Black Women’s Histories: A Conversation with Mireille Miller-Young

Black Women’s Histories, a conversation series, will profile different feminist scholars engaging Black women’s histories and narratives during Black and Women’s History Months (February and March, respectively).

This week’s scholarly conversation profiles Mireille Miller-Young, author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography. An associate professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara, Miller-Young’s work is at the intersection of Black feminist history, porn studies, sex work and critical race studies. While she made headlines last year for her run-in with anti-abortion protesters on the UCSB campus, less discussed was the important work that her new book represents—not only in revisiting the marginal histories of Black sex workers in pornographic industries but in connecting this to contemporary Black porn actors, Black feminist politics and the larger sphere of sexual politics.

Miller-Young’s current research continues to delve into Black sexual politics, including creating an erotic archive of Black sexualities in visual media across different genders and sexual expressions.

Your book, A Taste for Brown Sugar, is a deeply rich and nuanced work, the first of its kind to provide a historical trajectory of Black women’s work in pornography, as well as a comprehensive ethnography of Black women’s experiences in the industry. As such, it doesn’t really fit neatly into the anti-pornography or pro-pornography feminist debates. What are your thoughts on that particular rhetorical divide in feminist conversations?

I want to be careful to not discount the questions or critical stance against pornography that feminists have previously held. I don’t think they should be dismissed. Black feminists like Alice Walker and Audre Lorde have made important arguments against pornography, but I don’t think their position—which is the popular one among feminists—is the whole story. I’m interested in the workers who we can see—and they see themselves—as cultural producers. That is, despite the rampant misconceptions about them, porn workers are not simply enslaved or trafficked into someone’s porn film. They participate as workers and media producers, and many have gone on to direct their own pornographic media.

I’m also critical of the systemic racism and sexism that exists in the industry, which, by the way, also exists in other industries—like Hollywood. I’m not willing to let pornographers off the hook for that, especially when you look at the long history in which Black women are confined to the most debased roles. At the same time, I’m interested in what Black porn actors are doing inside those roles. Porn is a site of opportunity for all kinds of people, especially for racial and sexual minorities, to make complex statements about their sexuality as artists or as consumers.

How do you see your work changing conversations around feminism and pornography and around Black women’s sexuality?

I see my work contributing to a discussion that has been ongoing for over 40 years: the question of whether or not pornography can only exist as a site of violence against women, or as a site for the exploration of sexuality and a space to make a living. My work tries to understand the history of exploiting Black women’s sexuality and how that gets mobilized by new media industries in different political climates as a way of degrading Black people and denying them rights. Despite this troubling history, I also explore how, given these larger constraints, Black sex workers take ownership of their sexualities. I look at why and how they perform in pornography, and what they have to say about their work, as well as about the sexual culture in the U.S. Pornography should not be viewed as just a bastardized genre that doesn’t deserve analysis on our part because it’s dirty or embarrassing, so my work makes a claim for legitimacy and taking a particular Black feminist stance that really prioritizes the voices and experiences of Black women who are working in the industry.

This history is such a paradox since Black women are so marginalized as actors in porn narratives, yet they were involved from the very beginning. 

Yes, on the one hand there is this rich history of Black women in pornographic media, and I trace it in the book from early photography and film but also bring in the early context of Black women’s bodies in slavery and colonialism—which created a particular knowledge that suggested Black people have a bestial nature and are sexually immoral and dangerous. The reason why pornography is so dependent on Black women especially, but also Black men, is because Black bodies have been imagined to be the site for the most taboo form of desire. Pornography itself is most concerned with visualizing taboo desire in order to release that desire.

Porn offers viewers a sense of pleasure and titillation in what you’re not supposed to do. It is concerned with the transgressive, naughty side of sexuality and so it necessarily delves into sexual fear and disgust as much as it does what is popularly desirable. In this way, porn exposes the underbelly of humanity. The entire logic of Jim Crow segregation in the United States, I think, was based on the sexual fear of Black sexuality mixing with white sexuality, even while white men maintained access to Black women’s bodies through rape and the sex industry. So the sexual roots or historical dimensions of racism run very deep, and our sexuality has been really grounded in this racial logic. The fantasy of the Other provides a rich imaginary site, but we can’t be honest about that either because porn is a space where we expose sexual shame but also allow shame to create value structures that prioritize some bodies over others. This is why sex workers of color are so marginalized: because we can’t be honest about what we really want, and we still have to maintain whiteness as an ideal and white women as the epitome of beauty and desirability. To maintain that hierarchy and social logic, there is this desire to marginalize Black women, to render their bodies invisible and yet hypervisible at the same time.

