Redistributing Intimacy: Yes or No?

In May 2014, 22 year old Elliot Rodger murdered over 6 people before committing suicide [1]. In his 141 page manifesto, he expressed extreme anger at being “deprived” of sex and love — particularly from “beautiful blonde girls” [2]. Rodger was enraged because he felt entitled to a relationship by virtue of his gender, his economic status and his race. No one can reasonably justify entitlement to sex and love by virtue of anything; similarly, we cannot justify the exclusion of entire economic, gender and racial groups from sex and love. Rodger, however felt that “inferior, ugly black boy[s]” didn’t deserve to be loved [3]. Instead, as a descendent of the British aristocracy, he felt he should have had any girl he wanted [3]. This paper focuses on the relationship between race, sex and love. Intuitively and rightfully so, we would find Rodger’s basis for entitlement on his race as morally problematic. There is however, an interesting question of whether everyone is entitled to fair opportunity for sex and love — or at least, have a right not to be excluded based on race. I argue that sex and love — redefined as intimacy — is a primary social good and any exclusion of racial groups in its distribution is unjust.

Unequal Distribution of Intimacy

What is intimacy? Consider it a meaningful connection with a significant other; it can be romantic and/or sexual in nature. In the past, the only way to test partner preferences would be through a survey. The self-produced data that results is not always the most accurate reflection of what the subject thinks. With modern technology, we are able to analyze the subconscious and unfiltered preferences that people may have when choosing a partner. This is most prominent in online dating platforms.

In 2014, OkCupid — an online dating platform with over 10 million users at the time — released a study about the swiping and messaging tendencies of its users. One component looked at this data in relation to the users race. The study found that overall, white men and women were the most preferred, with the most swipes and messages received [4]. However, while preference for Asian men remained low, the preference for Asian women increased during 2009 to 2014, when it became the most preferred female racial group [4]. However, this is likely due to what Sheridan Prasso calls the “Asian Mystique”, which is essentially, oriental fetishism. She writes that the Asian woman has become increasingly desirable as they are stereotyped to be submissive and sexually availably [5]. Thus, the increasing preference for Asian women only supports the existence of sexual racism. It is worth noting that racial bias in partner choice is not just a heterosexual problem — it affects us all. Studies have found sexual racism in the LGBTQIA+ community as well. For example, White et. al. (2014) found that Asian men are by far, the least desired racial group by other men [6].

Intimacy as a Primary Social Good

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that a just society has a just distribution of primary goods. These are the “things that every rational man is presumed to want” and helps people pursue their conception of the good life [7]. Natural goods, while can be influenced by society, are not directly under their control. Primary social goods are those whose distribution are controlled by society. These include rights, liberties, opportunities, income, wealth and the social bases of self-respect [7].

While Rawls does not mention intimacy in his list of social goods, if it is truly what rationale people want and need to pursue a good life, I can’t imagine that it excludes intimacy. It is hard to believe anyone would argue against the importance of and desire for meaningful connections with a partner. Furthermore, the absence of intimacy could lead to loneliness and dissatisfaction which impede on one’s ability to pursue a good life. This is seen with the case of Elliot Rodger. In fact, absence of intimacy could even impede on other primary goods, such as self-respect. Surely, an important contributor to self-respect is knowing you are valued and wanted by others. Conversely, being unwanted would have adverse effects on your self-esteem.

Based off Rawls’ theory, if intimacy is a primary social good, then its unequal distribution should be rectified. This is especially because race is a natural endowment; Rawls sees natural endowments as morally arbitrary and having no bearing on the distribution of social goods in a just society [8]. However, this does not that Rawls or I believe that intimacy should be redistributed. Redistribution would involve extreme intervention such as forcing or restricting intimacy. Both seem morally impermissible as they would impede on liberty and consent. However, one should not underestimate the power of the basic structure of society.

I propose that intimacy be regarded in a similar fashion as Rawls’ self-respect. Like self-respect, intimacy cannot be redistributed or guaranteed. Rawls addresses this with self-respect by creating a basic structure that not only doesn’t impede on one’s ability to having it but also facilitates obtaining it [9]. For example, the structure could be set up to affirm equal citizenship of all as a means of securing the ability to have self-respect [9]. A basic structure that seeks to guarantee the social bases of intimacy would then facilitate the possibility for intimacy for all. In one sense, it is guaranteeing equal opportunity for intimacy. These social bases of intimacy will be discussed further in the paper.

Race and Liberty

One might argue that even if there is an unequal distribution of intimacy, it is not morally impermissible as it is due to preference. They may argue that society should not have moral judgements on another’s preference with regards to intimacy. Why? Because preference is central to intimacy in that we are choosing our partners. Intervention on the distribution of intimacy could impede on liberty. Remember though, that Rawls’ first principle is equal rights and liberties for all [10]. The key term here is equal; everyone has an equal right to be considered as a potential partner. Even if it impedes on personal liberty, there is something morally gross with choosing someone for their race, or excluding someone because of their race, that may justify intrusions on the liberty of choice. Furthermore, while it could be argued that one has a right to have preferences, it ignores that race is not simply a preference.

Race is Not Just A Preference

I suspect the most prominent critique would be: if preferences of features such as height and age are morally permissible, why is race different? Let us examine this in reference to physical and non-physical attributes.

