Psychology Professor, Filmmaker, Author, Speaker, & Domestic Violence Expert
Dr. Carolyn M. West is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington where she teaches courses on human sexuality, family violence, sex crimes, and sexual violence. She is nationally recognized for her scholarship on gender-based violence in the lives of African American women and specializes in domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. During Dr. West’s 30 years in the field of healthy sexuality and racial equality, she has traveled internationally to consult, lecture, and deliver training seminars on topics related to intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Dr. Carolyn West sat down to talk with Consider Before Consuming podcast host, Garrett Jonsson, to discuss the role pornography plays in perpetuating racism and sexual violence. Listeners can also learn more about her documentary, “Let Me Tell Ya’ll ’Bout Black Chicks: Images of Black Women in Pornography.” You can find Dr. Carolyn West at DrCarolynWest.com.
Garrett: What’s up people?! I’m Garrett Jonsson and you’re listening to Consider Before Consuming, a podcast by Fight the New Drug. Before we jump into this conversation, we want to let you know that during this conversation we discuss racism in contemporary pornography and sexual violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Today’s conversation is with Dr. Carolyn West. She has an impressive resume! She’s an international speaker, filmmaker, author, domestic violence expert, cultural sensitivity trainer, and more. One of her goals, as a Doctor, and as an African American woman, is to fight for racial and gender equality. She’s done a lot to identify racism and sexual violence in today’s pornography, and figure out what we can do to stop the demand. One project that she has dedicated herself to recently is her documentary titled, Let Me Tell Ya’ll ‘Bout Black Chicks, which we discuss during this conversation. We do want our listeners to be aware that her documentary is explicit. One of the interesting aspects of this conversation was hearing her reasoning for why she decided to make the documentary explicit. With all that being said, let’s just jump into the conversation. We hope you enjoy this episode of Consider Before Consuming.
Garrett: Dr. West. We want to thank you for joining us today. Um, starting off with the question, I’m sure you get a lot, why are you passionate about fighting for healthy sexuality, and racial equality?
Dr. West: I think I’m so passionate about this. I started my early career as a sex educator in low-income communities in St. Louis. And I just saw the devastation that people experience just because they, they just lack knowledge and understanding about sex and sexuality, which made it difficult for them to make really healthy decisions. And then when I started teaching at the college level, I quickly found that even relatively well-educated, prepared college students didn’t have basic understanding about their bodies in sexuality. And so I just really became passionate about talking about this topic and making sure that people at least have the awareness to make the best choices for themselves.
Garrett: That’s great. Well, we are grateful that you decided to take this route, um, and that you’re passionate about it because you do such great work. Um, how many decades now have you been in this field?
Dr. West: Oh, it’s been about 30 now.
Garrett: Goodness. That’s a lot of experience. [chuckles]
Dr. West: [chuckles] Many years. Many years.
Garrett: That’s great. So how did you go from studying and educating about healthy sexuality and racial equality to studying pornography?
Dr. West: Well, I had always been teaching a course on sex crimes and sexual violence, and I’ve been teaching human sexuality. And I had been doing research on images of black women in the media for some time and a group of colleagues. We started an academic journal called sexualization media and society. And I asked my colleagues, well, they were all doing research on pornography. And I asked, is anybody doing research on racism in pornography or how racial images are different in pornography? And nobody seemed to be doing that work. So I started to look and I was working with a group of students and we were doing a content analysis of images of pornography, the back and front covers of porn magazines and videos going back for the last 20 years. And I was just, I just found a jaw dropping amount of Racism. And so I thought, well, nobody else seems to be writing, writing about this topic. So I will.
Garrett: And when you say that there was racism that you were seeing on the front and back of these covers, can you talk to that a little bit more?
Dr. West: Yes. I noticed that the images tended to be different for African American women. For example, they were all sort of in inner cities environments. So the, you know, it was, they call it ghetto porn. So they tended to be in these like low income distress environments, alley trash, and alleys, just really low income and rundown. So that seemed to be a different there that I didn’t see in pornography that did not involve African-Americans. Alot of Ebonics, a lot of misspellings, a lot of almost what you would, the stereotypical lower income black that you would think that would be how they behaved. So it was deeply rooted in these stereotypes that was really disturbing to me.
