Reading Into Attraction …

So, I came across this post by Benny Vimes talking about “sapiosexual” and how people don’t like it when they get accused of being ablelist when they claim to be “sapiosexual”:

I recently participated in a discussion on Facebook about the word “sapiosexual” and how it is ableist, among other problems. While many responses were good, several people objected, claiming that we were telling them who they should be attracted to or who they should sleep with. I’ve seen this with many other discussions about people’s attractions related to race, weight, and other traits as well. Someone usually comes into those discussions and says “I can’t help who I’m attracted to! I can’t just decide to be attracted to someone!”

So, before we start into the details of how people should react to these assertions, let’s look first at what the heck “sapiosexual” actually means:

One who finds the content’s of someone else’s mind to be their most attractive attribute, above and before their physical characteristics. From the Latin root “sapien”, meaning wise. The term is now becoming mainstream with dating apps such as OkCupid and Sapio giving users the ability to define their sexual orientations as “Sapiosexual.”

For many, defining oneself as Sapiosexual is also a statement against the current status quo of hookup culture and superficiality, where looks are prized above all else.

Now, I don’t normally use the “Urban Dictionary” for pretty much anything, and as I go through some of the other definitions below the “Top Definition”, I can see why. I can also see where some of the reactions might be coming from:

A shibboleth used by poseurs attracted to the appearance of intelligence rather than actual intelligence. People genuinely attracted to intelligence know that the word “intelligence” is derived from the Latin “intelligere”; that the Latin participle for wisdom is “sapiens,” not “sapio”; and that the Latin “sapio” means something that tastes good.

Something you put on your dating profile if you want to be pretentious.

I’m so intelligent that my sexual kink is attraction to Mensa members. I’m a sapiosexual!

So, given that there are some … strong reactions to the term, Vimes nevertheless wants us to accept that the criticisms aren’t something to get upset about:

I think what isn’t clear to some people is that we’re not asking people to be attracted to people they’re not attracted to. Rather, when someone’s preferences are in line with some axis of oppression, it’s worth examining how society has lead us to those preferences. It is absolutely not true that our desires exist in a vacuum – they’re a product of our culture, and our biases.

If you defend these preferences aggressively when someone points out you may be coming from a place of prejudice, then you especially need to examine your biases – they’re showing.

Now, recall that “sapiosexual”, in the top definition, refers to preferring mental traits — intelligence explicitly, but arguably also personality and values — over physical traits, explicitly physical beauty. The whole theory of sexualization from feminism is that this is, in fact, precisely what people ought to be doing: preferring the traits that reflect who the person really is. And Vimes insists that this is problematic because it is “ableist”, presumably against people who are … let’s say “less intelligent”. So, if someone can’t prefer someone for their looks, and can’t prefer someone for their intelligence, what’s left?

It gets even worse when we note the concept of “fetishization”. While Vimes here suggests that the preferences are in line “with some axis of oppression” which implies preferring the non-oppressed to the oppressed, the idea of fetishization would also kick in if someone preferred the oppressed to the non-oppressed. We can obviously see that wrt intelligence, again, where if a man preferred “less intelligent” women that would be seen as being sexist. When you put it all together, there doesn’t seem to be any preference that wouldn’t trigger this call for soul-searching. Sure, they haven’t gotten into not caring at all about anything yet … but at that point you wouldn’t have anything that looks like preferences at all.

And it isn’t just a call for soul-searching anyway, to look at how culture impacts what you find attractive:

In other words, if you find you are only attracted to white people, it would be a good idea to examine your feelings about race. If you find you are only attracted to thin people, you may have underlying negative feelings about fat people. If you only are attracted to people you deem to be “smart enough” it’s likely you need to think hard about your ideas about intelligence.

Note the progression here, with race getting the “good idea to examine”, weight getting “may have underlying negative feelings”, and intelligence “likely you need to think hard about your ideas about intelligence”. The last one is not a simple call to look at the impact culture might be having on your preferences, but is pretty much a claim that you have some wrong ideas about intelligence. Now, as far as I can see there are two likely reasons for this progression:

1) Vimes is more upset or more certain about the idea that preferring intelligence is an indication of a problem.

2) Vimes considers them all at the stronger level, but is building an argument and a case to lead people to accept his argument and not simply react at the first step.

The problem with the first idea is that when it comes to providing evidence, it is the other two that he gives evidence for:

In fact, there is evidence that prejudice corresponds with sexual attraction in these cases. Last year an Australian study found “Sexual racism, therefore, is closely associated with generic racist attitudes, which challenges the idea of racial attraction as solely a matter of personal preference.” Body size preferences also seem to be influenced by culture, according to this study which found “The universality of an ideal [waist-to-height ratio] is thus challenged, and historical changes in western societies could have caused these variations in men’s preferences.” In other words, our culture and the biases of that culture influence our sexual preferences.

