University of Amsterdam
On the ninth of February 2017, erotic video platform ManyVids (MV) caused a scandal among their followers on Twitter when a “racist woman” was given the MV Social Media Slayer of the Year Award. This caused a public outrage over racist content on the website. A day later, ManyVids removed all “race play” videos from the site, accompanied by a public statement that conflated race play and racism. The result was again a heated discussion on Twitter about personal rights, racism and discrimination against specific fetishes. Race play is a form of BDSM (Bondage, Dominance/Discipline, Submission/Sadism and Masochism), which is an umbrella term used for forms of sexual and erotic practices that are considered “edgy” or “kinky” and usually involve playing with power dynamics. In a general BDSM setting, there will be at least one person taking on the Dominant (or Sadist/Master) role and at least one person taking the submissive (or masochist/slave)1 role, to create an eroticized power dynamic. Race play—which is a sexual practice where the either imagined or real racial background of one or more of the participants is used to create this power-imbalance in a BDSM-scene, through the use of slurs, narratives and objects laden with racial history—lies on the intersection between highly contested racial and sexual minorities, which allows for valuable investigations into the ways we negotiate these concepts. However, in academic research this phenomenon has mainly been overlooked, with notable exceptions that will be discussed in this article. Furthermore, race play is an issue that inspires strong responses due to its being closely linked to personal and collective (partial) identities. We will see this with the ManyVids incident but also in academic work on race play and personal narratives of race play participants. Academic work on race play is just starting to emerge, with Ariane Cruz’s The Color of Kink (2016) being the first monograph on the subject.2 In this article therefore, I will rely on my two case studies more than on secondary literature, except when links to other topics of research prove productive for my own argumentation.
This article focuses on the conflation of racism and race play, arguing that this problematic understanding of race play is caused by two sets of conceptual issues: the representationalist relationship between collective identities and personal (sexual) agency; and the perceived fantasy/reality dichotomy. Through an exploration of these conceptual issues as they pertain to practices of and discussions about race play, I hope to both come to a deeper understanding of the foundations and stakes of debates about race play, and begin to develop a new conceptual understanding of the phenomenon which may contribute to a more productive vocabulary when talking about the lived experiences of people from these (sexual) minorities and the ways in which they are perceived. A beginning with this new vocabulary will be made by taking Marc Augé’s concept of “non-place” as a way to resolve the conceptual problems caused by, specifically, the fantasy/reality dichotomy.
In the first section of this article, I will focus on collective identities to show the stakes of the race play debate. The relationship between “collective identities” and “personal sexual agency” in the case of race play will be explored through the words and works of Mollena Williams-Haas who has become the poster child of race play.3 Mollena Williams-Haas’ claim that whenever she engages in a BDSM performance, it is perceived as race play—whether racial imagery and/or racist slurs are part of the performance or not—shows further that in these settings of power imbalance and performed sexual violence, to her audience her race becomes the defining feature of the BDSM-scene as well.
This brings to light the assumed neutrality of white people, where a person of color will always necessarily “perform race” in a BDSM setting. I will argue that this is due to a tension between collective identity and personal sexual agency, which was caused by “representationalism.” With this term, that I will first introduce in the current work, I mean that—even though it has immense values for politics, activism and research—the concept of representation has so pervaded our thinking that it has become almost an ideology, making us think of people first and foremost as representatives of a collective identity and only secondly as individual people with their own thoughts and convictions. This way of looking at people has caused a myriad of complex consequences, amongst which making every member of a collective identity responsible for protecting the perceptions about the collective. A person’s personal decision to engage in race play then, becomes a collective problem, threatening the perceptions about the collective as well as the personal well-being of other people in this group. The ways in which representationalism functions will be explored further in this first section, contributing to the ways we understand the race play dilemmas.
These insights from the first section will be brought into the second section, where I will come back to the ManyVids incident that was briefly outlined above. In this section—through a discussion of the fantasy/reality dichotomy in pornography debates and literature; the discussion on ManyVids’ Twitter feed; and discussions about race play in theory and social discourse—I will aim to show how the fantasy/reality dichotomy is at the heart of the arguments both for and against race play. Whilst respecting the distinctions between race play pornography, performances and interpersonal private practices, I will show that the different understandings of this dichotomy, and particularly the concept of “fantasy” itself, causes much of the confusion around the subject and misunderstandings within the debate. With the concept of “non-place” I will propose a new way of thinking about this dichotomy, which might contribute to a more productive understanding of the practices and the discussions about their values and pitfalls. This focus on the discussions around specific sexual practices through which “race” acquires importance as performance and experience, through the cases of race play poster child Mollena Williams-Haas and the recent ManyVids controversy, may help us come to a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences between race play and racism, as well as the conceptual issues that lie at the basis of these ideas.
“Race Play by Default”: Collective Identities and Sexual Agency
In this section I will argue that one of the main reasons why race play is such a highly contested issue is because of the tension between collective identities on the one hand, and personal (sexual) agency on the other. To explore this tension, I will focus on the historically-grown problems with the perception of the sexuality and sexual agency of African-American women, where we can find these same tensions. Even though in race play any racial background can be used to create a scene, most research has focused on the role of African-American people or women in race play.4
Two of the main reasons for this may be that most outspoken advocates of race play happen to be African-American women (most notably Mollena Williams-Haas, whose work and words will be discussed later in this section); and the clear links between BDSM imagery and African-American slaves, as discussed above. These alone are clear reasons why a focus on the case of black female sexuality can be productive to increase our understanding of race play. However, it is especially because of the historically-problematic relationship this collective identity has in relation to sexual agency that I will focus on these issues. This history has shaped the arguments on both sides of the race play debate, making a short introduction of this history necessary for the contextualization of the debates. Contextualized thusly, the subsequent analyses will aim to contribute to a deeper and historic understanding of the two sides of the race play debate, showing that most of both the perceived problems and benefits are related to representationalism, and the tension between collective identities and personal (sexual) agency.
