Sepia Sex Scenes: Black Women’s Erotic Labor in Early Pornographic Film

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 9:10 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Mireille Miller-Young, University of California, Santa Barbara
Stag films, or early pornographic movies, provide a rare lens through which to observe gendered sexuality, unauthorized fantasy, and racial fetishism as they were imagined, performed, captured, and circulated in the early twentieth century. This early pornography creates erotic fantasies as objects open to study. This paper excavates a lost archive of black women’s images in stag films from the 1920-50s, and maps a genealogy of black women in pornography that is incomplete, inaccessible, devalued, and dying. By mining the landscape of forgotten and lost pornography paper illuminates how pornographic images were firmly embedded in economic, social, and cultural systems that, through racial fetishism, created and circulated meanings about racial difference and blackness in the West. In order to understand black women’s performances in pornography it is first necessary to examine black women’s work in a larger sexual economy and in the context of the broader landscape of racial and gendered economic disenfranchisement, discriminatory segregation, and abusive criminalization that shaped their choices, capacities, erotic value, and modes of negotiation. These conditions were met by black women’s own self-determined labors to survive, to assert themselves, and to move within and against sexual expropriation in ways that suited them. Next, this paper argues that in putting their sexualities to work, black women may have seen their work in pornography as open to revision, mediation, playfulness, and other worlds of erotic imagination. Finally, by prioritizing a view into black women’s sexual economies through the framework of early pornographic film, historians may gain new insight into the ways in which African American women labored queerly, participating in non-heteronormative sex acts, in taboo forms of interracial and intraracial performance, and in a underground economy of subversive eroticism organized around pornography’s early industrial communities.
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