I’ve been thinking a bit about arguments about the changeability of sexual preferences. Many social justice people make arguments along the lines of “you aren’t attracted to disabled people/people of color/trans people/whatever because you grew up in a society that presents those people as unattractive. You should question your attractions and hopefully stop finding them unattractive.” Other people respond with “fuck you, this is my sexuality, I can’t change it.”
I feel like both positions end up conflating a lot of different stuff into the same categories, so I’m going to try to differentiate.
Let’s start with the most uncontroversial. There are a lot of straight boys who are attracted to trans women and are very upset because they think that that means they’re secretly gay. I think everyone can agree that it is very good to enlighten those poor boys about how lots of straight men and basically no gay men are attracted to trans women, because trans women are women, and straight men are attracted to women and gay men are not. Those boys are, clearly, attracted to trans women; they’re just conflicted about what it means to be attracted to trans women, which makes it hard for them to express their attraction. So it helps both the straight boys and the trans women if those straight boys can fap to Bailey Jay with a clear conscience.
The straight boys are aware that they’re attracted to Bailey Jay. But a similar dynamic can happen on a subconscious level. My friend Molly Ren wrote an essay about their experiences being attracted to fat men. They are extremely attracted to fat guys; however, they had a hard time admitting it to themself, because of their internalized fatphobia. They were used to thinking of fat people as unattractive, and that made it hard for them to recognize their own attraction to a fat person. They sort of subconsciously shut it down.
A lot of times, we have cached thoughts like “people who look like X just aren’t sexy.” But do we actually think they aren’t sexy, or are we just repeating what we’ve been taught by society? Are we motivated by genuine lack of attraction or by a feeling that people might look down on us?
Just because attraction doesn’t exist right now, it doesn’t mean that it can’t exist. Like a lot of people, I used to desexualize little people. I didn’t interact with little people very much, so a lot of my impressions came from the media. And the media tends to portray little people as inherently ridiculous. And the concept of little people having sex? That’s a punchline.
And then Peter Dinklage.
It turns out I wasn’t unattracted to little people. It’s just that I hadn’t seen a little person presented respectfully, with dignity, and as a person. Tyrion Lannister– witty, cunning, bitter, wonderful Tyrion Lannister– is sexy as hell, and I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks so.
Now, I think an individualist solution to that problem is not going to work. What we really need is media that presents a variety of body types as potentially attractive in a matter-of-fact way, neither treating their sexuality as unthinkable or a joke nor focusing on marginalized traits in a voyeuristic and creepy way. But on an individual level, we can at least be open to the possibility that we might be attracted to people we don’t know we have the capability to be attracted to.
Finally, there are some people who are just unattracted to certain marginalized traits: they’re not repressing an attraction and they don’t have a potential to be attracted to those people that they haven’t reached.
Some of those people have incorrect ideas about the marginalized group in question. For instance, many people don’t want to fuck trans women, even trans women who are indistinguishable from cis women, because on a certain level they feel like trans women are men and they don’t want to fuck men. I think in that case the lack of attraction is symptomatic of a problem, but it’s not a problem in itself. Believing that trans women are men, even on a subconscious level, is wrong; not being attracted to some people is morally neutral.
Other people are not attracted to some traits correlated with membership in a marginalized group. For instance, some people are not attracted to people with kinky hair. Those people are much less likely to date black people. Of course, many black people have straight hair or straighten their hair to conform with Eurocentric beauty standards, so that wouldn’t be justification enough to rule out black people entirely, but that person is much less likely to date black people than someone who doesn’t care.
Is this a product of cultural influence? Probably. On one hand, it seems likely that the Hypothetical Post-Racist Utopia would include both people with a preference for kinky hair and people with a preference for straight hair. On the other hand, we don’t live in Hypothetical Post-Racist Utopia. We live in a world where even black women famous for their beauty usually have European facial features and straight hair. It would be bizarre to believe this had no effect whatsoever. In addition, while no one knows where sexual preferences come from, it seems likely that they’re influenced by who you interacted with as a kid and your early sexual experiences. If you mostly hung around white people, you’re more likely to end up attracted to traits associated with whiteness.
Still, it seems to me like a preference for straight hair is much, much harder to change than a preference based on a mistaken belief. It might be good for someone with an abnormally fluid sexuality to try to expand their sexual horizons, but many people are just stuck with the sexual preferences they have right now. In particular, I’m worried about people fucking members of marginalized groups for SJ Points, which is likely to make everyone involved feel gross.