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The Keyword Is Porn’s Best Friend and Worst Enemy

Inside the adult industry, performers and advocates are fighting to make sure their work isn’t reduced to terms like ‘BBW,’ ‘shemale’ and ‘interracial’

The keywords you use to search for porn have more of an impact than you might think. Like anyone else in the modern economy, porn companies are constantly taking stock of their data patterns and trying to emulate and optimize them. This means that every time you search for what you like, you’re driving traffic for those key terms, increasing the likelihood that more of that kind of porn will be made (and that the terms you used to search for it will eventually become as commonplace as “MILF” and “BBW”). 

It also, of course, trickles down to the performers in those scenes. That is, like the larger companies and tube sites, they too are branding themsleves around content that capitalizes on popular key terms while also experimenting with hyper-specific key terms to lock in niche audiences (and, in turn, create even more terminology and tags, many of which take on lives and meanings of their own that don’t necessarily push in progressive, evolved directions). For most performers, this means achieving a delicate balance between the key terms they believe best represent them (and that also don’t offend and/or typecast them) and the key terms they expect potential fans to most frequently search for (two things that aren’t always the same). 

To see how this all works — as well as how it’s driving the future of porn — I convened a panel of porn performers, producers, distributors and journalists to discuss how they classify their content, how the words they use to describe porn have evolved since the dawn of the internet (and their careers) and how they imagine emerging tech will produce a whole new language. 

‘I’m not shy about going into our forums and saying, ‘This is the politically correct term you should probably be using’’

Bree Mills, chief creative officer at Adult Time, a premium porn streaming service: Within Adult Time, we’ve definitely had conversations over the last year about staying ahead of the curve when it comes to terminology and the struggle that sometimes exists in adult with outdated or inaccurate terms. Some of these terms can be offensive or harmful. One of the best examples is “interracial.” 

What do you do with terms like that? It’s hard, because these terms are usually what most people looking for that kind of content use. Do you continue to subscribe to that even though you know there are issues within the porn industry where performers of color aren’t treated as well? Or only ever treated as performers of color and not just performers? How do you deal with that when you don’t want to subscribe to that pain point? One thing we try to do is cast people of color for many different roles, never because of their race. 

A lot of people looking for trans porn search “shemale” or “tranny” porn, but we made the very conscious decision this year not to use those terms when we launched our Transfixed series, which features scenes of transgender and cis women together. We don’t use any of that terminology regardless of how many views we might lose from not targeting those keywords. At the end of the day, it’s important to us to be on the progressive side of things. We hope we’ll influence other companies to take a similar stance and try to evolve. I’m not shy about going into our forums and saying, “This is the politically correct term you should probably be using,” either. 

You hear a few people in the industry that often describe themselves as being data-driven — you know, producing content based on traffic trends and popular keywords. For us, too, when our pre-production department is planning stuff, that data is really valuable and interesting. We do keep what our members are consuming in mind. We want to produce stuff they want to watch. But it’s not the single trigger of our creative process. For example, in the Season Two finale of our sci-fi anthology series Future Darkly, Cherie Deville plays a female extraterrestrial sent down to breed with a human. He doesn’t realize she wants to impregnate him. I wanted to do a fun story involving pegging and aliens! We didn’t have any data points to support it, but a lot of people have tuned in and watched. 

In terms of our most popular key term searches, I’d say “anal” is big. “Anal” is one of the top things searched for across all adult platforms, and definitely within our platform. We see a lot of searches for individual porn star names, and also searches for the names of our series, which is something I’m really happy about. Because that really hits the mark we want to hit.

‘The lexicon of porn is always changing. For example, ‘ATM’ used to only refer to banking.’

Nina Hartley, porn legend and author of Nina Hartley’s Guide To Total Sex: The most common key terms used to describe the porn I perform in are “MILF,” “mature,” “blonde,” “icon,” “granny,” “legend.” These words have changed over time to reflect my age advance. I don’t use many tags myself, usually just “blonde,” “naked” and “MILF.”

The lexicon of porn is always changing. For example, ‘ATM’ used to only refer to banking. Honestly, anything anal has grown in popularity since I first began my career. Incest-adjacent themes (step-family stuff), too. I can’t imagine the fascination with race-based porn will go away any time soon either. Race fascination, desire, revulsion and terror is baked into our culture, our memory, our nightmares and our deepest desires. Anything taboo in the greater society will have an avid following in the porn world. As long as the N-word and other flagrantly derogatory words aren’t used, I’m not sure how such terms can evolve.

I’d like to see a change in how things are labeled, but it would take a change in how we view sex, gender, race, class, etc. Nor can I imagine a porn industry that uses less search terms. I don’t know how the product would reach its intended audience without using them. I want to see what I want to see, not what another person wants to see, and I want to have filters in place that maximize my chances of finding the scene I want most right now.

