They Aren't Just Preferences: Questions Around Attraction, Objectification, and Fetishizing

Sexual attraction is something that science hasn’t been able to fully breakdown yet and it’s very possible that they may never be able to. The scientific reasoning that goes into who we choose to fall in love with or who we choose to spend a night with are largely unknown as it’s nearly impossible to mimic the conditions of attraction in a lab. One study suggests that women tend to attract more mates when they’re most fertile; a different study offers that women are attracted to partners with specific smells. According to these findings, a person’s smell reveals their major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which is directly related to their immune system. Women, then, are believed to be more attracted to someone whose MHC genes vary from their own so that their hypothetical children will have a more diverse and stronger immune system. As sound as ideas like these may seem, at the end of the day they’re theories divorced from social considerations.

There are a multitude of factors that go into who we are attracted to that exceeds the chemical and biological; the society that we grow up in is quite possibly the most significant factor that goes unaccounted for in studies like the ones above. Social constructs and the influence of mainstream media have proven to have a large impact on who we end up being attracted to. Here, we’ll take a look at the toxic practices that affect Black and Asian members of the LGBTQ+ community through shared anecdotes, relevant data, and unpacking what the dating culture is like for those who are further marginalized within masculine/male and AMAB (assigned male at birth) dating communities.  

Messages like “No Blacks,” “No Asians,” “No Fats” and “No Fems” remain constant on dating apps like Grindr and Jack’d. People often try to defend these messages by calling it a “preference” but the issue delves so much deeper than that. MTV’s Decoded recently featured an episode that attempted to explain that preferences based on race are often a result of systemic racism. In the discussion, Dylan Marron speaks to the issue offering that if someone were to approach you in a bar without speaking a word and you said to them “sorry I’m not into Asians” you’d likely get a drink thrown in your face. Unless, of course, they shared your sentiments.

"Some forms of discrimination have become so ingrained in gay culture that we don't even realize when we're perpetuating them," explains Marron. "When you’re judging a person based solely on their racial background, you’re acting on generalizations you’ve learned to associate with that person’s appearance or heritage."

The way that society paints certain races is a large part of the reason that we have these generalizations, but just as there are people who actively avoid those from certain groups there are others who inherently seek them out for equally problematic reasons. Where one issue walks the line between preference and sexual discrimination, the other walks the line between sexual preference and fetishization.

Much like discrimination, fetishizing a group of people is also based on stereotypes and generalizations. For example, this behavior relies on the stereotype that Asian men are more submissive, which leads to the assumption that they’ll try almost anything in bed at the discretion of a (debatably) more dominant sexual partner.

Similarly, in both the queer and heterosexual communities, Black men are expected to be well endowed and consequently good in bed. Although this particular fetishization of Black men has been going on for hundreds of years, the conversations regarding it as culturally insensitive and systemically problematic didn’t start in popular culture until a few decades ago. A notable example, famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became somewhat of a household name in the 1980s when a bulk of his work featured muscular dark-skinned Black men in black and white images. His most famous work, titled The Man in the Polyester Suit, depicts a headless Black man in a three-piece suit with his large, uncircumcised penis exposed. This work, and more like it, sparked debate as it was said to dehumanize and hypersexualize Black men, thereby reducing them to nothing but their penises.

Jump forward to just last year as Pornhub recently released their most searched terms and categories on their gay site from 2017. “Black” was their most viewed category and was also their fifth most searched term; “big black dick” came in at number 11 on that list. The same article also shows that the top two most searched terms on pornhub gay in 2017 were “Japanese” and “Korean.”

But how does all this translate to day-to-day relationships and interactions? Well on the receiving end, it seems some don’t even realize that they’re being sexually objectified until the moment of actual intercourse.

 

Day-to-Day Desires & Objectifications

Charles is a queer Black man living in North Carolina and recalls the level of discomfort he felt when it became apparent that his sexual partner was more interested in the color of his skin than him as a whole, complex person.

