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Transforming Pornography: Black Porn for Black Women

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February 15, 2013

The author, a self-titled “black feminist pornographer,” works to dismantle stereotypes one video at a time.

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A few years ago, I sat on a panel with notable feminist academics and a femi­nist pornographer—all of whom were well-respected. I was put on the spot when asked, “Do you consider yourself and your work to be feminist?” I didn’t know how to answer. I tried to steady my voice as I replied, “I’ve never really given that any thought.” The other panelists gave their view of my work and what they knew about me… but the question, which I had to answer for myself, remained: “Am I a feminist?”

I was naive about the sexual liberation movement, and had never considered whether or not my decision to flaunt my sexuality on screen was a feminist act. I had never wondered whether fighting for the right to be both mother and sex worker was part of a greater fight for the rights of women around the world. I certainly had never given thought to whether my choice to be tied up, disciplined, and fucked by men and women on film contributed to sexual freedom. All I knew was that I alone was responsible for my body, my life, my sexuality, and my bills. It never crossed my mind that someone might tell me what I should or shouldn’t do with my body or my sex. I knew that prostitution was illegal and had heard rumblings of the unsuccessful fight for decriminalization in the United States. I knew pornography wasn’t the same as prostitution, by legal definition, but had no clue about the fight in court­rooms to make it so. I was like many of the porn stars of my generation who entered the adult film industry with the intent of earning a living, having a good time, or both.

When I walked onto my first adult film set at nineteen, I had never seen a porn movie or magazines or been to a strip club. I merely wanted to provide for my family and finish college. I wanted to have a kind of financial stability that I didn’t see possible as a divorced, single mother of two toddlers working two mall jobs and carrying a full load of classes. That first time, having sex with a complete stranger in his apartment wasn’t about a feminist agenda or some sort of promiscuous sexual itch I sought to scratch. It was about the best option I saw for myself at that time; it was about financial freedom.

When I walked onto my first adult film set at nineteen, I had never seen a porn movie or magazines or been to a strip club. I merely wanted to provide for my family and finish college.

Even years later, while embroiled in a bitter custody battle, where my decision to work in pornographic movies was a critical issue, I still didn’t consider my fight to be feminist. My angry ex-husband walked into the courtroom holding a VHS box with my image on the cover in a school­girl uniform, accusing me of “portraying a child” in the movie. The black female judge that mediated my divorce and subsequent custody hearing told him that my porn career was irrelevant unless there was evidence that the children were neglected or exposed to porn. Was she a femi­nist? I think the judge was merely following the law, and I was fortunate enough to have gone through the experience in California, where mak­ing porn has been legal since 1988.

There is no doubt in my mind today that I am a feminist. I believe first and foremost in choice—whether it’s a woman’s right to choose to work outside the home or the right to a safe, legal abortion. I believe that “no means no,” and that provocative attire is never an excuse for rape. I believe in sex-positive childrearing and the right for every person to marry regard­less of sexual orientation. I believe that what happens between two con­senting adults behind closed doors should never be criminalized and, more importantly, that men and women who choose to engage in sex work for money should be protected, taxed, and able to receive medical benefits as in any other industry.

The question still looms about whether I consider my work to be fem­inist. I’m not sure I know the answer, even today. I don’t think I’ve ever walked on a video set, turned on my webcam, or worked as a dominatrix with the thought of making a political statement. I’ve set a goal to enjoy my work so that my fans will enjoy it as well. I find myself more con­cerned with the representation of black women’s sexuality than making a statement only about my gender. Perhaps this is because so many people fight the good fight on behalf of (white) women and so few are fighting for black women like me. For example, there are countless examples of white women’s sexualities portrayed in porn, but very limited images of African American women. And when you do see black women in porn, they are often stereotyped or demeaned.

When I first started in the industry, I quickly saw that the images of women of color in porn were directly related to what the predominantly white male directors thought was sexy and what they believed their (predominantly white) male audience would find sexy. As a result, the majority of African American women on screen were put into one of two categories: assimilated to appear as close to white as possible (“they are almost one of us”) or completely ghettoized to reflect debased images of black culture (it doesn’t matter because “they are only one of them”). The first group was easy to spot: long hair weaves, lighter skin, thinner physi­cal frames, enhanced busts, and smaller hips and butts. These women could also be cast in larger-budget movies. Women with bigger butts, curvier bodies, darker complexions, and more African features were rel­egated to movies with lower production values and often offensive titles. It wasn’t until female and black directors and producers began to influ­ence the marketplace that porn videos started to showcase other aspects of black life and black and/or interracial couples in a more diverse light.

