SOCIETY

Porn’s Race Problem

Top performers, including James Deen, say female stars routinely avoid or charge more for scenes with black men

Getty Images/National Geographic Creative
Sep 01, 2015 at 2:56 PM ET

The last four times porn star James Deen tried to cast a black male performer in a scene for his website, the female star or her agent refused. In one case, an agent using the shorthand for “interracial” texted him to say that his client “does not do IR yet.” In another, Deen asked up front via text message whether a female performer had “issues with black dudes.” She wrote back, “Personally no. Sexually, I’d rather not at this time lol.” He responded: “Racist,” then added, “I will find someone else for this scene.” She tried to save face, writing, “I’m only 5 months in. Havnt done IR yet.”

In the porn business, working with black male actors is often viewed as the final, most extreme frontier in a white starlet’s career. Popular industry wisdom has it that a female performer must slowly expand the range of things that she does on camera—going from standard “boy-girl” scenes to anal sex to gang bangs, for example—in order to build intrigue and keep her star from burning out too quickly. This hierarchy usually proceeds according to which sex acts are considered most taboo and, sometimes, most physically demanding for the female performer. But “interracial” porn, which is frequently seen as the ultimate feat for an actress, is held out as more extreme not because of which body part goes where but because the adult industry reflects the old attitude society still holds on to that the color of a sexual partner’s skin can by itself make the act forbidden.

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“It’s gross and racist, and I’m just sick of it,” says Deen. “It’s rampant shit that’s making it really difficult to actually get any sort of interesting scenes or to actually have a diverse group of performers because what ends up inevitably happening is every scene just turns into a bunch of white people and it’s getting really frustrating.”

The term “interracial” porn is misleading—hence the scare quotes—because it generally isn’t applied to scenes between a white woman and, say, an Asian man. “It simply means ‘a black person,’” says Isiah Maxwell, an African-American performer. And, Maxwell says, it can simply mean a black man, regardless of the woman’s race. “It don’t make any sense when a mixed girl tells me she don’t want to do IR,” says Maxwell. “I’m like, you’re already IR! What are you talking about?”

Maxwell says he has seen this mentality impact his career. “[Producers will] tell me that they would love to put me in more scenes, but they can’t find performers that will work with me,” he says. “The concept is mind-blowing if you think about it.”

“In some ways in mainstream porn there’s this idea that black women aren’t as marketable, that we’re not as innocent as, say, a blonde white girl.”—Nikki Darling

Porn performer Mickey Mod has had similar experiences. He’s African-American, but has “a little bit of a lighter complexion,” as he puts it, so sometimes people assume from photographs that he’s Latino. A few times, he has shown up on set, only to have his female co-star inquire about his ethnicity, and react negatively when he answers. “I’ve had the scene stopped because the person was like, ‘Well, I don’t do interracial yet’ or ‘I’m saving that for later,’” he said. “That’s happened a couple times where I’m booked for a scene and the scene is changed.”

Even porn’s pay scale has racist implications. A standard “boy-girl” scene generally earns a female star around $1,000, according to Mark Spiegler, one of the industry’s top talent agents. After that, pay often increases with the degree of difficulty or taboo of the scene. Anal sex comes with a price tag of roughly $1,200 and up, and double penetration runs around $1,400, says Spiegler. Spiegler’s agency does not charge extra for “interracial,” but others do.

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Deen recently had an actress request an extra $500 to perform with a black man. In the case of contracts with big companies, female stars can get $2,000-plus for their first “IR” scene, according to one black performer who asked to remain anonymous so as to not associate that rate with the agency that employs him. In other words, in monetary terms, these agents, performers and producers are saying that simply having sex with a black man is about 43 percent more difficult—or more taboo, or both—for the actress in the scene than it is for her to have two penises inside her at the same time.

Some in the industry write this off as additional compensation for female performers to work with men with much larger penises. Non-“interracial” porn has genres that highlight significantly endowed men—even by the adult industry’s standards—having sex with petite women too, though. (Although when “IR” porn highlights such size differentials, it’s often in racialized scenes calling back to the oldest and crudest of stereotypes about black men.) And, Deen points out, most men in the industry are well-hung, regardless of their race. “There are plenty of white guys in the industry whose dicks are just as big or bigger than some of the black performers,” he says. Besides, these calls about “IR” are made without any attention to individual penis size. “It’s just a skin color rate,” says Deen.

