Where Do Our Sexual Preferences Come From, And How Flexible Are They? : Invisibilia A young woman discovers a pattern in her dating habits that disturbs her - a pattern that challenges her very conception of who she is and what she believes in. The realization sets her off on a quest to change her attractions. But is this even possible? And should we be hacking our desire to match our values?

A Very Offensive Rom-Com

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Hey, everybody. It's Alix. Thank you so much for listening to INVISIBILIA. We have a favor to ask, which is that we want to know more about you and how you are listening to INVISIBILIA and other NPR podcasts. So help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey. And thanks.


SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA presents A Very Offensive Rom-Com by producer Yowei Shaw.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The following program contains adult language and sexual content. In other words, it's definitely R-rated.


YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: A couple years ago, I was on a date at the art museum. We were walking home from the trolley stop. And I could not for the life of me break away. Yes, I needed to pee so badly my leg was shaking. And yes, it was my birthday. And I was already an hour late to my own party. But my attraction was so overpowering and intoxicating that I needed to maximize any time I had in this person's presence, even if it meant hugging goodbye then running the last few blocks to my house as if my pants were on fire and not about to be drenched in piss, which, by the time I got to my doorstep, they were.

But I didn't care. I took it as a sign because for most of my life, this is how I thought attraction worked, what I'd been taught by romantic comedies and songs and my own experience. Attraction was a natural force beyond your control, something with its own mysterious logic. And when you were lucky enough to be struck by that bolt of lightning, you should just be grateful.


SHAW: But in the summer of 2018, I got an email from a stranger that made me wonder if all this time I'd been wrong, which brings me to the strange romantic comedy I'm about to tell you and the charmingly flawed character at the center of it.

L: Let me know if I have to readjust.

SHAW: A 25-year-old woman with a long, shiny ponytail - I'm going to call her L, by her first initial, to protect her privacy because she'd gotten in touch with me about a problem she was having with her sexual attractions - a problem I don't think many people would willingly admit out loud, let alone discuss in detail on a podcast. And she'd come up with this really wild solution that I just had never heard before. To explain how L got there, we need to start in high school at the bottom of a blue staircase.

L: I was there first, waiting for him. I was standing at the bottom, which was close to, like, the swimming pool, so chlorine was in the air. It was a little bit damp and humid - very sexy place to go make-out (ph) in high school, I guess.

SHAW: This was not going to be just any make-out session. This was going to be L's very first kiss. And since one of L's charming flaws was being an overzealous planner, L says of course she prepared, crowdsourced advice. Just what do you do with your body?

L: I'm sure he's kissed a lot of girls. I'm going to, like - I'm not going to be good.

SHAW: The guy was this break dancer in the year above, and she really liked him. They'd been texting for months, playfully trading insults. And she just appreciated his ability to work a tube of hair gel.

L: And I, like, don't even think we exchanged words before he, like, leans in and, like, sticks his tongue into my mouth. Oh, my God. It was - everything was so uncomfortable - so, so, so, so, so uncomfortable.

SHAW: No attraction at all, no...

L: No. I was like, how do I get out of this? (Laughter) Like, let's get - I need to go.


SHAW: First kisses are not usually something to pin on the fridge. But for L, the problem didn't end there. Over the next several years, a curious pattern began to emerge. She'd crush on a cute guy, memorize his class schedule so she'd happen to bump into him. But when she got to the kiss or, really, any physical contact, she'd recoil because - no magical spark, even with guys she liked. L started to think she might be asexual, just different from the people around her.

L: I don't - I have no sexual desire. I don't feel anything.

SHAW: Until freshman year of college - she was at a yakisoba tasting event. And a tall boy in a flannel-adjacent shirt sat across from her. They started hanging out. And one night, they had sex. And finally, it hit her - a desire she could not control.

L: I would be, like, sitting in class. I just could not stop thinking about having sex. (Laughter) You can't concentrate. And you're sitting there, and you're thinking about sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. You're thinking about the sex that you just had. You're thinking about how you can have sex again, like, in the immediate future. It was, like, all I could think about for at least, you know, the first month, probably. And like, honestly, I had a much higher libido than he did.

SHAW: L even had a special word for this new feeling - obsexxed (ph).


L: (Singing) Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.

This is what sexual desire feels like. I shouldn't settle for anything that's not this feeling. It's out there. It's possible. It's not something I should have to force. And it's not something I want to force.


SHAW: (Singing) Obsexxed.

L: (Singing) I just could not stop - sex.

SHAW: (Singing) Obsexxed.

L: (Singing) I just could not stop - sex. I just could not stop.

SHAW: (Singing) Obsexxed.

L: (Singing) I just could not stop.

SHAW: (Singing) Obsexxed.

This is why it was all the more upsetting when, in 2013, L discovered the problem that would derail her newfound sexual desire. She was in her sophomore year procrastinating yet again on Reddit. And she happened upon a thread about sexual attraction. One of the posters was asking people what races they were most sexually attracted to. And L was like, interesting question. She'd only dated white guys. But she posted...

L: I'm mostly attracted to white and Asian guys. But, you know, I'd like to be open-minded.

SHAW: When you were participating in that conversation, when you made that post, did you think it was, like, no big deal?

L: I thought it was so innocuous, just like, oh, yeah, this is me participating in the survey.

