Black women in pornography: an interview with Mireille Miller-Young

“I still remember the exhilaration I felt when I saw my first pornographic image,” Mireille Miller-Young writes in her 2014 study A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography.

Miller-Young is a professor of feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. As she notes, Black women scholars often talk about pornography in terms of harm and damage, rather than in terms of pleasure or exhilaration. In interviewing Black women porn performers, attending industry conventions, and watching historical and conventional pornographic films, Miller-Young did find many racist images of Black women, and many stories of racist and sexist treatment.  But she also found that Black women find real value in the porn industry—sometimes economic, sometimes personal, sometimes sexual. “Black women in pornography do other kinds of cultural work beyond representing injury, trauma, and abuse,” she argues. “What if we explore pornographic deviance as a space for important political work?”

I spoke to Miller-Young by Zoom from her home in Berlin, in between interruptions from her four-year-old (he wanted vitamin gummies.) The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book starts off with a discussion of how you saw nude pictures of Vanessa Williams when you were 8 and “became captivated with everything about sex, and…wanted to see more nude pictures.” That sounds like exactly what anti-porn crusaders fear!

Yeah. Who knew that getting into that as a kid would lead to a career! (laughs)

The anti-porn crusaders fear that children being exposed to sex is going to lead them to some kind of ultimate demoralization. It’s going to make children unable to be prope citizens of patriarchy. They won’t reproduce the “normal” family

I think that there’s this belief that children themselves do not have a sexuality, which of course they do. Not to say that it’s the same as an adult sexuality. It’s a developing sexuality.

And, of course, the socialization that pornographic materials can provide at that age can be interpreted in different ways. And my experience was of it being joyful and fun. It was an image of beauty and sexiness that influenced my ideas about sexuality through life.

Why was that a positive experience rather than a negative one?

I don’t think that children being exposed to these materials is automatically a detriment to their healthy development. I think that the idea that it is always a detriment is a part of the moral panic that the right wing has created because children are the perfect victims and symbols of innocence in our culture. I don’t think that they’re actually invested in protecting children, because there’s a lot of ways in which they ignore the well-being of children in every other measurement other than their exposure to sexuality. You don’t care that children can’t eat, but you care about what they’re watching? And so I think it’s just a useful political tool on their part.

But I deliberately chose to start with that story because I wanted to push back against this assumption that being a so-called pervert as a child leads you down this dark, terrible path where you can no longer be successful. And to push back against the idea you cannot tell for yourself what is good versus bad sex—that you can’t understand your own exploitation, because you’re being just brainwashed by pornography.

So I made a very specific choice to start with that anecdote to prove that, for me, pornography was part of the ways that I learned about sex, but in a way that was in awe of the power of women and sexuality.

But I was also aware of the taboos against it! There was the sense that these stars who were in the magazines had done something that was not allowed. I knew that we were supposed to keep it a secret that we’d seen these pictures from our parents because it was something for grown-ups. And I think that like 90% of what kids do is find things that they’re not supposed to get into. It’s exciting, getting a little taste of being a grown-up. Everybody does that; you put on your parents’ shoes, and imagine your feet sitting in them.

You talk about there being a lot of racism and sexism in the porn industry. But you argue that Black women still have certain kinds of agency. What does that agency look like for them, or what are some examples?

The choices that the performers might make could be as blatant as refusing to work under certain conditions. Which many people have done when for example they find out that the theme of the film is really just essentially racist fantasy.

There’s a story in my book about the performer India who refused to perform in a film when she found out the title was South Central Hookers 79, or something like that. She walked off set because she’s from South Central. And she tried to convince other actresses to walk off too. And they made the decision to stay because of perhaps not being so bothered, or perhaps they really needed the money for that time.

And one could argue India has been in equally or worse racist films; she made the choice to be part of those films. But here she did take a stand, where she felt her own integrity was at risk. And others have made a stand when they felt like their safety was at risk, like if HIV tests were not being checked. Or some have taken a stand when they experienced so many micro-aggressions in the lead up to the shoot. People might refuse to participate. Or they might do the shoot but warn everybody else never to work with that production company again.

So I discovered that performers took a variety of actions based on their ability at the time to speak out and to challenge the conditions or the leadership.

What are some things that the Black women you talked to liked about the work?

A lot of people said they took pleasure in the work compared to the other work they were doing. I had a couple informants who were working as nurses, which are good paying jobs! You have to have training. They came from middle-class families. But they decided to go into porn.

And one woman who talked to me said she experienced a lot of racism in the nursing profession. Especially from white patients mistreating her. So if you’re a black woman in America, it doesn’t matter what job you do—you could be like me, a professor, you could be a nurse, you could be the fucking vice president. And people are going to be racist to you, and people are going to be misogynist.

