to take away from this book is while they experience many forms of exploitation and marginalization, they're not complete victims. They have things to say about their own lives, about the porn industry, about sexuality, and about race themselves. People actually need to talk to them and listen to them. That was the major thing that drove me to do this work. When I first started studying pornography in the late 90s, I realized that the only black feminists who write about porn were in the late 70s and early 80s. People liked Alice Walker for writing about porn as a problem for black women but never actually talked to black women who were in porn. To me it is a major gap in, if we're talking seriously, a feminist practice that wants to give voice to women who are voiceless. We must talk to women who are actually inside of it and to learn what they have to say. And what they have to say is that they're not as bothered by the stereotypes about black women's sexuality as they are bothered by the inequalities in the pay between them and white women. Or how they feel displaced in relationship to the ways in which black men are so praised in the industry. They're concerned with the microaggressions they get from racist and sexist producers who undermine their labor and make them feel uncomfortable on set.

And they're concerned with the lack of ownership that they're able to have in the industry that's controlled by men. 

FH: You touched on Alice Walker's work that really kind of decries pornography as problematic and universally degrading. I hear those sorts of sentiments from a lot of women who consider themselves to be progressive, who consider themselves to be feminist and don't want to engage with porn. How do we break down the stigma, that specific stigma, around porn? 
Mireille Miller-Young: We need to broaden the conversation to include sex workers and activists for sex workers rights, definitely. Especially because they completely disagree with the feminist emphasis on trafficking right now, which is so popular. 

When I read Alice Walker I was really sympathetic with the view because I think that a lot of the porn that I watched in my research is disturbing, racist, and sexist. But a lot of it isn't. Part of my work has really been to show that there is a huge archive of black sexuality that is filmed by pornographers and documented by photographers, that we would consider important to have. If we only think that it's ugly and degrading, then we never actually look at it. We hold it at this distance and see it through a lens of distress instead of through a lens of openness to think about what is actually being shown.

The woman on the cover of my book I think is a great response to Alice Walker. Her name is Jeanie Pepper. And she joined the porn industry in 1983. She had the longest career of any porn star, over 20 years in the business. And I asked her what brought her to the industry in the early 80s. She said she was really tired of seeing porn films where all the women were white and she wanted to see someone who looked like herself. And she knew that this was something that was completely forbidden and she talked about the way in which we're already assumed to be whores, we're never listened to, and we're never taken seriously. And we're never given the voice in our own sexuality. 

FH: How else are black women both in front of the camera and behind the camera? How else are they subverting dominant narratives about who we are and about our sexuality?
Mireille Miller-Young: What I was very insistent in is the ways in which the power of black women in pornography can be at once subtle and once really extreme. It can be overt and covert and it can change for the person involved over time. In one instance a woman can walk off set because she feels like a film is not representing black women well, which is sometimes what happens.  If others are going to choose to work and maybe in the future they would choose not to work for that company, for example, and make choices that are better for them in terms of how they want to be represented.

Another thing is to use your performance in ways that push against expectations. One film that I talked about from the 1930s is a really messed up fantasy of a black woman who is raped by KKK member. But instead of it being a really literal rape I'm able to look at the film and see that she's in on this story and that she's not just subjected in the process. What you see in the silent film is she's looking in the camera smiling and she does a little shimmy for the camera. And she also nuzzles up to the actor. What I was able to discover looking at this film, it's actually made by people in the north who were probably from Chicago, it was filmed by people who were poking fun at the southerners and saying the real reason that the Klan is terrorizing black people is because they are in love with them.

They want the sexuality of black women. And so instead of just it reenacting a black woman being terrorized, which was really the situation in the 1930s, we can see that this woman is showing that she knows that she's acting and she's performing and she's using this film as a way to get back subtly at the extreme racism, sexism, and misogyny at the time. Similarly I have looked at films that were more recent, in the 1980s for example, where women are supposed to be submissive. For example, Angel Kelly was supposed to be servant in this film called The Call Girl. And she performs the servant so over the top because she's really subtlety critiquing the expectation that she should be a maid in the film. If we're throwing all convention out of the window and making people who are the same age be the father, the mother and the daughter, why can't we have a black wife or the black daughter or the black aunt? Why does she always have to be the maid? 

So she does that, and she pushed the director so that her character Sadie would have another dimension. And she made it so Sadie has another life as a glamorous dancer. So she actually had a scene inserted into the film where she's doing this very beautiful, almost burlesque dance in the film and that was something that the actress herself pushed the director to do. Just by looking at porn we wouldn't know that. It takes us to delve deeper into thinking about what black women are doing. It may range from completely protesting to using their performances in ways that are transgressive or pushing against the grain. 

FH: In your experience, do black women have difficulty embracing porn? 
Mireille Miller-Young: Absolutely. I think it's so taboo for women. But actually, women view at least a third of porn. And it's been that way since the 80s. Increased privacy allowed women to have more access whether they were watching it in couples or in groups of other women. And now with the explosion of women made feminist porn there are a lot more conversations. And I've had people come up to me because I edited a book called The Feminist Porn Book that came out from The Feminist Press in 2012. So many women come to me telling me that they're so excited by this because they are really bored by the other stuff they are watching. I've been at conventions for the adult industry where I followed the performers and interviewed them and kind of watched their interactions with fans. And so many of the people coming up to them for autographs are women, including black women who are saying, “I love you. You really excite me; you make me feel good about watching porn. You make me think about my own sexuality in ways that I really like. I hope that you make more films like this.”

