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Structure, agency, prejudice and who we have sex with

There are two great principles that a lot of us agree on: people shouldn’t have to have sex with anyone they don’t want to have sex with, and people shouldn’t be prejudiced. But what happens if someone doesn’t want to have sex with someone else out of prejudice? Arguments about this have been blowing up in my Facebook and Twitter for the past several months.

Fortunately, there is a way to combat prejudice without impinging on people’s right to say no to sex. All we have to do is separate structure from agency.

At the Lavender Languages conference in 2013 I attended a fascinating but disturbing talk by Brad Rega called, “‘No Queens, Chocolate, Or Fried Rice’: Anti-effeminate and racist discourse among gay men.” It was basically a depressing catalog of phrases used by gay men on hookup apps like Grindr to indicate all the categories of men that they are not interested in having sex with. Others have confirmed that this is common, as seen in the screenshot above, one of several posted on onehallyu.

The right to say no to sex is a matter of individual agency. The men posting these ads are exercising their agency. This may affect potential partners on an individual level, and that is unfortunate. On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that these effeminate and/or nonwhite men (and basically everybody else) are probably better off not having sex with such people.

If we think about why we really care that some guy doesn’t want to sleep with “fried rice,” it’s clear that we care at the structural level: it’s been shown that society benefits when people have contact with others who are different from them. People who aren’t prejudiced want to remove stigma from categories, and when people advertise their prejudices publicly, that contributes to the stigma.

Prejudices like these are also symptomatic of larger structural inequalities. These individual men may have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to sleep with “chocolate,” but the fact that so many men post these messages makes it clear that many of them are acting out of the same racist motives that lead real estate agents to lie to black people about the availability of apartments in some neighborhoods.

The tricky thing here is that structural problems emerge out of thousands, if not millions, of individual acts of agency. It can be tempting to push back on every single one of these; in fact, this is basically what we’ve been taught to do since Leviticus. But that’s not the best way to solve structural problems. Because human beings are complex dynamic systems, and human societies are complex dynamic systems of human beings, there are many other ways, some of them quite counterintuitive.

Here’s an example: as far as I can tell, none of these guys have a code word to tell Grindr they don’t want to sleep with Irish men (“No corned beef”?). This is not because they love Irish people, but because any remaining prejudice against them is minor and not particularly active in gay hookups. This suggests that if we can end general prejudice against black people, Asians and effeminate gay men, those phrases will disappear from Grindr.

Of course, ending prejudice against black people is great – it’s not like some of us haven’t been trying to do that for centuries! But that timeframe just shows how futile it is to think we can accomplish this by pushing back against “No chocolate” comments – at best it would drive the racism underground.

Is it wrong, then, to publicly shame people for posting their racist sexual preferences? No, I don’t think it is. It may impose a certain amount of decorum in these spaces. If that’s what you’re after, go for it.

On the other hand, we have to agree that these racist guys should be absolutely free to exclude anyone from their dating pool. Don’t think that shaming a bunch of gay men will make a big difference in the underlying racism. If that’s what you want to change, get in touch with others who are working on it, find out the true vulnerabilities of this structure, and put your effort towards things that are actually effective, like dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. We can absolutely honor sexual autonomy and combat racism at the same time.

And yes, I may be talking about gay men and racism here, but I’m also talking about transgender issues.

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1 Comment

  1. I think the way to “exclude” people one is not interested in is to passively ignore their approach, not actively declare your distaste or racism against certain “types” or “races.” It would be the way our mothers would want us to behave, politely.

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