If we have learned anything from the marriage equality movement it is that #EssentialismWins. The legal victories, culminating last year in Obergefell v. Hodges and the #LoveWins hash tag, were driven and sustained by changing cultural beliefs not only about what counts as a family, but about what drives sexual attraction. The success of born-this-way politics is hard to deny in this case, but what other discursive and political effects do essentialist views about sexual attraction have? What are the stakes of buying into deterministic logics of desire and identity?
Given the marriage equality movement’s tendency to turn to interracial marriage as a legal and moral precedent, it is worth turning the question around and asking, What are the discursive and political ramifications of the success of the marriage equality movement, and specifically its born-this-way politics, for inter-racial sexual and romantic relationships? Same-sex desire is acceptable to the extent that it is immutable. Under what circumstances is inter-racial desire acceptable?
This proposal is driven by preliminary findings from an ongoing qualitative study of hookup apps Grindr and Tinder. This study investigates the practices of app users 25-40 years old, across sexual identity, gender, and racial categories, as well as the cultural significance of the popularization of these apps. Participants regularly describe their app use in neoliberal terms of individualism, choice, preference, and self-investment (of time, skills, or attributes)—including when they discuss race, such as statements of racial exclusion on other users’ profiles or their own or others’ attractions.
Debates about Grindr profiles with statements such as “no blacks, no Asians” often turn on whether or not it is the racial “preferences” that are racist, or stating those preferences openly. The idea of a racial preference and the way this language is used focuses on an individual and their right to choose between romantic/erotic options. Even when participants discuss how others and their own racial preferences are influenced by society’s beauty standards for example, or other means of socialization such as growing up only around others of their race, it is often with a shoulder shrug. When participants condemn other users for writing racially exclusive profiles, they tend to use language that emphasizes maximizing one’s “options.”
Dating websites and apps have taken the question “What’s your type?” to minutely filtered, algorithmic heights, but a paradox has emerged. Why do we use the language of innate/immutable for gender attraction and the language of consumer choice for racial preferences? In what contexts do the rhetoric’s of biology and choice blur? Ultimately, I argue that the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, connected as it is to the belief in biologically based immutable sexual object choice, has not only shut down the discussion of sexual identity as a choice, it is contributing to the silencing of discussions about racism in relation to sexuality and relationships. Attempts to connect individual instances of sexual attraction to a larger pattern of racial hierarchy are undermined by the logic of immutable sexual attraction and the neoliberal morality of the individual consumer.