In the 1990s, I had a conversation with the owner (a white guy) of a video company that produced mainly videos featuring black actors, but the women were always skinny, light-skinned girls. He told me his prod­uct was produced for the people who bought his movies: white men. He said black men are renters, not buyers. One of the biggest mistakes main­stream pornographers make is thinking their market is not interested in any other images of black women except these outrageously stereo­typed ones. The industry also does not understand why black consumers might want to rent porn rather than buy. The lack of market research allows directors and producers to remain uninformed, and to cater only to their own sexual likes and dislikes. One would think, especially in today’s oversaturated marketplace, that pornographers would seek to produce for both the current buying population and those who have yet to be convinced to spend their money.

Female directors have an advantage in producing adult movies because of their unique perspectives. Understanding the female body—the importance of the little things, from hair and makeup, to loca­tion and shooting from flattering angles—creates a better product. It’s easy to look at directors like Joanna Angel, Belladonna, Julie Simone, and Chanta Rose and witness how they manage to produce beautiful images of women but still get these women to push their limits in intense scenes. Perhaps some women feel more comfortable with a woman behind the camera asking them to do things that might be deemed degrading if asked by a male director. Some women might feel more at ease with their egos massaged by showing up on the set to find accom­modations for wardrobe, makeup, and hair, and food available. These considerations, which often fall to the performers to provide in order to save on the budget, make a world of difference in getting a performer to give her all.

Black and Latina women in porn are very often given names of food, cars, inanimate objects, countries, and spices. No one ever told me, or many women of my generation, how impor­tant it was to have a name that was a real woman’s name.

As a performer and director, I want to show varied sexual dynamics between African American couples, especially more images of black men and women practicing BDSM. The majority of black-on-black porn is generally limited to boy/girl or girl/girl sex scenes, gangbangs, or orgies. Rarely do you see more intense hardcore, blowbangs, rough sex, and/or fetish content featuring all black actors. These types of scenes are more likely to be interracial and feature a submissive white woman paired with a dominant/aggressive black man taking charge and/or advantage of her—or a submissive yet hypersexual black female is paired with an aggressive white male performer.

As a black woman in porn, my experiences were unique. I came into the industry at a time when there were only a handful of African Ameri­can women performing in films. I didn’t fit into any existing category. As a “barely legal” looking nineteen year old, I was often cast in films with older white men and women and older black or Latin men. Throughout the 1990s, I found myself in videos with titles like South Central Hook­ers #10, or ones taken from popular rap songs like Pumps ’n da Rump. I attribute my varied experience in working for both larger production houses on feature films and for smaller companies with equally smaller budgets to the fact that I have Caucasian features, light skin, and a cheery attitude, and speak in standard English. I found that movies featuring all black casts would have derogatory titles but movies with interracial casts would have sexier names. Directors often told me that I wasn’t “ghetto” enough or expressed surprise that I couldn’t “shake my ass” like other stars. I had to stress to a director that I wasn’t comfortable standing on a street corner in a short skirt and high heels while he drove around the block for a “pickup shot” for my scene. And it wasn’t only white direc­tors who demeaned black actors. A few years ago, a black director asked me to eat a slice of watermelon for a scene with a white co-star who was playing a “country bumpkin.” I refused. My co-star was so uncomfort­able with the “Stepin Fetchit” routine that the director wanted me to portray that he offered to take the bite instead.

But racist instances like this are not the norm. I have had more posi­tive experiences in the industry than negative ones. When people ask me, “Is there racism in porn?” I respond that it exists no more in porn than in other industries. I don’t think people go out of their way to dis­respect others. Of course, it is difficult to watch the industry celebrate only a handful of men and women of color each year at its biggest awards shows—but it isn’t a surprise. I see the adult industry as no different from mainstream Hollywood where they pick and choose which actors of color or women or gay actors to applaud each year and which to ignore… despite how amazing they are.

I wrote my sexual story, one chapter at a time, in each and every video I’ve made.

