Sex

Your porn is racist. These Black performers are fighting back.

Battling years of institutional discrimination, here’s how minority performers are poisoning the internet’s porn algorithms.

WIN-Initiative

Around five years ago, performer and artist King Noire got booked to shoot with porn studio Assylum.

He would be the first Black man on their site, which usually casts women as patients and men as doctors or orderlies in a mock asylum setting.

“They wanted me to be a janitor,” says Noire. When he asked if they could change his role to a doctor or orderly, he was told the scene had already been written. “This isn’t Shakespeare in the Park,” Noire says. “I’m pretty sure they could change it.” But Assylum refused, Noire says, so he declined the shoot. (Assylum did not respond to Input’s request for comment.)

“They wanted me to be a janitor.”

Assylum is one of several adult companies with which Noire refuses to work because they perpetuate racist stereotypes. Others include Black Patrol (where white women dressed as police assault Black men), DogFart, and Ghetto Gaggers. Sites like these are alarmingly racist, but they and other porn destinations perpetuate racism in more insidious ways, too—through video titles and tags. “A white woman will be called ‘queen of anal,’ [while] a Black woman is called ‘hip hop whore,’” Noire says.

In a recent set of adult industry panels called Flip the Script, hosted by BDSM and fetish site Kink.com, BIPOC performers, advocates, and activists brought up the thoughtful manipulation of SEO as one way to help make the industry more inclusive and less prone to stereotyping.

Even for porn, isn't this in bad taste?400tmax/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

Sir Jon Julius, performer, videographer, and co-creator of Black Porn Matters (which emphasizes the simple idea that “porn can be sexy without degrading anyone”), said on one Flip the Script panel that performers can agree to tag their porn with empowering rather than racist hashtags. “Take a lesson from the hackers,” he said. “If you want to take over a hashtag, overwhelm the feed with your content.”

As Noire, who participated in that panel, later told me, “If people already have negative ideas of how they’re going to search for you, that’s also how they’re going to treat you in the world.”

Tags are crucial to adult performers’ discoverability online. Porn tastes are specific, and searches fired off in the heat of horniness will only pick up aptly labeled content. Unfortunately, many widely used tags reflect the porn industry’s deeply ingrained racism, in which “interracial” scenes are almost always code for a white woman having sex with a Black man—scenes for which white women tend to get paid above their average rates and more than their Black counterparts.

Tags are crucial to adult performers’ discoverability online.

Performers’ views on whether tags need to change vary. “I’m very unsure of what my position is on SEO and tags,” says performer Dillon Diaz, who also participated in the Flip the Script panel. “Some of it is needed to be able to find what one is looking for, but some of it may also be fetishizing and exploitive. Finding where the line is drawn is hard.”

Producer/performer Hektek says changing the tags in his video descriptions could hurt his and other Black performers’ business. BBC, for instance, is “one of the biggest categories that people look for,” he says. Removing it would “minimize who’s able to be seen, because…that’s a tag that we normally put on our content.”

Tags that perpetuate racial stereotypes don’t bother Hektek so much, he says, because he’s in the business of portraying fantasies. Others accept that catering to potential viewers is key, even if it doesn’t fit with how they personally identify.

If you're a femme non-binary performer, how much should you bend to marketability?VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

“I identify as non-binary, but because that hasn’t hit the general consciousness of the adult industry, I say ‘girl’ because that’s what people who want to buy my content will be looking for,” says performer and marketing expert Amberly Rothfield. Still, Rothfield dislikes most tags that center race—“interracial” in particular.

“I grew up watching my very dark skinned dad walk across the street from my mom when we would go places to avoid confrontation,” they say. Tagging porn as “interracial,” Rothfield adds, “perpetuates the stigma that this person shouldn’t be having sex with that person.”

Ceasing to use terms that perpetuate stereotypes doesn’t have to mean burying porn content. Destinee, chair of the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective’s communications committee and a social media manager, says getting rid of terms like “‘exotic’ and ‘BBC’ is long overdue.” She suggests ways to avoid those terms that still make content easily searchable online.

Finding where the line is drawn is hard.”

For example, performers can focus on their bios, social media usernames, and performer names by making sure that they have multiple pages linking back to those terms. Incorporating positive but specific tags into various bios and web pages can increase performers’ visibility—like “Queen of Soles” for those specializing in foot fetishes.

A petition to end racism and wage discrimination in porn suggests “expanding” performer descriptions “beyond ethnicity” to include things like hair color and body type. “I would like to see Black kink and BDSM, Black fetish, Black queer love, Black queer sex, [and] Black trans folks,” says Destinee. Terms like these would help bring porn out from the “cis white male gaze” that it’s been under for so long.

“It’s more problematic to not have a wide array of titles or tags,” says Noire, explaining that tube sites (like Pornhub and Xvideos) cater to tags already in their systems. A user could perform a respectful search, but their results will come up with the derogatory tags regularly used on the site, teaching that person to search those terms in the future. Meanwhile, searching “hot babe” on major tube sites will lead to screens full of thin, white women.

We need to start using empowering tags.Bob Thomas/The Image Bank/Getty Images

It’s a self-fulfilling cycle. Racism begets racist tags, performers need to use those tags to be found, so people keep searching racist terms to find those performers.

In June, Rolling Stone reported on performers trying to oust racist titles—featuring words like “ghetto,” “ebony,” and the n-word—from Pornhub. The idea was to upload so much positive content featuring Black talent that it would displace the racist titles and ultimately affect the site’s algorithm. While it’s unclear how well that worked, it follows in the style of successful “SEO poisoning” tactics that hackers use to flood search engine results. Their links take the top search spots, making the original results less visible.

Re-labeling porn performers online is also not without precedent. In December 2017, the Internet Adult Film Database re-categorized misgendered trans performers on its site at the behest of trans porn site Grooby. The task was daunting, and IAFD wanted to “get it right,” its webmaster Jeff Vanzetti said in a press release. That desire “tied us in knots,” he added. “We didn’t want to ‘get it wrong’ so we didn’t do anything; but we realized…that in not acting at all, our current position ‘gets it wrong.’” Changing the database to reflect performers’ gender identities ended up entailing “minor tweaks.”

The movement has gone mainstream.Ollie Millington/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Cam and clip sites may help decrease the use of harmful search terms. ManyVids and iWantClips, which used to have “all kinds of strange tags based around race play,” says Noire, “have really tried to clean shit up over the last four or five months.” On OnlyFans, customers don’t search by tag, but rather for specific creators.

Ultimately, the issues plaguing porn are those of systemic racism. Unequal pay, hiring discrimination, and people of color not occupying many positions of power have to change for BIPOC representation in the porn industry to improve.

But it’s possible to affect change at the grassroots level. Kerri LaBouche, a trans performer who identifies as biracial, says she started using “less derogatory” tags for her content because she saw other trans performers doing it first. The use of uplifting tags was catching.

The issues plaguing porn are those of systemic racism.

“I’ve seen positive changes when people use these tags to promote [their content],” LaBouche says. “If we can use more positive terms to describe our porn, not only would it create a more positive space for workers to perform…it could also shed some light,” LaBouche adds, showing other performers, industry workers, and the porn-viewing public how performers want to be seen. “With those terms, we feel more human.”