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How Porn’s Racist Metadata Hurts Adult Performers of Color

by | Apr 28, 2021 | New, News

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

— Benjamin Franklin

When Johnnie Keyes starred in Behind the Green Door, one of the first mainstream American pornographic films to feature a Black performer, he was credited merely as “African Stud.” It was 1972 and his co-performer Marilyn Chambers was a white woman, an influential casting decision that earned the film the genre label of “interracial.” Keyes often spoke about the death threats he received in response to the film.

Just a few years later, the arrival of adult VHS tapes made film pornography accessible from home, diversifying the genres available to consumers and expanding opportunities for performers, like those of color, who had historically been stifled to underground networks and productions. But despite this progress, the porn industry in the late 20th century remained steeped in racism, with nonwhite performers being defined and promoted by their race in ways their white counterparts rarely were.

By the early ’90s, porn had made its way onto bulletin board systems, the internet’s precursor to forums. Sites like Rusty & Edie’s BBS boasted “the largest collection of Adult GIFs and Programs—OVER 16 GIGS!!!” As the internet became more accessible, adult industry professionals started building their own spaces; performers like Danni Ashe acted as both the stars and CEOs of their own web pages, while studios developed membership sites for loyal customers.

As they grew, these platforms sought to make their ever-expanding collections easier to navigate. Like many other websites with troves of content (including the one you’re reading now), porn websites turned to metadata: Genres like parody and step-fantasy became subsections on the site and webmasters added tags like “MILF” and “role play” to the videos they uploaded. Applying these labels to videos helped people find what they were looking for within the site and also boosted the SEO, driving traffic from search engines like Google or Yahoo. In some ways, this transition gave previously marginalized performers access to tailored audiences more likely to support their careers. But it also carried the racist practices of the porn industry into the 21st century. Labels like “interracial,” which still refers almost exclusively to a Black man working with a white woman, made a direct transition from VHS case to HTML code.

In 2006, aggregator or “tube” sites transformed a once-contained piracy network of pornographic videos into one of industry’s primary markets. The popularity of those user-uploaded, often copyright-infringing libraries grew, and the categorization models came with them. These YouTube clones evolved over the following years, moving away from illegal uploads and instead becoming legitimate platforms for independent models and studios to publish and promote their own work. But for all the freedom and opportunities these sites have brought performers and filmmakers in the last decade, they continue to confine them to a classification system that is both rigid and racist.

Pornography aesthetics may have shifted since the ’70s, but the hurdles performers of color have had to endure onscreen and off haven’t actually changed much at all—and the data-driven conveniences of the digital age are partially to blame.

The digital categories Black performers are relegated to have remained largely the same since that first “interracial” scene in 1972. Today, most porn sites use racial or “ethnic” tags to categorize certain content, but almost exclusively for videos involving performers of color. On xhamster.com, for instance, there are 42 different labels meant to describe Blackness, such as “ebony” or “ BBC,” and only four specifying whiteness. This isn’t due to an absence of white pornstars, but rather because white performers aren’t categorized by their race as often as their Black peers.

Users, having caught on to this system, mimic the classification system in their search queries. According to Pornhub’s most recent insight report, published in 2019, eight out of the top 25 most popular search terms were nonwhite racial/ethnicity descriptors. (Disclosure: I was previously a digital media specialist at Pornhub. I am no longer employed by the company.) Not one of those top-ranking terms referred to whiteness or caucasian ethnicity. In fact, the terms “caucasian” or “white” have never once appeared on Pornhub’s top search lists throughout the years. (Xhamster did not respond to requests for comment.)

This structure, where whiteness functions as the baseline that all BIPOC performers are in contrast to, is a real disadvantage for those looking to build their careers. “White people are people to a lot of these companies. Black or brown people are fetishes and body parts,” says King Noire, a performer and producer with over 10 years of industry experience. “When it comes to a lot of Black performers, you won’t even see their name in the scene.” Despite the high volume of Pornhub searches specifying nonwhite content, only one of the 19 performers named a Most Searched Pornstar in 2019 was a person of color. (Pornhub did not release this data for 2020.)

