Research Spotlight: “Worse Than Objects: The Depiction of Black Women and Men and Their Sexual Relationship in Pornography”

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This research summary was co-authored by Lisa Thompson (Vice President and Director of the NCOSE Research Institute) and Jordan Marshall (Research Assistant).


Niki Fritz et al., “Worse Than Objects: The Depiction of Black Women and Men and Their Sexual Relationship in Pornography,” Gender Issues 38 (2021): 100-120, doi:10.1007/s12147-020-09255-2.
Key Takeaway
A content analysis of 1741 scenes from XVideos and Pornhub found that these pornography sites promote racist stereotypes by depicting black women as targets of sexual aggression and black men as more sexually aggressive and less intimate with their partners than their white counterparts. Depictions of aggression towards women were highest in scenes featuring black couples compared to all other racial pairings. Mainstream pornography normalizes and profits from harmful racist stereotypes.

Study Highlights

This quantitative content analysis examined the differences in how black women and men are portrayed in pornography compared to white women and men, specifically looking at depictions of objectification, aggression, and intimacy. Videos were randomly selected from two of the largest online pornography tube sites in the world, XVideos and Pornhub,[1] in 2014. The videos were selected from the most populous categories on these two sites (e.g., amateur, anal, black women, big tits, blonde, brunette, ebony, hardcore, interracial, pornstar, teen). A total of 1741 pornography scenes (defined as persons or partners undertaking a sexual experience in the same place) featuring heterosexual couples, including 118 scenes with black women, were included in the final analysis. Scenes involving persons from racial categories other than black or white, as well as involving three or more persons were excluded. Scenes were analyzed for:

  1. Objectification, which researchers defined as “when a woman’s body is used as a thing, particularly for male pleasure” indicated by facial ejaculation and stripping (defined as when women strip or pose for the camera).
  2. Physical aggression, which researchers defined as “any action appearing to cause or potentially causing physical harm to another person” and included acts such as spanking, choking, hair pulling, and mutilation. Harmful intent of the perpetrator was not required, so acts of aggression ostensibly consented to, including bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism (BDSM), were coded as aggression. This study only analyzed acts of aggression in which men were the perpetrators of aggression against women, which made up more than 90% of all acts of aggression coded.
  3. Sexual behavior, including kissing (as an indicator of intimacy), oral, vaginal, and anal sex.

The study reported:

  • Black women were more often the target of aggression compared to white women. Black women were the targets of aggression in 50.8% of scenes, while white women were targets of aggression in 36% of scenes. Additionally, black women were more likely to be spanked (39.8%) than white women (24.8%). The researchers noted that their study may have underestimated depictions of aggression.
  • Black men were more often portrayed as perpetrators of aggression compared to white men. Black men were depicted as aggressors against women in 47.3% of scenes, compared to 35.3% of scenes depicting white men as aggressors against women. Specifically, black men were depicted as spanking women in 36.7% of scenes, compared to 23.9% of scenes with white men. Black men were also depicted as pulling women’s hair in 9% of scenes, compared to 5% of scenes with white men.
  • Black men were portrayed as significantly less intimate with their partners than white men. Black men were portrayed as kissing their sexual partners in only 18% of scenes, compared to 27.5% of scenes with white men. Results also showed that kissing was significantly less likely to be depicted between couples of a black man and black woman (13%) and a black man and a white woman (20%), than those comprised of a black woman and a white man (33%), or scenes of white couples (27%).
  • Depictions of aggression towards women were the highest in scenes featuring black couples when compared to all other racial pairings, including interracial couples. Depictions of couples with a black man and a black woman contained aggression in 54.1% of scenes, compared to 47% of scenes with a black woman and a white man, 45% of scenes with a white woman and a black man, and 34.8% of scenes depicting all white couples.
  • There was no statistically significant difference in levels of objectification (as defined in this study) depicted in scenes with black women compared to those with white women. There were, however, about 20% of scenes that contained facial ejaculation and 18% of scenes that featured women stripping. Importantly, there were no reported scenes of men stripping or posing, suggesting this type of objectification is entirely gendered, and indicating that women being viewed as objects is a common script in mainstream pornography.
  • There were no significant differences in the sexual behaviors portrayed (oral, anal, and vaginal sex) by black versus white women. This finding was unexpected, because the researchers theorized that the stereotype of black women as hypersexual “Jezebels” and the fetishization of black women’s butts in pornography might lead to black women being involved in a greater number of sex acts generally, or a specific sex act (e.g., anal sex). 

