Saturday, January 15, 2005

It's just a preference

In conversations in both the real and the cyber worlds, one often comes across people who, while looking for love or a reasonable (and temporary) facsimile thereof, make clear members of which ethnic groups they are uninterested in. My experience in this area is mostly limited to the gay world, where it's not uncommon to read or be told that someone isn't interested in blacks or Asians or Latinos or whatever.

This declaration is almost always followed by the caveat, 'It's just a preference.'
Now, it's not just ethnic groups that are picked out in this way, people often also indicate that they aren't interested in overweight or feminine men, etc. While there are surely problems with this, too, I'm thinking mostly about the racial and ethnic categories for now.

What's interesting, I think, about these declarations is that the idea that it is just a preference is supposed somehow to insulate the preferer from any kind of criticism. I think the thought goes something like this: I'm not attracted to black men or Asian men or half-Albanian, half-Aborigine men, but no one can criticize me for feeling or being attracted in that way because it's a preference of mine and I am in no way morally responsible for my preferences. They are just preferences that I am somehow stuck with.

But it's just false that I have absolutely no control over or responsibility for my preferences. Take one wholly non-erotic example: I used to find the taste of yerba mate utterly disgusting; it turns out that the taste of holly leaves is not immediately appealing to the North American palate. But I wanted to be able to drink it, so I trained myself to enjoy it. I cultivated a taste for it. Although I didn't enjoy drinking it, I wanted to enjoy drinking it, so I practiced until I could.

The same can be said of various other tastes and preferences that I have cultivated and inculcated in my life. To some degree one chooses his preferences and decides how much work he is willing to put into gaining them. And, sometimes I have decided that I am unwilling to put in the necessary effort in order to have a preference that I would like to have. So, I would really like to be the sort of person who enjoys poetry, but although I want to enjoy Rilke, I am not willing to put in the effort that would make me a happy poetry-reader--except for epic poetry, which I am able to enjoy.

So, what I am offering is the following observation. If someone doesn't find himself attracted to, for instance, Asian men, this is not just a fact that he discovers about himself, as if his preferences were handed to him and he himself had no part in them. If he isn't attracted to Asian men, this means both that he has a certain preference and he is not willing to explore what work it might take to overcome that preference. So he both isn't attracted to members of a certain group and he has made a decision not to become a person who is attracted to members of that group.

For what it's worth, I don't think that anything like this is the case in sexual orientation, but that's because I think it's wrong to think of being homosexual or heterosexual as a preference. I don't merely prefer men; that isn't a matter of taste, it's something that is a deeper part of my erotic being. I am not saying, however, that there is necessarily something morally objectionable in not being attracted to members of some particular ethnic groups. I'm not sure whether there is something wrong with this or not. I do know that there is something morally problematic in not thinking that members of certain ethnic groups could be one's friends, but whether this carries over into erotic cases, I don't know.

I do know that there is something a little sad in not being able to imagine that there would be a sexually attractive black man or Hispanic man or Asian man or white man. Just as there is something more than a little sad in fetishizing members of an ethnic group, so that one is only attracted to white men or black men or whatever. But this is sad because it points to a lack of imagination and a diminution of the beauty in the world for that person.

Of course, not every Asian man, for instance, is attractive to me, but this no more means that Asian men as such are unattractive than the fact that most white men are unattractive to me means that I don't like white men. But, whatever my preferences, they are my preferences and inasmuch as they are mine, I am responsible for them. So responsible that saying that they are just preferences doesn't make me immune to criticism.

There may be no disputing matters of taste, but there is criticizing them.


Dean said...
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Dean said...
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Dean said...

I think you're right to connect the language of "preference" around sexuality, both in terms of gender and race. This is why, when it comes to sexuality, "preference" has given way to "orientation." Partly, tho', I take this to be a response to the fact that we are held accountable for our preferences (at least in some areas of life), whereas "orientation" is supposed to avoid this problem. Should the racially prejudiced get around this problem by calling their predilection an erotic racial orientation? Is there a difference? On this point, by what standard does erotic attraction on the basis of sex or gender speak to necessity (e.g. "core of being") whereas erotic attractions on the basis of race reflect choice for which we are accountable to defend ourselves?

I'm not sure how to draw the line. I sometimes suspect that naturalizing sex/gender desire reinscribes a heteorsexist discourse that naturalizes desires based on sexual difference while treating other desires as epiphenomenal. That is, it treats the gender/sex coordinates of desire are primary or "real"; everything else is gravy. Contemporary asseverations that homosexual desire is "natural" seems to merely reaffirm the premise of the heterosexist position. It concedes the terms of the debate to people who would limit freedom and shut down choices, who can say we are only permitted what we cannot help.

What would happen if we consciously resisted all naturalizations of desire, and instead affirmed desire as a domain of choosing, of freedom? What if we affirm: "We choose to be queer; where the Right goes wrong is imagining we're only free to be sexual where we have not chosen our desires?"

Then we'd fight against those who say we should be punished for our choices, rather than those who say same sex desire is "unnatural."

But back to race: perhaps the problem would go away if the person who expresses sexual desires on the basis of race did so affirmatively, in a list of what he finds beatiful and alluring (instead of what's off limits of proscribed by racial difference). Could this approach both honor choice and avoid the ugly spectacle of exclusion?