SHAW: No big deal until the next day, when L noticed someone had replied to her comment.

L: Oh, so you won't date brown guys or black guys.


L: I was just, like, oh. Like, I think you're mistaken. Like, oh, no, like, I'm not racist. I said I'm open-minded to dating other people.

SHAW: In fact, at the time, L saw herself as the opposite of racist - someone working to build a world free of racism, of all the isms. She'd been raised by a working-class, single mom who'd emigrated from China. And L was proud to be Chinese-American. She was studying gender in college through an intersectional lens, learning about systematic oppression and white privilege. Plus, she was creating safe spaces online for other Asian-American women to process the racism and misogyny they had to deal with every day, so the call-out blindsided her.

Was this the first time that you had recognized that there was a pattern to who you were attracted to and that it had been pointed out to you as maybe wrong?

L: With the exception of me being like, oh, it looks like I'm only kissing Jewish boys, probably, yeah. (Laughter) Like, that was sort of a joking moment of, oh, like, this is an interesting pattern. But I didn't think there was anything wrong with it.


SHAW: But someone on the Reddit thread would not let it go. It seemed to be a man. And her attraction to white guys seemed to be the trigger. He began to dog L all around Reddit. L said she'd be in her favorite Asian female subreddit complaining about yellow fever and the exotification of Asian women, which she'd experienced herself with her first boyfriend, a guy who once joked that he dated a girl from almost every country in Asia.

L: And this random user would pipe in. But, like, yeah. But, like, you said that you're only attracted to white guys. So doesn't that make you just as bad?

SHAW: L begin to suspect that the commenter was like herself, an East Asian person. She'd see him consistently post in Asian-American subreddits, going after other Asian women. And it seemed like the real beef he had was about her dating white guys instead of Asian guys, that he was part of a dark corner of the Internet made up of angry Asian men who blame and harass Asian women for dating anyone outside their race, in particular white guys, a special variety of the manosphere now called men's rights Asians. Some of it can get so scary it takes your breath away. There are entire forums bubbling with viscerally hateful misogyny that peddle conspiracy theories about self-hating Asian women trying to bring down Asian men by not sleeping with them.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Shameless Asian women love colonial white dick.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: Half-Asian women are also self-hating and want to be white as badly as their mothers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why would I respect a woman who has white fever? Oh, that's right. I don't.

SHAW: I've heard about Asian women getting rape threats, getting doxed.

L: You're, like, disgusting and dirty. The only people who want to you are, like, dirty, perverted white men.

SHAW: In L's case, she continued to post on Reddit. Her personal troll multiplied into other trolls, dozens of disturbing messages, photos, tags, memes, even a thinly veiled death threat.

L: I felt very attacked about something that I felt like I shouldn't have been attacked over.

SHAW: And was part of you also just like, and don't police my bedroom choices?

L: Oh, yeah. You know, it seemed like this was, like, a very, like - just a misogynistic thing that's like - to yell at women for who they're choosing to date, who they're choosing to sleep with. And I was like, f*** that.


SHAW: Besides, L thought she was just following that hard-won physical spark because that's what people do in the 21st century in America. They sleep with people they're naturally attracted to. Sexual attraction just happened to you, an inexplicable, biological force that shouldn't be questioned and definitely not shamed...


SHAW: ...Or at least, that's the story in our culture - a romantic story that, I think, prevents us from looking at all the crud that lies beneath.


C: So my sister had a no-dating-Asians policy. I'm sure you've probably heard of that, and other people have held this as well.

SHAW: This is C, an Asian man in his 20s I'm calling by his first initial. We're going to get back to L. But I'm going to tell you about C now because even though he's not a men's rights Asian, he has a story that helps me understand the roots of that toxic anger - a story that just really challenges this romantic way of thinking about attraction. It starts when C was 12 on a morning when he was standing outside the bathroom in his house, waiting for his mom and older sister to finish blow-drying their hair. And that's when he heard something that shocked him.

C: That's when, I think, I overheard my sister saying, the guy that, like, I'm interested in is - you know, he's a white guy. You know, I would never date an Asian guy. They're just, like, unattractive. Ew (ph), I just don't prefer them. They're just - it's just my preference.

SHAW: What was running through your head when you were hearing your own sister say these things?

C: If my own race looks at Asian guys as being, you know, undesirable a gross or unattractive, then what do white girls think of me?

SHAW: It hurts me to hear this. But honestly, in reporting this story, I heard plenty of horror stories from Asian guys about getting rejected because of their race, rejected by both Asian and white women. So I wanted to know - how often are Asian men getting this kind of treatment? I looked into it. And first off, it's important to know that Asians, like all other races, end up with their own race most at the time. But there is some data to show something is going on.

For example, in terms of marriage in 2015, there were more than twice as many white-male-Asian-female newlyweds than the other way around. But it's not necessarily the behavior of Asian men and women that creates such an imbalance. It might be how people from other races respond to them. I went back to an online dating study of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. from 2013. And it showed that in general, when Asians reach out, white men do respond to Asian women, while white women don't respond to Asian men. And when white men reach out to Asian women, like all women of color in the study, Asian women tend to respond to white men over men of their own race. So yes, there are these patterns.