When I started in porn, I didn’t have a stage name. I was given the name “Sinnamon.” I had no idea how difficult it would be later to market myself with this name when I wanted to potentially act beyond the adult world. Black and Latina women in porn are very often given names of food, cars, inanimate objects, countries, and spices: Chocolate, Cham­pagne, Mocha, Mercedes, Toy, Persia, Africa, India, and yes, Sinnamon. No one ever told me, or many women of my generation, how impor­tant it was to have a name that was a real woman’s name, something that would allow you to market yourself outside porn and to a wider audience. The Jennas, Janines, Brittanys of my generation certainly had greater success. Notably so, Heather Hunter, Dominique Simone, Lana Sands, and later Crystal Knight, Lacey DuValle, Marie Luv, and Nyomi Banxx are all women of color who were more successful than previous women in the industry. They had two things in common: they had “real” names and they fit white standards of beauty.

Even with the explosion of the porn star agent and the staggering growth of Internet companies, many black adult stars still show up as either the token black girl in a video or appear exclusively in all black videos. The same faces can be found in interracial scenes with white men, and only a handful will appear in fetish and BDSM videos for companies like Kink.com. Having been the first black woman that companies like Kink.com (then called Cybernet) shot, I recall having long conversations with directors about my personal relationship with BDSM. They hesi­tated to film me because they feared the fallout of putting a black woman in bondage in their movies. Oddly enough, when I worked for the late Bruce Seven in the early 1990s, that conversation never came up, but Bruce Seven was ahead of his time and understood BDSM as more than a different niche of film. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much has changed, with more and more women of color appearing in submissive positions on BDSM sites. But I’m still waiting for black men to be able to take the lead in those scenes with black women.

I wrote my sexual story, one chapter at a time, in each and every video I’ve made. I’ve used my work in porn to explore many firsts and share those experiences with my fans: sex with a woman, double penetration, group sex, double anal, a blowbang, a gangbang, or my first time with a Japanese woman who didn’t speak English. I’ve let them watch me make love with a real-life partner and fuck complete strangers I had just met moments before the cameras rolled. I’ve even allowed my fans to watch me pregnant, horny, and Forced to Lactate.

My decision to explore many of my sexual firsts had little to do with my fans who would later watch these videos. Though I was aware that people would likely see my scenes later on, I was naive as to just how big the industry was. To me, I was merely having sex, experimenting with my sexuality, and being recorded while doing so. My fans weren’t a factor until years later. I became more aware of my image when I saw less than flattering images of myself on box covers. I began to be more mindful of wardrobe and hairstyles and started to pick projects based on my ability to work with directors who brought out the best in me rather than focusing on how much money I could make.

For some, stereotypical and fetishistic images of black people are part of the fantasy, but I still believe that the porn industry is neglecting a huge marketplace. Where is black porn for black women?

I’ve raised my own neophyte-feminist, decidedly prochoice, very proud, out, bisexual young teenage daughter, a high-functioning autistic teenage son, and an older daughter in college who is a gun-toting NRA member, currently torn between her previous Republican ideologies and a more liberal way of thinking. When my younger daughter started high school, I explained to her that often teenage boys (and girls) like to use beautiful, intelligent, curvy, sexually curious young women like her to enhance their own sexual exploration and to be cautious not to allow others to write her sexual story.

I am often asked if I would “allow” or “want” my daughter(s) to enter into the porn business or the sex industry as a whole. I’m always torn in answering this question because I feel very strongly that there is abso­lutely nothing wrong with sex work. As a parent, I would not want any of my children to enter the industry knowing the kind of public ridi­cule or stigma they would likely face for their decision. I believe that free will extends outside of religion and that as a parent, all I can do is be 100 percent supportive of my children and love them despite their choices. All I can do is exactly as my parents did: prepare my children with the best possible education they can get, give them opportunities to excel in whatever endeavors they pursue, and support their dreams. As parents, we might have our own hopes and dreams for our children, but ultimately, it is for them to decide what path they wish to take. I would certainly give my child(ren) who chose sex work information on pitfalls (and people) to avoid. I would want them to carve their own path no matter where it took them. Would I be disappointed if one of them found their way into the sex industry? Perhaps, but I would only hope that they follow my example of balancing work and home, avoid drugs, and not allow themselves to get caught up in the seedier side of the industry.

