Racial Fetishization in a Dating Context Is Harmful — Here’s Why
Everything You Need to Know About Fetishization in Dating and Relationships
Desire is a facet of the human experience that so many of us are intimately familiar with, and yet it’s something few people talk openly and honestly about with others.
The intensity of it can completely change your life — for better or worse — and that means it’s often seen as wrong, sinful, or taboo. Though people by the score have experienced great things inspired by their sexual and romantic desires, the fact that so many people don’t really have a clear understanding of how desire works or how to react to it means they’ll inevitably develop unhealthy aspects to their desire without ever confronting them.
One aspect of that? Fetishization.
What Does It Mean to Fetishize Someone?
“Fetishizing someone means having a sexual fixation on certain qualities someone possesses that are not inherently sexual,” says Tatyannah King, sex coach for the Blex app.
While at first glance that may not sound especially bad, in practice, it can be quite problematic.
“Racial fetishization is particularly common, with some people exclusively seeking out X partner because of stereotyped Y features or characteristics,” says Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “Some people fetishize potential partners based on a certain characteristic that they find arousing. For instance, hyper-focusing on a part of your partner’s body, skin color, etc. could be fetishing and objectification.”
What Does Fetishizing Someone Look Like?
It’s all well and good to understand that fetishization exists, but if you want to be sure that you’re not participating in it, it’s important to recognize what it actually looks like when it’s happening.
“In a romantic context, fetishization can appear in one’s motivations for seeking out a particular person,” explains King. “For example, it’s common to hear people specifically seek out Black men to see what it’s like to sleep with them, often referring to Black men’s genitalia as ‘Mandingo’ or ‘big black c*ck.’ While this may seem like classic humor to some, these labels tie into historic tropes used to denote Black men as sex-crazed monsters as a justification for violence used against them.”
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While fetishization may contain an aspect of a positive trait, by lumping everyone in a certain group together and obsessing over something that’s unrelated to personality or selfhood, you end up ultimately demeaning them. It’s easily comparable to saying that all Asian people being skilled at math is racist.
Of course, fetishization isn’t limited to race.
“For another example, people may specifically fetishize lesbian and bisexual women as a means to fulfill their erotic fantasies due to oversexualized stereotypes carried out by the heterosexual male gaze, or beliefs that question the legitimacy of those sexual orientations,” notes King. “This fetishization translates to what is popular in mainstream media as well, considering that within the last several years, ‘lesbian’ has been within the top three most viewed categories on Pornhub throughout most of the world.”
Jennifer, 33, a disabled woman, notes that fetishization extends into the realm of disability:
“Dating fetishization is something disabled people experience, too — amputees especially. I’ve had men try to pick me up because of my disability. They’ve contacted me to offer to do favors for me. It’s like an abled saviorism?”
Robin, 27, a Chinese-Canadian woman, first experienced being fetishized in an early relationship:
“Initially, I was flattered. I was a teen — I wanted to be accepted, to feel attractive, and to feel sexy. It took me years to realize that someone saying that they found my race attractive wasn’t a positive quality, nor was it something that would make me feel valued. It’s dehumanizing to view your worth as a sexual or romantic partner based on stereotypes, cliches, or your physical traits because they’re attributable to your race.”
Benny, 27, a gay man, has found gay dating apps to be far from immune to the issue of fetishization:
“It mostly made me feel like I’d been stripped of my own identity; like they no longer saw the real me, but mostly liked me for the characteristic ‘Asian’ attributes. For that reason, it also made me feel inherently replaceable, like I could be easily replaced because there were ‘so many more of me.’”
As you can see from these real life examples, being fetishized is far from a pleasant experience, particularly when it’s being perpetrated by white men towards people they’ve deemed to be ‘exotic’ or ‘interesting.’
While those may sound like compliments, fetishization isn’t exactly the building block of a stable relationship. Instead, it implies that there’s some form of judgment and othering going on, also suggesting that you’re essentially interchangeable with other people like you.
How to React to Someone Fetishizing You
You might find it difficult to react towards someone who seems like they may be fetishizing you, particularly if you were fond of this person to begin with and don’t want to see them in a bad light.
“If you think your partner is sexualizing you, the best thing to do is call it out immediately,” advises King. “There is a chance that your partner may not consciously be aware that they are doing it. While it isn’t necessarily up to you to relay years of historical implications and psychology to them, you owe it to yourself to let them know about the harm that has been done against you even if that wasn’t their intention.”
Caraballo agrees that it’s important to bring it up, but he deems it understandable if you don’t broach the situation right away (or at all, necessarily).
“It’s incredibly important to address these issues as soon as you feel them come up for you, otherwise you risk continued engagement in a relationship that leaves you feeling used and dehumanized and no one deserves that (unless it’s consented to role play),” he says.
Still, he admits, “Every person has to decide for themselves how to approach a partner who they suspect is fetishizing them.”
Your response will likely also depend on how far along things have gotten in your relationship. If it’s just someone sending you a message on a dating app, you’re not obligated to even respond. Conversely, if it’s someone you’ve already established a real connection with, avoiding the conversation is unlikely to fix the issue.
It may not be a pleasant talk to have, and it could ultimately lead to a breakup if your partner isn’t willing or ready to confront the way they see and treat you.
What If You’re the One Fetishizing Someone Else?
Do you find your attraction towards people is based more around traits that have nothing to do with people’s personalities? Do you find yourself constantly hoping to sleep with someone from a certain race, or date someone with a certain disability, sexual orientation, or marginalized gender identity?
If so, there’s a good chance you’ve made other people (or will make them) feel fetishized if you don’t work on changing your approach.
While desire can feel like it’s set in stone sometimes, it’s not a good enough reason to continue engaging in behavior that can hurt other people unabated. Of course, you might consider your desires to be natural, and you can’t just forcibly change who you’re attracted to, right?
Well, it’s a bit more complex than that. Trying to convince a gay man to be attracted to women in order to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality is vastly different than noting there’s something problematic about someone who pursues sex and/or relationships primarily with one type of person because they have a fixation on a given racial trait or disability.
“It isn’t easy to stop fetishizing a partner or a particular person, but it is possible,” says King. “Fetishization generally stems from problematic stereotypes that create implicit bias, so in order to reverse that, people have to unlearn these harmful ideologies. This can be done by digging deep within yourself and approaching your attraction for others in a way that doesn’t reduce them to uncontrollable factors that are arbitrary to who they are as a person or how they act in a romantic or sexual relationship.”
And yes, you can start with digging into why you’re attracted to a certain trait, says Caraballo.
“Explore for yourself where that fetish comes from and what it means for you,” he suggests. “Does it help bring sexual gratification? Does it cause harm or negative feelings for you, or your partner? What are the implications for this fetish and how important is it to you? We can’t necessarily help what we find arousing or what we’re attracted to but we can work on, with a licensed mental health provider, how to create a plan of engagement that works for us and is safe, consensual and healthy. It’s much more important to adjust problem behaviors than thoughts or internal desires.”
In the end, with desire being so complex and nuanced, it’s hard to know for sure how to approach fetishizing someone. Your response will depend on whether anyone has confronted you about your behavior, how sure you are that your desires represent a case of fetishizing a given type of person, your relationship to therapy and introspection, and a myriad of other factors.
“You ultimately have to be honest with yourself about your intentions,” says King about how to approach this kind of thing. “Is your attraction toward this person based on genuine connection and appreciation for them or is this mostly a desire to use them strictly for sexual purposes? Are you dating them because you truly want to build a relationship with them, or do you refer to them as someone you want to ‘try for the first time’ as if they’re the newest food item on a menu?”
It’s something to think about.
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