The porn industry is quick to catch up with current events, including the refugee crisis | Photo: Colourbox
The porn industry is quick to catch up with current events, including the refugee crisis | Photo: Colourbox

Having access to pornography is easier than it ever was before, with content available for every niche interest. One of the more recent trends in the adult movie world is the rise of so-called "refugee porn", in which migrants become the subject of sexual fantasies. This development, however, might have repercussions beyond the porn industry.

In the age of the smartphone, you don't even need a computer to watch porn anymore. You simply perform an online search for whatever your intimate interests might be and within moments, you have access to thousands of videos relating exactly to that.

This ease of access to pornography has led to a curious intermingling between explicit adult material and popular culture in many areas. In fact, a growing number of pornographic films now feature plots and protagonists pertaining to current affairs and topical social issues — and the issue of migration is no exception to this.

"Sexuality is a means to familiarize yourself with things that are alien to you. By approaching new phenomena from a sexual angle we get to understand these things better," Professor Jakob Pastötter, a sexual scientist and cultural anthropologist, told InfoMigrants.

"Pornography doesn't simply just show sex. People want to experience at the very least a rudimentary link between the sexual acts they view and themes from everyday life, as is the case with refugee porn."

Professor Jakob Pastoötter believes that ethically produced pornography is part of a healthy sexuality | Photo: Jakob PastötterCatering to a niche meat market

There has been a steep increase in so-called refugee porn since 2015, when migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa reached record numbers. Entire production studios specializing in the special interest of refugee porn have sprung up around the globe, providing hours of content for those who are keen to watch such movies.

Taking into account that one third of all material available online is estimated to be pornography, refugee porn remains a minority interest on the internet: According to data made available on the popular adult content platform "xhamster," less than 0,2% of all monthly searches pertained to refugee porn in 2017.

In absolute numbers, however, this means more than 800,000 monthly searches. By 2020, that number is expected to have crossed a million.

"The internet has significantly reshaped the content of pornography," says Jennifer Johnson, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, highlighting that not only the ready availability of porn nowadays but also the content and direction of pornographic material marks a worrying trend:

"Now, the most popular and easily accessible forms of pornography contain significant amounts of violence, degradation and humiliation of women" — a theme that is also reflected in the niche market of refugee porn.

The rise of the internet has also resulted in billions of searches being performed online each year | Photo: picture-alliance/dpaYou can leave your hijab on

The majority of refugee porn titles depict female protagonists in subjugated roles, who are often made to look like they have Middle Eastern origins. In explicit scenes, they are often shown as being dominated sexually by white males. A main feature in many of these adult film productions is the wearing of the hijab — the Islamic head covering used by many Muslim women; the religious headwear is frequently fetishized as a symbol representing female migrants as a whole, and only in the rarest of cases is it taken off at all — even if all other garments have been removed in the depicted scenes.

Some of the refugee porn movies also feature the Arabic language or other foreign tongues as part of their narratives in a further attempt to present migrants as mysterious, out-of-place objects of sexual desire.

"I find it important to move away from primarily thinking of phenomena like refugee porn as something related to humiliation and violence and rather look at them as a means to approach things that are perceived as being exotic and foreign. Sexuality is one way to familiarize yourself with new things," says Jakob Pastötter.

The wearing of the hijab is fetishized in many refugee porn titles | Photo: picture-alliance/dpaSex and violence

Jennifer Johnson meanwhile believes that such representations of women can lead to disturbing social patterns outside the world of pornography:

"While research is not able to show causality, (…) pornography is strongly correlated with factors widely recognized as contributors to sexual violence including defining masculinity as embodied through violence, hostile attitudes towards women, and gender inequality," Johnson said.

According to a study published in the Violence Against Women journal in 2010, 88% of all porn scenes sampled were found to contain elements of physical aggression, with the majority of the perpetrators in those scenes being male protagonists. A 2012 research paper on "The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents" published in the Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity journal also found that "attitudinal changes including acceptance of male dominance and female submission" were also linked to the consumption of pornography.

