Swat Ed is the Phoenix’s biweekly sex education Q & A. We accept all questions and they are kept completely anonymous. If you’re looking for medical advice or a diagnosis for that weird thing on your genitals, get in touch with a medical professional! For everything else, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s subject matter is racial fetishization and societal sex pressure.
A friend of mine has joked about having a fetish for a specific racial group. They say that it amounts to only a preference, but it makes me uncomfortable, although I’m not sure that they’re being fully serious. What’s the line between fetishism and preference?
To begin on a broader note, sexual fetishism is formally defined as sexual gratification linked to an object, body part, or activity to an abnormal degree. Common clinical fetishes include attraction to clothing, rubber, footwear, leather, and soft fabrics. In the more common colloquial uses, people use the term “fetish” to refer to anything they find particularly arousing.
The line between racial fetishism and preference is explored in academia. Robin Zheng, a professor of philosophy at Yale-NUS College, extensively addressed the topic in her 2016 paper “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes.” She concluded that even a “ mere preferences” argument should not be acceptable as racially unproblematic: racial fetishes are ultimately rooted in stereotyping. A fetish for a certain race is not equivalent to a preference for a certain hair color, eye color or similar physical trait, simply because it reduces the concept of a racial identity to a set of sexualized physical features — in other words, an objectified, stereotyped outlook. While people who have these fetishes may think of them as harmless, they impact the way we interact with one another as social beings and create an additional psychic burden on individuals that already struggle with racialized institutions.
To more practically address your friend’s comments: people can’t pick their sexual fetishes or preferences. What they can do, however, is refrain from commenting on them among other people, even in a joking way. Regardless of the given audience’s racial identity, it lends credence to racial stereotyping and should definitely be avoided.
I haven’t had sex with anyone (not before college, not here). Before I came here it wasn’t something I thought about a lot or something I worried about, but starting last year a lot of my friends have been getting into relationships or hooking up. I’ve never had the experience of seeing someone and being instantly attracted to them like you see in the movies. Some of my friends say they have. Am I missing out? I think college is portrayed as a time to get laid a lot, but it hasn’t ever bothered me before.
-FOMOOMSSS (Fear Of Missing Out On Moderately Satisfying Swat Sex)
Decisions about sexual activity, like all the other decisions we make in our lives, are affected by the social pressures we feel. Separating our genuine desires from societal norms is incredibly difficult, especially with regards to sex and sexuality — I’ve spent a lot of time this past semester discussing that concept in one way or another. It seems that there are a few possibilities here, and what you want to do about the situation will depend on where your fear of missing out stems from.
A possibility is that you just don’t feel especially inclined to be in any sort of relationship with romantic or sexual aspects, and it’s only the fact that your friends are getting into them that’s giving you pause. In that case, this is solely a societal pressure and something that you just need to work on blocking out. In other words, if you get a sense that you’re not interesting or exciting or promiscuous in comparison to your friends, you just have to remind yourself that this metric just doesn’t matter. It’s totally normal to not want to hook up or be in relationships. For some folks, this is a big part of their identity and manifests as asexuality. However, people of all sexual orientations do this all the time, and it’s absolutely normal. In college, especially at this small school, we can get the impression that everyone is always living their best, most satisfying lives with exciting partners, but like any other case of Swarthmorean imposter syndrome, you have to remind yourself that none of us are breezing through life. Accepting your own natural differences from the societal ideal defines the journey toward self love.
Another possibility is that this is not a societal pressure, but an area where you could grow. Sometimes when we feel uncomfortable exploring a novel experience (like a romantic or sexual relationship), we take comfort in equally inexperienced companions. When our friends begin to grow in that area, it can feel like abandonment. Moreover, it can give us the nagging sense that we are lacking or defunct in some way. If your introspection leads you to believe that you might like to explore sexuality or relationships independent of societal pressures, then this is an opportunity for personal growth in this area. While there’s a lot to be said about how to get into relationships, one thing is for sure: if you’re not open to it, it won’t happen.