But they found they preferred the pleasure and play they felt in porn as opposed to dealing with death and illness as a nurse. Which really underscores that sexuality has such a power in our lives and doesn’t need to represent the end of things and the end of civilization and community as we know it.

It was also was about the flexibility of the work and the hours, the fact that you just have to work less. I mean, a lot of people would really be happy to trade the 40-hour week or 50-hour week for a 10- or 20-hour week.

For some people it was about childcare, right?

Exactly. One of my informants Lola Lane, was the manager in a retail store, and she always had to be there, especially through the weekends. But that’s when her son would have his football training and games. And so she couldn’t be present for the one thing that her son loves.

And she had physical disabilities, so standing long hours was difficult. And it’s not like she had good medical care. for the retail job anyway. So she thought, this gives me more money to pay my medical expenses and is less hard on my body. And I can be present for my son who’s into football.

And so people are making choices to be more available to their children. And other people were trying to get training and do college on the side.

Were there people who liked the sexual aspects of the work?

Yes.  I talked to black women porn workers, who are absolutely committed to the sexual politics and to the idea of pornography as a site for women and queer people to contest  sexual power and expression. And many people I talked to really wanted to take that out of the hands of the small minority of people who are controlling the conditions and the fantasies in pornography.

Performers also think porn could be used as a way of teaching people.  

Many performers want to be clear that they don’t want to feel responsible for sex education, because it shouldn’t be pornography’s job to provide that. They’re very wary of the moral panic about what porn is doing to children. But they do feel like a lot of adults don’t have a sex education, and don’t know what to do in bed to either express consent or give pleasure or receive pleasure. And some porn workers feel like they’re teaching these kind of things and teaching how to be a sexually desiring person in their performances and in the types of films they’re making.

A number of Black feminists like bell hooks have been concerned that Black women in pornography create this image of hyper-sexualization, which harms Black women as a whole. How does your research respond to that?

Well first I want to say that my informants also deal with the politics of respectability, because that is so ingrained in our experience of Black women as Black women. They grappled with how they would be treated in their families or communities or churches if people knew about their work. They worried that they would be ostracized or outed. And they also had to deal with their own feelings and their own desires about the kind of work they were doing. I think they had to find a positive aspect to it, because otherwise your psyche is being torn asunder.

I don’t want to say my work challenges that of some Black feminists, so much as it builds upon the conversation that Black feminists have been having. So I feel like I’m in conversation with people like bell hooks, Patricia Hill, Collins, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and others, who were concerned with,pornography being another vector of white supremacy that weaponizes sexualized racism against black people.

And that’s a completely fair theory. But what I noticed is that none of the black feminist theorists who were talking about this actually talked to Black women sex workers.

And so I thought it was important to really take a look at the images, the industry, and the conditions, and think about what actually is the technology of sexualized racism at work. And I did find sexualized racism in the working conditions and in the kinds of representations in pornography!

But that’s not the end of the story. Just like it’s not the end of the story for Black women who worked in department stores or on farms in the south or as maids. We always did something, to push back against power and to make sense of our own desires, our lives, our needs and our choices. We never were only victimized by the situation.

You talk about how Black women reclaiming sexuality and sexual identity after slavery.

I took seriously Angela Davis’s book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, about how the blues women of the late 19th, early 20th century were so important in expressing the kind of Black working class exploration of the tension between sacred and profane, between the pleasures of the community and the needs of the community to fight white supremacy.

And she argues that after slavery, one of the most important spaces of Black life that people were trying to recuperate was their sexual intimate life. They tried to find long lost husbands and wives and children. And they wanted to control their sexual life. which had been beyond their control because sexual exploitation was a primary element of slavery: the breeding of slaves, the division of marriages, the fancy trade, which was basically as sex trafficking market for slaves.

The sexual is a realm of freedom too. And it matters that we talk about these ongoing struggles of sexualized racism in the context of anti-Blackness and the ways it works in the sex industry. But we also have to talk about how Black people are negotiating those spaces in creating identities and relationships.

And what I found is that Black people have always been part of the sexual underworld in the speakeasies, in forms of queer life from the Harlem Renaissance artists up through James Baldwin. And that is also a really important side of Black culture to explore and understand how those people thought about sexuality and why they participated in creating erotic cultures and spaces. And even if it challenges our ideas as Black feminists about the importance of respectability, or the dangers of sexual exploits and racial exploitation, we still have to take them seriously.


Image photo credit: Daisy Ducati

Notable Replies

  1. Excellent interview again Prostasia. Thanks!

  2. I must ask: How does one pronounce her first name?

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