But if you ask why any two people get together, it's just so complicated. Who you end up with is a function of so many factors. Maybe it's about acquiring status in a world where whiteness is the norm. Maybe it's pure proximity, who's in your social circles, who reciprocates or the fact that the U.S. is a majority-white country, and Asians make up 6 percent of the population. And this is such an emotionally charged subject in the Asian-American community that just trying to report this story has already gotten me called out. Last summer, I posted on Reddit looking for Asian women who were thinking about why they only dated white men - what I thought was a legitimate reporter's question. But almost immediately, it exploded in my face. There was a Twitter campaign to shut the story down. A lot of Asian women and men were angry because they said I was giving fuel to the toxic narrative that men's rights Asians use to harass women.

And then because it's the Internet, there was a campaign to shut down the shutdown from Asian men who wanted these questions explored. And they were really rooting for me, which is both troubling and a bit funny because I, too, am one of those statistics. I'm an Asian woman with a white guy, someone I might marry. While I've dated men of other races, including Asian guys, white men make up most of the inventory - not on purpose or anything. And for the past year, I've been wondering, is my attraction, my inner feeling about who I want to be with really mine? Does it come from inside? Me or somewhere else?


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And now we have an incredibly reductive history of how the poison of white supremacy sexualized Asian women and emasculated men through systematic U.S. policy. It comes to us with help from Asian-American studies professor Susan Koshy and is read, to make it go down more easily, by the Asian-American actor and heartthrob from "Glee," Harry Shum Jr.

HARRY SHUM JR: (Reading) Yeah, it's me. In 1875, the page law effectively banned single Chinese women from entering the U.S. because they were assumed to be, in the words of one influential white man, prostitutes of the basis (ph) order who would corrupt and contaminate white boys.


PAPILLON SOO: (As Da Nang Hooker) Me love you long time.

SHUM JR: (Reading) And thus, the fantasy of the hypersexual, immoral Asian woman got the backing of the U.S. government.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right, then. I can't accept your way of life. ***


SHUM JR: (Reading) This fantasy continued to grow wings in the 20th century, when the U.S. fought wars in Asia, giving white soldiers easy access to Asian women.


MATTHEW MODINE: (As Private Joker) How much?

SOO: (As Da Nang Hooker) Fifteen dollar.

SHUM JR: (Reading) Then a funny thing happened. In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed U.S. soldiers to bring Asian wives to the U.S.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And I'm planning to marry a Japanese girl myself.

SHUM JR: (Reading) And Asian femininity entered the mainstream going from prostitutes and concubines to wifeys.


JAMIE FARR: (As Maxwell Klinger) I love you, Soon-Lee. Will you marry me?

ROSALIND CHAO: (As Soon-Lee) Yes.


SHUM JR: (Reading) Whereas Asian guys - remember that early ban on single Chinese women?


SOO: (As Da Nang Hooker) Me so horny.

SHUM JR: (Reading) Well, that law also meant the first Chinese men in the U.S. had almost no Chinese women to marry. And thanks to anti-miscegenation laws in many states, it was illegal to have relationships outside their race, either. Men lived together because they weren't able to have families.


SHUM JR: (Reading) And though the first generation of Asian migrants were mostly manly manual laborers who were villainized in newspapers as sexual predators, later generations were forced take on so-called women's work - washing clothes and laundries, cooks, house boys, domestic servants.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I worked for him for 37 years, and now he's dead. Boo hoo hoo.

SHUM JR: (Reading) So for all intents and purposes, the first Chinese men in this country were legislated to become emasculated...


SHUM JR: (Reading) ...At least by white, heteronormative standards.


CARLIN GLYNN: (As Brenda Baker) The weird Chinese guy in Mike's room.

SHUM JR: (Reading) It's like cause and effect got flipped. Laws helped create the conditions for Asian-American men to be seen as emasculated. And then those conditions came to define who they were, became the attributes associated with them, especially East Asian men. Then, of course, this sexualized stereotype was sampled and remixed by a white hegemonic popular culture over the years. Like the sexually inept loser a Long Duk Dong from "Sixteen Candles"...


GEDDE WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) What's happening, hot stuff?

SHUM JR: (Reading) ...Or "Romeo Must Die," the martial arts take on Romeo and Juliet where the one kissing scene between Jet Li and Aaliyah reportedly got cut because it didn't test well with audiences?


SHUM JR: (Reading) Or the never ending bad jokes about Asian guys and their penis size which still play at comedy clubs today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Looking at you, Louis C.K.


LOUIS CK: You know why Asian guys have small dicks? Because they're women - they're not dudes.


CK: They're all women. All Asians are women.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Laughter) That's f***ed up.

CK: They have big clits - really big clits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Laughter) That's so f***ed up.

CK: And when they have sex, they just stick their...

SHAW: Now, I'm obviously not saying that every white-male/Asian-female couple is a product of white supremacy. And really, I could have written a version of this history for any racial group in America. But just from my reporting on Asians, I can tell you that the consequences of these stereotypes are very real and damaging, like with C, the guy with the older sister you heard from earlier. C says he can't count the number of times he's heard someone say they wouldn't date an Asian guy. And when he would try talking to white girls he was crushing on?

C: Disdain is the word that I've come to use to describe this over time. They just viewed me with disdain. They were like, why are you even talking to me? Like, is this a joke? This Asian guy is, like, sexually interested, or has, like, romantic thoughts or anything (laughter) like that?

