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Alex Rowlson
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Not just a preference

Alex Rowlson goes head-to-head with the troubling terminology of our desires

10.12.2011

We’ve all been there.

You visit a hookup or dating website, cruise somebody’s profile and are confronted with the list: no fats; no femmes; no Asians; no blacks; masc only; my age or younger; str8-acting, you be too; non-scene; and on and on. What we find is a lot of hate when all we want is head.

“Gay men have forgotten how to have sex,” says Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, editor of the forthcoming anthology Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? “For so long that was supposed to be something gay men were good at, but I’m not so sure anymore. They might be good at the technique but not the openness. Sex should be about opening possibilities, not closing them off.”

The negative language so prevalent on Craigslist and Grindr seems to signal that the culture of sexual liberation has been replaced by sexual segregation.

Gay sexual oppression is catalogued painfully on the Douchebags of Grindr blog, which sorts prejudiced profiles based on everything from racism and sexism to self-hating homophobia. But even though we see it everywhere, most people are as willing to admit to the exclusionary aspects of their desires as Lindsay Lohan is to submit to drug testing — statements are qualified by “Sorry, that’s just what I’m into” or “No hard feelings, it’s just my preference.”

Sycamore says that while people have the right to say what they’re attracted to, they have a responsibility to watch how they say it. “On the one hand, people are stating their preference, but on the other, these are not neutral terms. If we were living in a culture where everything was the same, it wouldn’t be a problem. But when sexual preference reinforces dominant systems of power in an unquestioning way, that’s when it becomes problematic.”

Michael J Faris, co-author of the essay “Fucking with Fucking Online: Advocating for Indiscriminate Promiscuity,” believes that sexual oppression too often is unexamined. “Desiring one thing more than another I don’t see as a bad thing,” he says. “When you say, ‘I won’t date a black person or won’t sleep with a black person,’ that’s what I see as being racist. If you can’t interrogate your desire, that’s a problem.”

Sociologist Adam Isaiah Green, a faculty member at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, believes “the concept of sexual racism is too strong and too intentional. Our liberation movement worked to remove shame from sexual desire, and I think we should take a lesson from it in terms of how we deal with the topic of racialized desires. Sensitizing ourselves to the connections between our most inner sexual desires and the sociopolitical landscape we are immersed in also seems like a good way to go.”

Self-described “Queer brown drag queen faggot” ML Sugie, who co-authored the essay with Faris, questions whether strict qualifiers should play any role in desire at all: “I can’t make the case that race, ethnicity, body type, ability — any of it — has any business being involved in hooking up, beyond what people have told me are for aesthetic reasons, which I take to be code for ‘unjustifiable hierarchies that I don’t want to explain.’ It just isn’t intelligible to look at someone and say, ‘I want to reach orgasm by being fucked, but only fucked by a person of this ethnicity or race.’ The connection just doesn’t make sense. What is it about certain ethnicities or races that make it so you just can’t get off or find them sexually attractive? And how fucked up is that?”

As Faris notes, “If attraction didn’t change, you would never see two 80-year-old people together. More than likely, when they were 18 they didn’t find an 80-year-old attractive.” Unless one of them was named Harold and the other was named Maude.

Ali Abbas,  author of the essay “Death by Masculinity,” notes, “Sexual desire will not, like many other things, come naturally. Desire is universal, but how we shape that desire is based on our willingness to pursue it. Who is to say that desire just naturally happens? Why can’t desire be a mode of living that requires contemplation, action and self-reflection rather than strict requirements?”

It seems the terms we use to describe desires are as fluid and hard to define as the desires themselves. Faris doesn’t think universal definitions for terms like “straight-acting” or “masculine” are possible. “When I’m online and someone says, ‘Are you masc?’ my usual response is, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Those things are all culturally relative. I grew up on a farm, and you have these big women who are doing farm work, which is very masculine, but it’s not viewed as being masculine; she’s just being a wife. By femme, what do you mean? Do I gesticulate a lot? Yes. Do I do drag? Yes. Straight acting is the most hilarious term. To be straight is to be attracted to or have sex with women.”

Faris suggests that, instead of using negative terminology that describes what they don’t want, people should explain what they do want and deal with others as individuals. If you aren’t attracted to Asian men because stereotypes suggest they are smooth and you prefer hairy men, you could write, “I like hairy men” on your profile, not “no Asians.” “I think being explicit with what you’re into is more inclusive. It might mask things and make them invisible and harder to discuss. But it still makes things more inclusive,” says Faris. “If someone is reading through a bunch of profiles, at least they don’t feel rejected by 40 profiles that say, ‘no Asian dudes.’”

