Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Dan Savage has struck again.  Answering a letter from a liberal white guy about his girlfriend's sketchy comments about the attractiveness of black and Asian men --
The position that I’ve always held is that we’re attracted to individuals, not types, and it’s wrong to have expectations of people based on race—especially when it comes to sexualizing/fetishizing people. I think we should date and have sex with whomever we want and not carry prejudiced expectations into our relationships. 
The woman's remarks, as he reported them, were perhaps sketchy but not outrageous: she "has a thing for black guys" and found a Korean-American friend "handsome despite not typically being attracted to Asian guys."  It seems to me that people tend to fall back on cliches in talking about their attractions and sex lives, because that's what we learn from our culture and few people bother to think it through.  If someone is often attracted to people of color, "I have a thing for them" is likely how they'll express it in casual conversation, partly because that's how other white people will phrase it to them.  "You have a thing for black guys, huh?"  And that question expresses all sort of malignant assumptions about whom a white person should be attracted to.  I've never been asked, "You have a thing for white guys, don't you?" even though most of the men I've dated have been white, just because of the law of averages in the American Midwest.  Dating non-white men inspires comment in a racist society.  If I don't feel it's noteworthy myself, plenty of other people will make it their business to enlighten me.

Since the letter-writer has no information about how she actually treats the black men she dates, it's premature at best to say that she's fetishizing / sexualizing (!) in a way that would bother them in face-to-face, pelvis-to-pelvis interaction.  (I threw in the exclamation point because when you're attracted to an individual, you are "sexualizing" them by definition.  Liberal discourse on sex is impoverished in its own way.)  The liberal guy goes on to blurt out, all unawares, some significant "prejudiced expectations" of his own, for which Dan rightly called him out.

But Dan also wrote:
But instead of reconsidering their ideas about attractiveness, a dumb fucking white person—even one from a liberal background—is likelier to say something stupid like “I don’t usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive,” rather than rethinking their assumptions about their desires. Declaring one Asian guy an exception allows someone like your girlfriend to have her racist cake (“I don’t find Asian guys hot”) and eat it too (“But this Asian guy is hot”).
I think that saying something stupid like "I don't usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive," is how a person begins to rethink their assumptions about their desires.  (Except for "hot," a label that has always grated on me.)  It may not come up to Dan's or Liberal Guy's standards of enlightened discourse, but then both of them have their own cliches for discussing attractiveness.  I don't see anything racist even in Dan's (and it's his, not her) supposedly stupid way of putting it.

Dan went on:
I have to say, though, I disagree with you on one thing: People do have types, and there’s nothing wrong with having types.
This starts off well.  I agree that people have types, and there's nothing wrong with having types, though this also means that it will inspire comment when people are attracted by someone who isn't their type.  But I also agree with Liberal Guy that we are attracted to individuals.  After a certain amount of experience with attraction, however, one may notice (or others will notice for one) that some of those individuals have some traits in common, so one may speak of having a type.  That can be a box one uses to limit one's reactions and experience, though people have the right to do so; or it may just be a mildly interesting fact one has deduced from one's experience.  There are those who humblebrag that they are only attracted to a vanishingly small number of people, one more of the many ways people find to rationalize and exalt their own tastes.  I learned early on that I was pleased, even delighted, when I was attracted to someone who wasn't one of my types.  I'm also intrigued when I'm not attracted to someone who 'should' be my type.  But in both cases, it's of intellectual not practical interest.  However you react to such a discovery, there is no obligation to follow through on it, and of course (except that many people forget this) there is no guarantee that the person you're attracted to will be attracted back.  Even if you're attracted to types, you will be interacting with an individual -- an individual with his or her own types and desires, who may not be attracted to you.

