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Race, porn, and education: will the UK’s 2020 sex education update rise to the challenge?

The state must abandon all prudery in the interest of rectifying the time-lag leaving a whole generation of young people open to the unfettered excesses of the porn industry.

lead lead SceenShot: Pornhub – The World's Most Viewed Categories.

In July, the Ministry for Education announced that sex education would become mandatory for all children by September 2020. Beyond the minimum mandatory requirements within the science curriculum, it is currently only compulsory for state schools to offer 'sex and relationship'. Yet this stipulation only comprises approximately a third of schools in England, as it excludes both academies and free schools.

The curriculum is also grossly inadequate. Current guidelines haven’t changed since 2000, with LGBTQ+ experiences, consent, and internet pornography swept under the carpet. This discrepancy signifies a time lag of almost twenty-five years from the widespread availability of online pornography, and its iron-grip monopoly on sex education for the internet generation.

As the government seeks consultancy before updating the curriculum in 2020, there is a whole generation of young people who have grown up uncritically watching pornography at their most impressionable stage in their mental development. A Middlesex University study from 2016 found that 94% of all children had watched pornography by the age of fourteen. Other studies and reports have suggested that some start watching pornography as early as the age of six. This would not be a problem were it not already a well-established fact that the porn industry has for too long has been driven by the worst aspects of the market and the internet.

Race and romance

One issue in this field that has been woefully neglected is the role of race in pornography. This article does not need to be prefaced by reiterating the systems of racism that exist on every level of our society; they are obvious. Race and romance have already been the subject of much analysis elsewhere in our culture – for instance, the well-documented phenomenon of how racial biases play out on dating apps, or the persistent dismissal of Love Island’s first black female contestant. Yet the equivalent phenomenon in pornography is often traced back to a generalised (and hence vague) problem with society – it is mistaken for an effect, when in fact, for a whole generation, it is has shaped the way that race interacts with romance.

Besides academic material, there has been an embarrassing paucity of journalistic or mainstream discussion about the role of pornography in shaping the way in which racism interacts with romantic and sexual feelings and attitudes. Yet pornography almost monopolises sex education in the absence of comprehensive, open and relevant sex education. While this could be linked to a social reticence to discuss pornography, it is high time that this omission is rectified. The stakes are simply too high.

Desire is racialised, but is that racist?

There is evidence to suggest that sexual desire is often racialized. A familiarity principle may prevail, which suggests we are attracted to those with whom we are familiar. However, does that in itself make desire inherently racist?  

In countries which have an almost monoracial/monoethnic population, pornography consumption tends to mirror the race/ethnicity of the given population. The 43rd most-visited website in the world, xvideos, has a useful feature where one can organize the most popular pornography by country of consumption. It is unsurprising to find that African countries predominantly watch porn which depicts black actors, and that this, in a self-perpetuating cycle, reinforces their types or tastes for their sexual partners. Likewise, in Japan, the most racially homogenous country in the world alongside Korea, the top 12 search terms reflected this homogeneity, with the top 5 searches explicitly looking for "Japanese" with an appended noun, and the rest, with the exception of ‘3D’ and ‘VR’ (virtual reality), loudly proclaiming such a preference. (PornHub Data, 2017).

Of course, most countries have a sizeable ethnic minority population, a situation often accompanied by a racial power dynamic. In such countries, minorities have experienced exclusion from this hegemony of attraction – they often do not fit the narrow beauty standard of their societies – leading to immense frustration and misery. M.D. Plummer’s 2008 research on gay sexual racism demonstrates that minorities subjected to such sexual discrimination experience lower self-esteem, and can even internalise the same racial prejudice to a considerable extent.

Emma Dabiri’s more up-to-date 2017 Channel 4 Documentary, Is Love Racist?, conducted an experiment which revealed that more than a third of white people interviewed said they would never date a black person. With white people comprising 88% of the population, this means black people are automatically excluded from romantic consideration by almost ⅓ of the UK population. Per contra, just 10% of black respondents said that they would never date a white person. The romantic aversion to the black population apparently increased when it came to black women, and was quantified by a 2014 okcupid study, in which all groups of respondents registered negative rating for black women.

Screenshot: 2014 okcupid ratings by race.

While it is difficult to place blame for individual sexual preferences, people cannot be exonerated from complicity. Indeed, these figures urge us to reflect on why such attitudes exist, and how they serve the perpetuation of racism. To say that such endogamous sexual behaviours are ‘natural’ is morally and analytically inadequate at best. These sexual preferences exist as a product of a social ecosystem which has an ingrained bias against some minorities who are excluded from arenas of power and — perhaps more importantly when it comes to attraction — visibility.