To that end, desired images are so personal that an increase in search terms is more likely than a decrease. 

‘Currently, the most notorious keyword trends are ‘fauxcest’-related terms such as ‘stepsister,’ ‘stepbrother’ and ‘IR,’ which stands for interracial’’

Gustavo Turner, news editor for adult industry trade publication XBIZ: The adult industry online is based, as anything else online, on search and keywords. Can Google survive without search terms? Can the internet? 

The adult business has always been in tune with what people want to pay for, and that’s always going to drive the categorization. In porn production, categories are a product of supply and demand, particularly among the people who take out their credit card and pay for adult content. They’re the ones who drive the way porn is created and marketed. Tube sites have certainly shaped new genres and how content is created, but paid content is what still drives the categories.

About a decade ago, when I started paying serious attention to porn, it was the end of “the DVD era,” the heyday of the paysite era and the dawn of the “tube-site era.” Back then “amateur” and “teen” were the biggest keywords. Currently, the most notorious keyword trends are “fauxcest”-related terms such as “step-sister,” “step-brother” and “IR,” which stands for interracial, but overwhelmingly means a very buff black man and a smaller, young white cis woman. The euphemisms for fauxcest and IR are “family play” and “race play.”

This will probably change in the near future, as genre trends are constantly evolving and people get tired of repetitive content. That’s why you see many more “step-sister” movies in 2019 than “cheerleader” movies. If you can figure out what comes next, you can get a headstart, but if you’re too ahead of your time, you won’t find a viable market.

Big companies and studios obsess over their user data and predictive technologies, and they have teams of data analysts dedicated to tracking conversions (the number of visitors needed to acquire one sale). On the other hand, individuals or independent operations might occasionally look at Google Analytics or something basic like that and then try to figure out what’s selling for them. Many performers who make their own content rely on fan feedback. Meanwhile, indie clip makers or art porn makers just make whatever they’re into and the niche audience finds them. 

Either way, as fluid sexualities become more talked about and accepted by the mainstream, there will be a marketplace for more diverse content.

‘I use ‘BBW,’ ‘Curvy’ or ‘AssAssAss.’ I tend to stay away from tags that are race based like ‘Latina,’ ‘Whooty’ or ‘Pawg.’’

Mimosa, a fetish model, porn performer and producer: The most common words used to describe me in porn are probably “BBW” and “Latina.” And so, the most used categories for the porn I make are probably “BBW,” “Latina,” “facesitting,” “smothering,” “BDSM,” “bigass” and things like that. 

In previous years, I experienced more tags about my ass than BBW, even though my body’s been the same size. When tagging my own content, I use “BBW,” “Curvy” or “AssAssAss.” I tend to stay away from tags that are race based like “Latina,” “Whooty” or “Pawg.” I don’t like to cater to audiences that are sexualizing race, at least primarily. While that may cut down on who accesses my content, I’m about quality, not quantity. 

The appetite of the male consumer, online culture, systemic racism and fetishes all have a huge hand in dictating categories. It’s a huge cycle between consumers and creators. Within the industry, as people create more content and control their image more, we’ll see new ways of categorizing things, but I don’t think it’ll be a fast change.

Also, which comes first — the categories or the content? They’re intertwined to give maximum appeal and online accessibility. It’s all connected to what the dominant culture is demanding. In a better world, for me at least, the dominant culture would ideally be women, LGBTQIA, black people, people with disabilities and other underrepresented or exploited communities being able to create the demand. 

Similarly, I’d like to see the words used to describe porn to be celebratory, reverent and powerful instead of denigrating and violent. But I also understand that there are folks that enjoy that, both creators and consumers, and that my personal ideals are not universal. So I don’t want to condemn consensual objectification either.

‘One keyword we use is ‘belly play,’ because a lot of our subscribers want to see nice, curvy bellies and stretch marks’

Clint Works, chief marketing officer at Plumper Pass: At Plumper Pass, what basically happens is fans react and respond. We have a comments’ section, so we always listen to what the fans have to say. There’s certain things they like, especially nuances specific to the type of porn that they like. If they like BBW porn, for instance, they request certain actions or positions such as reverse cowgirl. We take that into consideration when we shoot scenes and make key words to go along with them. One keyword we use is “belly play,” because a lot of our subscribers want to see nice, curvy bellies and stretch marks. 

I’ve noticed with a lot of cuckold type of situations, fans write in about certain nuances that they like — for example, they want to see wedding rings on the cheating wives. The wedding ring is a good example of how fan feedback is driving the specification of tags.

The tricky part of the “interracial” tag is that scenes featuring black women and white men aren’t labeled interracial. The people using the “interracial” tag are looking for black men with white women. Case in point: We used to do a site called “Wives Gone Black.” We were casting some light-skinned black male actors, but fans wrote in to say, “We subscribed to ‘Wives Gone Black,’ not ‘Wives Gone Brown.’” That gender dynamic and skin contrast definitely drives what people are looking for with that key term. 

