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Advice – How can I deal with hypersexualization of my racial identity?

I had a an experience recently that made me question whether I had experienced a micro aggression…

A good friend (M), who is in the loop about my partner and my polyamorous relationship, was over at my place hanging out with just me (F). My partner (M) was at work due to be home in a few hours. This friend, we’ll call him Fred, has had lots of conversations with my partner and I about our experiences being poly-am and has shared a lot about their own sexual experiences as well. I find it very refreshing to normalize talking about sex with friends who are comfortable having those conversations. Anyway, Fred brings up the spa shooting and asks how that’s affected me (I am Asian) and brings up that it’s always white men who are causing problems. I hadn’t had much time to really contemplate how that shooting impacted my own experience and we took a few minutes to unpack that.

Later as Fred and I are hanging out, he brings up that he thought I was implying that my partner and I were hinting at wanting to include him in our relationship, sexually. I let him know that my partner and I are always very clear/explicit about whether or not we want to be with someone and apologized for making him think that I was coming on to him.

Fred persists on insinuating that I was coming on to him because “you know, since you’re not openly poly and you opened up to me” and let’s me know that “He’s down.” At no point had I made any hints or claims that I was attracted and was honestly very confused where Fred could have gotten the idea I was interested in him. I apologize again for making him think that I was interested and awkwardly change the subject.

Looking back at it, I’m feeling confused and honestly a bit torn about being open about being polyam with this person. I thought that he was someone I could trust with this information but I’m wondering if this is just that white guy hypersexualization of poly-am Asian girl BS.

FYI my partner and I are not out to our family, only to our closest friends.

Any thoughts? Appreciate your feedback.

V, Reddit.

Dear V,

I am really sorry to hear that you had this experience with someone you thought you could trust. Your experience is an experience that is unfortunately far too common among far too many people. We are shaped by the summation of our categorical experiences. Many of those experiences are used to tell narratives about ourselves, about the world, and about our connections. And I understand the core source of your confusion. It comes from series of misunderstandings, which is then perpetuated by these reinforced stories about ourselves, about the world, and about our connections.

This is one of the main reasons why I remain so selective and vigilant about the people I am close with. It can be so disorienting to be around people who downplay, disregard, or even perpetuate the harm and the pain from overt racist actions and subtle microaggressions. The right type of people will support and amplify my reality, or help me heal from the ongoing societal trauma.

There are many layers to your situation, which all not only relate to each other but further compound the core issue at hand: misunderstanding. So we’ll spend some time in this post navigating through each of the three layers before we talk in-depth about what you might be able to do to avoid similar situations in the future.

The first layer is polyamory.

More and more people are becoming aware of the existence of polyamory. From this research, it was estimated that there were about 4% who were practicing polyamory in 2016. But from this research, that 4% grew to 10.7% in 2020. So while more people are aware of polyamory, there still exists a significant gap in understanding of how polyamory actually works.

I’ve already written quite a bit on what it is like to be a newbie in polyamory. And in 2019, I wrote a piece about what it is like to date a newbie, as an experienced polyamorous individual. But I have not written quite enough about what it is like to date a newbie, as another newbie looking in. It could be possible that Fred has had absolutely no previous experience with engaging with someone who is polyamorous. And it could be possible that he incorrectly associated your expression of relationship orientation as a way to communicate sexual interest. That might not be something that you do personally, but few do communicate their availability and interest by openly talking about their orientation with people they are interested in.

In truth, just because you are polyamorous doesn’t mean you are available to date. And just because you are looking to date doesn’t mean that you are interested in dating this particular person. That was a faulty double-assumption that only one person is responsible for: Fred.

I’ll also add the additional caveat that most people are bad at having conversations about sex and sexuality. That is in part due to the poor quality sex ed in here in American schools, in part due to negative stigma around sex & sexuality, and in part due to the pervasive sex shame culture. And so, many folks incorrectly associate conversations about intimacy as uniquely intimate conversations. In reality – as you noted – we should be working to normalize a more frank dialogue about sex & sexuality that goes beyond shame and judgment. But that could have been another element that contributed to the overall miscommunication.

The second layer is gender.

While I myself am not a woman, I have had many conversations with past and current partners who are women about what it is like for them to navigate the polyamory space as women. One partner in particular complained about how difficult it is to date because there are so many men who claim to be open-minded about polyamory but lack basic emotional foundations to attempt dating a polyamorous woman. Another communicated how reticent she is to date cis men because the men she matched with were only interested in having sex with her, even though she laid it out clearly on her profile that she doesn’t do casual sex. Take their word for it; it is a wreck out there.

In dating, many men have this toxic idea that they can turn a “no” into a “yes” by consistently disrespecting the boundaries of the person they are romantically or sexually interested in, even after they’ve already said their “no”. Few of them even operate under the false assumption that the worst they can get is a “no”, which they’ve already got in spades. On the flip side, many women are conditioned to keep deflecting, “play hard to get”, and romanticize otherwise toxic behaviors from their pursuers. Both of these rotate in a negative feedback cycle that perpetuates cyclical abuse and misunderstanding.

That could be one of the reasons why Fred continued to disrespect your boundaries by reasserting and advancing his sexual interest in you despite you making it very clear that you were not interested in him. That was another faulty assumption that only one person is responsible for: Fred.

I have also noted that you apologized twice in this exchange with Fred. Many women are socially conditioned to appease and downplay bad intentions because actually establishing healthy boundaries is “unacceptable.” It is not your responsibility to manage his perception around your behavior; you are only responsible for your intention and your subsequent reaction. And in the same way, only Fred is responsible for his intention to violate your boundaries and his subsequent reaction to push against your boundaries.