Prejudices about the sexuality of black people have a long history and resulted in the Jezebel and Buck stereotypes.5 Through these stereotypes, black men and women were portrayed as being hypersexual and sexually insatiable, and the abuse and rape of black people during the times of slavery and separation as legitimate: because they were sexually insatiable, any sexual act must be desired.6 As the discussion of the following authors will show, the stereotype of black women’s hypersexuality continues to have a severe impact on these women’s experience of their sexualities and, more specifically, on their responses to rape. Carolyn West gives a good summary of the findings of this research, especially when she writes:
The perpetuation of the Jezebel image reinforces and justifies sexual exploitation. Not only does this image contribute to a sense of shame and reluctance to acknowledge sexual violence in one’s own life and the larger Black community, it affirms the myth that Black women cannot be victimized due to their wanton sexual nature. The lack of credibility afforded Black victims may explain why they were more likely to wait before revealing their sexual assault than White women (64% vs. 36%, respectively). Upon self-disclosure, more Black women’s confidants, as compared to those of White women, were either unsupportive or nonresponsive.7
Not only does this shed light on the severity of the stereotype and its consequences, it shows how from the point of view of the collective African-American female identity, sexual agency is very problematic. When West writes that the stereotype affirms the myth that Black women cannot be victimized due to their wanton sexual nature, what this means in fact is that for black women sexual consent is always there because they have an insatiable sexual desire. The myth suggests that black women’s sexual consent is always present and these women do not have any agency over their consent: they cannot withhold it. Black women are perceived as beings without sexual agency and this has severe consequences for their experiences when they become the victim of rape. The perception of a lack of agency, thus, can have devastating effects on their lived experiences.
One of the many scholars who has drawn attention to black female sexuality and the way African-American women have historically coped with the stereotype is Evelyn Hammonds, who in her article on “Black Female Sexuality” writes:
Although some of the strategies used by these black woman reformers might have initially been characterized as resistance to dominant and increasingly hegemonic constructions of their sexuality, by the early twentieth century, they had begun to promote a public silence about sexuality which, it could be argued, continues to the present. This ‘politics of silence’, […] emerged as a political strategy by black woman reformers who hoped by their silence and by the promotion of proper Victorian morality to demonstrate the lie of the image of the sexually immoral black woman.8
The “politics of silence” was a mode of dealing with the stereotype that entailed restricting anything linked to sexuality to the private domains. These middle class “black women reformers” attempted to reconstruct the perception of black women’s sexuality and in their efforts even tried to restrict lower and working-class women’s sexuality: they saw any deviation as a problem for the entire race.9 Every black woman, then, became a representative of the collective “black women,” making the politics of silence approach a very representationalist strategy. These politics of silence are directly linked to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s understanding of agency in her well-known article “Can the Subaltern Speak,” as “the ability to speak,” where “to speak” is defined as a speech-act which is not completed until the utterance is both spoken and heard.10 The women who adopted the “politics of silence”-approach to the Jezebel stereotype denied themselves and other black women their personal agency in Spivak’s definition. However, as they feel that nothing they say about the subject will be heard, but rather reinforce stereotypes, in fact they did not have agency even before this approach was adopted: the speech act was not completed because their denial of the stereotype was not heard. Rather, they felt that any act or word that was to do with sexuality only reinforced the stereotype and the only way to deny it was to publicly distance themselves from any suggestion of sexuality at all.
We can clearly see here the tension between collective identities and personal (sexual) agency, and the role of representationalism in this tension. Because of representationalism—the tendency to reduce individual people to a representation of a larger group and collective identity—it becomes necessary for members of this group to police the behavior of other members. For a black woman to show or act on her sexuality in public could have severe consequences for everyone who is part of this collective identity. As a result, personal agency over one’s sexuality becomes limited: one cannot decide for oneself how to deal with personal desires and identity, rather in a way, these decisions need to be made by the collective because everyone involved may suffer from your personal choice. We will see the consequences of this representationalism later, with Mollena Williams-Haas’ recalling of a personal encounter she had that exemplifies how she always performs her racial identity, resulting in her claim that she does race play by default.
A Challenging Series of Encounters
The persistence and process of representationalism when it comes to black female bodies and sexualities has been pointed out and challenged by BDSM performer and educator Mollena Williams-Haas. On September 16, 2012, she uploaded her short film IMPACT onto her YouTube account. The description on this page reads:
What is the impact of a blow you witness? Does it shift as the perception of pain, pleasure, ambiguity, shifts? IMPACT is a short that invites the viewer as voyeur to experience a strangely intimate and ultimately challenging series of encounters. How do they impact you?11
This film—which Mollena Williams-Haas wrote, directed and featured in—has been screened at different erotic and film festivals.12
The film shows Mrs. Williams-Haas on hands and knees facing the camera, whilst she is being dealt blows on her bottom by five different people in different scenes. These people, who in this essay will be referred to as “Dominants”—a BDSM term referring to the person who dominates or controls one or more submissive partners—deal the blows using hands, knees and tools associated with BDSM: whips, paddles and canes. They differ from each other in age, gender, ethnic background and the style of their clothes (which may point to social status). Another difference between the scenes is the emotion shown by both the submissive and the Dominants.
As we can read in the description of the film quoted above, the viewer is addressed directly in this film. We can see this most clearly in Mollena Williams-Haas’ almost constant gaze into the camera. The actress locks gazes with the viewer, inviting them to identify with her, whilst being dealt blows in a simultaneously intimate and voyeuristic setting. The viewer becomes an addressee and participant in this short film, which causes affective impact. The perceptions of the blows dealt to the submissive are affected through the different scenes in two ways. The first is the way that the emotions shown by the submissive—ranging from cheerful and erotic to hurt and sad—are played with, especially in relation to the emotions shown by the Dominant. The second way the viewer’s perception of the blows is affected is the aforementioned physical appearances of the Dominants (age, gender, ethnic background and social status). It is through the relations between the three groups of participants in this movie (submissive, Dominants and the viewer) that power relations are exposed and played with. The feelings of shock and dismay that the woman expressed about seeing a white man tying up and beating down a black woman in this short film are challenged and played with. This is visible most clearly when we look at the first two scenes that feature the Dominant called Nayland Blake.
