Late last month, several porn companies’ statements of support for Black Lives Matter were met with intense skepticism from black performers. In response to a statement of solidarity sent by the porn site Brazzers to “black talent, members, colleagues and fans,” performer Kristi Maxx responded, “Cool! Thanks. We would love for y’all to diversify your talent and shoot more black women.” Performer Lasha Lane responded similarly to a tweet from Vixen: “Start by hiring more black models instead of just tweeting perhaps.” The next day, performer Ricky Johnson started a thread detailing his and other black performers’ experiences of racism in the business. Soon, performers across the industry were weighing in with accounts of discriminatory hiring practices and pay, including white women being rewarded with lucrative contracts for their first so-called “interracial” scene. The conversation quickly moved beyond Johnson’s popular thread, as performers deconstructed industry-wide racism, from white performers’ racism to race-based pay disparities and racist film tropes.
For decades, black performers have risked their careers by speaking out about these issues, only to be “met with massive resistance and silencing tactics,” Mireille Miller-Young, professor of feminist studies at University of California, Santa Barbara and author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, said in an email. Now, performers are agitating en masse while buoyed by historical global protests against racism and police brutality. The dangers of speaking out about industry racism have always been the possibility of losing work, but amid a covid-19 production hold, which was just recently lifted for certain productions, many performers have turned to self-produced content on subscription sites like Onlyfans, freeing them from more traditional revenue streams and the silence they often demand. “It’s possible that having the safety net of our own content is emboldening more to speak up,” said performer Kira Noir.
The day after Johnson posted his tweet, the industry trade publication AVN announced that the company would no longer use the terms “interracial” and “IR” in its coverage as well as remove “interracial” and “ethnic” categories from the AVN Awards, the so-called “Oscars of porn.” Vixen Media Group, which owns Blacked, a site that largely features white women having sex with black men, followed, announcing it was addressing “certain terms and keywords that have emerged as sensitive, controversial or problematic.” (It’s unclear whether that applies to the site’s name, but Rolling Stone’s Ej Dickson reports that Blacked is now doing away with the use of “BBC,” short for Big Black Cock, and “interracial” in marketing copy.) In at least one case, a white performer vowed to stop appearing in racist scenes. Last week, a coalition of over a dozen talent agencies pledged to address pay disparities related to “the color of a person’s skin, race, ethnicity, religion or creed.”
For many, this feels like a make-or-break moment. “The industry as a whole has never listened to the voices of black performers,” performer Ana Foxxx told Jezebel. “I’ve spoken up on issues in the industry countless times and it’s not until recently that I’ve seen the needle move. The potential for change is now. If change doesn’t happen we will be lost and divided as an industry.”
“Interracial” and “IR” are terms routinely used within the business to specifically refer to scenes featuring white women and black men. White women performers are sometimes encouraged to wait for their first “IR” scene in order to land a lucrative, exclusive contract. The idea is that an interracial scene is a sort of taboo and part of a series of extreme acts, thus a white woman performer with a large fanbase can “hold out” and command a big check for her “first IR.” As performer Kira Noir explained, white women performers “often refuse to shoot with black men until they get a high offer from companies for their first IR.” Noir recalls doing a days-long reality-TV style porn shoot in which the black men on-set were pulled aside and instructed to “not touch a few of the girls,” because those women performers had not yet shot a partnered scene with a black man and “were still holding out for extra money to do so.”
The idea is that to prolong her career, a white woman performer gradually works her way through a succession of ever-more-“extreme” acts, beginning with “girl-girl” scenes, moving on to hetero pairings or “boy-girl,” first anal, and so on. For those who choose to strategically delay a “first IR” scene, it’s often one of the final firsts in that progressive succession. The implications of this mild-to-extreme positioning, the apportioning of “boy-girl” scenes based on skin color, are patently racist—and yet it is a widespread practice in the industry.
A talent agent who spoke with Jezebel on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions, said that a white woman performer’s “first IR” contract can pay anywhere from one-and-a-half to 10 times the typical “boy-girl” rate of $1,000, which is to say: between $1,500 and $10,000. Sometimes, white women performers maintain higher rates for “IR,” (an “IR rate”) even after a first exclusive contract, although that is less common. As the anonymous agent put it, “It’s not welcomed.” Still, it happens. In 2016, an adult talent agency sent out an email announcing that for Black History Month, its white performers would be “doing IR [boy-girl] scenes at their lowest rate.”
On June 12, the coalition of agencies pledging to address race-based payment specifically agreed to adopt a policy applying to “IR rates” as well as lucrative, “first IR” contracts, according to the anonymous agent. (A second agent confirmed this.) It remains to be seen how this will play out in practice, and across this group of agencies, but the anonymous agent said that they, personally, will not be negotiating any exclusive contracts centering around “IR.”
