Can the Gay Adult Film Industry Solve Its Race Problem?

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 23, 2020

Race Cooper
Race Cooper  (Source:Matt Fuller)

In the eyes of its beholders, porn can be cause for moral panic, a playground for taboo fantasies, even a secret obsession. For creators, it can function as anything from an artistic outlet to a means of hand-to-mouth survival. But if porn is a prism with a million different faces, it's the white ones that have historically dictated its dynamics and defined its ideals.

The events of this year have thrust porn into the cultural spotlight in unprecedented ways, as the coronavirus outbreak both hampered production and sent demand for online porn skyrocketing. Amid heightened traffic, global outcry against anti-Black racism reverberated through the porn industry, as it has many others. In one widely covered incident, OnlyFans and JustFor.Fans dropped porn star Billy Santoro after he tweeted racist remarks that called for inciting violence against Black people. On the heels of Santoro's comments, a Twitter account that's since been deactivated called out other performers who've also spouted racist views.

Like other industries, gay porn studios began expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement—and many people were justifiably skeptical. Twitter users were quick to point out, for example, that Sean Cody's overwhelmingly white roster of models speaks much louder than its pro forma statement of support for BLM. Others with industry experience began opening up about its inner workings for the first time.

"While I was in the situation, it was very difficult for me to speak up about it," says Race Cooper, a former porn star and casting director for Raging Stallion, now an entrepreneur and co-host of the Daddy Issues podcast. Looking back after seven-plus years outside the industry, it's clear it was "a whole toxic environment of white supremacy and racism, completely all the time," Cooper tells EDGE. "It's still happening today."


Calls for more diverse representation in movies and TV argue for the power of media to shape viewers' ideas about themselves, the world, and their place within it. They also call attention to the lack of opportunities for non-white performers and the warped ways that some white creators present people of color when few possess control behind the scenes. All of this is true of porn, too. Porn, like mainstream media more broadly, demonstrates and perpetuates ideas about desire—which bodies are beautiful, whether they ought to be worshipped or degraded, who has value. With its explicit appeal to viewers' most private fantasies, porn's potential influence over sexual imagination and affinity is profound.

The stakes are high in pushing for change, not just for consumers but for performers and creators, whether porn is their full or part-time profession. Direct-to-consumer sites like JustForFans have fundamentally shifted the industry landscape, allowing performers autonomy and financial opportunity completely removed from the studio system. Where can the industry go from here, toward porn that sees performers for who they are, creates a more equitable and sustainable work environment, and maybe even broadens viewers' minds as it turns them on?

HOW STUDIOS HAVE RIGGED THE SYSTEM

HOW STUDIOS HAVE RIGGED THE SYSTEM
Max Konnor launched Haus of Konnor, a boutique talent management company in 2019 devoted to fostering other models of color.  (Source: Haus of Konnor)

On a surface level, racism in-studio gay porn is as obvious as what's on the screen—the ubiquity of white bodies, fetish scenes that cast nonwhite models in stereotypical positions (Black men perpetrating gang bangs, Asian men playing submissive), racial segregation by scene and by site. As in other industries, everything comes from the top down, meaning those who stand to make the most money are largely in charge of decision-making.

"It's not enough to have diverse casting; you need to have diverse directors and producers," Cooper says, reflecting on his time at Raging Stallion, which merged with Falcon Studios a year after he started, in 2011. "Unless you're changing the top, those people are still going to be under the control of whiteness."

Cooper says he was the sole nonwhite employee behind the scenes during his time at Raging Stallion, where new models were asked to specifically write down if they were uncomfortable shooting scenes with performers of certain ethnicities. (Cooper also says he was the sole Black model on an exclusive contract.) "Regardless of whether they had experience or not, white guys were always paid more than people of color," he says.

Tim Valenti, head of the studio since 2015, responded to Cooper's comments in a statement to EDGE:

"It's true that in Falcon's 50-year history, the studio has cast mostly white performers," he wrote. "As long as I am president and CEO of Falcon|NakedSword, I can promise you that we do not, and never will, have a written or unwritten policy regarding the race of our performers. Our model applications do not, and never will, include questions about racial preferences, and we will never knowingly cast anyone who refuses to work with another performer solely based on the color of their skin."

While Valenti suggested the studio has "made strides in the right direction" and "obviously [has] a lot more work to do," he did not specifically respond to a question about pay parity between white models and models of color.


(Colton Reece became Falcon Studio's first Asian exclusive performer in 2019.)

Studios that specifically employ Black models for more stereotypical scenes, commonly known as "thug sites," are known to pay less, according to Dominic Ford, formerly head of his namesake studio and creator of JustFor.Fans.

"I know and have been friendly with studio owners who run what I'll call 'thug sites,'" Ford tells EDGE. "They get guys for 200 bucks, and it's exactly what you would imagine." While performers accept the financial incentive and participate willingly, it's a downmarket economy that places a lower value on Black bodies. And often they are cast in what Cooper considers dehumanizing roles.

Scenes that fetishize Black men as aggressors, often with particular focus on the 'BBC' (big Black cock), not only drain models of their personhood on-screen, but allow for white viewers to do so off-screen as well, Cooper says. "Those porn scenes have a direct correlation to real-life situations, in which white people [who fetishize] Black people or people of color see that scene and they think that's perfectly hot, that validates my fetishization and dehumanization of these people," Cooper says. "Porn studios don't understand that."

It may seem an ambitious supposition to say that more diverse porn that considers models of color on their own terms could potentially shape consumer desire. But major shifts in industry norms have been achieved before, albeit of a very different sort.