The first time we see this older, white, male Dominant is in the fourth scene. Though a comparison between Williams-Haas’ look in the first scene (Figure 1) and the fourth scene (Figure 2) shows that her expressions do not differ that much, this fourth scene seems to have much more of an “impact” than the first one. This means it cannot be the submissive’s responses that cause the change in affective impact for the viewer, because they are very similar. The difference then, must be in the Dominant. Not only does the image of an older white man in a business suit spanking an African-American woman make for an unsettling experience for the viewer, this feeling of uneasiness is increased by both actors’ neutral expressions and the fact that this is the first time a Dominant looks straight into the camera. The top of Blake’s head is cut off by the frame, adding to the sense of his dominating the frame.13 The stares of both Dominant and submissive address the viewer directly, making them feel like a participant in this scene that is laden with historical and cultural connotations. We become even more aware of these connotations and our own cultural assumptions when in the eight scene we see Nayland Blake again, but this time he and Mollena Williams-Haas seem very playful, dancing to the beat that he drums on her bottom.14 The contrast between the playfulness of the eighth scene (meant to cause a joyful affective response in the viewer through the identification with the joyful submissive) and the stern, unsettling looks into the camera of the fourth scene has a surprising effect. It allows the viewer to reflect back on the first response with the fourth scene. We are confronted here with a familiar image: an older, white man dominating a younger woman of color, devoid of joy. In a society where racial issues are high on the agenda, an image like this is considered dangerous and heavy with the cultural history of white male oppression of the black female body.
The two gazes inviting us into the scene here make us accomplices of this scene of racial inequality. However, the two gazes back at the viewer have a second effect. The actors appear to be not gazing at the viewer so much as confronting the viewer’s assumptions. This allows the viewer to also reflect on the assumptions, creating a distance between the reflective viewer and their culturally-shaped gaze. Here, again, we see the representationalism-induced tension between the collective identity and personal (sexual) agency, but here it is the other way around. The representationalist view is exactly what the viewer is made aware of, both in relation to the black female submissive Mollena Williams-Haas and the male white Dominant Nayland Blake. The familiar image of the fourth scene affirms the representationalist roles we are familiar with, with Blake representing the category of oppressive white males and Williams-Haas representing the marginalized and victimized black woman. However, when in the eighth scene this familiar picture is disrupted—especially when we add the realization that Williams-Haas is actually the person who initiated and directed this project and thus is actually the one in power—the representationalist view falls short and we become aware of Williams-Haas’ personal agency in diverging from the way this familiar pairing would be expected to be presented.
Touching the Wound
How far this representationalism goes can be seen in an anecdote Mollena Williams-Haas told in an interview with journalist Andrea Plaid:
Mollena: I had a woman come up to me after one of my race play classes and tell me a scene I was in years ago was one of the first scenes she ever saw. […] she said to me she hadn’t been “prepared to see that.” And after so many years as an activist etc., she was shocked and dismayed to see a white man tying up and beating down a black woman. That this is a “difficult thing to see,” yadda. Like she felt she should have been warned or something. (mind, I DO talk about alerting bystanders, via the dungeon monitors, if you are planning extreme play.) the thing is this: That dominant DOESN’T DO RACE PLAY.
Andrea Plaid: Really?
Mollena: It was a straightforward fuckin’ rope scene with whips and shit. She SAW a race play scene. I have NO control over that. […] I do race play BY DEFAULT in the eyes of most people. […] David tying and suspending a black woman became a transgressive act in and of itself.15
Mollena’s experience with this woman shows that race play is taboo outside of but also within the BDSM community. What is more, her assertion that “she does race play by default in the eyes of most people” shows both the presence of and problems with a representationalist way of looking at people. In a BDSM-setting, at least, this woman is seen as being always first and foremost a black woman and always performing her racial history. Like with the Jezebel stereotype, Mollena Williams does not appear to have any control over the way her body and activities are constructed by her audience. In the same way that black women have spent decades trying to find a way to change the stereotype, and have seemed to fail to detach the historical constructions from their own bodies, when Mollena Williams plays as a white male’s submissive she sees no way to take race out of the equation for her audience. However, this does not cause her to adopt a politics of silence, to limit her BDSM interests to the private sphere. Rather, she tries to educate people through workshops and her website with the title “The Perverted Negress,” and accepts the cultural baggage but decides to follow her desires all the same. Despite the powerful way she asserts her personal agency, it is both in the short film as her recalling the anecdote that we can see how this tension between the collective identity of African-American women and its cultural history, and the agency and personal choice to engage in BDSM and race play is continuously played out on her body.
From the point of view of the damaging Jezebel stereotype and the resulting politics of silence that was discussed earlier, Williams-Haas’ choice to let herself be spanked and chained in a public setting can be seen as a problem for every African-American woman on both a collective and personal level. The same is true from the sexual exploitation that was discussed at the beginning of this section, and the (sexual) violence African-American women deal with to this day. Showing her body in the public domain in a setting with such strong sexual connotations, alone, would forego everything the “politics of silence” approach was meant to accomplish. And not only does she choose to appear in this sexual setting, but she lets herself be chained and spanked, activities that have clear links with the times of slavery. It is easy to see then how black women engaging in BDSM, and especially race play, would be seen as problematic, both within the BDSM community and outside, and both for African-American women and people who are not. Because of her ascribed racial identity, these activities and performances could be seen as reinforcing the damaging stereotype of the hypersexual black woman, or appear to condone violence and racist behavior and slurs against this group of people. I use the word “ascribed” here not because this identity is not hers, but because of the assumptions and demands that society attaches to it. This collective identity comes with a cultural history and a manual, a correct way in which she should deal with it. This aspect of the representationalist view is shown to be extremely problematic, when in the same interview Williams-Haas talks about her reasons for engaging in race play:
Andrea Plaid: It’s like we hold the painful history and a sacred mythology that is not to be blasphemized.
Andrea Plaid: *As a sacred mythology*
Mollena: But it is not blasphemy to want to touch that wound.
Mollena: You can’t heal something in your soul by letting it remain in its original state of pain.