Race-based pay disparities in porn go back “until at least the early 1990s” when the “interracial” genre took off, said Miller-Young, whose book takes a historical look at the experiences of black women performers in the adult industry. “Agents encourage white porn actresses to demand this higher fee for performing with Black men because they believe it devalues white actresses’ erotic capital in a marketplace that prizes white women’s racial purity,” she added. “White actresses can capitalize on this idea—long part of the American miscegenation drama—that interracial sex with Black men puts white women’s racial purity at risk.” Similarly, performer Mickey Mod argues, “You’re setting up a system where white women need to be rewarded for being not pristine. You are literally financially protecting white superiority in that model.”
This system can also provide the illusion of cover for white women performers’ racism: “Girls sometimes use the contract in order to not work with black people,” said performer Isiah Maxwell.
Both “IR rates” and “first IR” paydays are one-sided. “White women can demand extra money to shoot with a black man, while black men get the same rate regardless of the race of their scene partner,” explained Noir. (A select few black men may be hired into exclusive “IR” contracts, but it’s not framed around a “first.”) Black women performers do not have the option of holding out for a lucrative, exclusive contract to perform with a white man. That would be “laughable,” said Noir.
“As a black woman I had to come open, ready for the taking,” said performer Lotus Lain. “I didn’t get a transition, first girl-girl then going softcore boy-girl then doing some group scenes. No, I had to be literally available for anything.”
“They don’t show room for the innocence of black girlhood,” she added. “A black girl is expected to come into the industry ready for it all.” This is an institutionalized reflection of the racism undergirding sexist constructions of the good girl/bad girl: White women are afforded far more movement within that binary in a way women of color, particularly black women, are not. “We start out as virgins as well,” Lain said with a laugh.
Not only are black performers’ choices limited, but, according to Miller-Young, they make half to three-quarters of what white performers make per scene. As Foxxx put it, “We’re all fucking on camera. Why is a white woman worth so much more?”
The high-profile site Blacked is often mentioned in industry conversations around race-related pay, but emphatically denies that it pays “IR” rates. Its parent company Vixen Media Group (VMG) confirmed to Jezebel that Blacked signs contracts with women performers to exclusively shoot for its site, which is almost entirely dedicated to black men having sex with white women. VMG emphasizes that it does this “across all of its platforms in all of the categories of content it produces,” and argued that “commercial projects will always have greater value when they are marketed as exclusive rather than as non-exclusive.” The difference, though, between an exclusive contract for Tushy, VMG’s anal sex themed site, and Blacked is that the exclusivity is framed around a sex act as opposed to the color of a co-star’s skin. The sense of exclusivity comes not just from avoiding the site’s competitors during the contract, but from the advertisement of a “first.”
There are several examples of women performers promoting their Blacked premiere as their “first IR.” Last year, a promotional email from Blacked read, “YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST INTERRACIAL” and “WATCH MORE FIRST IR SCENES.” As performer Ginger Banks explained in a tweet, she was advised to “hold off working with black performers until I was AS BIG AS POSSIBLE, so I could get a huge check from Blacked for my first ‘IR’ scene.”
“It’s a really lucrative deal,” performer Ashley Aleigh said of Blacked’s contracts. “[White women performers] would rather do that than do the right thing, which is turn down an offer from the company and demand that they change the name, which performers have been asking for for years.” A couple weeks ago, producers from Blacked set up a call with a few black performers, said Johnson, who used to shoot for the site. “They wanted to ask questions like, ‘Is the word ‘BBC’ offensive? Is the title Blacked an issue for you?’” The subject of exclusive Blacked contracts marketed as “firsts” also arose on the call, according to Johnson. “From a business standpoint it’s smart, but from a moral standpoint, I don’t really agree with it,” he said.
These labels are an artifact of the VHS era when a labeling system emerged that was designed to “ensure discretion for the consumer so they could find materials based on their own sexual preference or proclivities without asking for guidance from the store owner,” Miller-Young explained. “Labels like ‘Ebony,’ ‘Interracial,’ and ‘Ethnic’ didn’t just exploit gross stereotypes about non-white people, they produced entire genres of pornography that arose not from real categories of people and types of sexuality, but from the imagination of white desire for blackness as the ultimate sexual thrill,” she added.
Foxxx wants to see that labeling change and hates having been categorized as “ebony.” Similarly, Johnson would also like to see the “IR” label disappear. “It’s a business and people are going to do what they want in terms of business,” he said. “But at some point, your morality has to come into effect.”
But the industry’s racism runs deeper than mere porn categories. Sometimes black performers shoot what seems like an innocuous scene only to see an offensive title slapped onto it. Once, Foxxx performed in a movie titled Black Facials Matter. “I couldn’t believe that multiple people were OK with that decision,” she said. (It is one of several porn titles riffing on Black Lives Matter.) When black women are paired with white men, said performer Lasha Lane, it’s often framed as “my black girlfriend,” “my ghetto girl,” or “some nasty ho.” Speaking to directors and producers, she said, “We can’t have you trying to depict us as ‘ghetto girls’ and ‘gangsters’ and ‘thots’ all the time. We’re more than that,” she said. “They don’t see us in the full package and spectrum as they do with white actresses.” Tee Reel, a performer and agent, said that for black men “the perpetuated stereotype of having a big dick is necessary to even be considered in this industry.”