As I spend more time behind a computer monitor and less time in front of the camera these days, I find myself more and more engaged in the fight for sex worker rights and better sex education than ever before. I am at this stage in my life where I am more conscious of my socio­political stance than I ever was in the first eighteen years of my career. Moving forward, would I consider myself and my work to be feminist? Absolutely. Today, I make decisions based on socially conscious thought rather than the fantasy of sexual exploration and the reality of econom­ics. I am far more selective than I was at nineteen in the type of work I choose. I learned to diversify my income streams, which makes it eas­ier to decline work that I feel goes against my core values and political beliefs. I no longer accept work that represents African Americans or black culture in a derogatory light. I am not willing to accept work for less pay merely because another performer is willing to perform for less.

Having spent the last nineteen years—my entire adult life—in the adult film industry, I have learned that my sexual interests are vast and that my intellectual curiosity often seeps into my sensual desires. My personal life has been greatly influenced by my work. The people I meet, the news articles I read, the stories that warm or break my heart come from a place of understanding the struggle of sex workers around the world. I find that my political interests include supporting and advo­cating for sex workers’ rights based on my own experiences and those of others I’ve encountered. Because I’m a parent, I advocate for compre­hensive sex education in schools, particularly in black and brown com­munities, as I have come to realize that sex education is greatly lacking except for information about the risks of disease and pregnancy. I have come to realize the extreme need for specialized sex education for devel­opmentally delayed teens and adults, as these people have sexual desires that often go overlooked.

I suppose, if I were to label who I am today, I would call myself a black feminist pornographer. Instead of accepting work merely to ensure the bills get paid, I purposefully work for directors and companies that portray black female sexuality in ways that I feel are expansive, progressive, and interesting. In my own productions, I strive to show more positive images of black men and women in sexual situations that don’t require stereotypes to get the point across. I would love to see more pornography without stereotypes about black people, that instead displays more complexity in the characters and fantasies presented. Every thug in a movie doesn’t have to have a forty ounce bottle of beer in hand. Every curvaceous woman doesn’t have to have booty shorts and bounce her ass as if she’s in a music video. Every black man doesn’t have to refer to himself using the N-word while having sex with a white woman on film. Black and interracial porn movies ignore the diversity in black culture. For some, stereotypical and fetishistic images of black people are part of the fantasy, but I still believe that the porn industry is neglecting a huge marketplace. Where is black porn for black women?

I hate labels. But in trying to answer the question of my own feminism I find myself needing to define my personal truth. I am certainly a sex-positive feminist. My work with education and sex workers’ rights advocacy, my interest in the decriminalization of prostitution, and my belief that pornography and BDSM are not inherently wrong come from my own understanding of the importance of women’s ability to claim their sexuality as their own. Yet my sex-positive feminism is not separate from my black feminism. For me it is about agency. My black feminism is about helping women like me to be able to claim their sexuality in the face of decades of mis-education of African American women who were made to believe that they must choose between education, marriage, and family, or sexual freedom. I have come to realize in this phase of my life and career, that I have unknowingly dedicated my experience in social media to showing men and women of color that these are false choices, and that they can be sexual beings, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers. I want to show people that there is nothing wrong with black love, black sex, and black families. I find that so many black women are afraid of their sexuality—that relinquishing their sexual urges might separate them from God and church and would banish them from every­thing good and pure… the patriarchal image of the hypersexual black female leaves more and more black women on the outside looking in on the sex-positive movement. I want to be a voice for a sex-positive black feminism that is eager to transform pornography into a space where we can have our images and fantasies reflected, too.

G

Copyright Feminist Press. Excerpted from The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. Eds. Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Parrenas Shimizu & Mireille Miller-Young. (Feminist Press, 2013). To order the book, visit the Feminist Press.

Sinnamon Love is an adult performer and fetish model. She began performing in adult films in the early 1990s, and has since appeared in approximately two hundred movies. She directed the movie My Black Ass 4, which received nominations at the 2001 AVN Awards for Best Ethnic-Themed Video and Best Anal Sex Scene (Video). Love was admitted into the Urban X Hall of Fame in 2009, and the AVN Hall of Fame in 2011. She was profiled in the book Money Shot: The Wild Nights and Lonely Days Inside the Black Porn Industry by Lawrence C. Ross Jr. Her writing has appeared in Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, edited by David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin, Jr.