Physical attributes are objective and preferences for it are mostly motivated by aesthetic value. They includes features such as height, hair color, body shape and more. Though race may include physical features, it is not a physical attribute in itself. Attached to race are many social, political and historical implications that are triggered when preferences are made based on it. This means that when you choose or exclude a race, it not about aesthetics but about beliefs, perceptions and understandings. After all, in every racial group, there is a range of body shapes, hair colors, heights and more — these are completely independent of racial categories. What is most morally impermissible about preferences based on race is that it reinforces stereotypes. A choice based on race is a choice based on a generalization. When your preferences are motivated by race, you are not treating the potential partner as an individual but as one out of many — all of whom are perceived in the lens of a general image of said race. Thus, when you exclude based on race, it is no longer just about aesthetics and physical attributes; it is about stereotypes and loss of individual identity on the part of the judged. That being said, it it important to note that most of these racial preferences (or non-preference) are subconscious. Still, racial groups should not be excluded from the ‘market’ of intimacy simply because they were born a certain way.

Is it possible for race to become an aesthetic preference? No. Through, if racism ceased to exist, it is possible that skin color could become an aesthetic preference. If there were no social, political or historical ties to skin color, perhaps it could become a preference as harmless as that of height. However, this is not worth discussing as of now, because racism is still ever-prevalent.

Non-physical attributes are the likes of religion, intelligence, education and more. Thought these could trigger matters of social, political and historical inequality (just like race), they are more a matter of compatibility. There doesn’t seem to be anything intuitively wrong, for example, with preferring a partner from your culture because there would be more shared values and practices. One might argue that this argument could be made for racial preference as well. The difference between race and other non-physical attributes is that race is not convertible. To demonstrate this, imagine Person A is a Buddhist and Person B is a Christian. Let us say that Person A prefers a partner who share their religion as they hold the same values and have more common experiences. If Person A chose someone who was Buddhist over Person B, we would not see it to be unjust. Rather, it is an issue of compatibility. Why isn’t it unjust? This is because attributes such as religion are based on choice. As you choose your religion, you are, in theory able to convert it to become compatible should you wish. I can always, in a fair and just society, adopt a different religion, pursue further education or experience new cultures to become more preferred. In this sense, the exclusion is temporary and it is within my power to change this state. The same cannot be said for race. First of all, you are born into your race. In this sense, your race is not your choice. Second, you are unable to convert your race. Even if you were to self-identify as a different race (assuming race is a social construct and fluid), the public perception of what race you belong to is unlikely to change. As such, the exclusion based on the non-physical attribute of race is permanent. This is what makes racial preference morally impermissible as compared to other non-physical attributes.

Rectifications

As previously mentioned, it would not be possible to redistribute intimacy. Instead, society should focus on guaranteeing the social bases of intimacy so that everyone has an equal opportunity to have it. Here are some example of how the basic structure could be set up.

First, we could target general racism in society with anti-discrimination laws and education programs. As a majority of racial bias in partner preference is subconscious, it suggests that it is a result of internalized beliefs. If we were able to abolish racism, one would not even consider race when judging compatibility of a potential partner. At the very least, the social, political and historical ties to race would be broken, transforming attributes such as skin color from an indicator of race, to genuine aesthetic preference at an individual level. This can also be supported by pushing the media to be more inclusive; this could re-socialize society to move away from racism, and subsequently, sexual racism.

Second, restrictions should be placed on dating platforms so that they do not facilitate the exclusion of race. Many current platforms allow users to filter potential partners based on race. This means users don’t even start to consider the individuals under certain racial categories; these potential partners are excluded from the beginning solely for their race. As such, they are unable to even enter the dating ‘market’. Such platforms should be pushed to remove racial questions as well as the option to filter based on race.

While it is clear that something needs to be done, the necessary rectification merit more discussion. There are some challenges, such as understanding what trade-off between liberty and intervention is justified. Another concern is that rectification will likely involve further racial profiling in order to identify which groups are at a disadvantage. This may further reinforce racial stereotypes and the division of people into clear racial categories. Furthermore, with most of these racist preferences being subconscious, it is likely many do not realize they are engaging in morally impermissible behavior. Thus, they would be unable to change anything on an individual level. There are clearly many things to consider with regards to what rectifications need to be made. However, it stands that something does need to be done. The unequal distribution of intimacy, defined as a primary social good, across racial groups is morally impermissible; it only moves us further away from being a just and organized society.

 

Notes

[1] BBC US & Canada, “Elliot Rodger: How misogynist killer became ‘incel hero’”

[2] Elliot Rodger, “Manifesto: My Twisted World”, Pg 115.

[3] Elliot Rodger, “Manifesto: My Twisted World”, Pg 84.

[4] OkCupid, “Race and Attraction, 2009-2014”, OkCupid Blog.

[5] Sheridan Prasso, “The Asian mystique: dragon ladies, geisha girls, and our fantasies of the exotic orient”.

[6] White et. al., “Race-Based Sexual Preferences in a Sample of Online Profiles of Urban Men Seeking Sex with Men”.

[7] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”, Pg 54.

[8] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”, Pg 64.

[9] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”, Pg 478.

[10] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”, Pg 53.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Pan Ling Wan for her feedback on my draft, as well as my classmates for their contributions to our discussions in Contemporary Egalitarianism. I would also like to thank Professor Sandra Fields for her advice and support in writing this paper.

 

Works Cited

Elliot Rodger: How misogynist killer became ‘incel hero‘. (2018, April 26). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43892189

OkCupid. (2014, September 10). Race and Attraction, 20092014. The OkCupid Blog.  Retrieved from https://theblog.okcupid.com/race-and-attraction-2009-2014-107dcbb4f060

Prasso, S. (2006). The Asian mystique: Dragon ladies, geisha girls, and our fantasies of the exotic orient. New York: PublicAffairs.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

Rodger, E. (2014, May). Manifesto: My Twisted World.

White, J. M., Reisner, S. L., Dunham, E., & Mimiaga, M. J. (2014). Race-Based Sexual Preferences in a Sample of Online Profiles of Urban Men Seeking Sex with Men. Journal of Urban Health, 91(4), 768-775. doi:10.1007/s11524-013-9853-4

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