"It was the gay porn industry that tried to make condoms sexy" in the '80s, Ford suggests. "If we show it to you enough, it's going to be normal and you're not even gonna think about it." The more studios cast models of color in racially charged scenes, or into prescribed boxes, the more acceptable it becomes. But the opposite may also prove true. "I personally 100-percent feel that studios have the responsibility to make diverse casting, that's not situationally fetishy, the norm, because it will show these guys in a different light," Ford says.


(Jusepe Cruz, one of Dominic Ford's latest talent discoveries.)

Those who study pornography also consider ways of reading fantasies of degradation that acknowledge possibilities for pleasure and agency on the part of its subjects. Embodying stereotypical roles can be a performer's way of "playing the game," advancing their career while also indulging in racial fantasy, says Jesus G. Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University who studies race and pornography.

"[Porn] is an industry that's very exploitative and harmful, like many industries; I don't think that should be denied," Smith says. "But how do you recognize that while also seeing how the most marginalized in those communities survive? How are they not just victims in the system? They're also wise people who know how to maneuver through a lot of their pain."

One age-old strategy is to develop community and mutual support among industry peers.
Max Konnor, who's worked as an adult performer for over a decade, launched a boutique talent management company in 2019 devoted to fostering other models of color. "I started Haus of Konnor because I believed that most up-and-coming models of color weren't getting the same guidance and mentorship" as their white peers, Konnor tells EDGE. "HK works hard to make sure our models are not put into any work situation that makes them feel exploited. We ensure they get the proper pay, treatment, and respect." In addition to offering career guidance and management, Haus of Konnor also aims to provide "a safe space for models of color to learn, grow, and break bread with each other," Konnor says.

Whether or not they pursue studio work, many models now bypass the old system altogether, assuming full control of both the performance and the payoff.

THE DISRUPTION OF DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER

Platforms that bypass studios and offer professional and amateur models a direct line to consumers have revolutionized the porn industry in recent years. Much like YouTube placed a camera in every user's hand, sites like OnlyFans and JustFor.Fans have democratized the creation and distribution of adult content. (While the platforms can be used for a variety of purposes, they are primarily known for explicit content.) They have also brought both the production and consumption of porn further into the mainstream. Beyoncé has name-dropped OnlyFans and "Teen Wolf" star Tyler Posey is capitalizing on the platform with his own subscription account.

It would appear, according to the top-selling models on JustFor.Fans (which caters mostly to gay men), that consumer interests are less white-washed than studios seem to believe. Models of color, and primarily Black models, have made up about half of the top 10 best-selling pages on the site since its founding over two years ago, according to Ford. (Currently, that list includes Konnor, Rhyheim Shabazz, and phatrabbitkiller.) "The fact that they're in the top shows that there's an interest, that these are bankable people, and studios are afraid to hire them," Ford says.


(Rhyheim Shabazz consistently ranks high on OnlyFans and JustFor.Fans.)


(Luke Truong is quickly gaining a following through his social media accounts, JustFor.Fans and performances with studios like Cutlers Den.)

Success on direct-to-consumer platforms is far from easy. Maintaining a constant stream of content, connecting with fans and other models, and growing a substantial following are all difficult tasks. But the economics of scale make maintaining a lucrative career in porn far more accessible than when models relied solely on studio content.

"In the direct-to-consumer model, if any of these guys find 500 people in the world who think that they're hot, they're making a shit ton of money," Ford says, pointing to top earners who can make between $150-200K per year from JFF alone. "In the studio world, if their movie only sold 500 copies, the studio goes bankrupt."

THE DOUBLE BIND OF RACIAL SORTING

As protests against police violence and anti-Black racism ignited this June, Ford was swift to drop Santoro, an old friend, from the platform after his incendiary remarks. He also added Black Lives Matter as one of the charities toward which performers can opt to funnel proceeds (so far JFF has raised almost $20K for the national organization). Another move the founder made was less well-received: Ford tested removing categories that sorted models by race and ethnicity (i.e. Black, Asian and Latino), but quickly received pushback from models of color who said the categories helped potential viewers find their pages.

"Being filtered out and being found specifically are two sides of the same coin," Ford quickly learned. (Grindr was largely praised for making a similar move this summer, but the sword is double-edged there, too; nonwhite users, for example, can no longer specifically search for users of the same race.)

"I'm not saying I don't want to be Black," Cooper says. "This is part of my identity. So why would you take that away? I think the things you have to look at taking away are 'race play' as a term, you take away 'BBC,' 'interracial,'" and other categories that he says objectify and exoticize nonwhite performers.

In 2017, gay porn actor Hugh Hunter, who is white, declined his GayVN Award nominations in protest of the Best Ethnic Scene category (which GayVN merged with Best Duo as a result). But some argue that eliminating categories specifically designed to honor nonwhite performers, or feature them in certain movies or scenes, puts them in steep competition with white performers, ultimately depriving them of opportunities and recognition. Nonwhite performers are already held to more extreme standards, since fewer of them are ultimately cast in studio scenes.


(In January 2020, DeAngelo Jackson became the first Black man to win the GayVN's Best Actor award.)

"It just becomes kind of colorblind," Smith of Lawrence University says, when race-based categories are eliminated altogether without addressing the long history of discrimination that's been unfolding for years. "Maybe it is about keeping the categories, but also doing the slow and heavy move toward integrating actors of color into films and characterizations that are not just playing on race."

As in so many other cultural contexts, taking aim at porn's equation of whiteness—white bodies, desires, and points of view — as the default is an essential part of the work ahead. It's on everyone, from producers and studio heads to performers assembling amateur content for their fans.

"It's up to us to stand up and speak out about it now," Cooper says. "There's no more room for politeness or whispered tones or rumor mill, all the things that allowed for studios and agents to keep us in control."

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on them.us, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.

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