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11 comments for Transforming Pornography: Black Porn for Black Women

  1. Comment by timo on February 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    If this article was of interest to you, and particularly if this was ‘news’ to you, you may very well be interested also in someone who has been exploring this territory for quite some time:

    http://afroerotik.com/

    Black love and sex without the degradation of racism, misogyny or self-hatred; forward into hard core positivity.

    I would be remiss if I let this opportunity pass to spread the word.

  2. Comment by Addi Stewart on February 15, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    An absolutely magnificent and vitally necessary breakdown and comprehensive observation of the state of sexuality for Black women, women, and to a degree, all modern sexuality now. If a woman is not free to enjoy herself sexually, then nobody is.

    Thank you for writing this erotic education manifesto, Sinnamon Love.
    I’m with you every step of the way towards the mountaintop of our dreams, where all are free to love, fuck, and have sex with who we both believe should be together… and thank you for inspiring me to find my inner African Marquis De Sade for a Black woman’s BDSM scenes! You’re right, I never have ever seen a Black man as a dom, and it needs to happen! That pleasure power needs to be shared with everyone :)

    may your lovemaking be heaven,
    sincerely yours truly,
    Addi / Mindbender!

  3. Comment by Noel Matthews II on February 17, 2013 at 11:09 am

    This is a wonderful article. Nice and insightful. I like the venture that this magazine is taking.

  4. Comment by Marc Chimes on February 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    I was inspired and thrilled by this article. It made me feel that the world I live in is getting better and better just to have this type of thinking put into words. I would be proud and honored to have Sinnamon Love as a friend and intellectual companion. I am happy and thrilled — there isn’t a better word — to read her views on sex positivity and her related intentions as a creative artist. I’m even more impressed and encouraged by her experiences as a mother — my respect is unbounded. And while I respect her thoughts as a black intellectual, I don’t find anything in this article that is ethnicity specific — her thoughts and insights regarding sexuality and sex education apply to my universe in every eventuality, regardless of race. The writing was clear, concise, honest and elegant, which I came away feeling is a good description of the author’s character and spirit. Thank you for your work.

  5. Comment by MzAgams on February 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Wow! That was an amazing read. Thanks.

  6. Comment by Stephen on February 21, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Very well put. I appreciate the honesty, intellect, candidness, and eloquence of the article. Definitely good food for thought for everyone. And as an educator of black youth I must echo the sentiments for more comprehensive and specialized sexual education.

    Have been a fan of Sinnamon’s work for years and now a fan of her writing.

  7. Comment by Howie Gordon aka Richard Pacheco on February 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Ms. Sinnamon Love,

    A most impressive piece of writing. Thank-you. I’m delighted to learn of a
    woman of your power and sensibilities being involved in the X-Rated industry.
    I haven’t exactly kept up over the years, but I was a player in the so-called
    Golden Age of Porn, mid-’70’s to mid-’80’s. I raised a family, too. And as one
    veteran of the adult world to another, I salute you and applaud your efforts.
    Would love to meet you one of these days if our paths cross.
    And in the meantime, allow me to wish you continued triumph. Sounds like
    you’re earning it.

    H.

  8. Comment by Erik Mellow on March 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    So very proud of and happy for Sinnamon Love for expressing the truth about this industry that she obviously loves. I always hated how non white porn had demeaning titles and images. My only wish for the industry is for more Sinnamon Love’s and less Wesley Pipes! Thank you, Miss Love for being a person of integrity and intellect.

  9. Comment by Lankh on March 27, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    An interesting paper, well-thought, finely-shaded and above all sincere. I like the way you try to face your contradictions. But how working in sex industry can be a feminist act as the sex industry contents are essentially oriented and sold to male customers by males? and knowing that porn actresses (as well as porn actors) don’t own a single right to the exploitation of their image (dvds, porn sites, etc.)? Porn can’t deny its social impact as it spreads images and very often stereotypes, and in its present state it can’t be a feminist industry. And “minorities”, notably black sex workers have to be more mindful of images they convey, because the impact is important.

  10. Comment by phatt on June 14, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Abject, utter rubbish. Keep up the other good work, Guernica : )

  11. Comment by alan on June 14, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Goop!! God damned goop :(

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