“Changing negative descriptions into positive descriptions doesn’t change the fact that they are still requirements based on things like race, looks or gender expression,” counters Sugie. “It merely flips the statement from ‘What I don’t want’ to ‘What I require.’ It doesn’t change the content of the message, only the wording. Why is it so important that someone find a slim, masculine, hairy, buff man? Do you have some sort of vintage sling with a really low weight limit? A grand piano you’d like him to help you move after you fuck? What exactly are you going to do that requires such a specific, acrobatic person — and can I watch?”

What else can be done to change our bad behaviours? Sycamore believes that confronting others’ desires as well as one’s own is effective. He recalls challenging someone for having ‘no Asians’ written in his profile: “He said my distaste was ‘just because you’re Asian.’ It’s fascinating that people think the only ones who could be offended by this racist thing is someone who’s Asian.”

Raymond Miller, author of Little Kiwi’s Word Museum of Wonder and Terror blog, revels in challenging people and frequently shares his Grindr exchanges. “I’ve received so much mail in support of it. There’s the occasional letter that says, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are.’ The irony is that they say, ‘How dare you judge me’ when they’re judging everyone else. And it’s always white boys that can’t believe someone doesn’t want them because they’re supposedly the gold standard.”

Miller has an interesting proposal for driving home the point that putdowns in the form of come-ons are not welcome in our culture. “I want to organize a sexual boycott. Maybe if people stop getting laid they’ll realize what they’re doing is prejudiced. I don’t know why some guys only want to fuck Hitler’s Youth. I think it’s ugly, and I don’t want to reward that. Tell them that because of what they say, they’re not getting laid tonight.”

Sugie suggests a different strategy: “If you’re just trying to hook up, don’t be so picky about it. Indiscriminate promiscuity is about letting go of our notions that we should measure someone’s sexual worth based on scripted notions of race, class, gender expression, body and ability, and instead focus on creative sexual acts.”

Green goes further: “Foucault once proposed that we craft a sexuality not on desire, but pleasure. Desire is heavily psychoanalyzed, but bodily pleasure much less so. He believed that one starting point for a less socially disciplined sexuality was to focus on the pleasures of bodies — the pleasures our own bodies receive in sexual play and the pleasures we feel when giving sex.”

Words can beat people down, but it’s within our power to change how we frame our desires, and even to change our desires to create more inclusive screwing. By challenging ourselves and others we can expand our desires. So go out there and be indiscriminately promiscuous. Or deny that bigoted beefcake a hookup because of his prejudiced profile.

Just make sure you tell him there are no hard feelings — it’s just a preference.




Alex Rowlson is a freelance writer who is working on his PhD in history at the University of Toronto.

