Black Women and Sex Work – Recent Research

Black women face stereotypes like the Jezebel that paint them as hypersexual. One arena that this affects Black women is in sex work. This stereotype affects Black women’s daily lives because people use this stereotype to justify White women as the standard of beauty. Below is a summary of five articles about Black women in sex work.

Sex Work in the Digital Age

One popular form of sex work occurs online through webcam modeling. Research by sociologist Angela Jones indicates that racial discrimination occurs in this industry, despite the agency it gives to women who perform as web cam models. Jones argues in her 2015 Sexuality & Culture  article that webcam models engage in body work which refers to the labor people do with their own bodies:

Racialized bodies end up with lower bodily capital in the sexual marketplace, and this seems to be exacerbated when these bodies are also female. While some online sex workers capitalize on race, this article shows that race impacts bodily capital or how body work is perceived, evaluated, and then rewarded.1

Image Credit: Jansochor

Image Credit: Jansochor

Even in the digital sphere, women of color face symbolic and structural racism in sex work that translates into lower wages and lower rankings on webcam modeling websites. This results from racist discourses about the desirability of women with a certain ‘look’ compared to others. This particularly affected Colombian women who identify as Black, since ethnocentrism weakens their appeal due both to their race and nationality.

Black Women’s Sex Work as a Form of Resistance

Much of the research on sex work tends to paint prostitution as a gendered form of exploitation that exemplifies the lack of agency women have in capitalist societies. In her 1975 Canadian Journal of African Studies article, political scientist Janet M. Burja presents a view of prostitution that suggests Black women in colonial Africa used sex work to their advantage:

Whilst accepting that the women I describe were, in a sense, “forced” into prostitution by economic necessity, I shall argue that they turned the situation into one of economic advantage. Far from being degraded by the transformation of sexual relations into a sale of services, they held their own in “respectable society” with men.2

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Black women in colonial Nairobi sold sex (and beer) to secure wages in a newly founded city that only provided jobs to men. With these wages they built homes and opened other businesses, using their wages to take care of their children and elders. Many rejected marriage, citing the lack of agency for women within such relationships. Thus, women who engaged in sex work did so in order top create andn sustain communities in a burgeoning urban area during the colonial era.

Black Women’s Sex Work and Acculturated Stress

In her 2010 Black Sexualities essay, sociologist Stephanie L. Tatum discusses how Black women sex workers labor in a racist environment that exposes them to acculturated stress:

Acculturated stress is the hostility and discomfort felt by Blacks when their interactions with Whites are negative. These interactions are preceded by discriminatory practices; hegemony is at the core of such interaction.3

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Some Black women turn to drugs to cope with the psychological distress that results from racist and sexist abuse in sex work. Tatum argues for legal protection for sex workers and access to mental health resources.

Black Women in Pornography

Historian Mirielle Miller-Young has published an extensive amount of research on Black women in pornography including her book A Taste for Brown Sugar. She writes about an ethnography of Black women sex workers in a 2010 Sexualities article titled “Putting Hypersexuality to Work: Black Women and Illicit Eroticism in Pornography.” Miller-Young argues Black women operate in the illicit erotic economy:

Illicit erotic workers employ their sexual capital, talents, and knowledges to perform sexual service work on ‘the margins’ of an economy increasingly focused on the commodification of intimacy (Agustin, 2007: 21; Zelizer, 2005).4

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While they face discrimination due to stereotypes about the accessibility and disposability of their bodies, Black women performers have also formed an ‘outlaw sexuality’ as a form of empowerment. Thus, some actresses shift to directing and producing to create a space for the expression of Black women’s sexuality independent of the White and male gaze.

Hypersexualization of Black Women

Black women must engage in a number of tactics to confront racism and colorism5 while working as exotic dancers according to research by sociologist Siobhan Brooks, author of Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. Brooks published a study in 2010 in which she interviewed women of color in Oakland, the Bronx, and Atlanta to get a perspective on how racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Black women limit their success in the exotic dance industry:

I argue that social constructs of Black and Latina women as hypersexual makes them receive less monetary value for their sexual services, thus situating them in potentially violent work environments. I expand on Patricia Hill Collins’ (2004) theory of controlling images and hypersexualization of Black bodies.6

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Brooks find that women of color with a lighter complexion used racial passing to make money, citing the customers’ and employers’ preference for non-Black women of color and multiracial women. Other women of color engaged in emotional labor to confront stereotypes of Black women as sexually aggressive and money hungry. These controlling images7 leave darker-skinned Black women in circumstances in which they earn less money or must perform hypersexuality to earn money, more often in an unsafer environment than afforded to White and light-skinned dancers.

The summaries above give insight about how stereotypes affect Black women working in the sex industry. Black women sex workers must combat the stereotypes that affect all Black women.

  1. Jones (2015) 
  2. Burja (1975), p. 215. 
  3. Tatum (2010), p.313 
  4. Miller-Young (2010), page. 224 
  5. ‘‘Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin’’ (Burke, 2008, p. 17
  6. Brooks 2010, p. 71. 
  7. see Collins(2000,2004