SHAW: So when he was around 15, C had a violent reaction. He told me that for a while he began to identify himself as a white supremacist - an Asian white supremacist. I know. It didn't make much sense to me either at first. Basically, to make the painful stereotypes more palatable, he swallowed an entire vial of white poison himself. He says his teenage brain needed a scientific explanation for why Asian guys were seen as inferior.

So when he came across some white supremacy literature on the Internet claiming that the reason Asian dudes were unattractive was because they had less testosterone, he felt like he now had an explanation for his experience. And it became his entire identity - being the one Asian who knew how much all other Asians sucked, like the Chinese girl in gym class he liked to make fun of and tell people that she smelled.

C: I know that sounds insane, but I literally would sit in our class and just speak aloud. And everyone could hear me in the class. And I would talk about the racial hierarchy.

SHAW: Wow. Did you ever get - did anyone ever try to fight you or beat you up or, like, punch you?

C: I would always, like, leverage my Asian-ness in my defense. I'd be like, you realize that I'm Asian, right? And, like, teachers would never think I'd do anything wrong.

SHAW: On the outside, C was all aggressive race truther. But on the inside, the poison was eating him away - even making him hurt his body to try to look more white.

C: I have problems breathing through my nose. And I don't know if it's because I inherited this or it was because - for a time throughout high school I, used to take one of those paperclips, like the black ones...

SHAW: Yeah.

C: ...With, like, the two handles...

SHAW: Yeah.

C: ...Or whatever. And I used to put that over the bridge of my nose to try to straighten it...

SHAW: (Sighs).

C: And I'm afraid that I've, like, damaged the cartilage in my nose as a result.

SHAW: How long did you do that for?

C: I used to do it - oh, man, at least like a year or something - a year or two.

SHAW: Oh, my God. I feel like I did something with my eyes.

C: Uh-huh (ph).

SHAW: Like trying to get the double eyelid...

C: Yeah.

SHAW: ...Using my nail to, like, indent my eyelid.

C: Oh, wow.


SHAW: C is no longer a white supremacist. He developed a crush on an Asian girl for the first time and, eventually, came across enough examples of hot Asian male celebrities which proved to him that, in fact, not all Asians suck. And therefore, he didn't have to suck. He had an antidote to the poison. But purging yourself isn't always easy, as L came to understand one night in late 2014, when she discovered the poison inside herself. She was lying in bed, swiping with her index finger on Tinder.

L: So what I thought I was just doing was paying attention to the guys, like, I found attractive. But with just one thing, I started to realize - as I was swiping past faces - was that it was, like, almost this instantaneous thing where I would see, like, a black face or, like, someone who looked like Latinx and I would, like, almost instinctually start to swipe. I was unconsciously, like, rejecting people because of, literally, like, the color of their skin. I was literally giving white faces a chance that I was not giving black and Latinx faces.


SHAW: L was so ashamed, she had a hard time typing the words when she texted her friend.

L: Like, holy shit, like, I just realized I'm doing this. And they were like, I feel like I do the same thing.

SHAW: So L and her friend texted their other friends, a group of mostly Asian-American women.

L: That was just kind of like this point where we had this realization, like whoa, none of us have had sex with, like, a person of color. Isn't that weird?

SHAW: Even Asian guys who L always thought she'd been attracted to, but for some reason didn't swipe right that much on and never ended up dating.

L: It was never going to that next step. Like, I was never hooking up with them. I was, like, weirdly stuck in this comfort zone of these, like, white guys - whether it was because, you know, they approached me, whether it was because they were the people I was around, that was just what I had gotten used to.

SHAW: It was the first time she recognized that she was unknowingly passing over men of color for white guys.

L: Yeah, I felt really bad about myself. I just felt - I felt like I had really viewed myself as someone who cared about treating people equally and just doing my best to fight against, I guess, like, racism - because, you know, I was like, I'm a woman of color. Like, I care deeply about this. And so I think this had a realization that I had definitely internalized a lot of this racism. And it shook me - made me feel bad.


SHAW: Now, there are lots of paths L could have taken at this point. She could have tackled the real problem - you know, overhaul the entire system of white supremacy and patriarchy - or she could have said, I'm just a cog in the machine who's also being oppressed. But that's not what rom-com heroines do, especially not overzealous-planner types. So L fixated on the one tiny thing she could control - her own dating patterns - not to make the trolls happy but to get right with herself.

L: I'd basically decided I was just like, I think I need to stop dating white men.

SHAW: And one night, after an inadvisable amount of wine and manic group texting, the same group of friends who were going through a similar awakening speculated with L about who would be the first person to change.

L: Like, OK. But who do we think is going to be the first person to, like, hook up with a person of color? And so we kind of all universally, like, agreed on an order. And they put me as last (laughter). And I felt so, like, defensive about it. I was like, why? And they were like, well, you go to a super-white school. And I'm like, yeah, but our one friend hasn't even had sex yet.

SHAW: I know this sounds incredibly icky. Every time I tell the story, this is the moment people audibly groan. But L says her friends were mostly joking - egging her on in the offensive way that friends do sometimes - whereas L was dead serious about the larger mission at hand.


SHAW: She needed to decolonize her desire, fight back against centuries of racist U.S. policies, Western colonialism and way too many romantic comedies starring moderately attractive white guys. She was going to sleep her way out of her prejudice.


SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA continues in a moment.


SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. Yowei now continues with her story.

SHAW: In your typical rom-com, when the charmingly flawed main character comes face to face with an ugly realization about herself, she often comes up with a ludicrous Bridget Jones-esque self-improvement program - some systematic way to overcome the problem she's uncovered. But how do you systematically overcome a system? It was a challenge. But if there was one thing that L, the overzealous planner, knew how to do, it was design a way to accomplish a personal goal. And so after graduating from college in 2016, L devised an entire personal detox program to get rid of the white poison - a personal detox program complete with guidelines.


SHAW: Step one - bombard your brain with images of hot men of color - lots of images of hot men of color. In L's case, her particular medicine was Morris Chestnut, who, in the Fox TV show "Rosewood," plays a forensic pathologist who jets around shirtless in Miami and somehow manages to make even a fedora look good.


MORRIS CHESTNUT: (As Dr. Beaumont Rosewood) ...Considered by some to be the Beethoven of private pathologists.

JAINA LEE ORTIZ: (As Detective Annalise Villa) Did you really just say that out loud?

SHAW: Step two - prosecute your attraction to white boys. Be suspicious. Ask the hard questions. For example, is that guy you like from gender studies class actually hot or does he just have cool glasses and regularly take showers?

L: I remember thinking like, but why do you like him so much? He's - honestly, like - it's just, like, he's so basic. If I was walking down the street and I saw him, I would not pinpoint him as like, you are a credit to your species.

SHAW: Step three - try to swipe left on white.

L: He is just here to f***. Shmeh (ph).

SHAW: So when the white guy pops up in your Tinder feed who's photoshopped his naked torso to a horse galloping in a snowy field...

So are you going to swipe right or left?

L: Hell nah (ph).

SHAW: And when you see a brown dude who's holding a desk lamp in his profile pic and says he's too tall to comfortably hug?

L: Then I would stop and like, look at you. Just really give a hard look - the whole picture. I'm only here for your bearded, brown daddy Tinder needs.

SHAW: Step four - do not disclose about the experiment - at least on the first date or several first dates.

L: The reason I'm doing this - right? - is because I want to fully humanize people. And I don't want to make you feel like an experiment. I think that would be horrible.

SHAW: OK, let's pause for a sec to address a few things. For someone trying to fully humanize men of color, L had chosen a very puzzling method. It's easy to make the argument that the program was actually so highly dehumanizing it kind of makes your stomach hurt. In fact, when you add up the competition - the program, the experiment and all the objectification and questionable behavior - the whole thing was starting to feel like every rom-com trope rolled into one film, except the most offensive possible version of that movie.

L: Well, no. I feel like in the rom-com, I think she would end up with, like, a white guy.

SHAW: So yes, it was all that. But also, L thought the program was teaching her to see in an entirely new way...


SHAW: ...To notice all the incredibly attractive men she'd somehow missed on the streets before.

L: Oh, yeah.

SHAW: But here's my question. Can you even do this?

L: Mostly focus on glasses.

SHAW: Like, once your attractions have been programmed by your cultural bubble, not just with race but things like body size and hair color, can you change them?

L: I was kind of looking at that guy that had the cat backpack.

SHAW: Wait. Where?

Even if L was now noticing all the hot non-white men in the world, would that translate into feeling obsexxed with them?

L: Oh, yeah - stylish.

SHAW: I started calling around to sex researchers. But before I tell you what I found out, one quick note. Basically, all the researchers I spoke to told me there's a huge difference between something like sexual orientation and racial preference. Sexual orientation is much more biologically based, whereas race is, essentially, a category we created that reinforces a social hierarchy. It's not written into your genes, even if sometimes you feel a racial preference strongly.

JIM PFAUS: Once it's conditioned, I think attraction feels inflexible, right? I mean, because you know what you're attracted to. And you can just try to say, I'm not. I'm not. I'm not. I'm not, and you still are.

SHAW: Jim Pfaus is a neurobiology researcher in sexuality, currently at the University of Veracruz. I went searching for studies that look at whether we can consciously change our racial preferences. And I'm sad to say, though there is a ton of interesting work, I could not find a single study that directly speaks to this question. But Jim has done many studies, mostly with rats, trying to understand how sexual preferences on the level of skin color or dimples could work.

And he has a theory about why they might be hard to change. It has to do with the realization he had one day while biking home from the lab. They were working on a study. And a group of perfectly healthy male rats was unexpectedly refusing to have sex with female rats when all placed together in an open-field chamber.

PFAUS: So I thought, well, this is really strange. Like, what the hell?

SHAW: And then it hit Jim. The rats had only ever had sex before with a jacket on - a tiny, Velcro vest with a leash to keep them from crawling all over each other.

PFAUS: And I just turn my bike around. I almost got hit by a car. And I bike back as quick as I can. We put the jackets on them, and they all copulated, regardless of the chamber.


SHAW: Jim later did a formal control group study, and he found the same thing.

SHAW: The male rats that had their first ejaculations with the jacket on needed the jacket later to, you know, do the thing. But when Jim put the jacket on rats that were sexually experienced no matter what situation he created, there was no way he could make jackets critical for arousal.