Mollena: It HAS to be touched. Otherwise it will never heal.16
The image of cultural trauma as a wound in her soul that she carries with her indeed helps visualize race play as a way to deal with and process the cultural traumas of slavery and racism. It then appears quite paradoxical to deny these women the agency to participate in BDSM and race play, as a response to both the lack of agency that black women have over the way their sexuality is seen (their inability to change the stereotype and its damaging consequences), and the cultural trauma of the history of the lack of agency that was slavery and still is racism. Furthermore, Williams-Haas’ assertion that for her race play is a healing experience, is a theme that has also been noticed by scholars voiced by other race play participants. This theme has been found most notably Danielle Lindemann in her enlightening article “BDSM as Therapy?,” written because she noticed this healing narrative was brought up by professional dominatrices.17
Though I recognize that representation can be extremely helpful for both communication and political activism, when trying to find and fight for a common goal, the story outlined above shows we do have to be aware of the risk involved in wholeheartedly adopting the representationalist mindset. It is because people from a specific racial background are seen as a representation of the whole collective identity, that their personal agency and thus their personal way of dealing with collective trauma, becomes limited. In her article “Posthumanist Performativity,” Karen Barad asks the question: “What compels the belief that we have a direct access to cultural representations and their content that we lack toward the things represented?”18 I would add: “How can it be that we value the representation more than the ‘thing’ (or person) it represents?” When we restrict the space of agency for people of a certain group in order to protect the image of that group, when we decide to make everyone who falls under a certain label responsible for the maintaining of the cluster of implications related to this label, representationalism has become problematic and an oppressive structure of its own.
The arguments for and against race play have a lot in common. Both stem from the same invasive problems and traumas—caused by the history of slavery, racism, and discrimination—and vulnerability, caused by representation and stereotypes. Furthermore, the arguments are closely tied to experiences of identity and attempts to deal in a productive way with these problems and traumas from the viewpoint of the identities. The two sides can almost be categorized as “in defense of the collective identity” and “in defense of (sexual) agency and liberation.” It is no wonder, then, that the debates can get emotional and polarized very quickly. These two sides of the race play-debate can also be seen in the ManyVids incident that happened on Twitter in February of 2017, which will be discussed in the next section.
“Your Voice is Heard”: Fantasies and Realities
In this section, I will show how the different associations and understandings of the definition of “fantasy,” especially in relation to the concept of “reality,” lead to confusions and misunderstandings in the debates about race play. The ManyVids discussion will be reintroduced, and used to show how the concept of “fantasy” is used as an argument for race play pornography. Furthermore, I will show that the perceived fantasy/reality dichotomy is one of the reasons why race play is perceived to be more problematic than other forms of pornography which simulate taboo practices, like incest and rape, making this conceptual investigation highly relevant for this specific form of pornography. I will use an article by Martin Barker to show how orientations toward fantasy in relation to pornography are manifold, complicating the anti-race play porn concerns about the viewers’ interest in and possibly harmful interpretations of these videos, before moving to a discussion of the role of fantasy when it comes to race play performances and private interactions. With Ariane Cruz’s groundbreaking monography on black women and BDSM from 2016, The Color of Kink, we will see how the fantasy/reality dichotomy is used by race play practitioners to distinguish between racism and race play. However, she will also show how this dichotomy is difficult to hold, because of the “real world” elements in and effects of race play scenes. I will then show that this really is a conceptual issue, more than an experiential one, that asks for conceptual solutions.
Stand against Racism
I will first discuss the following message posted on Twitter by the ManyVids account, and the resulting discussion in response to it:
ManyVids’ message reads:
We have removed all of the “raceplay” vids on [ManyVids] and will do our best to continuously monitor and take them down. We stand against racism and strive for diversity. Our main goal is to make MV a place where you feel comfortable and your voice is heard.19
In this message (Figure 3), the media platform gave their “standing against racism” as a reason for removing all “raceplay” videos. What we can see from the replies to this message was that it caused a lot of confusion as to the definition of race play. As “Steph Leen” said in her comment: she considered her content race play “for promoting BBC” (Big Black Cock, which is a common fetish/category on porn websites).20 The question then becomes whether a positive use of racial stereotypes is still considered race play and consequently racism.
Interesting as this question is, this was not an issue discussed in relation to this controversy. The media platform works with “tags” that uploaders can use to categorize their videos, and it is on this basis that porn-categories available on the website are formed. In response to the Social Media Slayer-upheaval, ManyVids decided to remove all videos that were tagged “race play,” resulting indeed in the possibility that positively valued stereotypes could be deleted in the process. Based on the argumentation in the previous section, categories like “BBC” still could reinforce reducing people to stereotypes, skin colour or body-parts, whether it is meant to be positive or not. However, it could be argued that this one-dimensionality is a defining element of fetishization, and one that these porn movies cater to. And as “Frank” noted, “You now ban content that some people want and others are willing to make, all consenting adults, [because] others object to it.”21 However, this view indeed starts from a position of the agency of the performers, whereas the people worried about race play videos focus more on the audience’s perception, interpretation and even the fact that they have these fetishes to begin with.
The representationalist mindset can be read quite literally in two of the comments as well. To defend one of her videos that was taken down, “TwoThornedRose.com” writes: “it was part of a custom ordered by a black man.”22 What this seems to suggest, is that if a black man ordered it, it cannot be considered harmful or racist by other people: when he requested this video, he seemed to approve of the video on behalf of all black men. The same kind of argumentation can be found on the other side of the discussion, when “LunaDelRey666” suggests: “Just listen to WOC [Women of Color] in the industry who say they don’t wanna see ‘raceplay.’”23 This sentence can be read in a variety of ways, but because of the context it is safe to assume what she means is one of two things. She could mean that the collective “Women of Color in the industry” do not want to see race play, and this should be respected. This group of women would be perceived as being homogenous with one consistent stance on the issue of race play pornography, silencing Women of Color in the industry who do support race play and even choose to make these videos themselves. This would be an extremely representationalist stance, assuming that every person who is part of this collective identity shares the same views and speaks for the whole. Or she could mean that the women of colour who do not want to see race play should be respected, and consequently that their feelings and desires are more important than any reason one could have to make, see or offer a platform to these types of videos. They should be the one representing the collective on this issue, because their point of view benefits and protects the collective, whereas the other point of view is informed by arguments on a personal level.