One term that we’ve been discussing a lot in my office recently is “BBC,” which is an acronym for “big, black cock.” I’m a black man. From my perspective, calling someone black isn’t a derogatory thing. I know there’s concern about porn fetishizing black men, but I consider “BBC” a descriptive term. The guys I work with who make porn that’s tagged “BBC” aren’t upset about it. Likewise, I consider “BBW” a descriptive term, not something inherently derogatory because it labels women big and beautiful. I consider “PAWG” a descriptive term. Even BWC, or “big white cock,” is getting used these days. 

I see these terms as helpful in distinguishing performers and scenes from one another. Guys searching for “MILF” know they aren’t going to have to sort through thousands of videos of younger women. I appreciate how these terms help people access the kinds of videos they want.

‘I use neutral categories that refer to the sex act or style of film, such as ‘threesome,’ ‘BDSM,’ ‘documentary’ and ‘outdoor’’

Erika Lust, an independent porn director and producer and creator of XConfessions and the soon-to-relaunch “Lust Cinema”: Categories, which are often reductive, derogatory slurs based on differences in body type, race, gender and sex act, were originally developed as a sales tool to make buying VHS porn easier. Then, when the tube sites took over, they started to rely on keywords and categories to organize huge swathes of content. 

This is especially problematic because tube sites such as Pornhub and Redtube rely on pirated content and ignore the original titles of these stolen films and instead label and categorize them with racist, sexist and homophobic language without the performers’ or the filmmakers’ consent. In turn, this leads viewers to think of performers with respect to the labels that are attributed to them and a performers’ identity is created without them having any choice in the matter. This also goes on to shape performers’ future job opportunities and pay scales. 

Often people within the industry will argue that the search terms and categories used on these sites is a reflection of what users want, but in fact, most users might hate having to type in degrading search terms. They only do so because it’s offered as the sole option to navigate these sites to find content that they like. This consumer then inadvertently ends up feeding the system that dictates how porn is made and categorized. 

There’s a desperate need to change the way porn is labeled and organized, but to change this, the consumer needs to take action by choosing carefully what they watch and spend their money on. At the moment, porn still exists in a vacuum where viewers don’t bring the same attention or criticism that they bring to other media that they consume. For most people, porn is still “just porn,” and they don’t give it any further thought. But porn isn’t a monolithic entity, it’s part of a discourse on sexuality, sex and gender and it mirrors our society. 

On XConfessions, I don’t use harmful search terms or categorize the performers based on their primary features. I want viewers to appreciate the film for the performance, as opposed to the physical attributions of the performer. Similarly, I want performers to be able to exist outside of the physical boundaries of their appearance, gender or skin color. 

At the same time, there are currently over 150 films on XConfessions and I need some way to split the content up — both in terms of organization but also because there are some films on the site that certain viewers may not want to see or may find triggering, such as BDSM or bondage films.

So visitors to my site are first met with a chronological catalogue of the films that myself and other directors have made. They can scroll through freely and choose what looks appealing to them. If they decide to look for a specific film, I use neutral categories that refer to the sex act or style of film, such as “threesome,” “BDSM,” “documentary” and “outdoor.” That way, we can put the onus on the consumer to look at individual performers and situations freely without presenting them as a particular type or search term.

‘We offer a variety of unique ways to search for content like Search by Emoji, an advanced upgrade that allows users to find new content by using their favorite emoji’

Charlie Hughes, Vice President at YouPorn: At YouPorn, we’re constantly updating our platform and features to ensure ease of use and overall efficiency for our users. More than 75 percent of our users engage with our combined filters on our search and category pages. So we’re always working on improvements and discovery tools as well as offering a variety of unique ways to search for content like Search by Emoji, an advanced upgrade that allows users to find new content by using their favorite emoji. For example: 

  • Sweat Droplets = Squirting
  • High-Heeled Shoe = Fetish
  • Eggplant = Big Dick
  • Female Judge = Jack-Off Instructions
  • Waving Hand = Handjob
  • Star-Struck Face = Verified Amateurs

Moreover, in 2018, YouPorn launched “For You Weekly,” a personalized collection of content that’s generated for our users by YouPorn’s machine-learning systems. The feature provides each user with a customized playlist based on their own video interests. This is beneficial because they can easily explore new videos they’re interested in without having to spend time sorting through all of the content on the site. It also involved a rethink of all our categories and tags; by grouping them intelligently, users now have an easier time navigating our site and are able to find what they’re looking for faster.

Kicking off the launch, we shared curated guest playlists by sex-work activist Allie Oops and erotic digital artist @scientwehst. Users and followers were excited to see their personal favorites. It’s a vulnerable experience sharing your private playlists (of any genre), but ultimately, it makes the audience feel closer to the person sharing with them.