Despite the ongoing debate over the origins of human sexual orientation — whether it is biological, genetic, environmental, or even chosen — we are comfortable in our understanding of what sexual orientation is. Sexual orientation is an individual’s sexual, emotional, and romantic attraction to a particular gender or genders (e.g., cis- and transwomen, cis- and transmen). Unlike the role of gender in our sexual orientation and desire, we are less clear in our understanding of the role of other social characteristics, including race, ethnicity, social class, body shape, age, etc.
The Intersection Of Race, Ethnicity, And Sexuality
An important perspective that many social scientists use in their research is an understanding of the way that various systems of inequality intersect and mutually reinforce one another. This perspective, known as intersectionality, helps us to see how people are simultaneously privileged or disadvantaged along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, age, nationality and immigrant status, and ability.
For example, under the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — which forced members of the armed services to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or risk being discharged from the military — women, people of color, and especially Black women, were disproportionately discharged under this policy. Thus, we see how inequality in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation intersect with one another.
What Can Sex Teach Us About Race And Ethnic Relations?
There are numerous ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with sexuality. For example, we see racial and ethnic inequalities reflected in sexual health disparities. One important aspect of sexual desire that we yet to fully understand is how and why we are attracted to certain racial and ethnic groups but not others.
Research on racial and ethnic preferences has suggested that an attractiveness hierarchy exists, in which white people are the most desired by all racial and ethnic groups. A new study by sociologist Cynthia Feliciano and her colleagues gives some insight into what we can learn about the changing racial and ethnic landscape of the United States from individuals’ racial and ethnic dating preferences. Using Yahoo! personal ads to compare Latino/a, white, and Black people’s specified racial and ethnic preferences, the researchers found few Latino/as to exclusively prefer their own race. They were more likely than Blacks and whites to prefer someone outside of their own race/ethnicity; however, Latino/as were more likely to prefer whites than Blacks. Interestingly, Latino/as’ preference for members of their own race/ethnicity were strongest among those living in cities where there is a larger Latino/a population.
Today, few people outright oppose interracial dating and marriage. And, we see from US Census data a growth in the number of interracial couples. But, one aspect of race and sexuality remains: the attractiveness hierarchy that privileges whites over all other racial and ethnic groups. To more fully understand sexuality, we need to continue to view sexuality as it intersects with race and ethnicity, as well as gender, class, nationality, ability, body size, and age.