It Is Totally a Fantasy
We can see from these comments that representationalism is certainly part of the race play debate. There is however another issue that is strongly present in both discussions about porn and discussions about race play: the differentiation between fantasy and reality. In the ManyVids discussion on Twitter this theme was brought up by “Jake’s Camhouse”: “It’s roleplay…it’s acting…people like different shit..get over it folks.”24 More interesting in this regard, is “Jtrigga1220”’s comment: “what about all the other fantasy they allow, like incest cuckold and penis humiliation. It is totally a fantasy.”25 Indeed, this incident brings to light an interesting point. There is no taboo that has not been turned into a sexual fantasy or porn scenario, and like racism, rape and incest BDSM and pornography for some people may be as harmful and triggering as race play scenes and videos. As “Jtrigga1220” noted in an earlier comment: “Many people have been abused by family members- but @manyvids still has incest vids.”26 However, there appears to be a difference between these fetishes/taboos and I will argue that the difference has its roots in the fantasy/reality differentiation.
The role of the concept of fantasy in the debates about pornography have been summarized in a critical and productive way by Martin Barker in his 2014 article “The ‘problem’ of sexual fantasies.”27 He shows how the literature heavily relies on Freudian theories that say that fantasies are a product of childhood trauma and repressed problems.28 Furthermore, he points out the paradox that “while pornography is effectively defined by its explicitness, it is surrounded and permeated by claims about its role as fantasy.”29 By this, he means that pornography is said to leave nothing to the imagination, showing naked bodies engaging in literal intercourse, whilst at the same time it is said to reenact and play into the viewers’ fantasies, which indeed is paradoxical. He continues to argue that these points are not supported by quantitative research and shows how his investigation based on over 5000 responses to an online questionnaire about the meanings and pleasures of pornography shows very different outcomes:
For those who seek out and enjoy porn, “fantasy” is very varied and multiform in purpose. […] Perhaps the most important implication to emerge from this variety is that there look to be a number of distinct orientations towards pornography. By “orientation” I mean that people relate to it in different ways, in terms of: how they seek out and select what to look at; the different criteria they have for what is satisfying and exciting, or disappointing, disturbing or disgusting; and their different “careers” into and through pornography, and how these relate to other parts of their personal histories and lives.30
If indeed people have different orientations towards pornography, it is safe to assume the same is true for race play pornography.
When it comes to pornography in general, Barker distinguishes five broad orientations:
- “Fantasy” as magnifying glass: a conscious accentuation of a desire.
- “Fantasy” as a mirror to self: a means to look at our responses to things.
- “Fantasy” as emporium: a world of possibilities to be explored and thought about.
- “Fantasy” as a journey: a visitation to a distant realm of desires and activities.
- “Fantasy” as other self: what I might or might not be.31
As Barker does point out, these five examples of orientations to pornography in general do require further research. However, his insights are incredibly significant when it comes to the traditional worries about pornography. The argument that is used against both pornography and race play (and consequently race play pornography) is that the videos might cause the belief that the way people are treated in them is how the group of people represented (whether “women” or “racialized bodies”) collectively can be or even desire to be treated as they are in the videos. If this were true, indeed it could be extremely harmful. However, in most of the orientations Barker distinguishes, this fantasy-turned-reality does not appear to be an option. In the first, third, fourth and fifth orientations especially, the “realm” shown in the videos is a distinct and “other” realm, one you can visit and learn from, with self-reflection being an important factor still. With the self-reflection mentioned as an important part of watching pornography expressed by the viewers themselves, it becomes very unlikely that the viewer would simply adopt views expressed in these videos without question. Interestingly, this “other realm” is also part of the defensive BDSM and race play narratives.
Removed from Everyday Existence
In her pioneering work The Color of Kink (2016), Ariane Cruz writes:
The concept of fantasy is vital to how black women conceptualize their sexual performances in BDSM, specifically race play, which is often seen as a chimerical act that takes place outside the realm of reality. A dialectic exists between the fantasy world of BDSM, as it is typically imagined by those who practice it, and the “real” world. For some, there is the perception that what one does while she is playing is somehow removed from her everyday existence.32
In this first monograph on black woman in BDSM, Cruz shows that the fantasy/reality dichotomy allows people who engage in race play to argue that even though they might use racist imagery in their race play, they do not condone racism in their everyday lives. According to them, the distinction between racism and race play (which was absent from the ManyVids announcement) therefore relies on the fantasy/reality distinction (race play being fantasy and racism reality). It is a necessary instrument in the defense of the practice of race play. However, this distinction is problematic. The difference between this distinction for watching pornography and performing in BDSM and race play, lies in the definitions of fantasy.
Whereas in Barker’s work and in discussions about viewing pornography, “fantasy” is a mental function linked to imagination—where the difference between fantasy and reality is a simple and easily accepted one—when it comes to the BDSM and race play debates “fantasy” is a more physical activity linked to the notion of play-acting and more difficult to distinguish from “reality.” We can see this already in Mollena Williams-Haas’ definition of race play, when she mentions “the either real or simulated racial identity.” If indeed we have a scene where someone pretends to be of a certain race—which is not that common in race play pornography—then the racial slurs and imagery are clearly detached from the person who plays the submissive in the scene. When the person really is of the racial background that is played with in the scene however, it is very difficult to distinguish between real racism and its simulation.
I will argue that it is this difficulty that answers “Jtrigga1220”’s implicit question that was quoted earlier, why incest videos are still on the website, whilst race play videos have been banned. Indeed, it may seem strange that rape and incest simulations would still be acceptable whilst race play is condemned by the website. In reality, all of these three practices are both illegal and harmful, and showing simulations can be triggers for people who have had traumatic experiences. I argue that the difference between race play on the one hand and rape and incest play on the other, lies in the fantasy/reality distinction. This distinction is clear with both rape and incest pornography. What defines incest is the familial relation between the participants, and this is easy to establish. What defines rape is the absence of consent and with professional and even more with amateur porn stars, we can always assume consent to a certain extent.33 When we accept porn stars as agents (which is a prerequisite for the ability to give consent), “rape play” pornography videos are always by definition simulated because the performers consented to contribute to the video. This is not true for race play.