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    • PatrickSr
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    • Arthur Itis
      4/3/2014 12:28:53 PM
      this is exactly why there's technically no such thing as a "gay community"...a "community" is a group that supports each other despite individual differences. Gay ageism, gay sexism and gay racism have always been part of the scene, and referring to it as "just a preference" doesn't disguise what it really is. Everyone has likes and dislikes but the only reason for the crass and crude exclusion comments can be to try to insult and hurt others. "Oh, I'm not racist......I'm just not into Asian or Black guys!" should even sound contradictory to those who say it. It's a shame really, because gay people COULD form an extraordinary community if we could all only treat each other as equals. I'm not expecting it to happen during my lifetime, though.
    • Fra
      11/26/2013 7:47:04 PM
      This article incites racial hatred because intentionally confuses racism with sexual preferences, the author should have checked
      the dictionary for the definition of racism before going into this racial slur.
      To make things clear, dating websites are the places WHERE IT MAKES MORE SENSE to clearly specify WHAT you are looking for
      included ethnic group if that matters, if someone for instance doesn't fancy asian guys there's no point getting stressed and snowed
      under messages from asians.
      People and their sexual preferences are not bars, are not public venues, are not toilet stating "not for asians" or not for "blacks" or
      "not for whites" etc, there's nothing wrong if a white guy is not into asians as well as there's nothing wrong if a black
      woman is not into white man and she states so in a dating website while she's looking for his man.
      People are not offices which has to provide the service to everybody without discriminations.
      People currently have the freedom and must retain the freedom to be able to express their sexual preferences if they wish to do so.
      There's also a convenience on the other side, I prefer to know if a black guy is not into white guys as myself so I don't
      even bother him.
      It's an act of extreme selfishness and arrogance pretending that someone would hide his or her sexual preferences
      in order to make you a favour and give you the sensation that at the end you still have a chance while it's not, you have to
      face rejection and learn to deal with it.
      What we have lost is RESPECT because lots of gay men think to be so special that they pretend to come and tell YOU what
      you have to fancy and what now.
      I'm afraid guys it doesn't work this way and pulling out the racist card for this petty issues is miserable and backfires because
      then you get completely ignored which is worst and you will never know why and then you will really think people are
      racist while they just don't fancy you!
    • Fra
      11/26/2013 7:41:27 PM
      This article incites racial hatred because intentionally confuses racism with sexual preferences, the author should have checked
      the dictionary for the definition of racism before going into this racial slur.
      To make things clear, dating websites are the places WHERE IT MAKES MORE SENSE to clearly specify WHAT you are looking for
      included ethnic group if that matters, if someone for instance doesn't fancy asian guys there's no point getting stressed and snowed
      under messages from asians.
      People and their sexual preferences are not bars, are not public venues, are not toilet stating "not for asians" or not for "blacks" or
      "not for whites" etc, there's nothing wrong if a white guy is not into asians as well as there's nothing wrong if a black
      woman is not into white man and she states so in a dating website while she's looking for his man.
      People are not offices which has to provide the service to everybody without discriminations.
      People currently have the freedom and must retain the freedom to be able to express their sexual preferences if they wish to do so.
      There's also a convenience on the other side, I prefer to know if a black guy is not into white guys as myself so I don't
      even bother him.
      It's an act of extreme selfishness and arrogance pretending that someone would hide his or her sexual preferences
      in order to make you a favour and give you the sensation that at the end you still have a chance while it's not, you have to
      face rejection and learn to deal with it.
      What we have lost is RESPECT because lots of gay men think to be so special that they pretend to come and tell YOU what
      you have to fancy and what now.
      I'm afraid guys it doesn't work this way and pulling out the racist card for this petty issues is miserable and backfires because
      then you get completely ignored which is worst and you will never know why and then you will really think people are
      racist while they just don't fancy you!
    • kjnisamutt
      6/3/2013 3:04:35 PM
      So are we to ignore desire in order to forefront "pleasure"? How does that even work? Isn't desire part of pleasure? And if we can ignore what we desire in terms of appearance and mannerisms, why not ignore our desire for the same sex completely? In other words, is not finding obese guys attractive that different from not finding women attractive? If you can make yourself pursue pleasure with one group by ignoring desire, why not the other group as well?
    • rffby
      6/24/2014 1:11:01 PM
      Is it different than our attraction to women? That is always where I go with this argument. But then I think about it and it makes me unsure. I suppose the answer is in genetics. If you believe that genetics makes you seek out sexual partners of one gender or another, then preferring fat men or women probably has nothing to do with desiring women or men. If it's your environment that has influenced your attraction to men or women instead of genetics...then it's probably the same thing. I think your personal life experiences influences what turns you on sexually...plus or minus gender (that part I don't know the answer to). But me not explicitly saying what my preferences are isn't going to change them. So, even though black guys don't like to hear that you're not into black guys..that doesn't change the fact that you're not into black guys. Perhaps they'd prefer the typical no response when you're no into them rather than letting the profile say it? I personally go with the no response for all the guys who I'm not into. But of course..that pisses people off too. There's just no winning in this game.
    • CHRISTOPHER ALLEN HO
      5/19/2013 7:16:35 PM
      I READ Raymond Miller's COMMENTARY AS, "Little Kiwi," ON Towleroad. Mr. Miller WANTS TO MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT UTILIZING EDUCATION AS A MEANS OF ENDING HATRED TOWARDS, gays. BUT, Mr. Miller CAN NOT SEE HIS OWN BIASES.; HE IS THE TYPICAL "POLITICALLY-CORRECT" CAUCASIAN MALE-HOMOSEXUAL WHO HAS NO CLUE - NOR, CARES - ABOUT THE ISSUES CONFRONTED BY MALE HOMOSEXUALS OF COLOR.

      CHRISTOPHER ALLEN HORTON
    • 1WepleSued
      3/23/2013 7:31:19 PM
      Computer monitor

      Imagine the position when you are happily working to your current project using the PC in front of you, Then came a popup message notifying you of a new email have been received from a colleague. Seeing the 'Urgent' label across the mail you clicked it open to find that it is gossip about your boss's weird looking necktie is all wrong with his pink blazer and blue slacks. Soon you see the both of you being called into your boss's office facing your ugly nightmare.

      with the terminal monitoring software installed in your computer. Making it a chance for your boss to monitor every single email you've sent or received using your desktop. It may be just pure luck for your boss to notice this funny email, Or it is there on purpose to catch gossipers around.

      Yes it is wrong to not focus while working, But at least better than using grow each day to commit crimes or threats. Monitoring an employee's work desktop should not be that strict until it isn't likely to let employees having at least some freedom of using the company's resource.

      isolation, Defined as information being shared within a secluded group of people or alone, mustn't be invaded, Either in both real world or on this scenario, next to. Employers have the legal right to monitor your mailbox for worrying the leak of company secrets or so, But taking issues the case above this seriously will only cause a workgroup to be working involuntarily.