“I was really naive back then and didn’t really realize what was happening. I met this guy on Grindr and we started texting shortly after,” Charles remembers. “Texting turned into sexting and eventually we were making plans to meet up. He kept saying things like how he wanted my ‘big black dick’ before I even had the chance to send any pictures, but I kinda thought that was just dirty talk...we ended up hooking up and the whole time he was saying things like ‘whether I liked his white ass’ and just kept making reference to our different races. It was all very uncomfortable.”

Even if the interaction is meant to be sex with no strings attached, it’s a sickening feeling to be reduced to something as simple as the color of your skin. “It makes you feel like shit,” Charles said.

Although fetishes are sometimes most blatant when it comes to race, they are not limited to skin color alone. Queer people are often fetishized for things like femininity, gender expression, and weight as well. Jason, a cisgender queer man, felt that because of his weight he was always led to believe that “beggars can’t be choosers.” So when someone showed a great deal of interest in him, he felt pressured to say yes.

“I thought to myself ‘oh wow, a decent looking guy wants me’...but it wasn’t fun,” Jason explains. “There’s just a difference between rubbing on somebody’s body and rubbing somebody’s belly.”

He recalls the individual being fixated on his weight; grabbing and pulling on his stomach without any regard to how Jason felt in the situation, almost as if he wasn’t there. Unknowingly becoming an object in someone else’s sexual fantasy can leave a person feeling used, gullible and insecure. “I felt gross..it was the worst sexual encounter I’ve ever had,” Jason recalls.

 

But how is one to distinguish between someone who is genuinely attracted to them and someone who just using them to complete a fetish?

Both Jason and Charles now say that they’re able to spot the red flags from miles away. Within the initial conversation or within the first few text messages they can sense what the expectations are on the opposite end.

As stated earlier, people with a fetish for certain groups are thinking and acting on stereotypes that they’ve learned. Many people acting off of these will try to connect with you based on these generalizations but have very little-to-no interest in actually learning more about what your life or culture is like. It’s also a red flag if they constantly allude to the fact that this is their first time with someone like you -- lines like “I’ve never been with a Black person before” or “I usually don’t date Asians” are major flags to look out for.

People who’ve been fetishized also report a noticeable thrill from their partner whenever they give into whatever role is expected of them. Charles mentioned that whenever he jokingly would speak in a way that was perceived as “stereotypically Black” his partner’s ears would perk up and he’d express an added investment in the conversation.

 

Some of you might be asking yourselves, “How do I know whether or not I’m fetishizing someone?”

Some people may look back on their history of sexual/romantic partners and see a pattern of individuals from one specific group and it’s important to point out that this alone does not mean that you’re guilty of fetishizing people. When looking at yourself to make sure that you’re not a part of the problem there are a list of questions you can ask yourself; but what it really boils down to is: Are you genuinely attracted to this person? On the surface the question might seem mundane, but it’s actually a pretty loaded when you start to unpack it. Why have you dated the people that you’ve dated or why are you attracted to them? Is it because they fit certain stereotypes? Or because each was beautiful in their own right?

Answers that lead down a road like “Black men just tend to have...” or “Latina women are just more…” are definitely worth further interrogation. At that point you’re taking a set of specific attributes and applying them to a very diverse group of individual people. Not all people that identify with a certain group are the same or have the same set of attributes that you enjoy. It’s this same line of thinking that leads people to label others as less of a member of the group that they self-identify with. For example, a Black man isn’t any less Black if he doesn’t fit your stereotype of being well-endowed, super masculine, or have dark skin. Things can get tricky when you’re talking about hookup culture when almost everything is purely physical; however, it’s still worth looking inward to what specifically is drawing you to that individual person.

Sexual attraction is and will continue to be a part of human existence that has many gray and unlit areas. Scientists and social theorists are constantly looking at ways to explain how and why we choose the people we fall in love with as well as the people with whom we spend the night. When it comes to the sexual attraction to or against a certain group of people, though, we have to look inward and ask ourselves the heavy questions while trying to understand why we make the choices that we do. The truth is that very often our desires come from a place that perpetuates other issues and problems that extend beyond the simplicity of a dating pool. Navigating the world as a queer person is already something that comes with its own set of hardships, so let’s all make sure to do our part so as not to add to that list for members of our community that are already overburdened with marginalization.

 

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