Racism is not defined by a lack of consent. Racist slurs can be read as racism, whether the recipient consented to their being used or not. What’s more, with racism, more than with incest or rape, it is seen as inherently a problem for the collective—as a social issue—whereas with incest and rape the focus is usually more on the personal experience.34 Therefore, one person’s consent to the use of racial slurs and symbols does not mean the scene is not racist anymore. Furthermore, if in a race play (pornography) setting a Dominant “performs” racism, there is no way of knowing whether the racism is performed or meant. This is why the fantasy/reality dichotomy is both problematic and at the heart of the race play issue, distinguishing it from other “taboo” or “edgy” forms of kink. The fantasy/reality distinction is here not only necessary in the viewer’s mind (as with pornography in general) but also with the Dominant, whether in a pornographic video or in a private or public race play scene.
Outside the Realm of Reality
However, this is not where the fantasy/reality distinction is situated when people with a racial identity use it to defend their practicing of race play. Here we can find the difference between the issues around race play pornography and the personal choice to practice race play either in private or in a public setting or performance. It is this distinction that we see when people with a racial identity say that they enjoy race play but do not condone racism in real life. As Cruz states in her monograph:
The concept of fantasy is vital to how black women conceptualize their sexual performances in BDSM, specifically race play, which is often seen as a chimera act that takes place outside the realm of reality. A dialectic exists between the fantasy world of BDSM, as it is typically imagined by those who practice it, and the “real” world. For some, there is the perception that what one does while she is playing is somehow removed from her everyday existence.35 [emphasis mine]
However, as Cruz also points out:
For critics and proponents of BDSM, the fantasy/reality binary is problematic. Race play reveals the profound paradox of this enduring fantasy/reality dialectic: even as these practices recite, indeed require “real, shared world” historical and political references, such play can be imagined, enacted and narrated as pure fantasy. This is a profound tension at the heart of race play.36
In other forms of BDSM “power play” can more easily be seen as indeed “play” and “simulation.” However, because of its nature, race play revolves around issues, words and imagery that necessarily rely on a close link with actual experience from historical and present times. And especially when Mollena Williams-Haas’ and Danielle Lindemann’s professional dominatrices talk about race play as a healing experience, the effects of race play turn out to be capable of changing “real world” experiences.37
Both the inspiration for and the effects of this “fantasy” then, are from and in the real world, making the dichotomy a difficult one to defend. However, it does have to be defended, since—even though they are in a tension—they are both strong and important experiences of people with multiple and complex identities. This is probably why Cruz does not find a way out of the binary but instead forces her readers to stay with this tension. I appreciate that sometimes staying in an uncomfortable place may help academics acknowledge more fully the societal problems that (groups of) people experience, and can be enlightening and respectful to the people in this double bind. However, I do think that in this case it is an intellectual tension, but may not as much be experienced by race play participants and defenders whilst they are practicing or performing. We can see this most notably in Cruz’s claim that for some participants there is the perception that what one does while she is playing is somehow removed from her everyday existence. Furthermore, as was shown above, the different understandings and definitions of fantasy are partly to blame for this tension, making it a definition- or communication-problem and not so much a personal experience. Thinking about fantasy in this context in a different way, may then help us find a way out of this academic tension, whilst at the same time staying closer to people’s lived experiences.
The Pleasure of Role Playing
Though Barker’s research was successful in pointing out the orientations that one can have towards pornography as fantasy, his interviews and research methods did not allow him to further investigate what different forms fantasy itself can take, since, as he stated himself, it was not the focus of the initial research. We have already seen that fantasy can be a mental exercise linked to imagination, and this is the form of fantasy that Barker investigated. However, as was said previously, when people defend their rights to perform and participate in race play scenes, it is a different form of fantasy that they are talking about. If indeed, we would see these scenes as a performance, as it is used in the performing arts, we could see them as a “play” as it is used in theatre. About the word “play” in “race play,” Cruz writes: “In race play, the rhetoric of play belies the sociohistorical gravity of racism and its contemporary utterances. Much more than mere play, race play requires its participants to undertake a unique physical and psychic labor.”38
If we would read the word “play” here not as a word associated with games but as it is used when referring to theatre, it might be possible to see an alternative way to look at the relationship between fantasy and reality. It is not uncommon in theatre to take real societal issues, symbols or even personas and re-enact them on the stage; rather, it could be argued that usually that is exactly what a play is. Furthermore, the physical and psychic labor that Cruz here points out is definitely one we can attribute to actors. However, these elements (the labor and real-world issues that are addressed) in no way make the play “reality,” but rather a performance to reflect on or induce a reflection on these issues. Now, of course, not all, if any, race play scenes and performances have this same specific aim, but the theatrical definition of “play” may help us understand better how reality and fantasy can form a complex blend in a setting where actors, performers or race play participants take on roles in a specific context which may depend on and lead to real-life problems or experiences without losing its “fantasy” element. It negates the idea that fantasy and reality are necessarily mutually-exclusive or binary. It becomes possible then to enact racism without actually being racist, which is what race play defenders do claim.
Though this argumentation does give us a way out of the problem of the fantasy/reality dichotomy, it appears to pertain more to race play performances than race play scenes, and almost puts it in the realm of “the arts,” a theme however, that is not present in race play discussions. In race play scenes where there is no audience, the “theater play” analogy would fail, because there is no message to be conveyed. It might be more adequate here to look at Marc Augé’s concept of the “non-place”: a transitional place that cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity. An in-between with its own set of rules and its own implications, but set apart from your ordinary life. This non-place is an experience, a state of mind, which might make it productive for the current discussion.
