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A politically correct porn book on French oppression

SEX / Middle-class porn or a welcome new perspective on sexual relationships during colonial times?

Sexe, race et colonies
Author: Pascal Blanchard Nicolas Bancel Christelle Taraud Dominic Thomas Gilles Boëtsch
Publisher: La Decouverte, France

When the book was released in Paris last year, it either caused disgust and condemnation or received praise and cheers. The criticism came from both activist feminists and historians, as did the applause.

Sex, race, and colonies is edited by three historians (Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, Christelle Taraud), one literary scholar (Dominic Thomas), and one anthropologist (Gilles Boëtsch), all researchers at highly reputable institutions (CNRS, UCLA, Columbia). They enlisted 92 other academics to write the texts for the book’s more than 1200 illustrations on sexual oppression in French occupations before, during, and after colonial times. However, unfortunately, the text is not the most important part of the book. The illustrations – the paintings, photographs, comics, advertisements, posters, magazine covers, and cartoons – constitute the essence of the book; that’s what takes up the space and sparks debate.


This is a book of dimensions: 544 pages in a 29×31 cm format, weighing 4.2 kg and costing 65 euros. It contains 1200 illustrations selected from 70,000 found in public and private collections. It is written by 97 researchers, including 50 women, and concludes with more than 1500 references. Here lies the potential for a new «bible» on French sexual oppression of racialised women – and men – in French occupations and colonies over 600 years. Instead, we got a pornographic coffee table book for the politically correct middle class.

In the book’s first part, «Fascination» (1420-1830), there are depictions of erotic paintings, drawings, and engravings, always with a white man in the lead and a racialised woman as the erotic challenger or as someone who satisfies the man. In the following three parts: «Domination» (1830-1920), «Decolonisation» (1920-1970), and «Mixtures» (after 1970), it is the photographs that are most striking. Here, there are numerous photographs of French colonial officials in white suits and pith helmets posing with (semi) naked African or Asian women. While the Frenchmen shine as happy trophy hunters, it is evident that the racialised women (often two of them, one under each arm, often with bare breasts partially hidden under the white-clad man’s hands) are neither proud nor happy. Their facial expressions suggest that they are forced to be in the photographs, forced to perform (semi) naked, and forced to smile.

While the Frenchmen shine as happy trophy hunters, it is evident that the racialised women are neither proud nor happy.

Little analysis

The sexual freedom experienced by male colonial officials in Africa may have starkly contrasted to the sex they had access to as married men back in Catholic France – where they were expected to reproduce the family only under the covers, rarely and unenthusiastically. On the other hand, African women are portrayed in the book as wild and willing. Although some texts describe the sexual power relations and point out the coercion involved, there is too little analysis to make it particularly exciting.

In the section dealing with the post-colonial period, the women are even more naked. Here, illustrations from soft porn magazines – known as «magazine de charme» in France – dominate. Racialised cover girls from New Look, Lui, and Zoom grace this «academic» bestseller along with covers from porn movies like Monster Black Cocks and Interracial Angels. Here, it is white women’s fantasies about black men’s erotic allure, animalistic nature, and large penises that are the main attraction. I see the images more as reproductions of stereotypes than problematisations. Like in other sections, the accompanying texts here are short and descriptive, without critical analysis.

The text rarely provides anything other than the obvious, and the book becomes more of an art book than an academic analysis. However, post-colonial studies are still in their infancy in France compared to the UK and the US. France clings to its colonial ties, culturally and politically, even though all French presidents since Mitterrand have claimed that «Françafrique» will be dismantled. The male French elite still believes they have both legal and sexual privileges, even though both are under pressure: the trial against Nicolas Sarkozy for corruption and the conviction of Dominique Strauss Khan, who assaulted a black chambermaid at the Hotel Intercontinental in New York.

Sex tourism

The most interesting text in the book is the preface, written by the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe. He writes intricately, as always. «Genders do not meet in the sexual act, and therefore sex is completely devoid of gender.» Mbembe clearly brings out the power abuses and the repulsive nature of the sexualised images depicted in the book. In his texts, we are far from soft porn: «For the colonial officer, it is possible to lay their chosen ones in bed, feel their bodies and smell them, and then, with an inflatable phallus, profit and take, use them, and finally drench them with their pollution.»

The book’s final part, from 1970 to the present day, also devotes space to white women’s sex tourism. The young African boys who saunter awkwardly on the beach with white women clinging to them look just as unhappy as the half-naked white colonial officials’ racialised «lovers» did fifty years earlier. Films like Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2011) and Laurent Cantet’s Heading South (2005) are used as examples.

«The iconographic is crucial for understanding the sexualised relationships characterised by subordination and domination», according to the authors. Therefore, it becomes incomprehensible that they have chosen, or accepted, a layout that could make the brothels on Rue St. Denis jealous. The title on the book’s cover shines at us in neon types on a black background; inside, there are large colour pictures on glossy paper.

«This book provides answers on how such violence could have been possible», writes Leila Slimani in the afterword. I do not agree at all. I am left with a feeling of having peeped into colonial-sexualised violence expressed through erotic images, to the extent that oppression has anything to do with eroticism at all.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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