PFAUS: If they've had sex before, even once to one ejaculation, it's very difficult to now make the association.

SHAW: All of which taught Jim an important lesson.

PFAUS: A rat's evolutionary history - there's no jacket, OK? We can't go back 60,000 years and find a jacket. So the brain is - for sex, is clearly being dominated by learning. What you learn during these early experiences changes the brain, and you are forever changed.


SHAW: Jim knows there's only so much you can generalize from rats to people. As you might imagine, it's not exactly ethical to do these kinds of studies with sexually naive humans. But when it comes to sex, Jim says our brains apparently work in some important similar ways. And just like with the rats in the jacket, Jim thinks your early sexual experiences with pleasure are critical in determining which preferences get set in the first place.


SHAW: Whenever you have your first sexual experience with pleasure, whether it's at age 14 or 40, your brain is activating two key chemicals - dopamine and oxytocin, affectionately known as the love chemicals. Together, they increase pleasure and desire, arousal and bonding. And once you experience their effects, you'll never forget the type of person that made it all happen.

PFAUS: Oh, my God, look at that chin dimple. Oh, my God, look at that - the way her nose flares. Oh, my God. Now you become consciously aware because you're concentrating so much on what this person looks like and talks like and sounds like and smells like and feels like, et cetera.

SHAW: Your brain will now associate that chin dimple or nose flare with pleasure. And you will now pay more attention to those traits in the future.

PFAUS: And once you seal it with pleasure - whatever that pleasure might be. But let's say, the pleasure of having one or 10 orgasms...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing) Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring.

PFAUS: ...You personify the reward. The reward is now imbued in person characteristics.

SHAW: And if you repeat the pleasure with that person or set of characteristics over and over again...

PFAUS: It's going to get way stronger. Yeah. And again, you're building the foundation of your attraction pattern.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing) Ring, ring, ring.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing) Ring, ring.


SHAW: I have to say I did not enjoy hearing about Jim's theory on the primacy of first experiences. It was downright depressing. What if you didn't like the way your first experiences with pleasure had programmed you, the way the culture, your family or environment had pointed you towards certain fantasies, certain body types, certain races?

Initially, it felt like bad news for L's experiment - bad news for possibly a lot of us out there. But then, Jim threw in a little good news. He says you can't subtract what's already been laid down, but you can probably add new preferences by exposing yourself to new kinds of people - just like L.

L: OK. Yes, I noticed that person.

PFAUS: It's iterative. So the very things that you find attractive can actually shift over time with new experiences.

L: I noticed that guy.

SHAW: What about him?

L: I find it an interesting choice that he has his hood up under a, like, tweed coat - or not tweed, but, like, a peacoat.


So will L be able to slap her desire into submission and discover new attractions? And should she even try? When INVISIBILIA returns.


SHAW: The actual dating part of L's experiment began, perhaps appropriately, in the city of love, Paris. It was here that L met a man on Bumble. And she met an American guy who worked in tech, and he seemed to tick all her boxes.

L: He was, like, funny. He was sweet, really respectful towards his - like, his mother. Isn't this a great smile?

SHAW: One of their dates was the textbook definition of romance.


L: We were, like, walking by the sand. It was night. Everything was lit up. It was just about to turn 11 p.m. or something. And we were in viewing distance of the Eiffel Tower. So I said, oh, let's stop right now because something's going to happen in a few minutes. And so then, you know, the clock strikes 11, and the Eiffel Tower, like, glitters.

SHAW: So L really wanted to feel something when she later kissed him on the lips.

What did you feel?

L: Like, nothing at all. It was the least sexual kiss I've ever had in my whole life. But I was kind of drunk. And I was like, let me try again. So we, like, probably made out like three times that night, but each full of nothingness.


SHAW: There was the guy she met outside the bar one night who she was really excited about. When they got together, she even made her mom's pork and eggplant dish with jalapenos to impress him. But the sex ended up being pretty meh, thanks in part to a mistake L made.

L: After our encounter, he was just, like, oh, I felt that, by the way. I was like what? And he was like, the pepper on your hand (laughter).

SHAW: Where did he feel it?

L: On his penis.

SHAW: L went on another date.

L: OK, that was fine.

SHAW: And another date.

L: Meh.

SHAW: Dating started to feel like working on a factory line, picking up and putting down interchangeable man widgets, each new face, a series of questions and racial checkboxes.


L: I feel like I am now in a new trap.

SHAW: It's been two years since the experiment began. While there have been long stretches of no dating, L told me her overall stats - five first dates with black guys, one with a half-Asian, half-white dude, only made it to three second dates.

L: I feel like I have potentially - maybe overcorrected in a very specific type now. Like, it's not, like, an even mix of the races. It's, like, pretty specific.

SHAW: Mostly black men, in fact.

L: It does raise that flag for me because I think that's something that's like - that also acutely affects, like, black men. And I don't want to be perpetuating that either.

SHAW: The great irony being that in trying to decolonize her desire and open herself up to men of color, L ended up jumping into another stream of systemic racism with a long, ugly history - going from unconsciously discriminating against black men in dating to unconsciously targeting them.

L: Yeah, it's so ironic that in your quest to, like...

SHAW: (Laughter) Yeah.

L: ...Escape one racial preference, you feel like you might be falling into this new racial preference...

SHAW: Yeah.

