Racial Preferences in Online Dating, Explained
May 27, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller
“No Blacks.” “No Asians.” It’s not uncommon to see phrases like these on sex and dating apps, in which people categorically exclude entire racial groups from consideration.
Many have referred to this as a form of “sexual racism,” with the idea being that these comments are rooted in implicit or explicit racial biases. However, not everyone agrees with this take. I recently read an article on Medium in which the author argued that the “biological nature of mate selection…gives rise to the phenomenon of racial preference in mate selection.”
The author went on to talk about how we tend to be attracted to similar others—including others of the same race/ethnicity—and that this has roots in biology and evolution. Essentially, he argues that race-based attractions are “wired” in us and that it is therefore “misplaced” to assume that racism is what underlies racial preferences that we might see expressed on dating apps.
I don’t buy this idea that race-based attractions are primarily or exclusively a function of our biology or evolutionary history, though. Instead, they seem to have quite a lot to do with our culture, and also with the local environment in which dating occurs. Let me explain.
If we were all hardwired to be attracted to persons of the same race/ethnicity, you’d probably expect to see that, in our sexual fantasies, we’d all be fantasizing mostly about people of the same racial/ethnic group as us, right? However, that’s not what we see at all.
For example, in the survey of 4,175 Americans’ sexual fantasies I conducted for my book Tell Me What You Want, I found that Whites were actually the only group that predominately fantasized about members of their own racial group. Specifically, about 85% of White people fantasized about other White people.
No other racial group showed such a strong ingroup preference in their fantasies. In fact, most other groups showed a strong outgroup preference. Notably, Asian Americans fantasized about White partners at about the same rate that White participants did.
A majority of Hispanic/Latino(a) and Black adults also reported that they primarily fantasize about persons from other racial groups.
In short, Whites mostly fantasized about Whites, and racial minorities in general were more likely to fantasize about Whites than anyone else. It’s difficult to explain findings like this through the lens of anything other than culture.
Culture sends strong messages about standards of beauty and attractiveness, and in American culture, Whites have historically had the most power to shape these standards. This has established a racial hierarchy of attractiveness that appears to have crept into our sexual fantasies.
At a broad level, culture helps to shape who and what we find attractive—however, our local environments also play a big role. Social psychologists have long written about the propinquity effect, or the idea that we’re most likely to begin relationships with people we encounter frequently.
This makes sense because when we encounter people often, it can establish a sense of familiarity, safety, and comfort.
This effect helps to explain, in part, why interracial dating and marriages were historically rare in the United States—people lived in very ethnically segregated communities, so the people you encountered most often tended to be from the same ethnic group. Of course, there were also explicit legal and social prohibitions banning interracial marriages for quite a long time, too, which obviously played a big role in terms of why dating across races was rare. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until 1991 (less than 30 years ago) that more Americans approved than disapproved of interracial marriage for the very first time .
As racial stratification has decreased in the US and social acceptance of interracial relationships has increased, more Americans have begun to date outside of their own race. In fact, the percentage of interracial marriages in the US has increased from 3% to 17% since the 1960s.
Part of the rise in interracial dating is also attributed to the rise of online dating. Online dating creates a “virtual propinquity effect,” which allows us to encounter a much wider and more diverse range of potential partners than the ones we would encounter in person only. Consistent with this idea, the rate of interracial marriages has increased at a steeper rate as online dating has become more popular .
Research also shows that couples who meet online are more likely to be interracial than those who meet in person , which suggests that as online dating continues to gain in popularity, we’re only likely to see this rise even further.
Putting all of this together, it seems clear that racial preferences for dating partners are shaped in a major way by our culture and by our environment. Thus, attempts to explain them as biologically “hardwired” are suspect. Also, while sexual racism appears to be prevalent in the world of online dating, it’s also the case that online dating appears to be leading us toward a more integrated society.
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 Gallup, G., Jr., & Newport, F. (1991). For the first time, more Americans approve of interracial marriage than disapprove. The Gallup Poll Monthly, 311, 60-61.
 Ortega, J., & Hergovich, P. (2017). The strength of absent ties: Social integration via online dating. arXiv preprint arXiv:1709.10478.
 Thomas, R. J. (2020). Online exogamy reconsidered: Estimating the Internet’s effects on racial, educational, religious, political and age assortative mating. Social Forces, 98(3), 1257-1286.
Image Source: Photo by Yogas Design on Unsplash
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >