PerspectiveRelationships

PERSPECTIVE: I Am Not Your Big Black Stallion

By Gerald, LINX Collaborator 

With dozens of dating apps out there, most of us are getting used to finding sex with the swipe of a finger (hello, Grindr and Tinder), or looking for more permanent partners on sites like Match, PlentyofFish, and OKCupid. The proliferation of sites like Geek2Geek prove that there’s a platform for those of all persuasions and professions, but with this kind of infinite accessibility comes a whole new avenue of discrimination.

According to a recent study by Cornell University, dating apps that allow users to filter by race—and those using algorithms that typically pair up people of the same race—reinforce racial divisions and biases. The study reports that other researchers have estimated a third of new marriages (and 60 percent of same-sex relationships) started online. In fact, Tinder says it’s facilitated 20 billion connections.

With filtering mechanisms also allowing us to narrow options by height, weight, body type, even HIV status, online platforms have opened a new door for blatant discrimination. Fatphobia, racism, classism, femphobia, misogyny, and ageism are now cloaked as “preferences.” So, at a time when many efforts are being made to celebrate diversity, where do dating apps fall?

The Cornell researchers write, “Sexual preferences are historically and culturally contingent… While culture does not instill desire in us, it so profoundly shapes the focus of our desires that preferences in romantic partners cannot be understood as simply a matter of individual and idiosyncratic choice. In this sense, sexual preferences might exhibit bias if they reflect prevailing representations of desirable partners—and if these representations demean, denigrate, or fetishize members of particular racial groups.”

That last point is a good one. Not only do we have to deal with deliberate exclusion, but men of color are also often reduced to conquests and curiosities. The intersections of representing different communities at once also play a big part in the online dating experience. For example, to be Black is one experience but to be a farmer is a whole other kind. But, to be a Black farmer looking for love online is a new kind of experience (shout out to the 3,500 Black men on FarmersOnly.com).

As for my own online experience as a Black man online, I’ve seen a little bit of everything. First, there’s the direct objectification, which I call the “slot machine.” This is when you embody the outputs of someone’s filters. Basically, you’re the result of a few checked boxes and a premium subscription. The lead-in will probably be just that. How romantic.

Next, there’s the “golden calf.” This is when a pursuer is inexplicably overtaken with you as a thing and not a person. They are prepared to do anything—drive across town, clear their calendar, pay for dinner. In this case, I recommend taking a look at context. Sometimes people call it interest when, in fact, it’s a fetish. (Not to be confused with “speed racer,” the admirer who, after only one or a few exchanges, is already calling you “pooh bear” and pitching baby names from the combination of yours.)

Then, there’s what I call “sum of the parts.” You get a request for snapshots of only certain parts of you (you know which parts). A decision of interest is made sight unseen… well, sort of. If you call someone on this, they are liable to fall back on the old fashion “it’s just a preference.”

The Cornell researchers are hoping their report, Debiasing Desire: Addressing Bias and Discrimination on Intimate Platforms, will push dating apps to make changes. As Jevan Hutson, a coauthor on the study, told reporters, “Serendipity is lost when people are able to filter other people out. Dating platforms have the opportunity to disrupt particular social structures, but you lose those benefits when you have design features that allow you to remove people who are different than you.”

They recommend discouraging discrimination by offering descriptive categories other than race and ethnicity, posting inclusive community messages, and creating algorithms that don’t discriminate.

Still, admittedly, if we want to change this environment we have to change our own actions, too. Be mindful of how you talk and text with people, whether you’re just looking for a hookup or seeking a long-term relationship. Of course, we all have specific things that get us hot and bothered, which is fine, but we can’t discover new or surprising turn-ons (or partners) when we’re filtering everything else out. And remember, it is not a compliment to be deemed some distorted pick of the litter based on their fantasy of your body, just like it’s not okay to hurtfully name folks as less desirable. Keep your feedback and preferences to yourself unless you’re asked by someone else to share.

When in doubt, be quiet and keep swiping.

 

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