Violence against women is a frequent theme in pornography, including refugee porn | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

But not everyone agrees with the view that such pornographic content is inevitably bad for all members of society. Jakob Pastötter told InfoMigrants that people "who consume a particular kind of pornography aren't necessarily interested in that kind of sex in real life. Porno scenarios are usually meant to appeal to your imagination, much like a dream. They're not necessarily designed to appeal to your sense of identity."

Elections and erections

In certain contexts, however, identity does appear to play a role in refugee porn, particularly when it comes to perceptions on national identity; according to statistics on Google Trends, interest in refugee porn appears to increase significantly around election periods in German-speaking countries, especially in regions with strong nationalist or populist representation.

The weeks preceding the Austrian parliamentary elections on September 29, 2019 saw the highest frequency of online searches for the search term "refugee porn" on Google in the past two years. In the previous Austrian parliamentary election in 2017, searches for the term had nearly doubled during the month prior to the poll. Similarly, during the weeks preceding state elections in the German state of Saxony on September 01, 2019, searches for "refugee porn" also spiked.

Since the onset of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, Saxony has been one of the states which has struggled with addressing growing xenophobia and widespread anti-migrant sentiments. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party garnered 27.5% of the vote in Saxony in the most recent election, becoming the second-strongest faction of the state legislature. While right-wing sympathies and a growing interest in refugee porn cannot be proven to be linked to each other, the fact that this pattern is similar elsewhere hints at more than just a mere correlation.

Politics and pornography appear to mix surprisingly well | Photo: picture-alliance/dpaOutside of Germany, too, there has also been a notable rise in interest in refugee porn such as in Hungary, which has also been at the forefront of the conversation on migration since 2015 ever since the country decided to close its borders to migrants under the leadership of the right-populist Fidesz Party.

While there is no way of proving what motivations people who proactively search for refugee porn in the run-up to elections might have, there are traces of outright xenophobia and racism found in many of the comment sections of pornographic online platforms that further imply an association between the two. Some users leave explicit comments under refugee porn videos that betray a certain eagerness to see the degradation, subjugation and visually depicted exploitation of the women shown in the films, while others write messages that border on violent threats.

Fantasies and nightmares

Considering that sexual exploitation, violence, rape, trafficking, prostitution and slavery are recurrent themes in the journeys of many migrants trying to reach Europe, it is easy to understand why this aspect of the refugee porn phenomenon can be regarded as problematic in multiple ways. The acts depicted in the films not only objectify migrants in the present as new and "exotic" members of society but with their violent narratives also inadvertently reference their traumas from the past — often unbeknownst to the viewer.

"(Pornography) is the public face of a larger network of sexual exploitation which deliberately recruits from foster homes, shelters serving various desperate populations and otherwise seeks out poor people from across the world to feed a supply chain with a constant need for fresh bodies," Jennifer Johnson said about the increasingly outlandish appetites in porn as represented by the rise of refugee porn.

Slavery, torture and rape might just be sexual fantasies to some porn viewers but for many migrants these are also traumatic real aspects of their journeys | Photo: Picture Alliance / AP Photo/ D. EtterRegardless of the nature of the interest in refugee porn, Jakob Pastötter maintains that it is still a niche area of interest that should be regarded as an outlet and not as a social threat: "Only a small minority of so-called refugee porn films focus on aspects like humiliation. I believe that those more violent films are mainly addressed at an audience who like to watch porn, in which domination always plays a key role anyway.

"Think about the likelihood of actually meeting a refugee woman, let alone having sex with one against the backdrop that the majority of migrants to Europe are men. It's even less likely to actually happen than that common porn cliché about the pizza delivery boy who happens to also offer sexual services for a tip. This is all just about fulfilling fantasies, and should really be communicated as such."

In the crosshairs of the 'Islamic State'

Meanwhile, those helping to fulfill those fantasies have their own stories to tell, which shed a different light on refugee porn. Some of the actors featured in these films have managed to actually reach adult film stardom, precisely because of the niche nature of the genre. In 2017, the second most popular pornstar on one of the biggest online pornography platforms, "pornhub," was Mia Khalifa — a Lebanese-born porn actress, who in three short months, became known globally as "The Hijab Pornstar."