Now, neither of those studies are particularly good, as they do nothing more than establish the last point: our culture and the biases of that culture can influence our sexual preferences. But, of course, so can a lot of things. Vimes gives no reason to think intelligence particularly bad … or that it even is impacted by any of this at all. And it gets worse because he’s trying to make a case that preferring intelligence means having certain ideas about intelligence, but this can only refer to, say, preferring strict IQ to EQ, for example. I can’t see any reason to bring that up other than to say that our traditional, academically-oriented ideas of intelligence leave out other perfectly valid forms of intelligence. Except that people who say that they prefer “intelligence” might, in fact, understand that, and either a) are only referring to people who don’t really have intelligence at all or b) might have good reasons for preferring that specific form of intelligence. Using myself as an example, I have quite a bit of academic-style intelligence and reasoning ability, and my interests focus on that. It’s quite possible to suggest that, say, a woman might not have all of that “book-learnin'”, but be instinctively really good at figuring out how to build and fix things. And that’s great. But as I personally have no such talent and no interest in that sort of thing, what in the world would we talk about or do together? Thus, specifying “intelligence” in the way that pretty much everyone understands it would make sense, and wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’d consider that person “stupid”.

So, Vimes uses the strongest language for intelligence, but provides no evidence for it playing a role there and intelligence, in fact, is one of the cases where it seems to be a more reasonable consideration and thus less shallow.

But putting aside the fact that the argument isn’t all that great, what does Vimes want us to really do wrt these suggestions:

No one is saying you have to be attracted to people you’re not attracted to. Attraction doesn’t generally work that way. However, since attraction is in part based on our subconscious biases and prejudices, we can use our attractions to help us better recognize in what areas we may be judging people unfairly. Furthermore, I suspect working to become less racist, sizeist, ableist, and otherwise oppressive will likely change our sexual preferences over time. Challenging our own prejudices often changes many things about our views of the world, and I doubt that excludes our sexual outlooks.

But … is attraction the easiest way to determine that we might have subconscious biases? What Vimes is generally doing here is suggesting that if we have attraction preferences that look like they might possibly have some kind of link to subconscious racist, fatphobic or ableist beliefs, we ought to use that as a trigger to do deep soul-searching to see if those really exist. But this only works if these preferences are a) strong indications of some kind of subconscious, invalid preference and b) there aren’t other behaviours that would be better indications. The problem with basing this sort of analysis off of attraction is that attraction is relatively complicated, as a lot of things can go into it. Someone might find Asian woman more attractive because of a cultural belief that they are submissive and sexually available, or because they are petite and dark-haired and so look “nice” or “sweet”. Also, certain cultures might have different styles of dress, and so one might find someone more attractive because they dress more formally, or more conservatively … or less conservatively. Even if someone can find these patterns — and these patterns tend to be vague for most people anyway — there’s no direct link to any other underlying beliefs. If someone really does have underlying problematic ideas, then it would see that they have other, more directly related impacts on their behaviour, which the person should use as the basis to challenge their prejudices.

This only becomes more true when we look at the last statement, where Vimes says that changing those prejudices may change our sexual outlooks. If true, then again the right approach would seem to be to challenge the prejudices when they manifest other, more clear behaviour, and then that would eventually change one’s sexual preferences. Also, sexual preferences are, in fact, preferences for most people, and so are already challenged in some ways. As preferences, the idea is that you tend to like one group more than another, but not that you don’t find any members of other groups appealing (usually). So what would working on your sexual preferences do? It’s already likely to be less strongly attached to underlying preferences than anything else you might do or think.

At this point, we can see the problem that Vimes is ignoring: he bases an assertion or conclusion about what might be going on in that person’s subconscious based only on their sexual preferences. But most people don’t really understand their sexual preferences, already have experienced a disconnect between “hot” and “someone I should really date/like”, have a wider range of sexual preferences than Vimes allows for. Thus, it seems like Vimes is insisting that they have invalid prejudices against certain groups based only on what their sexual preferences are. Thus, their sexual preferences are wrong … or, at least wrong if they want to claim to be interested in equality. Thus, the underlying assertion that if they were really and truly “fixed” wrt privilege, they’d have different preferences. Which leads to the reply that they are attracted to what they are attracted to, and that it doesn’t necessarily reflect their subconscious prejudices, and certainly not necessarily the ones Vimes ascribes to them.

At this point, it comes across as Vimes trying desperately to find something that he can use to claim that they really have these biases, because if he had evidence based on clearer behaviour presumably he’d use that instead. Alternatively, it comes across as groups that happen to fall into the lower range of what most people find attractive griping that people don’t find them attractive. Neither of these possibilities are going to make someone accept that they are racist or fatphobic or ableist, especially when they don’t think they are and especially when it is important to them that they are not those things. Ironically, these sorts of challenges will induce the harshest responses from the people who would actually care about not being that. Not a good plan.

If Vimes really intends it as a mild “Well, if you see these patterns take a look to see what might be going on under the hood”, then given all of the above he should be willing to drop it and try another tack or look for other behaviour if people don’t think it indicates that. This post suggests he isn’t. He might want to take a look and see why this is.

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2 Responses to “Reading Into Attraction …”

  1. natewinchester Says:

    Seems like the issue is that they’ve taken too seriously the mantra that it is wrong to discriminate. The problem is human nature of attraction necessitates discrimination. Since the culture also has pushed forward the principle that feelings are always true and never wrong, we now have a programming conflict: “Discrimination is wrong, but my feelings cause me to discriminate in who I’m attracted to. So that would make my feelings wrong. But my feelings can never be wrong, I’m supposed to always trust and listen to them. Error 404.”

    Such fun to watch the crash.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Like so much liberal rhetoric, it’s a not-entirely-incorrect idea taken WAY too far. Yes, specific preferences might mean that there are underlying subconscious stereotypes at work. No, that’s not always the case, and no, that doesn’t apply to any preference that you might have. The Left’s rhetoric really becomes self-destructive when they take everything to that extreme a level.

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