Needless to say, this all can profoundly impact black performers’ experiences. “It was a while before I was in a scene where… it was just like I’m a person, where I felt like a human,” said Johnson. Aleigh said she wants to see “more scenes of us that are not necessarily ‘interracial’ scenes or focused on the fact that we’re black.”
Frequently, black performers are forced to decide on-the-spot whether to participate in a shoot with racist tropes, having not been given a script until shortly before the shoot, or even day-of while on set. When Donald Trump was running for office, Mod was asked to portray Barack Obama in a porn parody. He enthusiastically agreed. Then, late the night before the shoot, he got the script, which described Obama breaking into Trump’s house while holding a gun and then having sex with Melania. Mod decided against doing the shoot.
The typecasting of black performers often translates to less work, especially for black women. Countless times, directors have told Aleigh that they would like to continue shooting with her, but they’ve already shot her too much already. “They’re telling me that because of my race,” she said. “They’re telling me: We’ve already shot our black-girl quota for the month.” She continued, “Meanwhile, they will shoot the same white, blonde girl a million times.” Foxxx said she likes to consider herself a top black performer, but she works “half as much” as her white counterparts. “There are far fewer opportunities for black women to work,” said Foxxx. “We have to wait for the ‘black movie’ to come around and then only four black women can shoot.” It’s rare, she added, for a black woman to get a leading feature role.
Performer Demi Sutra recalled that when she first got into the industry in Miami, she was told by her then-agent that, because she was black, she “would never work with attractive models.” That agent arranged her first shoot, which ended up being in a hotel room with a single camera—and the director was also her co-star. “I was told I was pimped out because I’m black and that’s how it works,” she said. A later agent told her that in order to be successful she needed to “whiten up” and that her “hair wouldn’t work.” She left the industry as a result, but then she came back, deciding to “play the game,” as she put it. “I said ‘yes’ to everything,” she said. “You want to straighten my hair? Yes. You want me to say this? Yes. You want to shoot me for WeFuckBlackGirls.com? Yes.” Her career took off.
Earlier this year, during a Valentine’s Day-themed shoot for the site Deeper, Sutra, Foxxx, and two other black women performers were asked to pose for photos with bananas. Soon after, Sutra said, she and her costars discussed the potential for racist readings and references in the images and she raised the issue with Kayden Kross, the shoot’s director. In response, Kross said that the bananas—as well as strawberries, dipping chocolate, and glitter—were sourced as themed props. “I did not recognize the bananas to be especially problematic at the time, though I now understand why this could be sensitive and regret this decision,” she said in a statement. The photos were “destroyed,” said Kross.
Sutra, who also took issue with broader circumstances of the shoot, said her now-former agent told her that commenting publicly about the experience would destroy her career. This is often the precarious position of black performers: Not only lower pay, racist typecasting, and limited job opportunities, but also consequences for speaking out.
The industry, perpetually facing conservative, moralistic attacks, places a needful emphasis on the importance of free speech. Taboo and politically incorrect content is often defended on the grounds of sexual make-believe, as performances that portray a mere fantasy. But this argument falls apart when it comes to the institutionalization of the “IR” genre, which has a real-world material impact on black performers. “No line can be drawn between race-based fantasies and real-world racism in porn because these fantasies directly and profoundly impact Black performers’ labor and experiences in the industry,” said Miller-Young. “In fact, the disparities we see around race in the porn industry—in pay, opportunity, budgets, set conditions, advertising and promotion, and the treatment of porn actors—are directly tied to race-based fantasies that portray Black people as threatening or subservient, ghetto or grotesque, and ultimately less valuable and desirable than whites.”
Mod draws a direct line between the industry’s inaction on racism, despite performers repeatedly speaking out over the years, and its portrayal of black people. “It’s easy to respond with nothing when you dehumanize people,” said Mod. And, of course, fantasy itself doesn’t exist outside of cultural and political reality. Race-based scenarios often draw on racism.
He also argues that race-based fantasies have an impact on viewers. “The shitty images that we put out impact how my nephew thinks about his sexuality and his worth in the world,” he said. Mod will have conversations with his 20-something nephew about relationships that leave him thinking, “Where do you get this idea about how your sexuality is supposed to be aggressive or that all white girls want a ‘BBC’? And I’m like, fuck, that’s me, I’m responsible for that, I’m somehow complicit in that.” Lain said that she grew up without “seeing many images of porn that had glamorous visions of black women,” which impacted her own sense of what her sexuality should look like. “Porn does shape people’s sexual personalities and shapes our ideas of ourselves,” she argued. Black women, Lain added, “are boxed in in the way we can express ourselves.”
Last week, Mod agreed to help moderate a town hall on race hosted by the trade publication XBIZ, but said, “Everybody wants to hear black performers speak, but there’s no acknowledgment,” said Mod, who has been speaking out on these issues for years, including in a story I wrote back in 2015. (He asked me whether I recalled that years-ago article having any impact. As far as I recall, there was none.) “There’s no action after the conversation,” he said. As a result, he is not feeling optimistic about the potential of this moment to meaningfully change the industry.
“Everybody wants to take this half step and then they’re done,” said Mod. “You’re just getting started.”