When I date, I worry that potential partners see me as a fetish, that their attraction is rooted in oppressive, stereotypical, and harmful tropes about my identity.

Dating is exhausting, especially for marginalized people.

Often when I’m dating someone new, there’s a checklist that I have to mentally go through in order to feel comfortable enough to let these feelings of attraction peek through. For most people, they simply worry about not seeming awkward or whether the other person thinks that they’re cute. But often, on top of these things, I worry about whether this person is (often secretly) anti-Black; if they harbor feelings of invalidity or malice towards my femme identity (do they see femmeness as a marker of weakness? Will they use it to reduce me to restrictive gender roles?) And if these things don’t get a resolution after the first meeting, there’s this creeping sense of anxiety that it will appear further down the line.

These worries aren’t out of the norm, at least for marginalized people. These worries can also culminate themselves in the worry that the attraction that I’ll have from others will be solely because of a fetish — an incomplete projection of attraction that someone else has on me that’s rooted in oppressive, stereotypical, and harmful tropes about certain aspects of my identity.

I’ve been “dating” (using that term loosely) since high school, though it’s taken me years to fully understand the weight of what dating means when you’re a Black, queer femme. When you’re a marginalized person, dating — much like anything else in your life — becomes heavily political. The question of how I handle that came up when I began to reevaluate the way that I had to deal with fetishism.

Related: I’m Black, Female and Bisexual — But I’m Not Your “African Princess”

I see the fetishism that I encounter while dating as a response to social conditioning. To put it simply, there’s still this idea that we must adhere to certain societal norms — whether we’re dealing with race, sexuality or any other part of our identities. To the heterosexual-identified people that I may date, my sexuality is seen as something “exciting” or “exotic” to try. Along with my identity as a Black woman, my sexuality can confirm harmful stereotypes about Black femininity, particularly that we are hypersexual and inherently promiscuous beings.

To reduce identity to a category, a box to fit neatly into, does a disservice to the individual. It reduces us to overly-simplistic parts (when the things that we are reduced to in this way say nothing about who we actually are individually, and are sometimes the least interesting things about us), and creates a dynamic based on power and privilege. Many of us, who identify as a marginalized person, already deal with this on an overwhelming basis in our everyday lives. We don’t need to have this carried into our romantic lives.

I’m lucky in the sense that I’m beginning to find others who understand this worry, and are open to having active conversations about this. But I can’t help but wonder why that isn’t the mainstream response to dealing with fetishizing. Instead of placing the responsibility of fighting back against these coded forms of oppression on the person being fetishized, it’s on the person who is doing the fetishizing to correct this behavior. Without relying on further labor and trauma from the other person.

Fetishization is centralized in so many parts of our cultural narrative, especially when it comes to dating. Everything from dating shows and public figures who invest their dating advice on a white supremacist, misogynistic POV, all routinely reinforce fetishism as a valid response to dealing with marginalized people who are seeking love, sex or companionship. This is, unfortunately, yet another example about how our identities as marginalized people reinforce that we are othered, and that we are undeserving of the love and companionship that we seek. It gaslights our desires as invalid and ill-deserved.

Mainstream dating culture needs an overhaul, and the way that we approach fetishism in dating needs to be reevaluated. We must do the personal work to reevaluate the ways that we may reinforce oppression onto others — even with the best of intentions, it can still happen. We all deserve to have the romantic or sexual relationships that we want to have, and having to worry about fetishism as a consequence of going after these things is cruel and unnecessary violence.

So here’s to the hope that we can begin doing the hard yet necessary work of understanding and unhooking the roots of fetishism in our dating lives, in order to better create the relationships that we seek and deserve.

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