Imagine going to a restaurant and selecting an entree. If that entree is bad, it isn’t your fault; it is the cook’s. In the same way, only Fred is responsible for misreading your cues and then subsequently pushing on your boundaries.

The third layer is race.

In many ways, your race acts like an accelerant to a chemical reaction already in motion.

Parts that were already activated become even more animated. For example, the generalized experience of navigating the dating space as a woman is already very challenging because they are often presented with much more back-end emotional labor than it appears. Because you are an Asian woman, your sexuality becomes an intense hyperfocus that lies in the intersection between two independent characteristics.

In addition, parts that were already muted become even more suppressed. As we have already noted, there is a prevailing social pressure for women to defer and appease. But Asian women are seen as even more subservient and accommodating in American subcultures, compared to other races. As such, your desire to apologize for the misunderstanding that you were not responsible for could have originated from that intersection of two societal stereotypes.

As you had noted, you didn’t have that much time to truly process what happened in Atlanta. So in this particular discussion, you were taking an active role to process the violence in past tense. But what is even more tricky is that this was all under the context of the pretense, that Fred as a white man acknowledges and broadly generalizes that it is “always white men who are causing problems.” This is actually misleading. While it is true that majority of the hate crimes are committed by White Americans (52.5%), anti-Asian hate crimes appear to be committed by and large by other minorities. In his article Combating Anti-Asian Sentiment, Dr. James H Lee hypothesizes that “race and racism in the United States operate along a Black/White binary,” and therefore non-Black POC experience is perceived in relation to “Blackness and anti-Blackness.”

In reality, Asian American experience with racism in the US cannot be defined by Blackness and anti-Blackness. It is a distinct and unique experience as perceived in the model minorities myth. And all of our Asian experiences cannot be simply boiled down to just the term Asian either. Our Asian experiences can vary enormously between a Korean American’s experience and an Indian American’s experience.

I do think that it is quite strange that Fred opened up a conversation about race and race relations about Asians. It assumes that you wanted to talk about this incident at all. We have to be mindful of the emotional resources we expend on a day-to-day, especially when our resources were already stretched thin as is. And as an Asian woman, this could have absolutely been a triggering experience for you. In spite of all this, considering the incident was specifically targeted toward Asian women, I do think that it is very strange that a white man would think it an appropriate topic of conversation to initiate. This just wasn’t his place.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Now let’s put this all together.

We have already talked a bit about the complex intersection between polyamory and gender, specifically what it is like to exist in a poly space as a woman. We also talked a bit about the accelerant nature of the intersection between gender and race, specifically what it is like to be an Asian woman.

Then there is the intersection between race and polyamory to consider as well. According to Sheff et al (2011), an overwhelming majority of people who identify as polyamorous are white and middle class. And because there are so few active polyamorous POCs, the misunderstandings are further perpetuated within the confined walls of polyamory. As a polyamorous Asian man, I can personally attest to hypersexualization and fetishization – from folks of all different genders and racial backgrounds – of my racial identity at a greater margin than when I was a monogamous Asian man. So I hear you. This is a real challenge, and one that we have to be aware of.

And I don’t think it is enough that you are just made aware of these different intersections and how your experience might be affected because of how you present in this world. As an educator who is a person of color, I do make a conscientious attempt to share knowledge and understanding in every opportunity I can, whenever I have the emotional resources to do so. It can be difficult to make space to speak out when you are already so spread so thin. But remember the work you are doing today isn’t for any immediate yield, and it might not even be for you specifically. It might be for the person of color in the next generation or someone who is so downtrodden that they just can’t afford to speak out against systematic racism against folks of color.

Now that we’ve finally unpacked all that has happened, let’s spend some time taking about what you could do to avoid future Freds.

Instead of assessing what is and isn’t a mistake, it might be more beneficial to use this experience to grow and adjust your expectations or finetune your communications for the friends you might want to make in the future.

Because many folks are ill-equipped to dissociate intimacy from a conversation about intimacy, it might be beneficial for you to revisit the desire to normalize open conversation about sex and sexuality. For me personally, I never talk about my sex life with anyone unless it is strictly anonymous, in a clinical setting, or it is accompanied by an explicit consent from my partner(s). In the form of an inward-facing boundary, my boundary reads, “I will not have conversations about my intimate sex life outside of those three exceptions.”

The boundary that you’ve established with Fred is a passive one. “If I were interested, you would know about it” is a nice but indirect reframing of “I have not communicated my interest with you, and thus I am not interested in you.” Passive boundaries are just as valid as active ones, but work in different ways. A passive boundary is like the cup holding hot tea. Without the cup, tea would spill. But there are other ways to hold the tea that isn’t with a cup. In the same way, passive boundaries are a valid way to establish boundaries. But the inverse of the passive boundary is not always true (as in, you could still have feelings for someone without communicating so), and not everyone wants to drink tea from a cup (as in, not everyone knows how to do passive boundaries). Comparatively, an active boundary is like the steel rails on a train track. Trains would not go anywhere without those rails. It can be more difficult to establish an active boundary as opposed to a passive one, but they both aim to do what boundaries do: creating the necessary protections.

Speaking of boundaries, now would be a great time to figure out a way to preemptively de-escalate your next boundary-violating conversation. It can be as simple as “I don’t want to talk about that right now”, as direct as “You just said something really weird”, or as straightforward as “I don’t appreciate what is going on right now, and here is why.” What is more important is to recognize the breaches in your boundaries and to halt or to redirect the conversation when your boundaries are breached.

As we all navigate through polyamory, racial tension, and gender dynamics, I think it is important to accept that uncomfortable conversations are inevitable. That does not mean that you have to engage in every uncomfortable conversations. Your initial boundary of “my partner and I are always very clear/explicit about whether or not we want to be with someone” is very good. And I think it might better serve people who can actually respect your boundaries.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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