In October 2009, Parliament member David Bahati vocalized Uganda’s long history of homophobia by proposing a bill that imposed the death penalty as punishment for anyone engaging in same-sex relations. Bahati introduced the bill, which was signed by the President and passed into law in 2013, in an attempt to “protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda.”
Although the bill was amended and eventually voided for procedural reasons, a 2013 Pew Research poll showed that 96 percent of Ugandans continued to believe that society should not accept homosexuality. Ever since it gained political independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has consistently ranked among the world’s most homophobic nations.
So why is Uganda also third among countries where internet searches for homosexual pornography is popular? After Kenya and Pakistan, two countries that have also outlawed homosexuality, Uganda boasts the highest number of Google searches containing the phrase “man fucking man.”
Statistics do not lie. Uganda is one of the most homophobic nations in the world, but also one of the countries where gay porn is most popular. How does one even begin to understand the way that these two facts connect? Surprisingly, this is not a rare combination. It actually demonstrates a social phenomenon first identified by Sigmund Freud called reaction formation.
Because of the way in which it mirrors cultural attitudes, pornography reveals two important causal relationships between social phenomena. Not only does it show how reaction formation can lead to increasing homophobia, it also shows how racism can involve the sexualization of targets of hate.
Pornography and Reaction Formation
Reaction formation is best understood as a psychoanalytic defense mechanism. Freud explained that people often have the most negative attitudes towards things that they secretly crave, but feel that they should not get to have. When it comes to nations such as Uganda and its citizens, this means that homosexual desires, when repressed by societal climates of shame or fear, become internalized homophobia.
“Internalized homophobia is incorporating anti-gay attitudes into oneself … because we live in the society we live in where we are surrounded by anti-gay attitudes, we can take those on ourselves … and come to hate a part of oneself,” Nicole Legate, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, explained to the HPR. Legate was involved with a study years ago that examined internalized homophobia in people who identify as heterosexual. “People you know who reported being straight, but actually showed a bit of attraction to same-sex individuals … tended to be more homophobic as well in their attitudes.”
While Uganda reveals to us the hidden psychological processes happening behind the outward views, reaction formation is not isolated to places like Uganda. Through the years there have been many examples of similar issues in the United States, with revelations that many American political and religious figures who campaign against gay rights have actually been involved in same-sex relationships —Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, and Glenn Murphy Jr., to name a few. Similar to the situation in Uganda, these individuals’ stories demonstrate the havoc that the pressure of social and political homophobia can wreak on an individual.
While it is true that not all homophobic individuals have repressed homosexual desires, in the cases where oppression by society is strong, the pressure that individuals put on themselves can become stronger. This can often lead to the unbelievable hatred and vehemence some individuals have after enduring their own self-hatred for so long.
Legate told the HPR that internalized homophobia is “this really toxic thing that can develop in people and really the damage is to themselves, in terms of feeling lots of shame, and it is linked with all kind of negative health outcomes and risky behaviors that they are more likely to engage in.”
Pornography, particularly the popularity of certain types of pornography, has shown that reaction formation is a self-perpetuating problem. The aggressive homophobia that causes the reaction formation also leads to a society that labels certain actions or desires as “forbidden.” However, this does not stop people from having their internal preferences and living in an environment where their desires are looked down upon leads to further internalized homophobia, which is then expressed outwardly as aggression. Societies with outwardly homophobic cultures lead people to gratify their forbidden desires in secret.
Lesbian Porn: You Love It or Hate It
Pornography statistics can help shed light on those desires forced into hiding by societal pressure. Where better to look for a clear and well-documented database of the preferences people have that they often feel too ashamed to share in public than the popular pornography website PornHub? The most recent PornHub Year in Review, an annual compilation of all of the site’s viewing data from the previous year, revealed that “lesbian” is the most popular category on the site. While women on PornHub who identify as lesbian no doubt search within this category, a large portion of viewership actually belongs to males, as “lesbian” is in the top five categories for men worldwide. In the United States alone, “lesbian” is the most popular category in 31 states, including Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina.
These same states, however, still discriminate against lesbian people in the real world. While woman-focused same-sex acts have always played a role in the hidden fantasies of men, when it comes to actual people who identify as lesbian, many people in the above mentioned states are far less accepting. 15 years ago, “homosexual conduct” was illegal in Texas. Alabama remains the only state in the United States where the majority of its citizens are opposed to same-sex marriage. South Carolina, Texas, and Alabama are all states with “no promo homo” laws, where teachers are forbidden from teaching gay and transgender issues in schools.
While commenting on internalized homophobia, Professor Richard Ryan from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University told the HPR that it exacts a massive cost on the LGBT community: “The burial of Matthew Shepard [an American student who was beaten, tortured, and eventually left to die because of his sexual orientation] is a reminder of how severe that cost can be … we can detect these health costs of non acceptance, stigma and prejudice in our society.”
