Photo by Caroline McNally

Dear Roe,

I am a 34-year-old male embarking on a new relationship. My girlfriend is from Venezuela. She is smart, driven, sweet, kind, and very beautiful. I know I’m punching above my weight and should be thankful but there’s a major problem – she has zero interest in feminism and it’s making me quite worried.

I have tried to explain to her that there is a huge battle being waged in the West against the oppression [by] white males but she doesn’t seem to care. All she is interested in is clothes, dancing and sex. I pride myself on being a feminist and I’m starting to think that her flippant attitude – she refuses to talk about the subject or read any articles such as yours that I give her – might make us incompatible. I want to sit her down and explain why modern feminism is so important but I’m afraid it might come across as “mansplaining”.

Also, we have a problem in the bedroom that is really getting me down. She wants me to dominate her in all kinds of ways. She begs me to call her a “whore”, a “slut” and likes me to physically overpower her. I want to satisfy her but I can’t reconcile how “rapey” these things are. I want to tell her that she is just conforming to an idea of female sexual pleasure purveyed by the male-exceptionalist pornographic industry but I’m scared I’ll just sound like a “buzzkill”. How do I make this girl see that feminism is a serious matter and that she needs to show solidarity with its aims and beliefs?

Dear Letter Writer,

Okay. We have some issues here.

You’re such a feminist, you claim, yet you stay with a woman you judge, patronize and shame – and I’m suspecting it’s for one reason: she’s beautiful.

Sure, she’s also smart, kind and driven you say – before undermining it by claiming that “all she’s interested in is clothes, dancing and sex”. Either also she’s interested in people, her job, her hobbies, her ambitions and a lot of other things that make her kind, driven and smart, and you’re dismissing these interests – or she’s not, and you’re just throwing on adjectives to justify staying with her.

We’ll get to your actual behaviour in a moment, but not before I ask you a question: would you be staying with a less conventionally attractive woman for whom you felt such disdain? Just a thought.

Also, lecturing women from Latin America about the progress of “the West” as if they’re from a primitive other world and indicating that it explains their lack of interest in feminism is also pretty damn patronising, so don’t be that guy.

You also place feminism on a binary scale where apparently, it cannot coexist with other activities or interests. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in clothes, dancing and sex – I dearly love all three things myself. But you see this as the antithesis of feminism and intelligence – while presumably enjoying how your girlfriend dresses, dances and the fact that you get to have sex with her.

What a luxury to be able to benefit from women and yet still judge, deride and devalue them! If there was a word for that, what would it be? (Hint: it’s not “feminism.”)

You’re also using feminist vernacular to shame her sexual desires. I actually believe that even the most feminist women can enjoy being dominated and engaging in dirty talk, some of which can put them in the position of being submissive.

There is a massive difference between how we operate in life and what turns us on in bed, and ideally, that difference is a safe space free from judgement. But you’re not offering her that. You’re judging the hell out of her desires.

Now, you are fully entitled to be uncomfortable with certain things in bed, and if you really aren’t comfortable calling her a slut during sex for your own reasons, that’s a conversation you absolutely should have, and you should both respect each other’s views and try come to a compromise.

Except, that doesn’t seem to be the reason you don’t want to go there, and you certainly aren’t demonstrating any respect on your end. You won’t engage in dirty talk or domination play because you think so little of your girlfriend’s intelligence and self-awareness that you don’t take her desire as autonomous and empowered, and so are patronizing her by assuming you know better.

You’re pitching yourself as such a great guy who understands that women’s desires are dictated, shaped and shamed by patriarchal forces – by being a guy who dictates, shapes and shames your girlfriend’s desire. Oh, the irony of it all. Trust me, you don’t have to talk to her about patriarchy to be a buzzkill here.

When it comes to your girlfriend’s interest or lack thereof in feminism, I have no idea what to think.

There are two options here: either your girlfriend has no interest in feminism, or she has some interest and has absolutely no desire to talk to you about it, presumably because you talk to her about it with the condescension apparent in your letter. Feminism is one of the most important influences in my life, and I don’t want to talk about it with you.

Being a feminist is important, I’m not going to say otherwise. But if how you’re communicating your version feminism is by dismissing and shaming women, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Either way, you don’t seem to be compatible, and it has very little to do with the amount of discourse around feminism in your relationship, and everything to do with your desire to condescend to women and her refusal to engage with that.

You should go do some thinking about how your version of feminism looks a lot like just patronizing and judging women – and in order to give you the space to do that, you and your girlfriend should break up. If there’s any justice in the world, she’ll be the one to end it.

Dear Roe,

My friend says that saying one race is better in bed or more well-endowed is racist. Is it? I thought it was a good thing and it seems to be a widely held belief so I don’t really understand how it’s a bad thing? Thanks!