At the same time, our most private feelings cannot be disentangled from the broader socio-political implications of visibility – whether we see ethnic minorities as MPs, news anchors, or other role models, for example. A refusal out of hand to unpack the politics of preference can only ensure that these inclinations move into the realm of racism.

Pornhub

Pornhub – the most popular pornographic website and the 31st most visited website in the world as of May 2018, according to Alexa - should be considered one of the key arenas of sex education for young people. The website boasts over 80 million visitors per day. This raises the question, what sort of messages about race does Pornhub disseminate and reinforce?

All of the top 28 videos in the interracial category on Pornhub, which between them have accumulated more than 271.4 million views, have some sort of highly racialized, if not overtly racist reference in the title alone.

Women are "blacked" by the "BBC" (big black cock) in videos that hypersexualise and hypermasculinise black men. Unsurprisingly, this perspective often overlaps with stereotypes of violence – Riley Reid gets Massacred by Mandingo, Brutal Cock, Monsters of Cock, and Creampied by Criminal After Blowjob are just some of the names of the most popular interracial videos on the most popular porn website in the world.

It is also interesting, though not unsurprising given the fetishisation of black men and the disproportionate absence of romantic interest in black women from heterosexual men, that all the videos on the first page of the most viewed interracial videos involve black men and white women, not vice versa.

When I interviewed veteran pornography journalist Lynsey G, the writer of Watching Porn: And Other Confessions of an Adult Entertainment Journalist, she linked these depictions of race to a broader problem of structural inequality in the industry: "The mainstream American porn industry has a lot of issues around pay gaps, which leads to a lot of issues... performers of colour don’t get paid as much and there are not as many roles for people of colour in the flooded market, which means someone will always take the role for less money, which sets an expectation [for the producers] who tend to be rich, older white guys."

However, she claimed that a lot of the racialised nomenclature does not necessarily come from the producers, but it is superimposed by tube sites who pirate the content and employ the "loudest voices" to stand out in a saturated market. To find out what sells, the marketers look to past trends, adopted from a society steeped even deeper in racism. The same language and tropes are recycled over and over again. She continued: "By the time it has made it onto the free websites, it has morphed into something really racist."

However, many of these videos are clearly driven by something which can’t be explained by marketing. The porn industry is responding to consumption habits, with the viewer signalling what they want to see. There is a two-way causation: pornography feeding off racism and reproducing and exacerbating it too. There is a two-way causation: pornography feeds off racism and is reproducing and exacerbating it too.

Amidst the comments beneath the video, one can occasionally sense the discomfort of racist consumption habits. The most liked comment on a video which just happens to show a black guy choking a white woman to death, which gathered 873 likes in total, sought to clarify that it ‘JUST HAPPENS TO BE A BLACK GUY’.

Moreover, take a search of the word ‘criminal’ on Pornhub. Given that the vast majority of these videos are produced in the US, where 12.1% of the population is black (14% if you count mixed-race people), black men disproportionately feature in the results, comprising 55% of the first page of recent ‘criminal’ videos’, and 55% of the first page of the most viewed of all time.

Lynsey G points to countervailing discourses in the industry, nevertheless. She singles out blacked, which makes beautifully-styled interracial pornography and "treats performers of colour with more respect." Nevertheless, she concedes that there are still problems, as the content still “perpetuates the taboo of having sex with people of colour and when these end up on tube sites, it will end with the same derogatory racial epithets.”

This is not all. The site also seems to sustain the practice in the industry whereby white women hold out for their first interracial scene to drive up the premium by advertising white girls’ "first time." This custom also partially explains the common refusal of white women when asked to perform with black actors, a phenomenon documented by the prominent black actor Mickey Mod. It is hard to imagine that such biases will go away, regardless of whether the prestigious AVN Awards (Adult Video News Awards) have a coveted interracial award.

The hypersexualisation of black men cannot be decontextualized from a wider racist trope of the violent and uncontrollable black man. In popular titles such as ‘Mandingo Unchained’ and ‘Mandingo Massacre’, the racist genealogy between the historical image of the unruly slave and their "big black dicks" today is barely concealed. In the relatively new (and imperfect) paradigm of racism as ‘power plus prejudice’, racial fetishism can be understood as part of a web of depictions which establish an additional remove, desensitizing viewers to the discursive and semiotic environment in which a police officer can preemptively pull the trigger on a Trayvon Martin.  

