Representation In Porn, Or A Lack Thereof, And Why It Matters

We need better pornography.
Publish date:
December 18, 2014
pornography, the frisky, inequality, porn industry, Sex,, Social Issues

Have you ever wondered what racial representation looks like in porn versus the United States population? Well, I have.

I get tired of conventional porn sometimes, and I want to see porn with women especially, but people in general, who aren’t going “ooohnnnn ooohhhhhnnn ohhhhhnnn” like seals throughout the movie, or who aren’t skinny, or who aren’t young, or who aren’t white, or who aren’t conventional-looking, or who are engaging in sex acts that they really, really, really love of their own accord rather than being just sort of down to do because it’s their job. That’s why I love Beautiful Agony (just assume that none of the links in this post are safe for work) — it’s all orgasms, it’s all very understated, it’s a pure celebration of pleasure, and lots of different kinds of people are represented. It’s also why I love the Art-Porn Tumblr: there’s at least some diversity, there’s a lot of kink — real kink — and many of the photographers and directors portray sex in a way that doesn’t feel so … I don’t know. Gratuitous. There’s nothing wrong with gratuitous, conventional porn, of course, I just get tired of it. It’s made for a male audience, and I’m not male. I want to see something different.

Other “art porn” sites like Yes.XXX and The Art Porn are disappointing, to me. Part of it has to do with the fact that a lot of their videos are soft-focus and saccharine, and for someone who likes kink, it’s really uncomfortable to watch. But it doesn’t even seem that different than conventional porn. It’s supposedly more woman-friendly, but that’s only true if you assume that all women like soft-focus, slow-panning porn with cheesy romantic music. Oh, and white people. Because “art porn” sites are very, very, very, very, very, very, very white.

It got me thinking: What exactly is racial representation in porn like? I consulted theInternet Adult Film Database for numbers on ethnicity, and looked up U.S. racial demographic information for comparison. For both of the data sets, I had to use only one ethnic identifier at a time, because that’s how the IAFD’s database works (and honestly, because it’s simpler). Here’s what it looked like:

As you can see, in porn in general, White actors are overrepresented in proportion to the US population, as are Asian actors, and Hispanic actors are underrepresented by the largest margin. Jon Millward did a more extensive study of the IAFD and came up with approximately similar but slightly different numbers, but it was based on 5,000 IAFD entries to the 39,478 total entries that I used for my calculations, and it was based at least partially on perception.

There’s no telling what the difference is between porn genres – between, for my purposes, “art porn” as represented on Yex.XXX and The Art Porn and conventional porn as represented on sites like PornHub. But at least from a cursory view of “art porn” or “women-friendly” porn, it’s even whiter than conventional porn. And it still features actors who are thinner than the average American – Millward notes that porn actors are about as tall as average, but female porn actors, specifically, have average reported weights that are 48 pounds less than the American average. Male porn actors weigh 27 pounds less than the average male, and that difference says something about what we expect of women’s bodies and what we expect of men’s bodies, proportionately.

Why do I care? First of all, because it’s boring. Second of all, because I can’t be that. Even though my race is represented, I can’t be a 5’5”, 117-pound brunette. As a woman who’s 5’10”, 175 pounds, queer and, if I want to be, androgynous, I am not framed as an object or subject of desire. What is watching porn like for Black women? What is watching porn like for Hispanic women? What is it like watching porn for women who weigh over 200 pounds?

The most sensual, memorable erotic video I’ve ever seen is “Ageless Sex” by Marc Silver, who interviewed a woman who had gotten into porn acting in her elder years and found that, actually, there were plenty of men who really, really wanted to have sex with her, who found her desirable despite the fact that she was not at all what we consider conventionally attractive. Imagine that sense of empowerment, finding out there are, in fact, many, many people who desire you even if you don’t fit into conventional sexuality. Imagine that sense of sexual power.

But when even “women-friendly” or “alternative” web sites, or at least those that sell themselves as such, are even less racially and bodily representative of the people watching the videos than conventional porn sites, where do we have to turn? And when the UK government is banning female sexual pleasure in porn production, where do we have to turn? It creates a mainstream, widely-accepted narrative that says that sex is for thin, white people; that people who are drawn to sexual activities that aren’t vanilla, heterosexual sex are deviants; and that places the priority on male sexual pleasure and male ejaculation as the end goal of sex.

In a culture that cannot deal with an honest and frank conversation about consent and rape and the right that every individual has to say “stop” or “I don’t want this” and have it be respected, it matters that we do not represent all sexual desire equally in the sexual products we consume, that preferential treatment is given to some sorts of desire over others, because it translates into a real-life belief that some people’s desire is more important than someone else’s desire or lack thereof. We need better pornography.



[Jon Millward]

Reprinted with Permission from The Frisky.