Garrett: Right. I think it’s, it’s common knowledge that today’s internet porn is heavily laden with problematic messaging and like you’ve addressed among those problematic messages are racism and sexual violence. So can you talk to some of the negative consequences of sexualizing racism and, and glamorizing sexual violence?
Dr. West: I think what happens with porn when those things come together, what ends up happening is that it erases the sexual violence, oftentimes in pornography sex acts or described using violent terms. So it’s, women are “ripped”, “torn”, forcefully penetrated. And then when you add racism on top of that, it almost humorizes it, or it becomes a joke or something to be laughed at. It’s not that porn created this, they just profit from it in a different way.
Garrett: Right. And it’s been said that a person’s sexuality can be molded by pornography and being that you’re someone that is educated on healthy sexuality for years. What are your thoughts on this concept?
Dr. West: I think it certainly can be a problem, particularly when kids are getting their sex education from pornography. If we don’t have other healthy arenas where people can talk about sex and sexuality, kids are going to be naturally curious about that. And then if you turn to porn to get messages about who you should be and how you should behave sexually, those are not going to be sites for healthy sexuality.
Garrett: And according to you, do you feel like the youth today, do you feel like they are turning to porn for sex education?
Dr. West: I think that that does happen. And there are a couple of studies that actually suggests that kids are looking pornography. They’re watching pornography for entertainment, for instructional purposes, to alleviate boredom. Uh, and it’s so easy to get access. Now you just have your cell phone or, or lots of devices that you can connect to the internet. And so connecting is not a problem.
Garrett: Right. What advice do you have for caregivers? Because I think that’s one of their fears is that, “Yeah, it’s so easy to access, but what do I do about it?”
Dr. West: I think what we do about it, I’ve been working with an organization, Culture Reframed with Gail Dines, and she produces some documents and some training material on how parents can best talk to their kids about pornography. But I think having conversations, just open conversations about where kids are getting their knowledge from answering those questions that they really want to have answered. Don’t wait for them to come to you, go to them and initiate those conversations. And then it becomes more normalized. It becomes more normalized for you to be able to talk to your parents or an adult about those topics. So it seems less taboo.
Garrett: Right. Um, going back. We kind of got off topic on of how the, the racism in pornography, the sexual violence in pornography, but going back to that, um, when it comes to contemporary pornography, why does history matter?
Dr. West: I think history is so important and oftentimes we’re disconnected from history. We oftentimes take this ahistorical perspective and history is so important because many of the myths and misconceptions about African Americans are deeply rooted in history. So this notion that black women are “hypersexual”, that they’re “animalistic”, it was used to justify slavery, rape and other forms of sexual violence. And you saw the same thing with African American men. I mean, the performers, the titles, you’ll see, there’ll be called “Mandingos”. They’ll be called “brutes”. They’ll be called “beasts”. So the, those same stereotypes that we’ve seen for hundreds of years get just, they just get played out in, in pornography. So this kind of notion focusing on black men’s genitalia of focusing on them as pimps and predators and sex offenders. So those are common stereotypes. So they’re graphically depicted in poronography.
And I’ll give you an example. Um, my documentary is called, Let Me Tell You About Black Chicks. It’s called people. Ask me, “Why don’t you call it, Let Me Tell You About Black Chicks? Well, it was called that because the first interracial porn video that became popular was filmed in 1985. And it was taken off the home video market because there was a scene where Klu Klux Klan members, white men who are dressed as Klu Klux Klan members were verbally abusing this black woman. And so history matters because when we take, when porn does that and they, they kind of craft this scene where black women are having sex with Klu Klux Klan members, if you don’t understand the history of, of racism and rape and sexual trauma, then that seems perfectly okay. And something to be laughed at or joked at or something not to be taken seriously. But there was deep historical trauma around that.
Garrett: Right. How many years did it take you to produce that?