This link is adroitly captured in the narrative arc of Jordan Peele’s multi-award winning satire Get Out. In the film, an ostensibly well-meaning white man turns to the young black and soon-to-be wincing protagonist Chris and tells him that ‘fairer skin has been in favour for the past couple of hundred years, but now the pendulum has swung back. Black is in fashion’. One of the women at the party soon asks Chris’s girlfriend: ‘Is it true? Is it better?’ Unbeknownst to the protagonist, and to the audience, this innocuous garden party is the scene of a modern day slave auction, where Chris’s black body is being sold to the highest bidder.

Yet while films like Get Out garner critical praise, Lynsey G tells me, porn does not attract the same level of scrutiny: "people need to talk about it as a form of media and view it critically."

Crude taxonomies

In western mainstream pornography, whiteness is established as the norm, reinforced by crude taxonomies which have no precedent elsewhere in our racist world. Attraction to any minority women – black, Asian, Latina, Arab – is construed as a deviation from the norm, whether this entails fetishisation or complete uninterest. Black women are frequently exoticised and commodified as ‘ebony’.

The Asian category, which only admits East and South East Asian women, is filled with its own stereotypes and expectations of Asian sexuality. From the first page of results for the most viewed ‘Asian’ videos, garnering a total of 317.8 million views, 56% make explicit reference to the Asianness of the female performer, while the women are persistently depicted as innocent and submissive, doing "anything" for their partner accented.

Mireille Miller-Young, author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, has pointed out that as well as its more reactionary features, "pornography has a long history of employing satire and parody to critique the powerful." This certainly applies to ‘Cheating Asian wife has a wet dream about her big-dick butler’, the fourth most popular video in the category, with over 13 million views. In this video, an Asian wife who seems incapable of speech is patronised by her old white husband, who calls her ‘my little sushi roll’ or ‘my little panda bear’, and offers to get her some ‘ricey yum yum’ before he leaves the room. Once gone she loses no time in summoning the butler, telling him she’s from New York, and explaining her past silence as a requirement for her husband’s racialised fantasy ( he ‘prefers foreign women anyway’). Her husband of course ends up cuckolded, while a particular vision of Asian female sexuality is affirmed.

Meanwhile,16% of the videos emphasise that it was the female’s ‘first’ experience of something – hardcore, anal, or just first time having sex altogether – while a further 13% portray Asian actresses in a massage setting. Many of the remaining videos played on an explicit power dynamic (which is disproportionately present in Asian pornography) such as owing debt. Docility, however, is not confined to depictions of Asian female sexuality. 40% of the most viewed videos for the search term ‘maid’ involve Latina women, who are usually presented with the same desperation to please their male counterparts. Such racialised stereotypes purportedly reflect their socioeconomic position in American society, but also serve to reinforce their discursive marginalisation, defining their sexuality in the process. As Lynsey G also notes: "every difference is a market."

As Lynsey G also notes: "every difference is a market." Some might say that such categorisation is simply an effective way to navigate the vast content of the online pornography world. But categorization is also integral to the power play involved.

Challenging the narrative?

Shine Louise Houston is an award-winning porn director from San Francisco, and one of many producers trying to challenge the narratives of mainstream pornography. In our interview, she mentioned that stereotypes — for example, that ‘Asian men are submissive’ — are also commonplace in gay porn, but that things are changing; she asserts with pride that "film-makers have a responsibility to subvert certain narratives." Her production company, Pink and White Productions, tries to live up to this maxim, specialising in queer, female and non-binary sexuality. Its website eschews racial categories altogether. “I’m not going to police or criticise people’s sexual attraction. There’s nothing wrong with exploring interracial sex, but these things are always about context,” she tells me. “Black bodies can be desired in a way that’s harmful and damaging. You’ve got to sometimes ask: ‘What stories about black women’s sexuality are these people chasing?’ The problem is when people can’t separate reality and fantasy, and people take out these perceptions into the real world.”

On straight interracial pornography, Shine laughs at the consumer obsession with interracial porn’s depiction of black sexuality, somewhere between "fear and desire." She has little reticence about voicing her own Freudian theory on the matter: “Maybe it plays on an inferiority complex. There is something psychologically unique happening in that category [...] something about repressed homosexual desire.”

Screenshot: Shine Louise Houston, writer, director of the CrashPad Series.

