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Dating from the Margins: Desexualizing and Cultural Abuse

October 13, 2011

This is the first in an informal series on dating as a marginalized queer identity. The focus will inevitably be shaped by my personal experience – being white, a trans woman, fat, poor, polyamorous, and a survivor of sexual violence and abuse – but I hope it will resonate to some degree with whose experiences aren’t similar to mine but who nonetheless feel marginalized by their communities. These posts arose from conversations with a number of people on various points of the continuum of queer cultural desire, and I am deeply grateful for those folks. They give me hope these conversations can happen more often, and on a much larger scale.

I am often frustrated by people who are otherwise invested in understanding and opposing systems of oppression, but who nonetheless exclude dating and desirability from analysis or self-critique. This is especially frustrating when they are privileged by those very systems. This lack of analysis by those who have access and who are prioritized as desirable by their communities effectively silences the experiences of those whose trans status (or having a disability, or not meeting cultural beauty standards, or any of the markers of undesirability imposed by external systems) limits or completely denies access. In many queer, sex positive, polyamorous activist communities I have experienced those with access treating their privilege as the status quo, something which is never discussed, is neutral from criticism, and to which all are assumed to have access. This is done with an often startling ignorance of those who do not.

Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.

Conversely, those who do not enjoy much dating capital face an incredibly challenging and vulnerable process when discussing desirability. You can’t help but wonder how much will be dismissed as sour grapes, or what judgements will be made about you to justify your undesirability in the minds of others. This furthers the silencing, and prevents the discussions which can begin to address these inequalities.

And the inequalities are considerable: The systemic desexualisation of any group of people is abuse at the cultural level. Though the idea of being privileged by a culture which abuses the sexuality of others is sure to provoke knee-jerk defensiveness, much like white people who respond to the idea of being privileged by living in a racist culture by saying “But I’m not a racist,” this isn’t about individuals. Refusing to engage with the systems which privilege us because we’re uncomfortable with that sort of self-reflection, however, allows those systems to continue, and makes us complicit in their existence. The effects of desexualization are nonetheless real, and cause much emotional damage for many people.

This isn’t to say we can simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community, but waving the discussion away with “I can’t help who I’m attracted to!” isn’t the answer either. What we do need is discussion and acknowledgement, not as a defence of our desires, but to perhaps understand how external forces narrow their scope. Acknowledging the prioritizing of certain bodies and identities is just the beginning, and will lead to many difficult conversations I’m sure, but ultimately can only lead to more understanding, more inclusiveness, and stronger communities.

Next: “She’s Kind of Insecure,” or the Catch-22 of Marginalization

26 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 7:26 pm

    Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.

    Oh this is brilliant. People do not want to do this work. Also, I should note I think people should unpack their desires and assume they come from a fucked up place. They shouldn’t shy away from doing the difficult work of realizing that OMG they were socialized in societies that have some really problematic and limiting notions of who is and isn’t desirable.

  2. Julian Morrison permalink
    October 14, 2011 7:11 am

    I think disabled people get some of the worst of this. First, because they get sainted, and saints are as smooth as Barbie down there (only not, but nobody accepts it as valid). Second, our culture just does not support helping other people with their sexuality, and some people really do need a helping hand. Third, they are caught between rejection by the majority and fetishization by a minority.

  3. berele permalink
    October 14, 2011 7:30 am

    Love this post. It really is amazing how people who otherwise have great analyzes of power and oppression get all exceptionalist when it comes to sexual desires. I’ve seen stalwart cultural relativists and social constructionists grope at evolutionary biology when their exclusive desires for thin, white, gender-normative, rich people were called out. It’s ridic.

    *This isn’t to say we can simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community, but waving the discussion away with “I can’t help who I’m attracted to!” isn’t the answer either.*

    Maybe not “reprogram”, but we do have some degree of agency over our desires – they can be bent and shaped, if not completely transformed. And I’m sure, like anything else, different people have different degrees of agency over different desired attributes. I’m not talking ex-gay reparative therapy here. Simple self-talk and some self-administered “respondent conditioning” (i.e. thinking about different kinds of bodies while jerking off) worked pretty effectively for me, in terms of expanding the range of people I find attractive.

    I also have experienced that chasers (fattie chasers, in the case i’m thinking of, but it might well apply to chasers of other persuasions) are especially threatened by the idea that desires are impacted by broad structures of oppression and that there is even an economy of desirability at all. Having desires that stray from the norm, they fall back on the “there’s someone out there who likes whatever it is you are”, conveniently ignoring the vast disparities in numbers of “someones”, since it really benefits their position in terms of supply and demand.

  4. October 14, 2011 1:36 pm

    I love this article, but especially the first line since that means there will be MORE.

  5. October 14, 2011 5:58 pm

    I recall being a part of an online queer messageboard and the bodies that were idealized never looked like mine in any shape, race or form. Queer communities in real life were the same. Thus, while I might have some “queer” desires, I can hardly call myself queer anymore given that my community did not want people who look like me. Oddly, straight people with their bad politics and their ya ya music have been head above feet more accepting of my body and me as a potential partner than anything I’ve ever experienced in queer/so called progressive spaces. Oops.

  6. Politicalguineapig permalink
    October 16, 2011 7:01 pm

    On topic: I don’t date at all. I have no confidence and no money, and I might not be straight. All of these things combined are kind of inhibiting. Plus I still live at home and my Mom went apeshit when li’l sis let her boyfriend sleep over. Even if I were the favorite kid, I still wouldn’t bring anyone home.