Dear Letter Writer,

Thank you for your question – genuinely. Too many people in this world hear the phrase “That’s racist” and just shut down in a haze of defensiveness and denial.

To those people: take hearing the phrase ‘That’s racist” as a positive interaction. The person you’re speaking with is allowing you the opportunity to learn something, to evolve your thinking, and to become a better, more knowledgeable and aware person.

Few people understand how every form of oppression and aggression manifests in the world, and so we should all operate on the assumption that we probably hold some mistaken or problematic assumptions – and so remain open to being corrected, and educated. Surely letting you continue saying racist things would be so much worse?

So, lucky you for having a friend who you can learn from, and who believes in your ability to grow so much that they are willing to have some tough conversations and awkward moments with you – and lucky them for having a friend who hears their criticisms and follows up and tries to learn more.

So, to your question.

Yes, making broad claims about the sexual prowess or genital size of a race or ethnicity of people is racist. I know that seems harsh because it seems to be a compliment, but like many racist assumptions, it’s actually quite a layered statement and based in historical misbeliefs that were far more explicitly cruel, oppressive and harmful – and still do damage today.

Myths of hypersexuality have long followed Black and Latino/a people, and the fetishising of Black men’s penises is also historically prevalent. These myths are not celebratory – on the contrary, they have been historically used to demonise Black and Latino/a people, and justify cruelty, sexual abuse and even slavery.

In an attempt to justify slavery, white people often claimed that Black people were less intellectual and more physical than white people, driven by primitive desire such as physical aggression and lust. Statements about the penis size of Black men were made in an attempt to support these statements, and Black men were often compared to animals, in both their physique and lust.

These myths were used to justify using, abusing and owning the bodies of Black people – and segregating them, falsely claiming that white women were at risk of being raped by hypersexual Black men. Black men were literally killed because of perceptions of their hypersexuality, which was viewed as a threat.

Meanwhile, Black women and Latina women have also been labeled as hypersexual – which has been used as an excuse to objectify, dehumanize, and abuse them. Historically, Black women were seen as so hypersexual that they literally could not say no – and so the rape of Black women by white men was not viewed as a crime, and was rampant.

While you may think that these stereotypes are no longer harmful, you’d be wrong. Black men still face stereotypes of sexual aggression, and a recent study showed that 90 percent of Black men who are proven to be the victim of false rape claims are accused by white women.

Meanwhile, Black women are often viewed – both by individuals and institutions such as schools – as hypersexual very early, and so Black girls are problematised and harassed at a very early age. Later in life, Black women report rape at a much lower rate than white women (who, as we know, already underreport rape and sexual assault), because they fear they will not be believed, according to a 2014 US Department of Justice report.

In the United States, Black and Latina women are also at the highest risk of being sexually assaulted by a police officer, immigration officer or government worker, as their rapists know that myths of the women’s hypersexuality and the perceived respectability of white people makes it even more unlikely for the survivors to be believed.

A 2006 study prepared for the UN Human Rights Commission found that due to perceptions of hypersexuality, Black women and LGBT people in the US are more often profiled and harassed by police and accused of being sex workers – regardless of whether they are or not. The report also noted the high instance of rape of Latina women at border crossings.

This type of profiling and abuse was clearly seen in the 2015 case of Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who raped at least 13 Black women over a seven-month period. Holtzclaw used his position to intimidate and rape Black women, many of whom were also poor.

He deliberately chose these women because they were less likely to be believed and supported – and his lawyers demanded an all-white jury in order to play on the prejudice that faces Black women. Thankfully, Holtzclaw was convicted – but at least 13 women were raped, and it is due to the harmful perceptions of hypersexuality that still affect them daily.

Black and Latina bodies are also sexualized, as seen by the recent debate over the “professionalism” or “appropriateness” of professional Black and Latina women and their work attire.

These conversations used the women’s outfits as an excuse to engage in racist discourse, which simply problematised their bodies and deemed their bodies – not their outfits, but their bodies – “sexual” and “inappropriate”, showing that women of colour still have to fight off stereotypes of hypersexuality that affect them in the workplace, regardless of their skills or work ethic. This is an example of the intersection of how race and gender combine to shape the way people experience oppression, racism and bigotry.

So yes, like most sweeping assumptions abut one group of people, the assumption that Black or Latina/o individuals are more sexually aggressive, skilled or endowed is racist, and is imbued with a history of racism, violence, and control.

These stereotypes are pervasive, and difficult to dismantle – but we can make steps towards doing so by having the tough conversations, and being open to being called out on our ignorance.

So again, thank you for asking. And when it comes to assumptions and broad stereotypes, let’s never stop questioning.

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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