Shine is part of a wider movement which seeks to recalibrate the gaze of pornography from the infamous and myopic male gaze that has dominated pornography since its inception. She is not the only one who is discarding racial classification. Websites such as A Four Chambered Heart, and Foxhouse Films, have also been revising the process of labelling, categorising pornography by performers rather than along racial lines.  

The success of feminist film-makers such as Erika Lust is so profound that it did not simply trickle into mainstream consumption. It flooded it. Google Trends noted a threefold increase in the last five years. But Shine is fighting more than the patriarchal hold on pornography – she is trying to narrate the sexual experiences of “anybody excluded from the hierarchy of beauty”, marginalised people who have had their experiences glossed over by a “white, cis, missionary” establishment.

Her current project, The Crash Pad Series, is a sort of porn reality show where the participants arrive at a secret San Francisco apartment to engage in their sexual fantasies. The website hosts over 250 20-minute long episodes, boasting loudly about its inclusivity: “queer women (cis and trans), as well as trans men, cisgender men, genderqueer and other gender-variant people; performers who are femme, butch, or other gender expressions’ people of colour; people of differing abilities; people who are fat, thin, athletic; and/or otherwise; people aged 18 to over 50; people with and without tattoos or piercings; and more”. It ends with a final note: “If you don’t see yourself represented...we encourage you to apply!”

I heard whispers about the initiative a year before I conducted my interview with Shine in Rock Hard, a sex shop in San Francisco’s iconic Castro Street, metres away from a commemoration shop for the assassinated gay mayor of San Francisco, Harvey Milk, and towered over by the LGBTQ+ flag at the centre of the district. It is easy to see how Shine’s pornography thrives in such a landscape – her loyal fanbase supports her work through both paid subscriptions and IndieGoGo donations, raising tens of thousands of dollars.

However, unlike feminist pornography, her target demographic — and therefore the capacity for expansion — is limited by her niche. Although Shine has received recognition from mainstream pornography, even winning an XBiz Award, she chooses to focus on the impact on her fanbase, rather than her impact on tube empires like MindGeek (who own Pornhub and dominate the industry): “They are not porn industry’s friend and there is no way in hell I would work with them. 90% of their content is stolen [...] they hollow out companies until they can take them over.”

Erika Lust, screenplay writer, director, producer, 2012. Wikicommons/Fabrizia. Some rights reserved.

The funding

Companies like Pornhub, reliant on data mining and money made from advertisements to thrive, often find themselves in legal trouble over rights. This monetary structure means the website is prone to the same attention-seeking contests as the ones that encourage extreme and provocative content; after all, clicks equal profit.

This structure contributes to radicalising our pornographic landscape. Despite the work of people like Shine, there is a pervasive expectation for porn to be free, and it is these free websites which are shaping the worldviews of the generation coming-of-age today.

As Lynsey G told me, “People like to overlook the fact that porn is not just about sex but social dynamics.” While the porn industry is increasingly diverse, this hasn’t necessarily seeped through to the mainstream free pornography which most young people tend to watch. Perhaps porn is asking for the same solution as Jaron Lanier suggests with regards to social media: reduce the dependency on advertising and data harvesting by introducing subscription fees. Pornography, after all, is a good which requires graft to produce and this should warrant payment, just like any other product. Shine thinks that a payment model could rectify some of these problems, but adds that reforming sex education is also a fundamental prerequisite for progress.

Sex education reform

It is only the failings of sex education in the UK and elsewhere that have allowed pornography to play such a disproportionate role in shaping young people’s ideas about sex. Lynsey G. argues that “nobody is born racist. The entertainment that they [young people] are consuming is built on a legacy of the 70s and 80s," but ultimately “porn is a product that is designed to make money. It’s explicitly not designed for children and it is not the porn industry’s job to teach people about sex.”

So, what is the solution? “If somebody encouraged the porn empires to have a smidgen of a conscience,” Lynsey argues, ‘things could improve." She is optimistic about one development in particular that could move things forward. This is the decentralisation of the industry that is empowering the performer by allowing them to perform, produce and market their own content. The cam industry, for instance, gives more power to the workers to control their own depiction. But for as long as the current stranglehold by tube sites on the industry remains, both Lynsey and Shine talk about the necessary role of sex education in creating an “informed consumer” who can understand porn in its social context and the ramifications of their consumption habits. Simply put, we should start with the consumers rather than the producers.