L: ...Like a new kind of fetish.

SHAW: Yeah.

L is more or less aware of the absurdity of her quest. But instead of giving it up, she's now trying to course correct. She recently added a filter to her dating app so she'd only see the profiles of Asian men because it just feels politically safer for now. But even throwing the distressing fetishization of black men aside for a moment...

I mean, so do you feel like you can? Like, have you been able to change who you're attracted to?

L: I really don't know. I feel like I feel the initial stages of desire now for people that maybe I otherwise wouldn't have. But ultimately, like, when I'm talking about all these experiences, none of them have been, like, this is mind-blowing sex. Like, this is, like, physical attraction. Like, wow, I can't stop thinking about wanting to, like, sleep with this person. Like, I'm not there.

SHAW: Two years - it feels...

L: I mean...

SHAW: It feels like a long time to not feel...

L: You're telling me (laughter).

SHAW: ...To feel the feelings.

L: Yeah, so that does alarm me sometimes. That does alarm me.


SHAW: I'm not sure what to think of L's experiment. When I tell people about it, I always get the same disgusted, judgmental reaction because, yes, it is offensive. I know that to a lot of people, the whole idea of taking on racism through dating and using men of color for your I-don't-want-to-be-a-racist project is a complete non-starter if not radically wrong.

But I still think it's kind of brave - brave to take on your prejudices so explicitly in the most intimate parts of yourself, especially when there's no road map to help you do it. At the very least, it's definitely not lazy. She's setting sail to a place I'm not sure many people have gone. But the question remains, should they even go there? Should we be hacking our desire into the exact shape of our values?

I'm no expert, but I found someone who is. And it turns out, L accidentally stumbled into some good practices, like exposing herself to new kinds of media and people and inserting a pause to interrogate your attractions and implicit bias, and also some less good ones.

RUSSELL ROBINSON: Like, I mean, how horrible might that feel for a man to feel like she's only with me because she's trying to change her preferences?

SHAW: This is Russell Robinson, a professor at Berkeley Law School who, for the past 10 years, has been teaching students about the ways in which social structures influence our romantic choices. He's a really good person to make sense of all this because he's had to deal with racial preferences himself, a discovery he made when he first came out as a gay man and was living in LA, going out to bars.

ROBINSON: And I thought, OK. I'm ready. And my community is waiting for me (laughter), you know? And so I get all dressed up. And I go there. And, you know, I would see attractive black men. And I would try to catch their eye and try to smile. And I noticed that they would sort of look the other way and sometimes even have a look of disgust on their face.


ROBINSON: And so I felt like, wait a minute. What's going on? And so after a while, I realized, like, oh. They're not here looking for other black men the way that I am. They're looking for white men, and they see me as a threat.

SHAW: For Russell, the question of should is clear. He does not think L's experiment should be the model. But he does think we should all absolutely be rethinking our racial preferences or fetishes if we have them because these preferences in aggregate have real consequences and are limiting the happiness and romantic options of other people.

ROBINSON: There are few things more important in life than picking a partner or a spouse, building a life with somebody. And the idea that certain categories of people like black women are less likely to find that partner simply because they're black women is very disturbing. I have four nieces, so I'm deeply invested in them being happy and being adored. They're all wonderful.


SHAW: Do students ever feel like you are trying to police their desire?

ROBINSON: I try to focus more on asking questions than telling them the answers. I can't tell the student who they should date. I don't believe in any sort of firm rules, like everybody must be open to every race or everybody must stay within their race. So it's not really about trying to establish categorical rules. It's more about self-insight and self-understanding.

SHAW: His position is, basically, we live in a structurally racist world, so the solution isn't to shame individuals for their romantic choices. And, really, who can say why any couple gets together? And so there's a huge danger in reading the race of anyone's partner as a proxy for their racial politics. Instead, just ask yourself, are you being the person you want to be in your sexual life? Like, just take a look at your romantic trajectory. What are the patterns? And try to understand what might be shaping them.

ROBINSON: Might you rethink that, might you expose yourself to different types of people and try to shed the bias that has created those preferences, if that's the reason behind the preferences.

SHAW: Russell doesn't even think having a racial preference is necessarily wrong. You might have very good reasons for having one, as long as it's not based in racial stereotype, including stereotypes about white people. He told me this story about a student that, I think, perfectly sums up his philosophy. One day in class, a Latina student told Russell she can never date a white man because a white man could never see her as fully human, which Russell could totally empathize with. But still...

ROBINSON: I pressed the student. And I said, like, wait. You're saying it's impossible. Like, there's not one white man in this world that could see you as human. And she insisted that that's not possible. And so I told that to my dear friend, who is herself Latina. And she said, you just know the universe is going to send her an amazing white man, (laughter) you know? So I like that idea that, like, you know, establishing these rules and thinking that, you know, you figured it out, it's like then life happens.


SHAW: And that is what happened with L. Life happened. A few months after our interview, L told me she had some news.

L: I mean, I went on this one date. And very shockingly, I thought it went, like, super well. Well, basically, we've been - you know, we've been, like, dating for two months.

SHAW: The person L is dating, she met him on the Internet - a Chinese-American guy, who, right away, reminded her of the beefcake character Josh Chan from the TV show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."

L: He had great arms.

