Relationships

Is It OK To Fetishize A Person's Identity? Well, It's Complicated.

HuffPost's latest "Between the Lines" episode explores the origin of identity-based fetishes and the fine line between objectifying and empowering one's partners.

“What’s your type? What are you into?”

Whether you’re into biting — insert Eartha Kitt purr or leather or voyeurism, the world of fetishes is full of possibilities. But the line gets blurry when sexual preferences become less about what you do in the bedroom — and more about who you do.

Dating apps such as Grindr have been criticized in recent years for including filters under the “My Type” tab that allow users to search for potential matches based on race, age, weight and body type. In response, Grindr launched a campaign called “Kindr” to help combat racism and other forms of discrimination among its users.

Writing off an entire community based on stereotypes is rooted in some form of bigotry, but what if a sexual preference leans in favor of a specific identity? Is it ever OK to fetishize people of a certain race, gender or other community?

The answer depends largely on the power dynamics in a relationship, according to Noah Michelson, the editorial director of HuffPost Personal whose reporting focuses on gender, sexuality and identity.

For example, men who exclusively date East Asian women are considered to have “yellow fever,” and this type of fetish is part of a pattern of mainly white straight men exoticizing women of color.

“If you’re someone who has more power in that situation and what you’re getting off on is the power that you have over that group, that’s not OK,” Michelson said. “Instead of seeing that person as a whole entity or seeing that person as a person, they’re actually just seeing that small part of them; that disability, the race, the gender identification.”

That’s why, for instance, objectifying women often reduces their social power because they’re being viewed as submissive and weak, whereas objectifying men often has the opposite effect because they’re viewed as stronger and more powerful. (At the same time, the latter can also contribute to unrealistic, harmful expectations of what a “man” should look or act like.)

History, culture and upbringing can all play a huge role in how people develop fetishes over time. That includes identity-based fetishes.

“These fetishes are absolutely, I believe, influenced by the culture that we’re in — by racism, sexism, all the isms, white supremacy and capitalism,” Tamara Turner, a psychotherapist at the Gender and Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City, told HuffPost.

And yet, the solution isn’t as simple as “turning off” what turns us on.

“We can’t control our desires,” Turner said. “The only thing we can control are our thoughts and our behaviors. We can try to alter our thinking and also make sure that we are behaving in a way that’s appropriate, but we really can’t control the desires that we have.”

On PornHub, viewers can find videos tailored to their preferences by scrolling through nearly 100 different categories, ranging from “Lesbian” to “Japanese” to “Mature” to “Transgender.” Many other porn and erotica sites offer this filtering feature as well. On one hand, this feature can seemingly legitimize people who get off on exerting power over others who are already marginalized in society. On the other hand, identity-based fetishes can be liberating — even healing — for communities that have largely felt invisible, Michelson said.

“For people who are part of marginalized groups and who’ve been told that their sexuality either doesn’t exist, like for a lot of people with disabilities, or that their sexuality is deviant or nonnormative, like queer people, I think having someone celebrate you for who you are and wanting to engage with you and be part of a sexual relationship — I think that can be really empowering,” he said.

Disability in particular has been absent from porn and general conversations about sex, because the assumption is that disabled people aren’t sexual or don’t have the same sexual desires — which obviously isn’t true, said Hallie Lieberman, a sex historian and author of “Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.”

If more porn was created that represented disability in a sex-positive way, “it could be liberating for the performers, if it’s done ethically. It could be liberating for people watching and saying, ‘Hey, I’m sexy, I’m desired,’” Lieberman said. “Of course, there’s a flip side. Some people don’t want to be thought of as, ‘I’m only sexy for someone who has a fetish for it.’”

People have different levels of comfort, and it’s important for partners to have a candid, honest conversation about what they want and what they expect from each other — and to understand the root of their fetishes. Otherwise, Turner said, “You risk reenacting some of those same power dynamics that exist in our larger society.”

It’s a fine line, Michelson agreed.

“I don’t think anyone should have the right to say that what someone is interested in, or if they’re interested in letting someone else be interested in them for whatever reason, that that’s wrong,” he said. “I think we have to let people have agency to decide how they want to be seen, how they want to see, and what that’s going to look like.”

Watch HuffPost’s latest episode of “Between the Lines” above.