I asked Shine about how race could best be incorporated into the forthcoming syllabus updates, she told me she didn’t believe it should be laboured, but that educators should use “examples to naturalise them [interracial relationships] ... so students can feel like ‘that person is me'." When I asked Lynsey about sex education, she was reticent about including race explicitly in any syllabus, especially because of the limited time allocated to sex education. Race should rather be included into the conversation, and in a more “open way with kids." Her solution emphasised consent – if you tackle the problems surrounding this, everything else will follow: “Pornographers normally talk about what they are comfortable doing beforehand. The problem is that this is not seen by the consumer. The scene is completely decontextualized.”

However, with few, if any, educational spaces open to discussing issues related to race in our society, will this arena and its forthcoming updates offer anything like a real opportunity to consider such thorny issues? Or should we be looking to create separate spaces for these discussions?

Bianca Laureano, the co-founder of The Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WoCSHN) and a frontline educator in the US, had some other ideas. Like Shine, she agrees that race should be dealt with frankly, but she thinks that this sometimes means taking an indirect approach:  “I approach talking about different identities indirectly. The way we are encouraged to talk about race as a topic implies separation from other forms of identity such as gender and class.”

Screenshot of Bianca Laureano interview on the LatiNegrxsSex Survey,24Magazine, 2013.

One of her activities in the classroom gets the children to write letters to "ancestors of the future", which forces them to conceptualise their own identity, who they are and who they want to be, to teach them “they are worthy and should be valued."

Her intersectional approach is rooted in the philosophy of WoCSHN, a collective of “women of various ethnic & cultural identities” who aim to “create opportunities for inclusion and retention of people of color – with a focus on women and gender expansive people of color in the fields of sexuality, sexual science, and sexology, that challenges the white supremacy these fields were built upon."

They design and sell sex education curricula to individual educators, as well as some local planned parenthood organizations and parents. These curricula can be used to supplement federally-approved curricula with additional materials and activities.

Although sex education laws differ between states, there are 8 approved comprehensive sex education curricula across the country. Bianca described these to me as “outdated”, and indeed, many erase the experiences of LGBTQ+ communities entirely. Some curricula, such as Wise Guys and Making Proud Choices, use “positive, affirmative language”, but even here she saw a need to supplement these curricula, which is where her organisation came in.

The real problem in the US is that this contrasts with around 20 abstinence-only sex education (A.O.U.M) curricula, pushed by “organisations that promote abstinence” that receive federal funding. Often, American sex education therefore does not revolve around the small print of a progressive syllabus – it is embroiled in a broader battle to provide a more fundamental and basic level of sex education. Bianca tells me that people who purchase WoCSHN’s lesson plans tend to respond positively: “People love it. The activities are very accessible for the facilitators and engaging for the students.”  But she ends with a caveat: “The people who are attracted to our curriculum already know what they’re doing. They just want it to be even better." 

In the UK, we are lucky that we do not face the same challenges, yet to the best of Bianca’s knowledge, “no curriculum yet exists that comprehensively targets what pornography is” anywhere. There are “one-off lesson plans that aren’t great."

Bianca basically takes issue with the way that pornography is approached in the syllabus: “Pornography, like STIs or pregnancy, needs to be treated as a philosophy, not a topic.” She suggests having classes on media literacy skills, or integrating this into other courses, which would “allow us to have conversations about marginalized peoples” and “would make any curriculum more engaging." This would also permit more flexibility, which is necessary given the scale of technological change. 

When I asked her about the 2020 syllabus updates, she recommended a long-term approach: “Sex education has to be taught at every grade. It has to be built into the fabric of the school system for the safety of young people.” To her, this is the only way the school can respond to the “rapidly changing” world of internet and its interaction with sex. If there isn’t the necessary infrastructure and culture within the school, she predicts the syllabus updates will already be obsolete by 2025. She also argues that “schools need to embrace a framework which deals with human rights, sexuality, and disability. Racial justice [needs to be] embedded into the classroom more generally.” This would help students have the historical and analytical frameworks to understand how race and romance interact.

It is clear that many researchers and educators are pushing at the boundaries of sex education to meet the challenges of sex in the twenty-first century. The British Ministry of Education would be wise to consult them. But it should also expand the remit for reforms beyond sex education lessons, because attitudes towards sex exist within a wider social context which goes ignored in schools. The state must abandon all prudery in the interest of rectifying the time-lag which has left a whole generation of young people to be moulded by the unfettered excesses of the porn industry. It is time to tackle pornography head-on — in and out of the classroom. In all of this, we cannot omit race from the conversation.

About the author

Jonathan Shamir is an English graduate from Cambridge University and is due to start an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. He has previously worked from OneVoice Europe, J Street and the New Israel Fund.

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