SHAW: Outside the coffee shop, she found herself stealing glances at him, being hyper-aware of his bicep, grazing her arm in the theater on their second date. The chemistry is, in L's words, off the charts. She's definitely obsexxed.


L: (Singing) Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex...

He's really, really nice. He's really, really, really, really, really nice. He's just...

SHAW: Oh, my gosh. You really like him.

L: I know. I feel like...

SHAW: You're glowing.

L: I know. It's kind of disgusting.

SHAW: And it's not just the physical spark. She loves how he remembers which plays she wants to go see, that he speaks Mandarin Chinese better than she does and just understands when she accidentally says (speaking Mandarin) for knife.

Does this mean that you have successfully accomplished your goal?

L: That's certainly one way of looking at it.


SHAW: You could say this isn't really a win. I mean, L had been attracted to Asian guys in the first place. But L just feels lucky to have found someone she clicks with, someone she might not have met if it weren't for her program.

L: I just feel like maybe with just, like, the numbers game, I don't - maybe he wouldn't have appeared on my roster. Just maybe, like, I would have matched a lot of these other white boys, and maybe I would have talked to them first.

SHAW: The only wrinkle was that L still hadn't told her Josh Chan look-alike about the experiment.

L: My great fear, perhaps, in telling him is that he would think that, oh, like, you're not actually attracted to me. You're only doing this because of an experiment. Like, nothing could be farther from the truth.

SHAW: Are you worried that he might feel, you know, used?

L: I hope not.

SHAW: Yeah.


SHAW: But the next day, I got a text from L. She told him. There was no dramatic running involved, no airport scene, no getting soaked in the rain. There wasn't even any fighting. It was like the anti-rom-com ending. When girl told boy about experiment, boy did not get mad. He didn't even seem miffed. Boy was patient and understanding. And then boy asked, but it's not like having a preference makes you a racist, right?


SPIEGEL: That's producer Yowei Shaw.


SPIEGEL: You should stick around for a sneak peek of next week's episode. We'll be right back.


ROSIN: When I was a kid, empathy was an unquestioned good, like puppies or sunshine. Of course, you were supposed to try and empathize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: And that was always the idea that had the Germans had had more empathy in the 1930s, Hitler would not have happened. The genocide would not have happened. Empathy was kind of seen as the hope against all of these kind of things.

ROSIN: But these days, people have lost patience with empathy. So when researchers ask questions like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I often have tender concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.

ROSIN: The answer is more often no - disagree.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Overall, we found a 40 percent decline in empathy.

ROSIN: Forty percent?


ROSIN: Isn't that a lot?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It feels like a lot.

ROSIN: But here's the glitch - for us, anyway. INVISIBILIA is a show that runs on empathy. We believe in it. So are we right? Next week, we'll let you decide. You'll hear the story of a guy named Jack, who at first, says terrible things about women...

JACK: The femoids should f***ing die. I hope they all go terminal. Every woman is a whore.

ROSIN: ...But then redeems himself - or at least we think so. But other people disagree.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I think the first version of this story is the version that Jack believes, but that version is a lie.

ROSIN: But as I said, you can decide. So tune in next week on INVISIBILIA.


SPIEGEL: All right. That's our show for today. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Cara Tallo is our executive producer.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle, assisted by B.A. Parker and Liza Yeager. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: We had help from Leena Sanzgiri, Julie Carli, David Guthertz (ph), Taylor Haney, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Kyle Pulley (ph), Allison Baker (ph) and Greta Pittenger.

SPIEGEL: Our technical director is Andy Huether. Our vice president of programming is on Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Harry Shum Jr., Morgan Givens and Steve Inskeep for their voice acting, Susan Koshy, Ken-Hou Lin (ph), Rosalind Chao, Lisa Diamond (ph), Denton Callander (ph) and so many experts for talking to us about their research. And to Chris J. Lee (ph) and Kenny Lu (ph) and the many, many people who shared their experiences and thoughts with us, thank you.

ROSIN: And to Robert Baldwin III, Ailsa Chang, Jaron Chu (ph), J.C. Howard, Jess Jiang, Chenjerai Kumanikya (ph), Candice Lim (ph), Thomas Lu, Pamela Malanga (ph), Lauren McGauchie (ph) Linnea Sandin (ph), Stella Tan (ph), Viet Lai (ph) and Oliver Wang for their valuable feedback.


SPIEGEL: And finally a big, big shoutout to Kyle Pulley and Sam Green for making this very special "Obsexxed" dance track for us. We are obsexxed with it. Other music in the episode by Yung Kartz, Liz De Lise and Blue Dot Sessions. For more information about this music and to see original artwork by Christina Chung...

ROSIN: And also to see the links to the research we reference in the show, go to npr.org/invisibilia. And really, we didn't fit everything we learned into this episode. So if you want to go with us down a deeper dive into the history of Asian-American sexuality, things like the model minority stereotype or how racial preferences work not just for straight people, you can check out a bunch of resources that Yowei found during her reporting - npr.org/invisibilia.

SPIEGEL: And now for a moment of non-zen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: The idea of, like, the rough lumberjack with, like, the big beard, like, that's what's supposed to be hot because of, like, biological reasons. It's inherent - obviously false.


SPIEGEL: Obsessed - obsexxed with it. We are obsessed with it. We're obsexxed with it. Which are we?

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