Preference vs prejudice and the politics of disgust

There’s a fascinating piece by philosopher Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books about sex, sexuality and entitlement.

It’s wide ranging and covers everything from “incels” – self-proclaimed “involuntary celibates” who believe they can’t get laid because women are evil – to LGBTQ people.

The core question is whether anybody is entitled to sex, and of course the answer to that is no.

But that doesn’t mean sex and sexual preferences don’t have a political element. Apologies in advance if I get any terminology wrong; I’m not well versed in the correct language to use in these topics.

Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.

Srinivasan talks about the so-called “cotton ceiling”, an unfortunate term for the othering of trans women. It’s been wrongly and maliciously characterised as trans women demanding lesbians have sex with them.

The term was coined by trans porn star Drew DeVeax in 2012 to describe what she felt was a tendency in feminist and queer spaces to welcome trans women in theory, but to think of them as weird, icky and totally unfuckable in practice. Getting past the cotton ceiling, then, would mean women believing that trans women could be sexually attractive — that trans women were women, not things.

Similar discussions happen around ableism or fat shaming, where people who don’t conform to a particular societal norm may feel that they are tolerated but not considered desirable.

Nobody’s demanding anything when they talk about this stuff. They’re just pointing out that what you prefer in the bedroom may be shaped by what you experience outside the bedroom – and that what you prefer in the bedroom may also shape how you act outside the bedroom.

Whatever gets you through the night

Let’s say you aren’t attracted to fat women. That’s a preference. We all have preferences, because that’s how people work. My particular preference is funny, smart, beautiful women who don’t fancy me, because God has a sick sense of humour. I can’t say I’ve ever been attracted to a man, the odd pop star excepted (have you seen the band REM put through a gender swap? Michael Stipe would have made a beautiful woman, because he was and still is a beautiful man). But I don’t think guys are disgusting. They just don’t float my boat.

Let’s take another example: maybe you love big girls but not big trans girls.  Again, a preference. But where does that preference come from? Is it just your personal thing, or is it because you’ve spent decades seeing men on screen vomiting after being “tricked” by a trans woman because trans women are disgusting?

Pass the sick bag

One of the most famous scenes in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is when Carrey discovers he has kissed somebody who’s trans. This revelation causes him to throw up twice into the toilet bowl and then clean his teeth so vigorously he goes through an entire tube of toothpaste.

It happened in The Crying Game too, and in Naked Gun 33⅓. Horror at trans women is also played for laughs in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover Part II and in a particularly repellent example, in the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The “trans as disgusting trickster” trope is widespread on social media.

Still, it makes a change from portraying trans people as murderers. For decades popular culture has treated trans people in a very negative way.

So it’s worth considering where preferences may come from. Are you just not into somebody, or have you been conditioned to believe that gay people, or trans people, or fat people are somehow lesser people or worthy of disgust?

This matters. There are many kinds of people I’m not usually attracted to, but I don’t think any of them are disgusting. They’re just not my type.

That’s the difference between preference and prejudice.

Guys not floating my boat is a preference. Thinking guys are disgusting, or that guys who like guys are disgusting, is a prejudice.

Not being into big women is a preference. Believing that big women are disgusting and lazy is prejudice.

Not wanting to sleep with a non-op trans woman is a preference. Believing nobody could want to sleep with a trans woman because trans women are disgusting is prejudice.

The politics of disgust

Being prejudiced doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll discriminate against a group of people, although it often does. But it does make it much more likely that you’ll support discrimination against that group. The politics of disgust – focusing on “dole scroungers” and single mums, promiscuous gay men and trans people – is widespread and keeps papers like the Daily Mail in business.

Disgust is a visceral, powerful, dangerous thing. If an entire class of people disgust you, that means you see them as lesser humans.

Here’s an example of disgust in action. The “gay panic” defence (and its successor, trans panic) has been used in court to justify murder: “it turned out he was gay. I was so disgusted that I panicked and stabbed him 37 times”. Such a defence has been used in around half of the states in the US, and only two states have explicitly prohibited it.

This isn’t ancient history. Just last week, a sex offender called Mark Lewis escaped prosecution for killing a young, black trans woman. He claims that they had been kissing, and when she grabbed his backside he panicked and pushed her into the river, where she drowned. He didn’t try to help her.

There’s no doubt that he did it. He said so, twice. But thanks to a bungled prosecution that focused not on his manslaughter charge but the much lesser crime of failing to register as a sex offender, he’s a free man who can’t be prosecuted over the death. The manslaughter of Kenne McFadden is a “terrible tragedy”. Just one of those things.

But it isn’t. Lewis’s lawyers claimed self defence, and they were confident that had the case been tried by jury they would have won in that arena too. As his attorney put it: “what my client actually did was push a person off of him who was touching him in an offensive manner.”

Call me cynical, but whenever somebody I’m kissing grabs my backside I don’t immediately panic, push them in a river and watch them die.

And this is where the personal becomes political. Would Lewis have been disgusted, would he have reacted the way he did, if Kenne McFadden had been white and cisgender, not black and transgender? Would the defence be so sure of victory? Would the prosecution have been allowed to make such boneheaded decisions? Would it still be just one of those things, a terrible tragedy in a country where such tragedies happen far too often?

Maybe. But I doubt it.