  7. November 1, 2011 9:48 am

    I’m just pissed that hordes of skinny blonde rich white nymphettes don’t chase me down the street and ravish me like the Rock God I am. To put it in a nutshell.

  8. November 8, 2011 11:43 am

    i’m nonconsensually hypersexualized by the gaze of others and experience others’ phobias and judgments about asexuality/celibacy. building an entire identity around sex/dating and building social status around that is certainly not my idea of what’s liberatory. that is part of why i am so deeply alienated from queer circles now.

    i have also seen over and over again the ways people in queer/marginalized communities also use this train of thought as a manipulative form of abuse to pressure partners into sex (in my case, seeing queer and otherwise marginalized men do this to queer and otherwise marginalized women, leveraging their male privilege to say that their life is so sad, therefore they are entitled to something), as though their marginalization entitles them to sex/caretaking gender roles from their partners.

    also, “pretty privilege” is a concept that makes me uncomfortable bc getting leered at and yelled at by men on the street from the time i was 13 onwards didn’t make me feel particularly great. i’ve been told by other women that i should feel flattered.

    and it is also capitalism that contributes to the idea that physical beauty and being deemed “sexy” by others is what women should aspire to and be valued for over all else.

  9. November 8, 2011 1:01 pm

    like, it reminds me of this verbally abusive queer guy i was involved with who used to complain about how women kept rejecting him bc he was queer/thin/”emasculated”, and how he’d froth about “giving it to her good”. no one’s obligated to find him hot. it was as though he didnt understand that getting other people to sleep with him is not a basic right and he is not entitled to it.

  10. November 9, 2011 6:32 am

    @bq: First, I’d like to acknowledge the kind of nonconsensual sexualizing you experience as real and serious. Also, I have seen many times people like the guy you mention using any bit of argumentative leverage to coerce and manipulate others into sex and dating. In this piece, however, I don’t make the claim that anyone (certainly not entitled dudes who are as a group ultimately privileged by these systems) has the right to argue another person should be attracted/have sex with them/etc. I have gone out of my way to state the opposite, and if that wasn’t clear it is a failing of my writing, not an indication that I believe it.

    My central idea is this: The systemic erasure of sexuality of marginalized groups (such as people with disabilities, trans women, some fat bodies, and others) is abuse perpetrated by the culture which marginalizes those people. I even specifically talk about this as a cultural issue, because I don’t think it is relevant to point fingers at individuals. It is a system of marginalization and a system of abuse, not the sum of bad behaviours by some individuals. I have never, nor would I ever argue the point you’re suggesting that I’m making. The only argument I’ve made in relation to our culture’s erasure of some people’s sexuality is that as individuals we can consider our own privileges in the context of these systems, and that sort of self-reflection can actually widen our attractions. I know it has for me.

  11. December 16, 2012 9:53 pm

    this is a really important point so thank you for bringing it out there. it is really hard to bring others to recognize because everyone thinks that attraction is so “natural.” i think that while the origins of our desires are many things that are not natural, like informed by social/political systems of judging bodies, at the same times our bodies can act mechanically and turn something into an “automatic” (which people feel/read as “natural”) phenomenon. i struggled recently when i started going on dates with someone who i was not physically attracted to, and i knew that if she wasn’t as fat as she was that i would have been more attracted to her (i’m fat too, but she was more fat that me and than i guess i’ve comfortable with if i’m going to be honest with myself). i felt like i needed to not listen to just that gut feeling of no chemistry because that would be superficial. but it’s also really hard to bring yourself to have different feelings towards someone than you do based on that automated gut feeling that we call chemistry which is based at least in part on your perceptions of someone’s physical attractiveness (there also wasn’t intellectual or personality chemistry so i’m sure that was a big part of it, but i resisted those as well because i didn’t want to dismiss her for any reason relating to her physicality). anyway i mention this just to say it’s also hard to work out in practice because few people are recognizing it and doing it and you walk a very confusing line when you’re trying to confront it on an individual level when sometimes other things are going on. but it’s an important thing to start recognizing nonetheless.

  12. estrix permalink
    December 17, 2012 6:46 am

    I agree with what you say here, but I’m not sure how to balance that with not wanting to be seen as (is there a better, less icky word than this?) “chaser.” That is, I do tend to be attracted to people with fat bodies. I do tend to be attracted to people who are, in some way, transgender, genderqueer, butch, and/or in some form or fashion transgressive in their gender identity. But I don’t want to fetishize these qualities, or hypersexualize them in any way. So, how do I contribute my perspective to this dialogue without making people feel objectified, fetishized, etc.? I don’t want to be a creep.

  13. Stan P permalink
    February 24, 2013 4:19 pm

    Is it ever acceptable to decline sexual interaction?

  14. April 15, 2013 7:11 am

    @Stan P: Clearly it is, and asking such a question suggests to me you a) didn’t read the article, or b) you’re wilfully trying to obfuscate its point.

  15. January 30, 2014 8:49 pm

    I have had trouble putting down what you have so eloquently written here. Thank you so much for this. Going to post a quote so others can read this and learn.


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  4. Dating from the Margins: I don’t like sex « gudbuy t'jane
  5. communities built on exclusion — the essay and what happened at KinkForAll « a heinous butch
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  7. Sex, Desire and Self-Critical Analysis « Radically Visible
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  9. Dating from the Margins | Pearl of Civilization
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