Dr. West: You know, it probably took about two years off and on working on it, getting the images, getting the music, really being able to craft a story that I felt like what makes sense for the audience. It took so long, honestly, because my producer would look at the images and he would just be so overwhelmed by the negativity that it were, it was times when he just couldn’t look at the content anymore. It was so distressing for him as well.
Garrett: Right. And we want to be sensitive to those people who have struggled with, um, uh, challenged with pornography because your documentary is very explicit, correct?
Dr. West: Yes.
Garrett: Can you talk to why you decided to take that route?
Dr. West: I struggle with that all the time, because it’s one of those things. How do you really educate people about how deeply disturbing these images are without actually showing them. And also not wanting to feel like I was victimizing the performers. So I really struggle with, and I tried to blur out as much of the explicit content as possible, but the language and the descriptions and in some of the images that was really challenging.
Garrett: I’ve heard you talk a little bit about Emmett Till and relating that experience to kind of influencing your documentary a little bit. Is that true?
Dr. West: Emmet Till was a 14 year old, um, young black boy who was murdered in the South during the 1950s. And when he was lynched, his mother insisted upon an open casket because she wanted the whole country then to know what racism does and how that killed her son. And so that forced the country to really grapple with the ugliness of racism. And I thought part of why I did the documentary and why sometimes get negative comments about my work, because people do think it’s overly explicit, but there’s something that is just so deeply disturbing about these images. I thought, well, maybe people need to see that maybe they really need to understand how bad some of contemporary pornography is, in that maybe that would mobilize people to address this problem.
Garrett: Right. I understand that intention. That makes sense.
Dr. West: Another reason I did it it’s because I often think of the black feminist poet and author Audrey Lorde. And she said, “I have come to believe over and over again, that what is most important to me must be made verbal and shared even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” And so I understand by an undertaking, this work, there will be challenges and there will be pushback. And, and some people will certainly be less than happy about my research in this area, but it just has to be verbal. And it has to be shared because I think that these images are deeply impactful in a negative way.
Garrett: Um, how was this happening, Carolyn? How is, how is racism overt racism still in mainstream internet pornography?
Dr. West: You know, it’s baffling to me in some ways, because over the years, banks, in part to the civil rights activism, you get these overt examples of racism that used to be very commonplace in the media have become less acceptable. But one website that gets about 115 million daily visits, they feel very comfortable producing content or releasing content where people are just hurling the N word with wild abandon, and there just doesn’t seem to be any pushback. And I think part of that is that we see pornography as a site or a media location where you can just say and do anything. And there doesn’t seem to be that same kind of pushback. I don’t know if people see it as a first amendment rights issue, and you’re kind of infringing on people’s first amendments, if you challenge that or porn pitches itself as this location of sexual-liberation, and that if you challenge porn that somehow you’re anti-sex, or you want to police other people’s sexuality, but in any case, I think that porn just becomes this place where you can be as politically, as incorrect as you want. And people seem to be willing to accept that. And it’s lucrative.
Garrett: Um, I guess it comes down to an issue of demand. So how can we stop the demand?
Dr. West: I mean, pornography, I think has always been with us and the porn industry is more lucrative than mainstream Hollywood, professional sports combined. So I don’t know that it’s, it’s going to easily stop in that way, but I think all we can do is at least educate people about the content and talk to them about what would a healthy sexuality and liberating sexuality look like for you that didn’t involve this content. And is this something that you want to shape your sexuality?
Garrett: Right. PornHub, I think the company you’re referring to with the 115 million visits daily, I think you’re referring to PornHub.
Dr. West: Yes.
Garrett: And I just wanted to ask you the question, because, because of what’s happening today with, um, the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, um, PornHub recently tweeted out and I quote, they said, “PornHub stands in solidarity against racism and social injustice.” And then they went on to encourage people to donate to organizations who fight for equality. Um, can you talk a little bit more to that?