      This is not only happening at work, furthermore in schools, households, or even cyber cafes. Schools with computer a lab often imply strict monitoring methods to avoid students accessing harmful websites such as online pornography, Bomb building sites, And sites full of as well as worms. We can see the need of computer monitoring here but blocking out online messenger services within friends, Or even doing an investigation about 'Sextuplets', Who may wish to expect the monitoring software to block the search site and notify the teachers?
    • Cal E. Fornya
      8/5/2012 8:36:21 PM
      it always always ALWAYS amuses me how uptight gay men get when the subjects of gay ageism and gay racism are mentioned. I love the way one guy "clarified" it: "oh, I'm not racist.....I'm just not into Black and Asian guys!". Thanks....that REALLY clears up the subject nicely.
    • jhcgomez5
      5/23/2012 11:04:11 AM
      This article is complete BS. People are allowed to be attracted to who they want to be.

      Desire and sexual attraction is a base human response in a relationship. And because of this, it's highly superficial. And people have what turns them on. Let's not argue direct rhetoric as a hate crime or putting it delicately as more acceptable. I think as a society we're not assertive enough as it is.

      You're on a hook up site, if you don't like it. Move on. Yes, the article did have some good points that LTR relationships can override sexual preference. But most people on here are looking for NSA.

      I think it's disgusting that this article is using pictures of people's profiles. Hopefully you guys get a lawsuit for using someone's likeness without permission for commercial purposes.
    • gg
      2/5/2013 2:49:36 AM
      LOL. Why is it disgusting? They know the risk really well when they chose to post their pics up in public. It's disgusting that they do and get caught?
    • JJJJ
      5/1/2012 7:45:56 PM
      Does anyone else think the line "Sex should be about opening possibilities, not closing them off" is a bit silly? Sex should or shouldn't be anything you don't want it to be. It seems oddly Puritanical to make judgments like that.
    • Jeremy
      3/23/2012 10:43:25 PM
      Fuck! Does the Politically Correct Brigade also get to tell us who we are allowed to fuck?

      Grindr is not a social networking site -- at least not to most of us. I don't go to Grindr to meet deep, soulful, witty people. I might stumble onto them while looking to fuck, but I'm mainly looking to fuck.

      So when I open my Grindr app, it's because I'm horny and I want to fuck and not keep twenty simultaneous conversations with people I won't be attracted to!! I'm not into blacks for various, actual reasons -- but nevermind those reasons, I shouldn't have to justify myself.

      Would you force a total bottom to top another total bottom?? Of course he could, there's nothing preventing him from doing so physiologically, but he won't necessarily enjoy it.

      And regarding this ever lasting eternal debate about masculinity and "femmes" and "str8-acting"... well, the "femmes" are the very first and most prompt to reject other "femmes" themselves.

      Geez.
    • Bulatao
      2/10/2012 8:53:17 AM
      Apr27JR Ummm ahh ummm a.. Holy Crap, this guy is a coglale professor?.. no wonder the universities only turn out indoctrinated liberal drones today.
    • chris
      1/5/2012 9:14:14 PM
      Bravo on this article finally someone with some sense of well being
    • emily
      11/27/2011 5:04:58 PM
      Perhaps you all should open your mind to women and realize we have vaginas that accommodate your penises better than any ass could. Stop discriminating against women!
    • Jeremy
      11/27/2011 4:58:38 PM
      No offense but I rather not "open possibilties". My profile currently says "NO HIV+ MEN". Is it really worth risking my life to get off with a HIV+ guy by opening that door? No thanks.
    • LittleKiwi
      12/12/2011 6:09:18 PM
      ....you need to educate yourself to the realities of HIV. Seriously. It's 2012, there's no excuse for the kind of ignorance you've settled for. It's not guys who are able to have safe and protected sex with openly-Poz guys that end up getting HIV - it's guys like you who don't understand realities. Know this.
    • modernman
      1/5/2012 11:15:34 AM
      as a health care worker I'd advise you to "open the door" to reality.....anyone can just SAY they're HIV negative and you won't be in a position to prove otherwise.....you can make all the imaginary "requirements" and "requests" you like...they mean less than nothing.
    • Dpinvogue
      11/26/2012 1:24:27 PM
      You seem to be extremely touchy about your stated preferences. Perhaps this article touched a raw nerve? That's OK. I think the gay community has room for tacky, tactless men who justify their racism and internalised homophobia by endless blather. Sooner or later you learn that it costs nothing to have class and show a little dignity.