When Johnnie Keyes starred in Behind the Green Door, one of the first mainstream American adult films to feature a Black performer, he was credited merely as “African Stud.” It was 1972 and his co-performer Marilyn Chambers was a white woman, an influential casting decision that earned the film the genre label of “interracial.”
After that, Keyes often spoke about the death threats he received in response to the film.
Just a few years later, the arrival of adult VHS tapes made film adult movies accessible from home, diversifying the genres available to consumers and expanding opportunities for performers, like those of colour, who had historically been stifled to underground networks and productions.
But despite this progress, the porn industry in the late 20th century remained steeped in racism, with non-white performers being defined and promoted by their race in ways their white counterparts rarely were.
By the early ’90s, adult movies had made its way onto bulletin board systems, the internet’s precursor to forums. Sites like Rusty&Edie’s BBS boasted “the largest collection of Adult GIFs and Programs—Over 16 GIGS!!!” As the internet became more accessible, adult industry professionals started building their own spaces; performers like Danni Ashe acted as both the stars and CEOs of their own webpages, while studios developed membership sites for loyal customers.
As they grew, these platforms sought to make their ever-expanding collections easier to navigate. Like many other websites with troves of content (including the one you’re reading now), porn websites turned to metadata: Genres like parody and step-fantasy became subsections on the site and webmasters added tags like “MILF” and “role play” to the videos they uploaded. Applying these labels to videos helped people find what they were looking for within the site and also boosted the SEO, driving traffic from search engines like Google or Yahoo.
In some ways, this transition gave previously marginalised performers access to tailored audiences more likely to support their careers. But it also carried the racist practices of the porn industry into the 21st century. Labels like “interracial,” which still refers almost exclusively to a Black man working with a white woman, made a direct transition from VHS case to HTML code.
In 2006, aggregator or “tube” sites transformed a once-contained piracy network of pornographic videos into one of industry’s primary markets. The popularity of those user-uploaded, often copyright-infringing libraries grew, and the categorisation models came with them.
These YouTube clones evolved over the following years, moving away from illegal uploads and instead becoming legitimate platforms for independent models and studios to publish and promote their own work. But for all the freedom and opportunities these sites have brought performers and filmmakers in the last decade, they continue to confine them to a classification system that is both rigid and racist.
Adult films industry aesthetics may have shifted since the 1970s, but the hurdles performers of colour have had to endure onscreen and off haven’t actually changed much at all – and the data-driven conveniences of the digital age are partially to blame.
The Digital Categories Black performers are relegated to have remained largely the same since that first “interracial” scene in 1972. Today, most porn sites use racial or “ethnic” tags to categorise certain content, but almost exclusively for videos involving performers of colour. On xhamster.com, for instance, there are 42 different labels meant to describe Blackness, such as “ebony” or “BBC” and only four specifying whiteness. This isn’t due to an absence of white pornstars, but rather because white performers aren’t categorized by their race as often as their Black peers.
Users, having caught on to this system, mimic the classification system in their search queries. According to Pornhub’s most recent insight report, published in 2019, eight out of the top 25 most popular search terms were non-white racial/ethnicity descriptors.
(Disclosure: I was previously a digital media specialist at Pornhub. I am no longer employed by the company.) Not one of those top-ranking terms referred to whiteness or Caucasian ethnicity. In fact, the terms “Caucasian” or “white” have never once appeared on Pornhub’s top search lists throughout the years. (Xhamster did not respond to requests for comment.)
This structure, where whiteness functions as the baseline that all BIPOC performers are in contrast to, is a real disadvantage for those looking to build their careers. “White people are people to a lot of these companies. Black or brown people are fetishes and body parts,” says King Noire, a performer and producer with over 10 years of industry experience.
“When it comes to a lot of Black performers, you won’t even see their name in the scene.” Despite the high volume of Pornhub searches specifying non-white content, only one of the 19 performers named a Most Searched Pornstar in 2019 was a person of colour. (Pornhub did not release this data for 2020.)
This discrepancy is something sociologist Angela Jones noticed while doing research for their book, Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry. Jones found that uploaders, whether studios or independent models, were less likely to include the names of performers when they were people of colour. “It’s quite standard practice to just use lots of [descriptive] hashtags, especially when we’re talking about performers of colour,” Jones says. “For Black women, that might mean using the tag ‘ebony’ or ‘ebony goddess’ and relying more on these terms to drive traffic.”
This means performers of colour benefit from leveraging racialised hashtags and search terms – it helps them reach the audience most likely to follow through with clicks, views, and purchases. But it also means many of them aren’t receiving the benefits that name recognition offers.
For instance, sites like Pornhub use metrics such as how often users search for a performer’s name to calculate the popularity of a model. This, in turn, opens more growth opportunities for those individuals. The page for Pornhub’s annual awards states its decisions are “totally data driven, with the big wins going out to those you searched, viewed and lusted over the most on Pornhub this year. No judges or deciding committees here, just a jury comprised of our daily visitors.”
While this positions “data” as an impartial third party, these metrics are in fact influenced by the structure around them, in which non-white performers get more traction by including racial terms than their names. All 10 nominees for Pornhub’s “Favorite Female Performer” award in 2020 were white. When asked for comment, Pornhub referred Wired back to its awards page.
For performers of colour to get the name recognition they deserve, sites will need to recognise the ways their engineering has incentivised non-white performers to prioritise racial categorisation. Website design changes happen all the time, so why is categorisation on porn sites stuck 50 years in the past?
Geoffrey Celen, founder of theporndude.com, an extensive catalogue of online pornography website reviews, says that site owners are in their own bind. Executives are concerned that regulating the tags and therefore the search terms on their platforms – for example, not allowing slurs – will drive their customers to competing websites with looser community standards.
Until recently, the only thing motivating domain owners to enforce regulation was the threat of handcuffs – and not the fun kind. “Don’t get me wrong” he says, “certainly the big porn sites want to remain legal as possible, but they only really apply what they have to apply according to the law.” (Xvideos and Redtube did not respond to a request for comment, and Youporn declined to comment for this story.)
- A Wired report