Dr. West: You know, I, I saw those statements as well. Uh, Adult Video News did something similar and they’re doing all kinds of things to appear, woke and appear that they’re standing in solidarity with African Americans. They’re having everything from panels, uh, with porn performers of color, talking about racism in the industry, and they’re issuing all these statements, but I still go back to you… I don’t believe that you can stand in “solidarity” with the black community and produce content with these racial stereotypes that are so steeped in racist history and promote the worst stereotypes of African Americans. And then say you stand in solidarity with this community.
Garrett: Right. Talking to your documentary a little bit more. Um, and once again, we want to be sensitive to those people who have struggled with pornography and let them know that it is definitely explicit and very educational. Like I said, I was able to consume it and I learned a lot. It was heavy. Um, but yeah. Can you talk to a little bit more about your documentary, about how it was, um, sectioned out?
Dr. West: Sure. The first section I really wanted to unpack for the viewer, why I made the documentary in the first place. Uh, and then second section I wanted to really kind of delve in how pornography is different for black women. So this kind of notion that the ghetto porn that I talked about everybody’s sexualized in pornography. There’s no question about that, but how is it different for African American women and just about how it focuses on low-income women or the notion that black women are all prostitutes, are sex workers. You see that disproportionately more likely you see a hierarchy of beauty in the porn industry word, darker skinned black women are at the very bottom of the hierarchy of beauty and are called the most degrading names. For example. And the third section I wanted to focus on history. How, where does this come from? How does our history set up the images that we see in mainstream porn? The images don’t come from nowhere, they’re deeply rooted in history and why these particular images get portrayed over and over of black women. Uh, in the fourth section, I really kind of unpack what are the consequences for black women because of the consumption of pornography, how we deal with sexual violence, how we’re perceived in the rest of the culture and in the final section, what can we do about this.
Garrett: And speaking to that final section? Um, well, I guess before we go into that, what we can do about it, I wanted to ask, when can, when is your documentary going to be available?
Dr. West: Right now, we’re working, uh, trying to find a distributor for it. I will be screening it actually at the upcoming conference, and I can share that information with you. So it will be available online in that way the trailer is available. And also if you go to my website, drcarolynwest.com, there is a lecture that I gave on the topic that the documentary is based on. So I really unpack that also in a lecture and that’s free for anybody to watch.
Garrett: Okay, great. Well, we’ll make sure to link those things to this episode, I’m going back to part five or section five of the documentary is what can we do about it? Um, well, what, what can we do? What, how can we be part of the solution?
Dr. West: I think, you know, part of the documentary was directed toward African American women, but it’s directed toward everybody. I think part of it is just comprehensive sex education so that people can make better decisions about how they manage their sexuality. Uh, educating people just about the negative stereotypes of black women in general was really key for me.
Garrett: Right. Um, well, uh, dr. Carolyn West, we want to leave you with the opportunity to, to, uh, give the last word. So what would you like to leave our listeners with today?
Dr. West: I think I would like to leave our listeners with, when I think about the work that I do, I think about, uh, dr. Martin Luther King, when he said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny, and that you can never be who you ought to be, until I am who I ought to be.” And I’m thinking as we live through this very difficult time in our country, dealing with a global pandemic and racial injustice that we all have to see that we’re connected in the single garment of destiny, that what happens to one group of people impacts all of us. And so nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and thinks that we, we can’t care or don’t need to care about racism in any capacity in that porn. If we’re going to critique racism throughout our culture, porn does not get a pass. We have to critique it there as well.
Garrett: Right. I’m sitting here and I’m listening and I’m just nodding like, “Yes, yes, we need to make this happen.” So, um, we’re all on the same team. And we are so grateful for the work you do. So thank you.
Dr. West: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me
Garrett: Thanks for joining on this episode of Consider Before Consuming. Consider Before Consuming is brought to you by Fight the New Drug. Fight the New Drug is a non-religious, and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography, by raising awareness on it’s harmful effects using only science, facts, and personal accounts.
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We are believers that change begins with one, and your efforts really do make a difference. Big thanks to you for listening to this conversation today. As you go about your day, we invite you to increase your self-awareness, look both ways, check your blind spots, and consider before consuming.
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