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'Invisibilia' Team Takes A Deep Dive Into The Science Of Desire


The fifth season of NPR's podcast Invisibilia just wrapped. And in it, the team drove deep into the science of desire with a story of one young woman who diagnosed a problem with her own sexual attractions - a problem not too many people would be willing to talk about publicly. We are using the first initial of this woman's name to protect her privacy.

Also, a warning - this story may not be suitable for younger listeners. Here's NPR's Yowei Shaw.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: It was 2013. L was a sophomore in college procrastinating yet again on Reddit when 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. And she posted...

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

SHAW: L thought nothing of it until someone 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: L was proud to be Chinese American. She was even 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. Until one night, L was lying in bed, swiping on Tinder with her index finger.

L: I started to realize, as I was swiping past faces, I was unconsciously, like, rejecting people because of, like, the color of their skin. And it shook me. It made me feel bad.

SHAW: There's been a lot written about how our sexual attractions are programmed by the culture - what movies we watch, what we learn about race growing up, what our families teach us. So here's my question. Once your racial preferences have been programmed by your cultural bubble, can you change them?

I started calling around to sex researchers. But before I tell you what I found out, one quick note - basically, almost 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 racial preferences are not written into your genes, not even if you feel a racial preference strongly.

GONZALO QUINTANA ZUNINO: It's kind of sad that people would just say, I just have one type - when they haven't even tried more.

SHAW: Gonzalo Quintana Zunino is a neuroscientist in Canada about to start his postdoc at the University of Toronto. He's done several studies, mostly with rats, trying to understand how people might form their partner preferences on the level of skin color or dimples.

And he has an idea about why they could be hard to change. In a recent study, he conditioned rats to develop preferences for perfumed rats and found that the male rats that had all their early sexual experiences with perfumed females...

ZUNINO: They obviously prefer the female that was bearing the scent.

SHAW: But if rats had climaxed for the first time with a non-perfumed rat - even if they went on to have a lot of sex with perfumed partners, the rats did not show a preference for perfume...

ZUNINO: Exactly.

SHAW: ...All of which taught to Zunino a crucial lesson that might even apply to people.

ZUNINO: The first sexual experience - the first cut was very deep.

SHAW: That's because, whenever you have your first sexual experience with pleasure, your brain is activating two key chemicals, dopamine and oxytocin. And together, they increase pleasure and desire, arousal and bonding. And once you experience their effects, you will never forget the circumstances that made it all happen.

ZUNINO: Whatever that is around and whatever that - your partner looks like.

SHAW: And once you have an orgasm, you will pay even more attention to those cues in the future.

ZUNINO: Absolutely.

SHAW: And if you repeat the pleasure with those characteristics over and over...

ZUNINO: Well, that will just constantly reaffirm to your brain, this is what you like.

SHAW: But that doesn't mean any preference is set in stone. Zunino thinks 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.

ZUNINO: We're not prisoners of our past.



SHAW: People are actually trying to think through how to do this in a systematic way, like 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 are romantic choices.

RUSSELL ROBINSON: 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.

SHAW: His position is, basically, we live in a structurally racist world. So the solution isn't to shame individuals for the romantic choices. Instead, just look at your own attraction 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: Robinson doesn't even think having a racial preference is necessarily wrong. You might have very good reasons for having one. But here's what he says is key. It shouldn't be based in a racial stereotype, potentially even including stereotypes about white people. One day in class, a Latino student told Robinson she could never date a white man because a white man could never see her as fully human.

ROBINSON: 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. 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: Remember L from the beginning? Well, she accidentally stumbled into a version of Robinson's advice on her own. After the Tinder epiphany, she set off on a personal journey to evaluate the patterns of her own romantic attraction.

L: I remember thinking, like, well, why do you like him so He's - honestly, like - it's just like, he's so basic.

SHAW: And over the next few years, she began to notice new people on the street and on dating apps.

L: Sure. Oh, OK - great. He likes me. Hey.

SHAW: Pausing over all kinds of people she used to instinctually swipe away.

L: Then I would stop and like look at you, just really give a hard look at the whole picture.

SHAW: Yowei Shaw, NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY DEVINE-KING'S "OUTER SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yowei Shaw
Yowei Shaw is the co-host and editorial lead of NPR's Invisibilia. Her work on the show has taken listeners into the uncomfortable world of racial preferences in dating and whether you can change them, an unlikely love story in martial law era Taiwan, and a Midwestern town sharply divided in how it sees wild black bears.