This discrepancy is something sociologist Angela Jones noticed while doing research for their book, Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry. Jones found that uploaders, whether studios or independent models, were less likely to include the names of performers when they were people of color. “It’s quite standard practice to just use lots of [descriptive] hashtags, especially when we’re talking about performers of color,” Jones says. “For Black women, that might mean using the tag ‘ebony’ or ‘ebony goddess’ and relying more on these terms to drive traffic.” This means performers of color benefit from leveraging racialized hashtags and search terms—it helps them reach the audience most likely to follow through with clicks, views, and purchases. But it also means many of them aren’t receiving the benefits that name recognition offers.

For instance, sites like Pornhub use metrics such as how often users search for a performer’s name to calculate the popularity of a model. This, in turn, opens more growth opportunities for those individuals. The page for Pornhub’s annual awards states its decisions are “totally data driven, with the big wins going out to those you searched, viewed, and lusted over the most on Pornhub this year. No judges or deciding committees here, just a jury comprised of our daily visitors.” While this positions “data” as an impartial third party, these metrics are in fact influenced by the structure around them, in which nonwhite performers get more traction by including racial terms than their names. All 10 nominees for Pornhub’s “Favorite Female Performer” award in 2020 were white. When asked for comment, Pornhub referred WIRED back to its awards page.

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For performers of color to get the name recognition they deserve, sites will need to recognize the ways their engineering has incentivized nonwhite performers to prioritize racial categorization. Website design changes happen all the time, so why is categorization on porn sites stuck 50 years in the past? Geoffrey Celen, founder of theporndude.com, an extensive catalog of online pornography website reviews, says that site owners are in their own bind. Executives are concerned that regulating the tags and therefore the search terms on their platforms—for example, not allowing slurs—will drive their customers to competing websites with looser community standards. Until recently, the only thing motivating domain owners to enforce regulation was the threat of handcuffs—and not the fun kind. “Don’t get me wrong” he says, “certainly the big porn sites want to remain legal as possible, but they only really apply what they have to apply according to the law.” (Xvideos and Redtube did not respond to a request for comment, and Youporn declined to comment for this story.)

In late 2020, however, high-stakes accusations revealed the platforms’ ability to make these types of structural changes, if only they face enough pressure. Journalist Nicholas Kristof and the anti-porn coalition Exodus Cry claimed that Pornhub was hosting underage content, causing Visa and Mastercard to pull their services from the site. Categories like “teen” were swiftly changed to “teen 18+.” Other sites followed suit, presumably to avoid similar blowback. Days later, Pornhub made another major change—one that put more power in the hands of performers. It deleted all unverified content, allowing only models whose identification had been inspected to upload to the site. Without terabytes of pirated content and VHS rips, Pornhub now relies solely on their models and content partners for the money shots all 120 million of their daily visitors come looking for.

This shift means that when nonwhite content creators raise concerns about racist categorization, sites need to listen and then act, lest they lose a huge swathe of their workforce. “I think things should be focused on the [performed] act” says Noire of the way these sites are organized. “The acts are universal. I’d like to be able to find people of color, I just don’t want the tags to be racist.” Jet Setting Jasmine, a performer, licensed therapist, fetish trainer, and porn film producer, believes that the same standards should apply for all performers, regardless of race. “If something only needs to be tagged when it’s ‘other’ or nonwhite, then it’s definitely elevating whiteness as the norm,” she says. “It should be equal, for everybody.”

The data that governs online porn is not neutral, and these platforms can no longer pretend it is. Instead, they must account for the ways racist categorization and tagging standards influence their internal datasets, as well as people’s interaction with the industry. Nonwhite content is popular on these sites, and performers of color should experience the recognition they deserve for creating it. The industry has come a long way since Johnny Keyes’ days, but not far enough.

Porn sites are capable of changing their structures and policies. Within 72 hours of payment processors threatening to pull from the site, Pornhub enacted site-wide mandatory verification. Reconstructing tagging and categorization is similarly possible. A biased structure doesn’t materialize organically, it is built. Platforms for independent models hold huge potential for empowering sex workers to control and define their own careers. It’s time for domain owners to take responsibility for the ways racism has been written into their systems and stop letting the porn industry’s racist past define its future.

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