Commentary from the NCOSE Research Institute

It’s important to note that this study’s framing of “objectification” is quite narrow as it included only two sex acts: facial ejaculation and stripping.[2] NCOSE does not dispute the categorization of those acts as objectifying but maintains that nearly all pornography is inherently objectifying, since “to objectify is to make or treat something that is not an object as an object, which can be used, manipulated, controlled, and known strictly by its physical properties.”[3] This is precisely what pornography does to those depicted in it, most especially women, but with a sexual emphasis. “Sexual objectification” has been described as resulting in the fragmentation of a person so that they exist as a collection of sexual parts/functions rather than as a whole person possessing a unique personality, attributes, and feelings.[4] This definition encapsulates vast quantities of pornography. So, we urge that the findings regarding objectification in this study be understood as narrowly focused on two sexual acts, rather than assessing for objectification within pornography broadly.

That critique aside, this study makes a significant contribution to our field by providing evidence that harmful racist stereotypes of black women and black men are common in mainstream online pornography; specifically, that black women are sanctioned targets of male physical aggression, and that black men are more hypersexual (i.e., less intimate and more violent) in their sexual engagement with women, especially so with black women.

Social cognitive theory posits that we learn behavior and habits from society and from the media we consume, which includes pornography. Additionally, this theory holds that we may be more likely to emulate this behavior when it is modelled by identity-salient people (i.e., those in identity-roles to which we give prominence).[5] Further, studies have demonstrated the connection between sexually explicit media and pornography use and the perpetration of sexual violence,[6] as well as pornography use and sexual violence victimization.[7] Thus, it is especially concerning that mainstream pornography websites are normalizing the very violent and sexualized racist stereotypes that may contribute to further harm of black women and men.

The sexual script of physical aggression against black women in XVideos and Pornhub pornography devalues black women and, in our view, contributes to the societal context that puts black women at greater risk for sexual violence[8] and homicide by intimate partners[9] than other groups of women. Pornography which frames black men as perpetrators of aggression contributes to the stereotype of the violent, sexually predatory, criminal black man. According to social categorization theory, black men may feel pressure to conform to the expected role of the sexually aggressive, violent man, causing harm to black men’s mental health in addition to their partners and families. Additionally, pornography depicts relationships between black couples as more aggressive and less intimate than any other racial couplings, reinforcing stereotypes of detached, aggressive sex for black couples that may lead to sexual and relationship dissatisfaction.

Mainstream pornography perpetuates and profits from harmful racist stereotypes against black women and black men. This content analysis shows that XVideos and Pornhub normalize the degradation of black men and physical violence against women generally and black women especially. We cannot combat racism in other aspects of society while continuing to ignore the blatant racism of the pornography industry.


References

[1] Researchers noted qualitative differences between the two pornography sites. XVideos pornography videos were generally shorter, contained less variety of sexual behaviors, and often ended before male orgasm. The sample in this study contained more XVideos content than Pornhub videos.

[2] From a research perspective coding for two precise sex acts such as facial ejaculation and stripping is much more feasible than attempting to code for the extent to which a person is reduced to body parts and functions.

[3] R.M. Calogero, “Objectification Theory, Self-Objectification, and Body Image,” Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance (2012): 574-80, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-384925-0.00091-2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more on identity salience see Peter L. Callero, “Role-Identity Salience,” Social Psychology Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1985): 203–215.

[6] Meagan J. Brem et al., “Problematic Pornography Use and Physical and Sexual Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration Among Men in Batterer Intervention Programs,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2018), doi:10.1177/0886260518812806; Brooke A. de Heer, Sarah Prior, and Gia Hoegh, “Pornography, Masculinity, and Sexual Aggression on College Campuses,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2020), doi:10.1177/0886260520906186; Kara Anne E. Rodenhizer and Katie M. Edwards, “The Impacts of Sexual Media Exposure on Adolescent and Emerging Adults’ Dating and Sexual Violence Attitudes and Behaviors: A Critical Review of the Literature,” Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 20, no. 4 (2019): 439-452, doi:10.1177/1524838017717745; Paul J. Wright, Bryant Paul, and Debby Herbenick, “Preliminary Insights from a U.S. Probability Sample on Adolescents’ Pornography Exposure, Media Psychology, and Sexual Aggression,” Journal of Health Communication (2021), doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980.

[7] Brooke de Heer, Sarah Prior, and Jenna Fejervary, “Women’s Pornography Consumption, Alcohol Use, and Sexual Victimization,” Violence Against Women (2020), doi:10.1177/1077801220945035; Emily F. Rothman and Avanti Adhia, “Adolescent Pornography Use and Dating Violence among a Sample of Primarily Black and Hispanic, Urban-Residing, Underage Youth,” Behavioral Sciences 6, no. 1 (2016), doi:10.3390/bs6010001.

[8] Michele C. Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2011), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf.

[9] Emiko Petrosky et al., “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence – United States, 2003-2014,” CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 66, no. 28 (2017): 741-746, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6628a1.htm.

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