When it comes to communities like the ones within these states, being homophobic and turning the different into something “forbidden” only creates a cycle of people with internal dilemmas. The temptation of the forbidden that is commercialized through porn has led to the situation we are in today, where people and their identities are sexualized, but still fail to be accepted in society and the world of politics.
Sex and Racism
Another interesting PornHub statistic reveals the ways in which sexualization can also go hand in hand with racism. For the second year in a row, the second most popular category on PornHub after “lesbian” is “ebony.” The category “ebony” refers to pornography films that star at least one person of African descent. Curiously, every state with “ebony” in its top three search terms is also a state that had anti-miscegenation laws until Loving v. Virginia legalized mixed-race marriages in 1967. In three states — Delaware, Georgia and Mississippi — the search term “ebony” is the most popular, beyond even lesbian porn. Moreover, while “ebony” is the most popular search term in only these three states, “ebony” as a complete category dominates the entire south-east. Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida are all states in which the “ebony” porn category is the most popular.
Let us consider these states further. Delaware was a slave state prior to the Civil War; Georgia refused to integrate public schools until the U.S. department of Justice forced it to in 1969; and Mississippi’s flag is the only U.S. state flag to still include the Confederate battle flag’s saltire. These states, and the others with “ebony” in the top three categories, do not seem like the friendliest places towards interracial porn based upon their civil rights records.
However, that is precisely the reason why “ebony” porn is so popular. In these states, it has long been seen as a societal taboo for white people to be attracted to people who do not look the same as them. Porn is designed to sexualize the boundaries in our lives that we are frightened to cross, and the porn industry profits off of this by playing on our desire for the “forbidden.”
Racism creates an environment in which a person of one race views anyone different from them as somehow being “lesser” than them, which allows for more rampant sexualization of that group of people. People are willing to sexualize black bodies, but continue to look down upon black human beings. This sexualization only encourages continued racism: It is easy to see someone as less than you when you also consider them more depraved.
Professor Jennifer Johnson, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in the modern markets of pornography, told the HPR that “any form of commerce will use culture and social structures and social norms to craft a marketing message, and pornography uses racism, sexism, and misogyny to market its products- they are tools of the online pornography economy.” While Professor Johnson doesn’t agree that taboo plays a large role- she explains that the language of racism and misogyny exists because that is what viewers want, that is what they pay for.
Porn does not cause racism. Discrimination and cruelty have existed far longer than even porn magazines have existed. In recent decades, however, adult videos and magazines have tackled the taboo and forbidden in search of profit. The fact that these images are popular and sexually stimulating to people indicates an alarming sexualization of these very serious issues. In the end, the sexualization of black bodies is just another form of racism.
Politics and Porn, the unhappy marriage
Is the Trump administration encouraging an interest in racist porn? It is a bold claim to make. Lexington Steele, once stockbroker, now three-time Adult Video News Male Performer of the Year, shared in an interview with the Daily Beast that while there may be more tension under the Trump administration, it reveals racial themes that have existed for much longer; only now, people are noticing.
2016 was the year that Donald Trump gained national attention through his campaign for the presidency, and as Steele has said, “Porn often reflects society.” In PornHub’s data for 2016, Donald Trump was the fourth most popular celebrity searched for in porn. Moreover, while thousands were at rallies chanting “Build a Wall” and “Keep Them Out,” in reference to Mexican immigrants, the term “big booty latina” became more searched for in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The second and third most searched terms relative to the rest of the world were “big black dick” and “ebony,” respectively.
As discussed earlier, it seems many in the United States are content to overtly sexualize the targets of their discrimination. The political issues brought to the front by then-candidate Trump simply revealed racism that had been there the entire time. Moving into 2017, according to PornHub’s data, the top two most viewed categories in the United States as compared to the rest of the world remained “ebony” and “latina.”
Professor Johnson says, “That pornography use, particularly heavy pornography use to me is like the canary in a coal mine, that it should be used as an indicator that there is a problem going on with that person, now whether the pornography is causing it, or whether the pornography is just reflecting it, I don’t know if we will ever be able to figure that out.”
Overall, despite the popularity of same-sex and “ebony” porn, large portions of our society remain just as discriminatory as in decades past. A close examination of pornography viewing, through the lens of PornHub data, reveals that, while seemingly contradictory at first glance, the link between prejudice, bias, and porn is evident. Homophobia appears to go hand in hand with an affinity for gay porn, and racism is emboldened with sexualization through porn. If porn is a reflection of cultural attitudes — then we have a ways to go towards creating a society where people of minority racial backgrounds and sexual identities are treated equally.