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Black Sexuality, Dating Apps, and Racial Discrimination
How the design of products and services in the sex and dating industry discriminates against Black People.
Last week was the week so many of us really considered the ways in which our own professional or personal domains are unjust, discriminatory, prejudice or racist towards Black People and POC. We saw the light shone on venture capital and its historically mild or non-existent attempts to fund Black founders. Alexis Ohanian resigned from Reddit’s board to call attention to the lack of Black People in board seats. We reopened conversation about affirmative action in the workplace. My Twitter feed was filled with calls to 'Make the hire. Write the check'. Across so many sectors, organizations started conversations externally, and hopefully internally, about what can be done to truly build diverse and inclusive workplaces and products.
I considered how my own domains — online dating, relationships, sex, technology — had been complicit in the oppression of Black People. A recent Instagram follow @kinkyblackeducator explained how spaces, institutions, and conventions related to sex have often not been inclusive of Black sexuality. Sex work, BDSM, pornography and the study of sexuality (therapy) are areas where Black People are grossly underrepresented. Black People who choose to work in these fields don't get the same levels of safety, respect, and visibility as their white counterparts. This is manifested in the profiling of Black sex workers as dangerous, and the heavier police targeting that results. It's in the poor visibility Black creators receive on sites like OnlyFans. It shows up in mostly white BDSM communities, where Black People have to weigh their desires against the possible trauma of consciously reenacting slavery with white people. It's in pornography that's often labelled and categorized by skin color, contributing to the fetishization of Black People. And it's manifested in the study of sexuality and mental health, where Black therapists account for just 4% of people practicing in the field, making it more difficult for Black people to find therapists with whom they have a shared experience. For Black People in the sex and wellness industry, discrimination is encountered in nearly every corner.
When it comes to online dating, sexual racism — the inclination towards or against potential sexual or romantic partners on the basis of perceived racial identity — is very much accentuated. For Black and other ethnic minority singles, using dating apps can involve subjecting yourself to racist abuse and crass intolerance. Protected by distance and often anonymity, people are more likely to write overtly hostile things on their profiles about people of certain races or ethnicities, than they would ever be comfortable voicing IRL. This became particularly problematic on gay dating apps like Grindr, where many users blatantly listed their ethnicity preferences on profiles. A 2015 study showed that 96% of Grindr users had viewed at least one profile that included some sort of racial discrimination, and more than half believed they’d been victims of racism. While I was working at Hinge, our ethnicity filter was an ongoing debate both internally and in the media. We were wary of the ethnicity filter promoting racist behavior in the app, but every time we talked to users, it was the minority groups who wanted the filter to stay so they could easily find other members of their minority community.
But if a user is required to self-define their ethnicity, regardless of whether the ethnicity filter is used, the algorithm can associate (if it is allowed) our preferences with race, as we go about 💚ing and ❌ing. It's unlikely dating apps would deliberately tweak their algorithms to produce recommendations that contradict the preferences they've learnt we have. So as an algorithm learns our preferences over time, as any good algorithm should, we see our racial preferences expressed in our feeds without consciously opting in to this experience. An interesting ethical question here is: do dating apps have a responsibility to adjust the way their machine learning works to ensure these ethnic 'bubbles' don't form? Or is it ok that they continue facilitating the preferences and prejudices of broader society, until we as a whole can change?
It's important to call out the distinction between filtering out people of certain races because of intolerances or prejudices vs filtering out certain races to create safe spaces for groups who've historically experienced oppression. As it stands, all ethnicities have access to ethnicity filters to use however they wish. We haven't yet designed algorithms sophisticated enough to discern good intention from bad intention. Another interesting question — can a tech company presume the collective intention of a particular ethnicity, and allow use of the ethnicity filter only by those whose use of it is not rooted in racism?
Creators of technology wield a lot of power when it comes to who and what we see. And who and what we see impacts our racial prejudices. This study found that the mere exposure to other-race faces increased liking for similar faces — an effect also known as 'passive tolerance'. Simply seeing more faces that are different to ours increases tolerance — how neat is that! I imagine this past week presents an opportunity for the creators of online dating communities to play a more active role in reducing the racial prejudices of their millions of members. Sex-positive and wellness communities also need to be more deliberate about designing spaces that are safe and familiar for Black People and POC. We need to design ecosystems that are aware of and reactive to white peoples' biases in a way that aids in the cohesion of our society.
Here are just a few examples of work that can be done by designers of sex and dating tech products:
More nuanced approach to ethnicity preferences on dating apps
Designing dating app algorithms to reduce instead of exacerbate racial intolerance
Give Black People proportionate representation on the discovery pages of OnlyFans and porn sites
Remove race descriptors for porn featuring Black People and POC
In writing this, I intended to start the conversation around race, dating, sex, and technology. But continued action is going to be so important. If you're a designer, engineer, or entrepreneur working in these fields I'd love to jam on this some more and figure out some concrete next steps. Or I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Each week we feature snippets from the sex, dating, work, and personal lives of our subscribers. If any of the responses strike your fancy, please reach out and I’ll endeavor to do some matchmaking ; )
Boy Scout, 28M, straight, single, NYC
I recently got creative with:
Tying rope knots. A partner recently gave me some rope to practice my knot tying skills so that when we can safely meet, I’d be able to tie her up. I’ve tried to tie up a partner with a belt before but it’s a lot harder than you’d think! I just ended up holding her hands together while the belt did nothing. This time, I watched a few YouTube videos and can now tie a handcuff knot and a slip cove hitch to effectively keep someone restrained. I bet she’ll get out of it at first but I’ll punish her and try again and again. She’ll love it.
No Ho-tation, 32F, bi, single, NYC
During quarantine I've been experimenting with:
Focusing on one person rather than getting to know 3 or 4 at a time. My pre-quarantine dating behavior feels chaotic to me now. I’ve been trying to slow down. Patiently getting to know someone little by little instead of thinking next-next-next. Honestly us singles need to chill. Good things take time.
Bedroom Broadway, 30F, straight, single, NYC
A recent revelation about my sexuality:
I've cast myself in the wrong role most of my adult life. I'd presumed to be the lead, simply because I knew I played the lead role in Work, Friend Group, Household, and Relationships (4 very boring shows I wouldn't recommend seeing). A recent switch in roles to, how shall we say, 'stagehand', has brought back my love of acting with a vengeance. I feel like I was destined to be a stagehand, I just had to let go of my pride and take up some new dreams.
If you would like to submit a snippet, choose a prompt from this list and send me a few sentences!
Sunroom WhatsApp Groups
We have 3 WhatsApp groups for people who are single, partnered-n-open, or generally open to making new connections. The groups are designed to get people meeting and connecting around 3 themes. If you’d like to learn more or join, head here.
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Lots of love,