There's no real space that women are talking about their porn usage and viewership. It's not something that we have conversations about. So I think that if we provide the spaces for it and the venues for it, you'd be surprised that there are a lot of women. There are no spaces in our popular culture where we're talking about it, at least honestly. And so I do think that a lot of people are viewing it under the covers, so they say. Or maybe they admit it at a bachelorette party or something like that. We are definitely consumers in the adult industry and given more materials that reflect our interests and desires and really focus on women's pleasure, we would be even greater consumers and we would be able to have even more of a discourse about our sexual consumption.

FH: Is black feminist porn a thing?
Mireille Miller-Young: Yeah, it is. I write about it in the epilogue of my book because when I started the project there weren't any black women who were making porn. But during the early 2000s they started to emerge as porn became kind of easier to make with little capital investment. Some of the best black women who are making porn are Shine Louise Houston, who's the owner of Pink and White Productions, Nenna Feelmore Joiner, who is the proprietor of the sex emporium in Oakland called Feelmore, Vanessa BlueDiana DeVoe and the Damali X Dares who are former performers who have gone into directing and make their own films. So we're definitely still marginalized in terms of being porn directors and producers but I want to honor and celebrate the fact that black women are coming out to produce their own. And they have been doing so for a while.

The porn industry still is a very male dominated space. It's been much easier for black men to come to power as directors and producers than it has been for black women.

FH: What changes when a black woman is behind the camera? 
Mireille Miller-Young:  I don't want to narrow the possibilities by saying that there is a single black feminist porn aesthetic, but I do think that knowing there's a black feminist gaze and that black women are the creators of such projects is really important. Because what it gives us is not a single type of fantasy or story or aesthetic, but it shows us that they are the creators of sexual fantasies and not just the objects of them. I do think that when you look at a lot of these films there tends to be more emphasis on the black woman's pleasure. There tends to be more diversity in the bodies that are used. There tends to be a bit more diversity in terms of the actors and who they're paired with. I've talked to the actors that appear in these black women's films and they say that they feel more understood and more cared for. They say that their performances are better than in many of the other films that they're performing in. Because Vanessa Blue as a director, for example, knows where they are coming from and gives them the time and the space that they need to make their performances work for them instead of intimidating them or pushing them or exploiting them economically in some way. That's not something you can see as a consumer very easily sometimes but if you're paying attention to the quality of people's performance or you care about the ethics of how workers are treated, knowing that is important.

FH: People say Kim Kardashian got famous from of the sex tape, that she is effectively a sex worker, and the type of fame that she has is completely inaccessible to a black woman who had come to prominence for being in an adult film. Do you agree with that analysis?
Mireille Miller-Young: That analysis is probably right. What I can compare it to is Montana Fishburne. She produced a sex tape. This is the thing. Kim Kardashian denied that she had any role in releasing the sex tape. But the thing was, it wasn't just a simple home video. The quality was extremely well done. It was a professional camera and it was distributed by Vivid and she made millions off of it from the distribution. Part of what she did is she denied a role in it. You have to play this innocent girl instead of saying that you released a sex tape. It has to be released by the ex boyfriend against your wishes in order for you to be able to capitalize on it because then you're just a whore. But Montana Fishburne thought that she would just skip that whole thing and say I want to be in porn, here's my sex tape. Everybody lambasted her and said that she was stupid and she was abused. Everyone was worried about the fact that she was being misled by the boyfriend, that she was abused by him. They made connections to her doing other kinds of sex work, like street prostitution, saying she was basically pimped out. Based on Montana Fishburne's experience I would say that one thing that we see is that black women are not given the kind of benefit of the doubt. None of them will make millions of dollars in pornography or reach those levels of stardom. 

FH: Did you have any difficulty reconciling your understanding of the historic exploitation of black women's bodies through sexualized labor and enjoying porn?
Mireille Miller-Young: Yes, of course. The idea that porn is dirty and is bad for black women is so ingrained in us, and I still found myself struggling with the sexual shame that I had growing up around watching pornography or asking questions about sexuality. So like the women that I study I became a bad girl for even writing about it and researching it. And I had to contend with those really complex feelings. The way that I got through it was to really look at the women themselves and how they're grappling with so much more intense stigma than I am. And that I can write about this and go on as an academic, and go on to do anything that I want, not that it's been easy to write about porn or I've been just celebrated for it. I haven't. But the women who are performing in it can't go on to be educators because there's a record of what they were doing and no one would let them do that. 

My concern is enhancing people's understanding that these women are human beings, they're intelligent. They're not dangerous, and they're actually doing black women a favor by giving us a text for our fantasies and our desires so that we can see ourselves erotically. I don't think people see them as that. They see them as making black women look bad. And being the reason why we're so sexually stigmatized. I would remind those people that we were sexually stigmatized and exploited long before we had pornography.

Header photo: Shutterstock

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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