Race in Adult Entertainment

Matt O'Conner
Pop quiz: Name three of the top black female performers working in adult entertainment today.

Time's up.

If you came up a name or two short, it probably says less about you than about the state of black women, and minorities in general, in adult entertainment. While interracial, all-black, all-Asian and all-Latin niches are booming, the issue of race in adult entertainment isn't a simple matter of black and white.

Jim South, owner of World Modeling Agency, says the black and Latina performers he represents get plenty of work and are paid the same as their white counterparts. He concedes there was a time when that wasn't always the case — and that there were rumblings during his early years in the business of an unspoken rule against pairing black men with white women — but contends "the old days are almost gone," thanks to a handful of forward-looking companies.

"There are a lot of mavericks in this business who like to try new things," South tells XBiz. "Some of these guys realized there were enough white-on-white videos out there and got really good sales with black on white."

One man South credits with helping to change racial attitudes in adult entertainment is Video Team's Chris Mann, one of the pioneers of ethnic porn.

In an interview for another publication near the close of the 1990s, Mann commented that, "In cable markets, they wanted to see the white guy fucking the black girl, but they wouldn't accept a black guy fucking a white girl." He pointed to the case of one studio that had to re-shoot and replace a scene because a distributor said it would have too much trouble selling the video to cable and hotel outlets.

The thinking, Mann said, was that viewers in the deep South would be offended by such images. But the Adam & Eve channel took a chance on a video that showed a black man having sex with a white woman. When the complaints never materialized as predicted, other cable channels slowly followed suit.

As it turned out, the racism everyone was so afraid of confronting simply didn't exist — at least not outside the boardrooms of cable companies. And once the cable execs saw just how strong the demand for ethnic porn was, they started requesting more and more of it, helping to lay the foundation for today's huge and extremely profitable market for ethnic niche markets.

Fetishistic Objects
But University of California Santa Barbara researcher Mireille Miller-Young says emergence of ethnic porn doesn't necessarily represent progress. Miller-Young has made the issue of race in adult entertainment the subject of her doctoral thesis and argues that the industry, including ethnic studios, reduces black females to fetishistic objects.

"Within the culture of pornographic representation, [black women's] bodies have been fetishized as hyper-available, hyper-visible and hyper-sexual," Miller-Young says. This objectification has been amplified by the recent explosion of hip-hop porn, which she says commoditizes black sexuality.

The simple rebuttal to Miller-Young's argument is that adult entertainment fetishizes all women and commoditizes all sexuality. All porn stars are promoted as hyper-available and hyper-sexual. It is the logical outcome in an industry whose focus is the marketing of sexual imagery.

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that there are so few recognizable black females in the industry.

"There have been multiple [black female] contract stars," Lexington Steele, performer and owner of Mercenary Pictures, tells XBiz. "Whether or not the companies are promoting them comparatively to their white counterparts is another story. There is an undeniable chasm in the way companies promote black stars and white stars."

Steele says big studios routinely hire black contract stars, then, for reasons he doesn't care to speculate on, bury them. "They cease to exist," he says. According to Steele, the situation isn't much better for black males. "[Feature film studios] only shoot black girls with white males," he says, "and they don't hire black males to do dialog."

For proof, one needs look no further than Steele's own career. Widely praised for his performance in 2000's "Westside," a porned-out version of Shakespeare's Othello, the part was "the last feature role of any merit" offered to him. "The absence of black males from cast lists definitely speaks to a purposeful business construct," Steele adds.

Dialog Irrelevant?
Still, Steele says he isn't losing any sleep over the issue. "No one watches the dialog in these movies anyway," he tells XBiz, adding that the racial divide exists only in feature films, where hotel and cable distribution is at stake. Meanwhile, scenes featuring black males and white females dominate the gonzo market, where "there's always been a wealth of work for any black male performer."

The same can't be said for Asian men, according to Darrell Hamamoto, an Asian-American studies professor at the University of California Davis. And for Hamamoto, the subject isn't merely academic — it's personal. Hamamoto claims that porn reinforces an image of Asian males as being asexual and geeky, not because they are portrayed that way in adult films, but because they are excluded from adult entertainment altogether.

While Asia Carrera, Mika Tan and Kobe Tai are household names to adult film fans, they have no male counterparts in the industry.

"The whole sexuality part of our lives is warped and deformed from larger white racism," Hamamoto says. White men can have women of every race, he says, but Asian men are not permitted to be men.

Hamamoto wasn't content to simply write about the problem. He set out to fix it by launching a video line featuring Asian studs. Unfortunately, it took him months to find a single Asian man willing to star in his film, "Skin to Skin," and the project apparently died quietly in the halls of academia, leaving Hamamoto to believe Asian men have no one to blame but themselves.

"You'd think there would be tons of Asian-American men who'd want to do this," he says. "What it comes down to is, they don't want to represent. If they continue to do that, they deserve all the shit they get."

But maybe Hamamoto simply gave up too quickly. In July, Asians on Blondes Productions launched Phuck Fu Masters, a paysite that features exclusive movies of Asian men having sex with white women. Based on a popular DVD series, the site is prospering.

In fact, just about every type of ethnic porn is prospering. But while there are plenty of all-black, all-Asian and all-Latina titles out there, critics, including some former industry players, say these niche products contribute to a system of de facto segregation and reinforce stereotypes in which black men are portrayed as modern-day Mandingos, black women are hoochie mamas and Latinas are hot-blooded minxes.

"Black women are hired to play hookers and maids," Angel Kelly, one of the most prominent black female stars of the 1980s, told Essence magazine.

"[As a black woman], you are already assumed to be a whore," retired adult film star Jeannie Pepper adds.

But JB, a contract director for ethnic studio West Coast Productions, says the racial composition of ethnic films, as well as the scripts, music and subject matter, are based on market demand. "The black fan base is smaller, but we still have to put out a product that delivers what they want," JB tells XBiz.

Playing Up Race
Digital Playground director Robby D attempted to use humor to attack racial stereotypes in the movie "Contract Star." The movie, written by two Digital Playground editors who are themselves Mexican, focused on two Mexican laborers who do low-wage work for a porn company in search of its newest star. The guys convinced their girlfriends to try out for the job — pretty standard fare for a porn plot. Along the way, Robby packed in as many racial stereotypes as he could fit around the sex — over exaggerated accents, black velvet Jesus paintings and guys in hair nets.

And to really drive home the point, all the Mexicans were played by white actors.

The movie was intended as a send up of the simplified ways minorities often are portrayed in adult films, but not everyone appreciated the tact, and the mainstream press accused Robby of helping to perpetuate and make light of the very stereotypes he lampooned.

Even Hamamoto admits that whatever racial issues exist in adult entertainment merely mimic those that exist in Hollywood at large, where Asian males are mostly restricted to kung fu fare. And one of the few black females who enjoyed genuine crossover success, former Vivid Entertainment contract performer Heather Hunter, says the challenges faced by minorities in the adult entertainment industry are the same as those faced by minorities in society at large.

"I think it's hard for any black entertainer to cross over into anything they want to do," Hunter says. Which is why black performers like Steele are taking matters into their own hands by starting their own production and distribution companies.

"Who it hurts is the companies that choose not to shoot [all races in all combinations]," Steele tells XBiz. "My movies are reaching 100 percent of their possible viewership. Those companies are shooting themselves not only in the foot, but also in the pocketbook."