Since many are fascinated by the origins of desire, it's fair to ask where these types come from.  No one knows, any more than anyone knows where the type that is standard -- sex/gender -- comes from.  Is a type a master category encoded in me, an unconscious filter that determines who I'll desire?  Is it in my genes?  Was I born with it?  I doubt it very much.  I think it's something learned, based partly but not predictably on early experience, but also shaped by later experience.  When I was eighteen, for example, men of forty seemed old and I was almost never attracted to them.  Now I'm sixty-eight, and men of forty seem young, and I'm often attracted to them.  But I'm not attracted to all forty year old males, nor to all white men, nor to all Asian men, nor to all black men.

Which brings me to Dan's peroration:
It’s a good idea to ask ourselves whether our “types” are actually ours and not just assigned to us by conventional standards of beauty (white, slim, young) or a thoughtless/fetishizing reaction to those standards (a desire to transgress with nonwhite, larger, or older folks).
I agree, it's a good idea to ask these questions, and I have the only correct answer: "Yes," to both.  Our types are both ours and assigned to us by conventional standards.  The categories and language ("hot," for example) we use to think or talk about them come from society, but we aren't absolutely bound by them.  Where did those standards come from, anyway?  We know that they change over time and vary from culture to culture.  And not everyone conforms to the assignment; probably no one conforms in every particular, or all the time.  Nonconformity produces cognitive dissonance, and people will try to explain to themselves as well as to others, why they like someone they're not supposed to like, or don't like someone they should.  Most people will do a crappy job of it.  But it's not important to do it much better.  What is important is treating the people we're attracted to with respect, which seems obvious to me (if you want something from someone, shouldn't you ask nicely?) but clearly isn't obvious to everybody.

I think these problems arise partly because erotic desire produces anxiety: it's not under conscious control, and people hate that.  We try to get control by rationalizing our desires, which won't work because they aren't rational.  So you get Liberal Guy's cliches about fetishizing/sexualizing, which he got from society but adopted, or Dan's about conventional standards and whether they're ours or society's.  Yet Dan thinks more about these questions than most people; it's his job.  The wrench in the works is that heterosexuality is both something assigned (to everybody) by society, and yet it feels like one's own.  That's what social construction means: what we have learned feels as if it's "natural." 

Notice that Dan writes as if he assumes that desire for non-whites, older or heavier folks comes from a "desire to transgress" instead of being one's own authentic wish.  (What are non-whites in America supposed to do?  Society tells them that only whites are desirable, but society also tells them they shouldn't desire whites.)  That's certainly an assumption assigned by society - I can't count the times I've been told that I'm gay out of a desire to rebel against society, not from genuine desire for males.  One reason it's absurd is that so many gay people are utterly conformist.  Another is that rebelling is hard work, and if I had sex with men in order to rebel, it would eventually get tiresome, and I'd get less and less pleasure from it.  I wouldn't be surprised if some people try to deal with disapproval of their desires by rationalizing them as rebellion, but who knows?  Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  And if we're going to talk about assigned desires and types, heterosexuality would be more suspect than any other fetish.  Homosexuality would be a close second, even though it's officially disapproved, but then it falls under Dan's proscription of rebellion.  It's very telling that someone like Dan, who believes that sexual orientation -- fetishizing one sex or the other -- is inborn, also believes that it's so malleable under social pressure.

Underneath Dan Savage's rebellious, foul-mouthed exterior there beats the heart of the Catholic conservative he was raised to be.  The function of his strictures, regardless of his conscious intention, is to keep people corralled within the boundaries of conventional standards.  You're white and attracted to a non-white person?  First make sure you aren't fetishizing them - and you can never really be sure you aren't, so play safe and fetishize only white people.  Apparently you needn't worry about fetishizing them.  Some years ago, Dan was celebrating his own fetish (which he delicately called a "bias") for slim, hairless, athletic young guys in "tighty-whities" (a variety of fetish underwear), to the point of inviting readers to send in photos.  As he pointed out, "Because it's my column, and when you've got a column you can get away with that sort of shit. (If Miss Manners can do it, why can't I?)"  Or maybe it wasn't a fetish, because it was Dan's.  Fetish for thee, bias for me.