At first glance, it might seem like a stretch to take Augé’s concept and apply it to this phenomenon. His examples for the better part focus on travelers and means of transportation (e.g. airports, highways and trains) and not on sexual or interpersonal relationships. However, many of the elements of non-place that Augé mentions do resonate with BDSM and race play. The most obvious one is the contract, mentioned by Augé in relation to airports, which plays a huge role in BDSM practice and narrative.39 Augé states that the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with the non-place, or the powers that govern it. Furthermore, the contract always relates to the individual identity of the contracting party; when entering a non-space like an airport, a ticket inscribed with the passenger’s name must be presented: “So the passenger accedes to his anonymity only when he has given proof of his identity; when he has countersigned (so to speak) the contract.”40 We can easily see how this would be applicable to BDSM and race play scenes, which are usually said to be preceded by a physical contract or at the least a negotiation that is perceived to have the same function as a contract.41 Additionally, the submissive in the race play scene (which would be the equivalent of the passenger here) indeed needs to be a “free agent” as much as possible for the negotiations and/or contract to work and the scene to be consensual (which is a prerequisite for a BDSM scene), and thus cannot have assumed their role yet. It could be argued then, that only when a person has given proof of their identity, in using their agency to consent, they can accede to their anonymity by assuming their role in the scene.
The anonymity that Augé referred to is extremely relevant here. He describes the state of being in a non-place as follows:
A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver. Perhaps he is still weighed down by the previous day’s worries, the next day’s concerns; but he is distanced from them temporarily by the environment of the moment. Subjected to a gentle form of possession, to which he surrenders himself with more or less talent or conviction, he tastes for a while—like anyone who is possessed—the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing.42
This is an experience that, when adapted to the particular circumstances of BDSM and race play, does seem to reflect the experiences of people who practice it. A person who engages in a BDSM scene, becomes no more than what they do or experiences in their role as Dominant or submissive; this role comes to define them. Additionally, one may feel distanced from their everyday experiences, as was observed by Adrienne Cruz, and surrender oneself to the moment. It is in this combination of identity-loss and role-playing that this concept of non-place offers the same explanatory value as the analogy of the theatre play.
However, it is in Augés discussions of the relation between non-place and time that this concept becomes more productive in relation to race play specifically. Augé states: “There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reigns here is actuality, the urgency of the present moment.”43 Both the previously-mentioned experience of being “possessed by the moment,” as the “history as spectacle,” play an important part in the race play experience. Elements from racial and personal histories are often present in race play scenes, be they objects, symbols, words, or historically-grown stereotypes and prejudices. However, they are not merely adopted but indeed transformed into elements of spectacle. They do not lose their historical meaning, but this historical meaning and consequently the enacted racism are played with, turned into something else.
Where previously we saw how in the non-place a person became no more than the role they perform, the same is true for the historically-racist elements: they are made into a tool, reduced to be no more than their function in the present moment. In the context of a race play scene then, indeed the “racism” is still culturally- and historically-shaped, but transformed and played with. This is not the phenomenon of racism we encounter in everyday life, but becomes “racism”: a tool to help construct the experience that BDSM and race play participants desire. The “racism” helps construct the non-place at the same time as it is made into “racism” within the context of the non-place. This interesting dynamic may be at the heart of the perceived difference between racist slurs and imagery in race play and in everyday life that is mentioned by people engaging in race play. Whereas “fantasy” as a concept did not appear equipped to deal with these experiences, due to its multiplicity of interpretations and perceived dichotomous relationship with “reality,” I propose that the concept of “non-place” might be more productive to account for both the state of mind that provides the basis of this “different realm,” and the historic, material and factual elements that define the race play scene.
Whether in pornography, performance or as private endeavor, race play is a highly contested sexual or erotic practice through which race acquires specific meanings. As was shown in this article, some of the arguments and perceptions on both sides of the race play debates, rely on complex conceptual issues undermining and confusing these arguments. Furthermore, because both sides of this debate are closely linked to personal and collective identities, the debate becomes emotional very quickly on a personal level, whilst at the same time being perceived as a collective problem. From the anti-race play stance, the practice of race play is often perceived to be racist and therefore a harmful and objectionable phenomenon. I have shown that this conflation is due to two conceptual problems, and not necessarily an experiential one. These two problems are the tension between collective identities and personal agency, and between the concepts of reality and fantasy. Through the exploration of Mollena Williams-Haas’ short film IMPACT, as well as her statements in her interview with Andrea Plaid, and the discussion resulting from ManyVids’ decision to take down all race play pornography videos, some of the arguments in the race play debate were presented and explored, leading to a deeper understanding of the arguments and stakes of this debate, and following them to their conceptual origins.
Through the representationalist gaze, people from collective racial identities have a personal stake in the decisions made by other people in this “group,” which have been shown to have very real and harmful consequences. There is a long history of (sexual) abuse of the black female body, which was legitimized by the Jezebel stereotype, suggesting that black women cannot be raped. As a means of protection, the “politics of silence” approach was adopted and enforced amongst black women, making every suggestion of their sexuality in public a hazard for the personal safety of all black women. Any representation, of a sexual black female body, then, was a seen as a collective matter. Race play is not only a negation of this approach, by making the racial background an inherent part of the sexual or erotic acts, but can also be seen as a way to trigger or encourage violence against racial minorities. Even one person from this minority engaging in a scene like that could be a risk for every person in their community.
Race play then, becomes not only a form of racism in that one scene, but may stimulate ideas about racism being desirable in general. Every person from an ethnic background becomes a representative of their entire community, making their personal agency subservient to the collective identity. Though the perception of racism being desirable could be extremely harmful and should be avoided at all costs, the representationalist view may be just as harmful. We can see that on the other side of the debate, arguments revolve around personal agency and, for example, the right to deal with the traumatic experiences in a way that is productive for the individual, be this in the private or public sphere. Since agency has always played a large role in issues of equality and emancipation, indeed it could be argued that in their desire to protect the collective, the anti-race play side might unintentionally represent a new form of oppression. However, as I have argued in the first section, in the absence of representationalism, this tension between collective identity and personal agency would be absent as well.
- In this article, all terms relating to Sadism and Dominance are written in capitals, whereas terms like “submissive” and “masochist” are written in lower case, in line with BDSM conventions.
- Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography (NYU Press, 2016).
