A notification pops up on Ugo’s phone from a girl he’s just matched with.
“You’re a nice piece of chocolate!”
Ugo Peter-Obiagwu is a New York-based model and fitness coach. His match could have used any of this as a starting point for a conversation. But he says messages like this are not unusual.
A 2018 academic paper on bias and discrimination on dating apps found “broad and pervasive inequities in the desire for, and appeal of, users of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds.”
One way these inequities manifest is through fetishization: when someone takes a single aspect of a person’s appearance or identity and sexualizes it.
Ugo’s response is generally to ignore such messages. “It’s clear that it’s not about me, it could be anyone that looks like me,” he says. “So that’s usually when I’m like, ‘all right, I’m out.’”
But it’s not always easy to brush it off. Fetishization can have a deep and lasting impact on people, which is why it’s important to recognize and understand it.
What is fetishization?
Fetishization is the act of making something or someone the object of sexual desire. Fetishes practiced consensually can be fun and healthy. But when people are fetishized without their consent—and assumptions are made about them based on their identity or body—it can be profoundly dehumanizing.
“To be fetishized is someone takes a stereotype and then makes it bigger than what it is, and then that’s the only thing that they’re focused on and that’s the only reason why they want you,” comedian Sydnee Washington says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a black girl. That means you’re loud and you have a lot of personality; you’re sassy.’ And they really don’t want to get to know me at all as a person.”
What fetishization looks like on Bumble
Common experiences of fetishization on dating apps include messages and comments that zone in on one aspect of someone’s identity, such as their race or body type.
“I have definitely had men come to me with this idea that they’re going to check off something on their bucket list. [They say] ‘Oh, I’ve never been with a black woman. I’ve always been intrigued.’ It’s icky,” says writer and activist Raquel Willis.
For fashion and beauty writer Nicolette Mason the red flags are when someone starts a conversation by commenting on her body. “[It’s] anytime someone just automatically goes into fetish mode like, ‘Oh, I love big girls. I love plus size women,’” she says.
Why fetishization is harmful
People often don’t realise this kind of fetishization is often based on, and can perpetuate, racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, or homophobic stereotypes.
Comedian Jenny Yang recalls a man who started a conversation by telling her his last girlfriend was Asian, as though he thought Asian women were interchangeable. “When I feel like I have the energy, I’ve definitely spoken back to people who fetishize me to be like, ‘Do you know how racist that sounds?’” she says.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with admiring and celebrating aspects of someone’s identity. Fetishization happens when people are only doing so for their own gratification, without showing an interest in the needs, desires, and individuality of the person they’re talking to.
“When you’re fetishized, there’s a loss of respect,” says model and activist Richie Shazam. “There’s a taking-away, stripping of that respect and it’s so gut-wrenching because it feels like a loss of humanity.”
Mason agrees: “It kind of feels like stripping the humanity from me and it just turns me into an object. I don’t know that people realize how terrible that can make us feel internally, reduced to pieces and parts.”
Responding to fetishization
Whether you choose to engage or disregard, dealing with fetishization can be exhausting. However members of our community choose to respond, we support you; what’s most important is that each interaction on the app feels appropriate and comfortable. Options include simply blocking the person in question, or reporting them.
Non-consensual fetishization is considered a form of sexual harassment on Bumble. Using the Block and Report feature for unwelcome or non-consensual fetishizing comments or advances may result in that person being given a warning and an opportunity to amend their behavior, or it may lead to them being permanently barred from the platform.