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Ethnosexuality: A Qualitative Exploration of Racialized Sexual Attractions and Experiencess


In the nineteenth century, homosexuality shifted from being understood as an act to an essentialized category of human, and then in the twentieth century, homosexuality shifted again to become an identity. Now in the twenty-first century, a groundswell of sexual identities beyond those based on gender attraction have sprung forth. Despite the socially constructed history of homosexuality and the proliferation of new sexual identities in psychological research literature, little empirical work has interrogated racialized sexual attractions and experiences, what I call ethnosexuality. Across the research literature, there is considerable evidence that race factors into human sexuality. Racialized sexual stereotypes, such as the Jezebel or China doll, have been documented in psychology, while historians have traced their roots to slavery or colonialism. Research on sexual preferences for racial groups reveals a clear privileging of White people, fetishization of Asian women and Black men, and marginalization of Asian men and Black women. Scholarship on sexual racism, erotic capital, and gender-race prototypicality informs these trends in desirability. Research on interracial dating and marriage shows that it is correlated with diversity in one’s milieu and demands engaged racework to maintain. Finally, the literature on White privilege shows that racial difference is often invisible to White people, and discussions of it provoke distress. I brought this cross-disciplinary scholarship to bear in order to investigate how 21 participants considered their ethnosexuality in their sexual lives and identities. My thematic analysis of in-depth, two- to three-hour interviews revealed several consistent themes: essentialism, capital, culture, and authenticity. Codes for ethnosexual essentialism revealed that people drew from stereotypes of racial groups to interpret and explain their own sexual preferences or their perceptions of other people. Participants also recognized and endorsed a consistent hierarchy of racialized (and gendered) desirability, and they worked their ethnosexual capital within this stratification. Everyone in the study emphasized finding common ground and shared experience, and although White participants rarely thought of this in ethnic terms, most people of color saw the importance of ethnosexual culture. Similarly, participants of color often spoke with ethnosexual authenticity, whereas White participants struggled and shut down the conversation. I connected these themes to an array of real-world issues, such as creating a family, developing self-esteem, and perpetuating de facto eugenics. I also applied essentialism, capital, culture, and authenticity themes to the study of homosexuality. Instead of conceptualizing sexual attraction as an intrinsic drive toward an essentialized target, researchers could consider how all dimensions of sexuality are socially constructed through essentialized stereotypes about different groups, the capital afforded different bodies and ways of being, the cultural connections that love and passion rely on, and the savvy and awareness that people need to make sense and meaning out of all of it.

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