Your Conditioning Has Been Conditioned: Why Sexual ‘Preference’ Is Political

It is necessary—lifesaving, even—to have an open and honest dialogue about how we are marginalizing ourselves, even in our own bedrooms.

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Though not straightforward, there is a connection between who we think is desirable and whose life has value within a white supremacist country like the United States. This question of value came to a head in the candidacy and unfortunate election of Donald Trump.

What has become even truer now is that the status quo is in real danger of getting worse. Because of that, it is critical that we as a society, particularly as black people who are often relegated to the bottom, begin to look at the ways we disconnect from one another. We should prioritize “sticking together” as a community across race, class, sexuality, gender and gender identity, and expression lines, even if those lines are occasionally blurred.

It is necessary—lifesaving, even—to have an open and honest dialogue about how we are marginalizing ourselves, even in our own bedrooms.

Consider these two questions: Do you ever think about what informs your physical attraction to another person? Or do you simply believe it to be a “preference,” and thus requiring no further examination beyond why you “like what you like”? If you are like many people I have communicated with about this topic lately, chances are you fall into the latter category.

“Is he cute or is he just light-skinned?” is a legitimate question many black people have grappled with at one point in their lives. This is not because we naturally see dark-skinned people as inherently unattractive but, rather, because colorism informs our own standards of beauty—and because of that, we as a society tend to view people with darker complexions as less desirable. And although the black community has consistently striven to recognize that our black is beautiful, desirability politics plays a real role in whom we have sex with, whom we date, and who we decide is worthy of our time and attention.

In many ways, the diverse lived experiences of being black in America are defined by struggle—internal and/or external. Who has time to sit and evaluate our dating choices and what attracts us to other people? Who has time to theoreticize thotness?

I felt this same way until I was confronted with a realization of my own problematic preference: that I only dated taller, slimmer, light-skinned men. This self-evaluation led me to the conclusion that preferences in dating, sex and attractiveness are not inherently problematic, but they sure can be.  

In my past, and on an occasional bored late night browsing social media applications, I have been no stranger to the fun and pleasure of a mere hookup. But it’s nearly impossible to have those fun and pleasurable experiences without selecting sexual partners based on social conditioning of whom I am told to find attractive. We’re often told not to push back on this thinking because it’s based on our supposed preferences. But I have discovered that continually using the “preference” logic, which usually is code word for “status quo,” denies the real implications of desirability politics and how it teaches us to center whiteness.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized that sex is a mostly political act. Not “political” as in Clinton vs. Trump, but political in that it informs our thoughts, desires and pleasures, albeit subconsciously.

Although our sexual experiences—and with whom we have sex—may not define who we are definitively, they can have the tendency to define our politics. While it’s important to examine the nuance in instances of sex work and asexuality, among others, it’s safe to say that our choices in sex partners are wrapped in Eurocentric standards of beauty, white supremacy and oftentimes associated erotic responses. And, if we are being honest, it is clear that those standards exist within the black community.  

The dominance of society has caused us to internalize certain characteristics as more desirable. It’s the reason taller people make more money than shorter individuals, it’s the reason lighter-skinned black people have fewer police interactions (pdf) than darker-skinned black people, and it’s the reason skinnier people are privileged over heavier people. Labeling these as mere preferences fails to underscore why the majority of our preferences conform to acceptable norms.

This is not to shame our preferences, but a call for us to examine why we have our preferences. While I don’t necessarily think we should pursue sex and relationships to satisfy some political standard, because that can lead to tokenism—that is, the practice of making only a symbolic effort to do a particular thing—we have to understand that more goes into our sexual experiences besides who attracts us.

And this means that we must sometimes actively fight against our preferences if we can admit that only liking certain types of people may be a problem.

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