- Mollena Williams and Andrea Plaid, “‘The Perverted Negress.’ Race Play interview Part IV (Conclusion).” Accessed July 22, 2017, <http://www.mollena.com/2009/04/race-play-interview-part-iv/>.
- Ariane Cruz, “Beyond Black and Blue: BDSM, Internet Pornography, and Black Female Sexuality,” Feminist Studies Vol. 41, Issue 2, p. 409-436 (2015).
Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography (NYU Press, 2016).
Jennifer Christine Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Duke University Press, 2014).
Jesus G. Smith and Aurolyn Luykx, “Race Play in BDSM Porn: The Eroticization of Oppression,” Porn Studies, p. 1-14 (2017).
- Carolyn West, “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical Images of Black Women and their Implications for Psychotherapy,” Psychotherapy Vol. 32, Issue 3, p. 462-464 (1995).
- For more about the origins and workings of the Jezebel stereotype, see “The Jezebel Stereotype – Anti-black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University.” <https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/jezebel/index.htm>.
- West, “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel,” p. 463.
- Evelynn M Hammonds, “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence,” In Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, eds. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (Routledge, New York 1999), p. 97.
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Spivak Reader, eds. Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean (Psychology Press, 1996), p. 292. See also: Ilan Kapoor, “Hyper-Self-Reflexive Development? Spivak on Representing the Third World ‘Other’,” Third World Quarterly Vol. 25, Issue 4, p. 627-647 (2004).
- “IMPACT” – Youtube, Mollena Williams-Haas (dir.), <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNHF4JtYE_E>.
“IMPACT” won the “Best Experimental Film Award” at the 10th Anniversary of CineKink. “IMPACT” made its debut at Madison Young’s ground-breaking exhibit on women and alternative sexuality as told though the medium of film as part of the ASKEW! Film festival, and since then has been screened in Vancouver, was screened at STIFF (Seattle True Independent Film Festival) in May 2013 and will be screened for the Seattle Erotic Arts Festival in August, 2013. Source: “About · The Perverted Negress,” <http://www.mollena.com/about/>.
- “IMPACT,” minutes 1:04–1:15.
- Idem, minutes 2:16–2:27.
- Mollena Williams and Plaid, “‘The Perverted Negress,’ Race Play interview Part IV (Conclusion).” Accessed July 22, 2017, <http://www.mollena.com/2009/04/race-play-interview-part-iv/>.
- Mollena Williams and Andrea Plaid, “Race Play Interview – Part II · The Perverted Negress,” Accessed July 22, 2017, <http://www.mollena.com/2009/04/race-play-interview-part-ii/>.
- “No women in this sample had received any requests for race play from White clients, but requests for this type of session were relatively common amongst clients of color. It should be noted, however, that respondents not only spoke of race play as potentially therapeutic but also as sexually exciting for the clients because of the strong social proscriptions against racism–a phenomenon a Foucaultian might consider transgressive pleasure.” Danielle Lindemann, “BDSM as Therapy?,” Sexualities Vol. 14, Issue 2, p. 151-172 (158-159) (2011).
- Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs Vol. 28, Issue 3, p. 801 (801-831) (2003).
- ManyVids, Twitter post, February 10, 2017, 20:42, <https://twitter.com/ManyVids/status/830139940340121601>.
- Steph Leen, Twitter post, February 10, 2017, 14:47, <https://twitter.com/Steph_leen19/status/830186563191480321>.
- Frank, Twitter post, February 12, 2017, 09:57, <https://twitter.com/frank_baluga/status/830838339636858881>.
- TwoThornedRose.com, Twitter post, February 11, 2017, 04:10, <https://twitter.com/TwoThornedRose/status/830388515284324354>.
- LunaDelRey666, Twitter Post, February 11, 2017, 09:29, <https://twitter.com/LunaDelRey666/status/830574587586891776>.
- Jake’s Camhouse, Twitter post, February 11, 2017, 09:48, <https://twitter.com/jakescamhouse/status/830473698582753280>.
- Jtrigga 1220, Twitter post, February 11, 2017, 8:39, <https://twitter.com/Jtrigga12/status/830561810927456256>.
- Jtrigga1220, Twitter Post, February 11, 2017, 10:45, <https://twitter.com/Jtrigga12/status/830593733578088450>.
- Martin Barker, “The ‘problem’ of sexual fantasies,” Porn Studies, Vol 1, Issue 1-2, 2014, p. 143-160.
- Idem, p. 145.
- Idem, p. 154.
- Idem, p. 154-155.
- Idem, p. 155.
- Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink, p. 54.
- Of course, much has been written about the conditions and pressures in the porn industry, which could make the consent of a lesser quality, but there is usually some form or extent to which the performer can make their own choice. Furthermore, a reversal of this argumentation would mean that all pornography can be read as rape, which does not fit with porn stars’ lived experiences and would make a porn-category like “rape play” redundant, meaning that the viewers do not read all pornography that way either.
- An important exception here is the necessary discussion about “rape culture.”
- Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink, p. 54.
- Idem, p. 48.
- The “healing narrative” in BDSM has been hailed as both a strong argument for proponents and an adequate representation of lived experiences, as well as a risk in its suggesting that people who engage in BDSM are in need of healing. The worry is that this latter interpretation may lead the public debate back to the pathological discourse, which it has just (arguably) escaped. However valuable and interesting this discussion, for my argument here it is not necessary to delve into it further.
For more information, see Meg Barker, Camelia Gupta and Alessandra Iantaffi, “The Power of Play: The Potentials and Pitfalls in Healing Narratives of BDSM,” in Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, eds. Darren Langdridge et. al. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 197-216.
- Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink, p. 54.
- For more on BDSM contracts, see Andrea E. White, “The Nature of Taboo Contracts: A Legal Analysis of BDSM Contracts and Specific Performance.” UMKC Law Review, Vol. 84, Issue 4, p. 1163-1185 (2015-2016).
- Marc Augé, Non-places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (Verso, London 1995), p. 101-102.
- Meg Barker, “Consent is a grey area? A Comparison of Understandings of Consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere,” Sexualities, Vol. 16, Issue 8, p. 896-914 (2013).
- Augé, p. 103.
- Idem, p. 103-104.