My Identity is Not Your Fetish.
Sexuality has always been a very racist and patriarchal facet of society. If we look at the depictions of sex and gender over time, we rarely (if ever) see content that is sex-positive for women, especially women of color in western society. Portraying certain groups as sexual objects has historically been a common form of dehumanization, ranging from the sexualization of black slaves (of all genders) in pre-Civil War America to the use of lesbian relationships for male entertainment today.
Let’s address the fetishization of queer relationships first. Women have historically been expected to perform sexuality: discuss sex, look sexy, have sex… but always and exclusively for male pleasure. Queer relationships between women subvert that narrative, enjoying sex for themselves without men involved.
So, naturally, society must find a way to make queer sexuality about men. They do this in two ways:
Violence, which overwhelmingly affects butch or masculine-seeming women (femme queer women are subjected more to derogatory sexual catcalls), and
Hyper-sexualization. Not surprisingly, the hyper-sexualization of largely femme lesbians and bisexuals mostly occurs through big media. Many television shows will show a lesbian kiss at the end of the season to boost male viewership. Marketing campaigns depicting female intimacy will almost always show one or both of the women looking at the camera instead of each other, as if to invite the viewer to “join them.” Most lesbian/queer pornography is directed toward straight male viewers, with terms like “shemale” used to objectify transgender women, and “lesbian” being one of the most popular categories on X-rated video site PornHub.
Big media’s appropriation and commodification of queer sexuality has had many harmful consequences. Lesbian couples in public are often harassed by men who take it upon themselves to “turn them straight,” while bisexual women are regularly stereotyped as “always into threesomes”.
Some may argue that the fetishization of lesbianism is a good thing because the LGBTQ+ community is getting represented in big media. It’s actually quite the opposite. Instead of portraying lesbian relationships as a normal part of society, fetishization reduces queer women to mere sex objects that exist solely for the entertainment of men. If anything, it may actually be more harmful than no representation at all.
The representation argument is also used to justify the fetishization of certain ethnicities or races. The only difference here is that people of all genders within a certain ethnicity are affected by it. Take the recent BLM protests, for example. There were a good number of signs that read phrases like “Love black men like you love black dick,” and “Your daughter loves every inch of me, why don’t you?”
At first glance, these tongue-in-cheek comments might seem humorous. But upon closer inspection, these signs reveal a horrifying aftereffect of white colonialism that is prominent to this day.
During the period of European colonization and mercantilism, white settlers justified the mistreatment of people of color by painting them as uncivilized barbarians that were inherently inferior to white people. Part of this “savagery” was the supposed “primitive nature” of the way non-whites viewed sex. People of color, especially black people, were overwhelmingly portrayed as sex-driven, dirty people that needed to be “civilized” by the white man.
These harmful stereotypes included exaggerated portrayals that still exist in some form: black men with large genitalia, black women with sexual prowess, Asians who are submissive/weak and exotic, and Latinx people who are overtly sexual, among others.
In big media, these stereotypes are embodied in characters like the “geisha” trope, the “sassy black woman,” and the “the virgin Indian guy.” Despite many, many, MANY calls against the fetishization of race, white men like this one still believe it is okay to want to date someone because of their ethnicity, even going so far as to claim that the “yellow fever” stereotype hurts him. (“Yellow fever” is used to describe a white person who exclusively or mostly dates Asians)
A legitimate question that is often asked in response to the fetishization of certain races is, “why is it okay for me to say, ‘I like women with green eyes’ but not for me to say, ‘I like black women’?”
The difference is this: you’re not reducing the former to just that one trait about themselves. The first statement simply appreciates the beauty of a certain physical trait, while the second labels an entire subsect of the population with its own diverse history and culture as one homogenous group. Saying “I prefer dating x race” assumes that someone’s race or culture corresponds with certain personality traits that you’d like in a partner, traits that may or may not be true for every member of that population.
This microaggressive racism has become so normalized that ethnicity-based verbal harassment is extremely common, as are statements like: “Can I touch your hair?”, “You’re really pretty for an Indian girl,” “You’re a black guy, so you must be great in bed,” and of course, “You’re so exotic.” Although they may be disguised as compliments, these statements are extremely harmful.
In conclusion, the fetishization of POC/LGBTQ+ are seen as a way to live out some colonialist fantasy instead of having an actual romantic relationship. If you have to ask yourself: “Can I say [enter “compliment” that has to do with race/sexuality] to a person of color/member of the LGBTQ+ community?” Then it’s most probably a harmful statement.
And although you may have good intentions, remember that fetishizing someone’s identity is still reducing them to nothing but that one trait. We are all human beings with complex personalities and different experiences. We want our experiences to be recognized and respected, not turned into sexual fantasies.