The sexual labor of Black women in pornography, according to historian Mireille Miller-Young, is part of their long struggle to occupy their bodies. Typically, Black feminist writers take an anti-porn stance but Miller-Young argues that porn actresses offer a more nuanced analysis of the genre because they see themselves as empowering Black fans.
Miller-Young interviewed approximately 60 Black women while simultaneously building an archive on Black pornography and erotica. She published this work in the book A Taste for Brown Sugar. The book explores Black women’s sexuality in the pornography industry and traces the cultural discourse around racialized sexuality.
Brown Sugar – The Popular Imaginary of Black women
The concept of “Brown Sugar” refers to the societal belief that Black women are desirable yet deviant. It reflects the fetishization of Black women that characterizes them as the embodiment of hypersexuality.
Yet, brown sugar long served as a source of profit for Western capitalist economies and nation-states. Indeed, the growth of colonial states relied on the sexual labor of Black women for the purpose of reproducing the plantation complex.
“Brown Sugar” also highlights how culture and the global economy has historically used Black women’s sexuality to justify the consumption of Black women’s labor and bodies:
Brown sugar, as a trope, illuminates circuits of domination over black women’s bodies and exposes black women’s often ignored contributions to the economy, politics, and social life. Like sugar that has dissolved without a trace, but has nonetheless sweetened a cup of tea, black women’s labor and the mechanisms that manage and produce it are invisible but nonetheless there.1
Miller-Young compares the treatment of Black women’s sexuality by larger society to the sugar refining process that turns brown sugar white, treating it as in need of refinement and manipulation. Thus, popular discourse of Black women as naturally savage, super-sexual beings flavors popular taste while holding white women held up as ideal, there’s still a taste for the real thing.
Pornography as Culture and Industry
Miller-Young notes that “Brown Sugar” also conveys adoration, loveliness, intimacy, lust, sensuality, sex, sweetness, affection, and respect. Porn stars like Jeannie Pepper, one of the first in the industry, took advantage of racial fetishism, choosing to play tropes like the “voodoo girl” in porn films in an effort to avoid being cast as the maid:
Her performance attempts to reterritorialize the always already exploitable black female body as a potential site of self- governing desire, subjectivity, dependence and relation with others, and erotic pleasure.2
Miller-Young defines pornography as the genre of mass-produced materials designed to arouse or titillate. The material of porn has existed and been regulated at least since the nineteenth century. Miller-Young notes that pornography has effects on several aspects of sex, race, and gender:
- Cultural – Pornography creates a moral panic around sex-based on fears of bad sex
- Economic – The “pornification” of sex has led to mass production and consumption of pornography
- Political – Pornography coincides with increased state suppression, censorship, and regulation of perceived sexual “obscenities”
- Racialization – Historically, behind-the-scenes dynamics exclude Black people from production. Additionally, Black women
Black women must deal with racialization in pornography in particular:
Black women’s images in hardcore porn show that the titillation of pornography is inseparable from the racial stories it tells. A central narrative is that black women are both desirable and undesirable objects: desirable for their supposed difference, exoticism, and sexual potency, and undesirable because these very same factors threaten or compromise governing notions of feminine sexuality, heterosexual relations, and racial hierarchy. Pornography did not create these racial stories, these fraught imaginings of black being and taboo interactions across racial difference, but it uses them.3
Miller-Young argues Black women in porn simultaneously subvert and perpetuate sexual norms. They tactically use the performative labor of hypersexuality to give more meaning to their erotic lives. Black women porn actresses thus manage to complicate the myth of the hypersexual Black women that concealed sexual exploitation facilitated through a double focus on Black women’s bodies. This form of voyeurism frames itself as a type of gaze that does not look and enjoys its object of focus while simultaneously othering that object.
Illicit eroticism – Hypersexuality and the Black Woman’s Body
Miller-Young describes illicit eroticism as a framework to understand how Black women put hypersexuality to work in an effort to confront the taboo and history of Black women’s sexuality. As a result, they represent and manipulate the racialization of sexuality through erotic capital.
According to Miller-Young, illicit eroticism describes how cultural workers defined as illicit enact a repertoire of skills and theories distinct to sexual and sexualized labor to negotiate the normative public sphere:
Illicit eroticism conceptualizes how these actors use sexuality in ways that necessarily confront and manipulate discourses about their sexual deviance while remaining tied to a system that produces them as marginalized sexual laborers.4
The illicit eroticism of Black women emerges in a sexual economy wherein Black women face pay disparity and lack of opportunity as well as racially biased treatment thus devaluing their erotic worth. Some Black women carve out space and fabricate themselves as marketable and desirable by pursuing the porn star ideal.
Miller-Young builds her concept of illicit eroticism on Robin D.G. Kelley’s play labor . The commodification of sexuality allows Black working-class women to negotiate the existing political economy using their corporeal resources. Considering the alternatives, the choice of sex work is restrained. Black women made these choices for personal and community survival motivated by income and sexual pleasure. Gaining fame in the industry is then a motivation to gain the erotic capital of women like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj.
Due to hypersexualization, Black women must acknowledge the pain, trauma, and abuse in their lives. Still, they use these performances to negotiate these experiences on their own terms. They are however burdened with representing the Black race:
Black women’s counterstrategies of representation involve at times attempting to play the stereotype in order to reverse or go beyond it. At other times they offer alternative, more complex images of black sexuality, or they may refuse the roles altogether.5
For example, porn star Angel Kelly was one of the first Black women to win an exclusive contract from an adult film production company in the 1980s. Kelly describes how she had to deal with stereotypes and was pressured into playing a voodoo woman, though she didn’t want to play it. Even when the company decided not to air, they still took the scenes and put it in another film. Thus Black women must struggle with the power of the industry over the body.
Erotic Sovereignty and Sexual Agency
Miller-Young describes erotic sovereignty as a process wherein sexual subjects aspire and move toward self-rule, collective affiliation, and intimacy in opposition to the territorializing power of the dominant state and society. This process uses racialized sexuality to assert a complicated notion of subjecthood that includes the constraints of social stigma, stereotypes, stratification, policing, divestment, segregation, and exploitation facilitated by neoliberalism.
Miller-Young builds her argument on Saba Mahmood’s definition of agency: “The capacity for action that historically specific relations of subordination enable and create”6which exists along a continuum that includes resistance, progressive change, or the ability to endure. For Miller-Young, agency is a dialectical fact of complex personhood within larger relations of subordination that vary across historical and temporal contexts.
1 Miller-Young 2014: 4
2 Miller-Young 2014:16
3 Miller-Young 2014:9
4 Miller-Young 2014: 16
5 Miller-Young 2014: 15
6 Mahmood 2001:203