This past weekend I was asked to do two workshops at the first annual Rutgers University Sex, Love, and Dating Conference. I provided two workshops, one on negotiating our multiple sexual identities and the other on intercultural dating and relationships. When I was asked to present I had asked what other sessions they had, to see where I would fit in best. Many of the workshops were fun, exciting, and had “how to…” approaches. What I also noticed was there was a lack of conversation about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity and how those intersect with race, class, gender, ethnicity, immigration status, and language.
I knew my workshops would have some hardcore competition. When I walked into opening session, a room of over 200 students, I wondered how many would actually want to attend my sessions. My first session on negotiating multiple identities had 5 students. I had been told that students ranked their top choices of workshop sessions for each track and then were told where to go based on availability. So before I started that session I shared that if they wanted to go to another session they could do that. Luckily all of the students present had chosen my workshop. We had a good conversation about identities, historical implications and outcomes, and how to heal and create support systems.
My second workshop on intercultural relationships and dating was one that I was more anxious about. I knew I wanted to be flexible and provide what students wanted in that space, at the same time I didn’t want it to become a “how to date interculturally” type of workshop. Many of my assumptions about the student population were also challenged. I thought there would be a lot of racially White students who may have questions about dating interracially. This assumption, and the possibility, did make me a bit uncomfortable and I thought about how as the facilitator, I was going to insert that discomfort as part of the discussion. However, I was surprised to see my room fill with students of Color. By the time the workshop started I had offered the same disclaimer: students could go to another workshop if this was not their first choice. I had two of the four racially White students leave when I mad this announcement and the other two stayed.
We had an amazing time and conversation!
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Although we formally only had an hour, we talked about a lot of issues and topics. The group even decided to stay longer after the formal hour was over. I was not able to complete all of the items I had outlined, but students said they were drawn to some of the topics I did share in the conference description. I wrote:
This workshop will center on the challenges, successes, and experiences of intercultural dating (not just interracial dating!). Conversations about preference (is it a preference or is it a fetish?), racism (can you date a person of a different cultural background and still be racist?) and cultural relativism, (how, if at all, does it work in intimate sexual relationships?) How does the construction of Whiteness in a relationship complicate it? What are important conversations to have with your partner, family, friends, and with yourself? What to do when you find yourself questioning your relationship, yourself, your partner, and your desires?
When I asked if there were specific topics participants wanted to discuss before I followed what I had outlined, several students mentioned they wanted to talk about preference versus fetish and how Whiteness is constructed and may affect a relationship. So that is exactly where I began: what is a preference versus a fetish.
I had asked students how they would define “fetish” and many of them connected this term to sexual pleasure, objectification, and not having certain boundaries around misusing power. When I read to them what The Complete Dictionary of Sexology defined as a fetish, “attribution of erotic or sexual significance to some nonsexual inanimate object or to a nongenital body part, object recognized for its alleged magical powers. The fetishist is dependent on the fetish object, substance or part of the body to achieve sexual arousal and orgasm,” and participants had some strong opinions. Many of them agreed that the definition provided made the fetish seem imaginary and almost mocked it with the focus on “magical powers.”
We spoke of preferences and how these may be different from a fetish, if at all. I shared that even I continue to struggle with how to define certain terms and how they may apply to my own life and experiences. We agreed that a preference does not take away someone’s agency, power, and self-determination in the same way a fetish does/may. For example, we were speaking specifically about fetishizing people of Color or racially White people or people from a particular ethnic group. We were not talking about fetish as connected to certain kinks. We came to a group understanding that to fetishize a person may mean that the person who is desired does not have a choice or give consent to be fetishized. They are not in control of that “gaze.” This person does not get the opportunity to say “no” to the person desiring them in the same way people who may prefer someone with dark hair may hear and respect a person who rejects them. We recognized it is still a working understanding and that for now, we were comfortable with those loose definitions and that they may change, shift, and evolve.
After discussing these two terms my good friends and amazing revolutionary lovers (and newlyweds), Tara Betts (an educator at Rutgers) and Rich Villar joined us. They were just in time for our conversation about Whiteness. One student made the point in stating that they believe that Whiteness in the US is connected to class status. This made me think of the autobiographical work of Dany Laferriére (translated by David Homel) whose controversial book How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired provides an interesting first-person perspective. I had asked if anybody had heard of the book (or film of the same name) and nobody had. I did a loose discussion of Laferriére’s theory based on his personal experience as a Black heterosexual Haitian man who migrated from Haiti to Montreal and how the racially White women of the area were fetishizing and desiring to be with him sexually.
Laferriére attempts to argue that there is a hierarchy in society, one that intersects with class, race, and gender. He writes:
“Because in the scale of Western values, white woman is inferior to white man, but superior to black man. That’s why she can’t get off except with a Negro. It’s obvious why: she can go as far as she wants with him. The only true sexual relation is between unequals. White women must give white men pleasure, as black men must for white women. Hence, the myth of the Black stud. Great in bed, yes, but not with his own woman. For she has to dedicate herself to his pleasure” (pg. 38).
Now, one aspect of his theory that is not discussed by him is racially Black women, do they ever get to experience pleasure or do they never because they are at the bottom and always having to please their partner? What about same gender relationships between two racially Black women? These are just a handful of areas that his theory of over two decades ago has some holes. He wrote a book that followed which addresses some of these critiques called Why Must A Black Writer Write About Sex?
Finally, I opened the space up to conversation among participants and the exchange was phenomenal. One young person asked what to do when his partner of another ethnicity cannot share with their parents that they are dating, that they must lie and say he is just his partner’s “friend.” One couple in a similar pairing shared what they experienced and some of the approaches they took to talking with their parents. Today, the couple shares that although it was difficult at first, standing firm in what they believed was a solid and important relationship has gained some aspect of respect and tolerance from their parents.
Then Tara and Rich shared a personal story about their courtship that really resonated with many of us. Rich shared that even in challenging situations, there are new discoveries that may be seen when our family members are offered the opportunity to meet and interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. Even as adults, our parents can still surprise us, and that was a message I think many of us took home. Tara also shared how she approaches some conversations from friends, family, and strangers who share racist and/or ethnocentric ideologies. One of her strategies is to ask questions that ask for clarification to offer the person an opportunity to have to simply say their point is they are perpetuating an –ism.
At the end of the session, I shared a list of resources I created for students, which includes organizations, websites, books, podcasts, and films about the topic. The list is in no way an exhaustive list, but I think a good starting point for many of the people present that day.
I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the interest and desire to have such conversations in this space, and that I was glad my assumptions were, and continue to be, challenged as well. Many thanks to the students who participated in the workshops, and to Rich and Tara for allowing me permission to share their contribution to the session.