“Once, while [Mickey] Mod was acting in a cuckolding scene featuring a white couple, the director instructed the performer playing to the husband to exclaim, ‘No, I don’t want you to have his black babies!’ Mod politely suggested a slight revision: ‘I don’t want you to have his babies!’”

Black performers, on the other hand, do not typically get extra compensation for “interracial” scenes. “It doesn’t bother me that the girls are getting paid more for interracial scenes, it bothers me that the guys aren’t getting paid more as well,” says Maxwell. It is some small comfort that they command rates similar to those paid to their white male colleagues, at least according to estimates by the black male performers with whom Vocativ spoke.

The same cannot be said for African-American women, who reportedly earn half to three-quarters of what white women make in porn. “As a black female performer, often times you have to enter into the industry doing everything—doing anal, doing boy-girl, doing all this stuff,” says Nikki Darling, an African-American performer. The reason for that, she says, is that agents assume that black women will have shorter careers anyway, so there’s no point in staging a gradual escalation of taboos. “In some ways in mainstream porn there’s this idea that black women aren’t as marketable, that we’re not as innocent as, say, a blonde white girl,” she says.

Porn might not seem a high-priority area for inclusion of African-Americans, but Mod argues that it’s important. “We’re at a time when everybody is very aware of how people of color are treated in this country, when it comes to shootings and violence, and I think a large part of that is the way we represent people of color as they are in their everyday life,” he says. “I think positive perceptions of sexuality is a big part of that.”

When scenes do feature black men, it’s often in highly stereotyped premises and plots. “You show up [on set] and they’re like, ‘Here’s the situation: she’s at home, she just got home from school and you break into the house,’” Mod says. “I don’t know a performer who [hasn’t gotten to set] and then finds out, oh, OK, I’m playing a drug dealer today—or, oh, OK, I’m this really inappropriate stereotype.”

Once, while Mod was acting in a cuckolding scene featuring a white couple, the director instructed the performer playing the husband to exclaim, “No, I don’t want you to have his black babies!” Mod politely suggested a slight revision: “I don’t want you to have his babies!”

In that case, the director agreed, but often enough Mod has been the one to compromise. “There are times where I’m like, ‘All right, this is what I’ve chosen to do,’” he says. “And maybe this company doesn’t do it in such a way that I feel horrible about myself—but at the same time, I understand that it is being marketed toward this certain demographic.” That demographic sometimes includes, as Maxwell puts it, “people that are silently racist and secretly watch it.” He believes “it turns them on, the idea of their race against a race they find themselves superior to.”

There are some female stars who avoid “IR” for exactly this reason. “I know some performers who don’t do interracial scenes because of the way that scenes are portrayed and will only do certain scenes with certain companies because they don’t want to reinforce stereotypes that that they think are damaging,” says Mod.

Not all pornography featuring black performers traffics in stereotypes. There has been a movement of black female directors who “re-appropriate their images for their own profit and politics,” as academic Mireille Miller-Young put it in “The Feminist Porn Book.” Then there are people like Deen, who cast—or at least try to—with a blind eye to ethnicity. (Sometimes, though, the end product is out of their hands. The director of one of Mod’s films wanted to sell it in non-racialized terms, but the production company insisted on putting “black” in the title.) Darling says she has encountered much less racism and stereotyping when she has worked on productions outside of the mainstream porn industry, particularly in BDSM.

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Porn that is marketed as “IR,” though, tends to skew toward troubling stereotypes. But mainstream porn traffics in all sorts of troubling stereotypes, not just racist ones. Disturbing as these portrayals may be, they tend to be an honest reflection of our cultural baggage. “Everything is put on the performers to be held morally responsible—thing is, porn is a fast food model. We wouldn’t make the things if people weren’t buying the things,” Mod says. “When people want highly problematic racialized content, people make those scenes—and they do really well.”

Success in the porn industry tends to require a certain level of respect for fantasy, even when it ventures into the politically incorrect. In this case, though, the hiring and payment practices for black performers ventures well beyond the world of just make-believe. As Mod sees it, some self-reflection is needed on the part of female performers and, more so, their agents. “What is it about this taboo that still needs to exist in 2015?” he asks. “What is it about the way we stigmatize people of color as being less-than that [a white performer] needs to get paid more-than for a scene?”