Interest in conventionally attractive people isn’t ‘just a preference’

If you haven’t taken a look at Craigslist lately, I highly recommend it: It’s an unfiltered look at sexual attraction and how people talk about sexuality. Most people who experience sexual attraction profess to having a ‘type,’ rather than being indiscriminately sexually interested in everyone, and that ‘type’ often revolves specifically around physical appearance. Conversations about dating preferences can be fascinating when no one wants to acknowledge the fact that types often reveal a great deal about someone’s personal and social attitudes, and one of the things I love about Craigslist is that it cuts through the dancing and gets straight to the point.

Craigslist is the place where you see things like ‘no fatties’ and ‘no tr*nnies,’ ‘prefer white chicks lol.’ Some ads are unapologetic and uncaring, while others present a fig leaf of politeness — ‘just a preference, sorry!’ ‘nothing wrong with that, just not my type!’ The fact that people feel obliged to provide these cover stories is an illustration of the fact that they know what they’re doing, and they seem to believe they should express guilt about it.

The sense of a dating ‘type’ can mean many different things, but it gets really loaded when you are talking about fundamental aspects of people’s identities. Preferring Republicans or people with beards or people who like EDM is one aspect of compatibility — professing a preference in ‘thin white blonde girls with big tits’ is another. One is about mutable, changeable things, aspects of personality and expression, the desire to find someone with whom you have things in common. The other is a judgment call about different kinds of people and bodies.

Don’t lie to yourself.

It is.

I was struck by this in a conversation with some wheelchair using friends who noted that when they compose photos carefully and don’t reference their chairs in their online dating profiles, they get more responses. It’s an observation pretty broadly understood across people with a range of disabilities and body types and it creates some interesting tensions; to be up-front and know that many people will pass you over, including people who might be cool and interesting, or to obfuscate and hope to win people over later? For many people in various social groups, this isn’t an intellectual debate, because your innate traits are immediately visible. One person in the conversation commented (and I paraphrase here) that she got it, it was just a preference.

But it’s not just a preference. There was something deeply heartbreaking to me about that comment, because it affirmed what people who think this way are constantly asserting: Their ‘preferences’ aren’t value judgments on people’s lives and bodies, they’re just preferences. The way I prefer raspberries to blackberries. It’s nothing personal.

But it is. Just as fetishising identities is not ‘just a preference’ and is in fact a loaded cultural act, saying that you don’t like broad classes of people because of who they are and how they look is bigoted. It is. I am not using that word likely. If you say you ‘don’t like Black guys’ or you’re ‘not interested in fat chicks’ or you ‘don’t date wheelchair users’ or you ‘don’t like dating bi people’ or you just ‘can’t get into trans chicks,’ you are sweepingly declaring that a massive swath of people has less social, personal, and political value. It is discriminatory. In almost every other context, reasonable people can agree that deciding someone in a given class is ineligible for a given activity is discriminatory, and it is bigoted, but not in dating.

Because it’s ‘just a preference.’ One that apparently has nothing to do with social and cultural pressures, with the way people are raised and socialised, with the way that society itself does and doesn’t assign value to people. Surely kneejerk dislike of, say, wheelchair users has absolutely nothing to do with disablism, with dehumanising social structures, with the common assertion that wheelchair users aren’t sexual. Saying you don’t like to date Black women isn’t at all racist, and isn’t predicated on a lifetime of repeated exposure to racist attitudes about Black women and sexuality, about the Black community at large.

Just a preference!

Personally, I prefer not to date bigots, so these ‘preferences’ work in reverse as well. If you don’t want to date bigots, you can opt not to answer ads and messages from people who express sentiments like these, while people who think like this aren’t going to respond to your ad or messages from you. But while this is useful in the short term, it doesn’t drive at the larger issues going on here, and the fact that discrimination in a dating sense is often widely tolerated — by the victims of discrimination, even, in some cases. Because it’s ‘just a preference’ to randomly decide that people in a given identity class are just off the table for you, dating wise.

Look: It’s not necessary for everyone to be attracted to every single person on Earth. But people really need to examine their dating ‘preferences’ and those of their friends to ask themselves about the origins of those preferences. If you don’t want to date an anti-choice Republican on the grounds of a profound ideological difference (especially if there’s a chance of a pregnancy), that’s a reasonable cultural and social choice — you’re not making a value judgement about your prospect’s very identity, but a decision on the basis of mutual interests and personality compatibility. If you don’t want to date someone who responds to your ad because she’s a Black trans woman and you don’t date Black and/or trans women, you need to ask yourself why that is.

Because if you think it’s ‘just a preference,’ I have some news for you.

Image: Warehouse, Dylan, Flickr