Feminism 101: What is Fetishization?

Image: Giulio Rosati’s Inspection of New Arrivals [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

If we’ve learned anything from the ubiquitous outcries against public breastfeeding, it’s that women are no strangers to fetishization. Even when doing something as necessary as feeding one’s baby, women and their bodies are subjected to men’s sexual gaze.

Fetishization is usually defined as the sexual fascination with things that are not inherently sexual. Lots of fetishes are harmless for the most part, only concerning an individual, their partner, and their bedroom. It’s no one’s place to judge.

But when it comes to the fetishization of people because of their genders, races, or sexualities, it quickly becomes a means of oppression, subjugation, and dehumanization.

This disturbing trend particularly affects people of color. Those who fetishize people of color see us not as romantic partners but as sexual objects, devoid of any characteristics apart from our races and genders.

This racial fetishization commonly manifests through comparing people of color to food or focusing solely on the stereotypes associated with race, such as black women’s sexual prowess, or Asian women’s submissiveness.

When a white man checks “Asian women” on his dating app profile or white girls obsess over black men, they are furthering a pattern of white sexual imperialism. It’s an adventure, not a relationship. To them, the people they want are sex toys, not human beings.

It’s true that non-white people can also fetishize people of color. However, I am most concerned with white fetishization of people of color due to historical patterns of oppression by white people over people of color.

A common form of this is white men’s obsession with Asian women, a phenomenon dubbed “yellow fever.” In a recent article, a self-proclaimed “white guy who dates Asian girls” argued that the term “yellow fever” was offensive to him. Yes, this is a white guy claiming that being accused of a stereotype that has historically been a means of hypersexualizing and dehumanizing Asian women hurts him.

There’s nothing wrong with a white man dating an Asian woman. In fact, as a person of mixed-race Asian heritage, that’s the reason I’m alive.

But it’s important to acknowledge the fact that many white men do date Asian women because they see Asian women as docile and submissive, whether they’re aware of it or not. The practice of white men having sexual relationships with Asian women has a long, painful history of colonialism, subjugation of native peoples, prostitution, and the white savior mindset.

Fetishization of people has always been a key tool for oppressors to exert sexual power over another and deny the oppressed their individuality. Sometimes the oppressor doesn’t even have to be participating in the sexual act himself, as seen with the mystifying fascination some straight men seem to have with lesbians.

The vast majority of lesbian pornography is marketed to a male audience. A distressing amount of movies and television shows have that one “I’ll be in my bunk” scene, which portrays the sexual relationship between women as a source of pleasure for a man.

Like with other forms of fetishization, this marketing of lesbian sex to straight men serves to objectify and dehumanize women of all sexual orientations, especially lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise non-heterosexual women. It portrays women’s sexuality as a choice that is made for the benefit of men.

Fetishization objectifies and dehumanizes the people who are being fetishized. It allows oppressors to hold power over the oppressed by denying them their humanity and assuming their sexuality is for the pleasure of someone else.

Women of any sexual orientation are not here for men’s benefit. People of color don’t exist so white people can relive some gross colonialist, white savior fantasy. It’s not that hard to treat people like human beings, as long as you remember that they’re not here to please you.

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