Yes, we must relegate them to that niche genre over there!

We must keep a comfortable distance from the shameful thing we really want. But I also am interested in how Black porn actors understand these marginalized positions, and I found that they are doing important work from those positions. They are doing work for Black feminism and Black women’s sexuality by showing that there are other truths and other meanings that we ourselves can create for our sexualities. Because we, too, watch pornography! And this is something that is unspoken among Black people (including feminists): that we want our own erotic images.

There is a term that you use in your book that I really like: erotic sovereignty. Does that have any relationship to what Audre Lorde calls “the erotic as power,” or are you defining something different?

I think my terms are very much informed by previous Black feminist scholarship, like Audre Lorde and M. Jacqui Alexander (who talks about “erotic autonomy”). Lorde views eroticism as a political tool. But unlike Lorde, who discounts pornography as some kind of superficial, surface-level exploitative form that doesn’t go deep enough with our erotic potential, I think that eroticism can be and is part of the pornographic experience. For me, erotic sovereignty is the process by which Black women are reclaiming their own bodies and rewriting their own stories and histories, which are largely painful but which can be opportunities to develop their own sense of sexuality, their own desires and their own sense of joy and pride in their work and their bodies. It’s not a status perfectly achieved, but it’s a process in which we try to take back our bodies that have been colonized by a whole set of meanings that were created for us. For me, the term signifies the act of becoming a sexually sovereign subject, even within embedded structures of racial capitalism and neoliberalism.

Early Black feminist scholarship tends to be informed by respectability politics. Do you see yourself making interventions into this work concerning sexuality?

We’re missing a great part of our history as Black people if we allow the violence against us to deny such an essential part of our experience, our dream worlds and our fantasies. We need to also understand that the violence of racism is always going to inform our fantasies, which means that sometimes our fantasies are ugly and include our own subjection. That’s something that’s almost unavoidable, but it’s also something that can allow us to take some control of our oppression and find some kind of release in our own consciousness.

I understand that respectability politics has been an important mechanism used to defend ourselves, and there are scholars of another generation or training who are suspicious of the kinds of methodologies that a new crop of scholars are using to talk about sex, porn, Black queerness and the performance of risqué sexualities such as burlesque and sex work. I take seriously their concerns and the ways that they established the field of Black feminist studies that we’re building on. I don’t want to see myself in opposition to this earlier work on respectability. But if we only take that position, then we really cannot hear what sexual actors are saying without a sense of judgment. And we can’t acknowledge in ourselves our own desire to consume and engage with pornography. Otherwise they remain a dirty little secret. My work is about bringing out in the open this “dirty laundry.” We as Black feminists are sexual beings too, and we must begin to be more careful of the impact our moral judgments can have. I’ve seen it actually hurt people, and I’ve learned so much about feminism from the women in my book. If we foreclose on their practices as something that “disrespects” us, then we lose the understanding that they, too, are feminists who are contributing to our knowledge and to our communities.

What should we take away from your book?

My book shows that, even in the midst of Jim Crow, where Black women were largely marginalized as low-paid domestic workers or farm workers, they had the power to mobilize their sexualities in ways that expressed agency and resistance. So when we talk about women in pornography today and reduce the conversation to trafficking, we miss how women are aware of the constraints and have made a choice to do this work because they’ve weighed it against other limited options and found it to be beneficial for them. Rather than judge them for being “wrong” in their choices, I wanted to see what they were doing and what they were trying to say. Some of the most important messages from the archives is that, even in the midst of the greatest oppression, we still want to love ourselves sexually and we want to be erotic beings, and we want to survive and thrive and be courageous and savvy, even if that means using the sex industry to carve out other choices and live better lives.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.