Clocking in almost 450 million views in 2017 alone, the now-25-year-old became the fastest trending woman in porn history. The majority of those views originated from the US, with the UK coming in at second and in Germany further down at sixth place. This celebrity status, however, came at a high cost:

The next year, at the zenith of her popularity, Khalifa retired from the porn industry after receiving a series of threats against her life — including from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror group. Parts of her family had also reportedly distanced themselves from her at this point because of her short-lived porn career. And despite her fame among porn enthusiasts, she only ever made $12,000 in an industry, which is also known for financially exploiting newcomers.

'Make love, not war'

Mia Khalifa isn't the only person to reach porn stardom on the back of the so-called refugee crisis. There are also pornographic films featuring men as migrant protagonists — though these are far fewer in numbers.

Antonio Suleiman is a male porn actor who hails from Aleppo, Syria. Suleiman has featured in adult films with such evocative titles as "King of Arabs," which only perpetuate the idea of Middle Eastern people coming to the West as foreign invaders — a view that right-wing extremists often claim is the case in real life. Suleiman, however, believes that in the competitive world of pornography, there is an element of empowerment to owning his personal brand:

"For over five years now, Syrians have mainly been depicted (in the media) as stuck under rubble, or as massacred, or with their dead bodies strewn across the Mediterranean, or humiliated throughout their perilous journey to Europe. Surely that's what degrades and violates the 'Syrian body' (rather than porn). Yes, I used my body. I used it to show that this body can make love, can have sex, and does not only exist in order to die," the now-22-year-old told THE LOCAL online news platform in 2016.

Antonio Suleiman prides himself with his career in the porn industry | Photo: Antonio SuleimanLike Mia Khalifa, Antonio Suleiman has also received a series of death threats from fundamentalist groups, which is why he prefers not to share where exactly in Germany he lives, as he continues to work in the industry. He says that he too has been disowned by the majority of his family for his line of work, stressing that he won't let this stop him: "Our (Syrian) community can be very negative; they always bombard you with criticism whatever you do. I can't understand why acting in a porn movie would shame Syrians or refugees. I think it's better to have sex than to make war."

10 minutes of fame?

Jakob Pastötter agrees that partaking in pornography doesn't have to be degrading but can be a tool of empowerment, at least for some people who voluntarily choose to be part of this line of business: "The aspect of power in sexuality is not only expressed through the depiction of acts of domination but also through exposing yourself as a sexual being in the first place, by asserting your legitimate space in a sexual context.

"Pornography can help normalize attitudes towards what is regarded as an atypical brand of sexuality, especially when the people who are shown in pornos take the lead or take charge in whatever situation is depicted whilst in reality, these groups of people perhaps lack that level of agency. I would imagine this is true for refugees and their depiction in refugee porn."

Jennifer Johnson, however, believes that porno producers only like to seduce new talents to join the industry by normalizing and even glamorizing it unjustly. Johnson says that female porn actresses are particularly at risk, as "the pornography industry does not emancipate women from restrictive sexual practices; instead it repackages sexual control as a commercial product and markets it to women as a form of sexual choice."Producers often glamorize pornography to newcomers to attract new talents, but the reality usually reflects short-lived careers in a dangerous industry | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Some people might view partaking in pornography voluntarily as a matter of choice or an act of sexual liberation; others though might judge it very differently.

In September 2019, reports emerged about a case in the UK where a porn actress with a migrant background was almost killed for her choice of career: her 54-year-old father was arrested along with a co-conspirator by the UK's National Crime Agency for plotting to murder her after she had featured in a number of adult films of her own volition.

The theme of violence in one form or another — whether it is a sexual fantasy, a threat by a terrorist group, a stimulus for right-wing extremists, the reality of human trafficking within the industry or the motivation of a father who is ashamed of his daughter's actions — appears to be a common theme in refugee porn.

While the phenomenon of refugee porn itself might typically not relate to migrants' and refugees' everyday lives directly, its growing popularity might provide insights into a society that is still trying to come to grips with drastic social changes taking place because of migration, whether they may manifest in the boardroom or the bedroom.

 

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