Thinking Kink: Is Vanilla Sex Boring? Who Gets to Decide?

"Those of us who have different ... notions of eroticism and sensuality are simply dismissed. The pejorative word [being] 'vanilla,' which is ironically, one of the most sensual aromas." – Andrea Dworkin.

"I wish [BDSM folks] would stop referring to me as 'vanilla.' If you're making the case that everyone should be free to do what they like without being judged, why call non-BDSM people a derogatory name that implies they're all prudish bores?" – Anonymous, commenter on Bitch.

If we bemoan the oversexualization of culture, should we also be concerned about the kinkification of culture? As BDSM blogger Clarisse Thorn writes, "Being a sex-positive feminist, I worry that other women will read my work and it will increase their performance anxiety ... that it will lead other women to feel like, 'gosh, is this something liberated sex-positive women do? Is this something I should be doing?". Thanks to a prescriptive media, the competition to be having the most out-there, kinky, freaky, dirty sex keeps escalating, with "Ultimate Perv" engraved on the winner's medal. Fantastic if you're antsy to compete, but what if you're just not into all that stuff? What if you think you secretly might be...[whisper it, now!]...vanilla?

One of the reasons I didn't dare join a fetish community website, or go to a play party, 'til years after I was first curious about BDSM, was a subconscious sense that I was probably "too vanilla." I didn't dress head-to-toe in latex or own any seven-inch heels, and I didn't take my partner down to the local shops on a dog leash. I've since realized that the scene is open to anyone who feels their sexual tastes land outside the mainstream—there's no test you have to pass. However, by labelling every non-kinky person as effectively the same, is the BDSM community just as judgmental as those who judge us?

The term "vanilla" does seem to be a byword for "sexually pedestrian," and even the mainstream media has got in on the act. In the Friends episode "The One With Rachel's Big Kiss," Phoebe refuses to believe that Rachel kissed a girl during college, saying "It just seems pretty wild, and you're so vanilla"—an accusation Rachel receives with indignation, spluttering,"I am NOT vanilla! I've done lots of crazy things!". Being sexually unadventurous is now apparently the most grievous character flaws a person (especially a woman) can be accused of. In the British cult comedy Peep Show, when an unenthusiastic Jez reveals his fantasy of a threesome to his girlfriend and then worriedly asks, "Is that too much?," she laughs "Are you kidding? That's vanilla!". In this world saturated with faux-lesbian action and pressure to have buttsex, one sometimes longs for the days when showing a little ankle made you the strumpet from hell...

But laying the blame entirely at the feet of BDSM folks is overly simplistic. Although "vanilla" may have its origins within the community, plenty of non-kinksters have adapted it for their own use. Vanilla was a term intended to simply differentiate between sexual preferences, but it was not necessarily meant to put down or diminish the value of non-kinky lifestyles. Yes, there are kinksters who use it sneeringly, but I think most kinky folk have experienced enough disapproval to refrain from subjecting other sexual cultures to the same marginalization. I also think if vanilla has become a term of abuse, the blame more likely lies with those who profit from people's insecurity that their sex life is not sufficiently exotic. Anyone who's flipped through a women's magazine demanding that you perform "10 Tricks To Drive Him Wild!" or a sex manual that just makes you feel inadequate and unsexy knows who those profiteers are.

What those trying to aggressively market an ever more "exotic sex life" fail to realize is that sexual preferences aren't shaped by artifice. Buying a leather slapper won't suddenly give you a penchant for spanking—and let's face it, if you were really into the idea in the first place, you probably would have gone DIY and just picked up a hairbrush long before now. Making people feel shitty about their vanilla-ness is mainly a capitalist calculation. As any marketing exec knows, the moment people become satisfied is the moment they stop buying stuff.

As Clarisse Thorn concludes, it's important "to stay aware of pressures on everyone, and to help people create space for boundaries as well as sexual exploration." The right to say, "No thanks, that's not for me" without being shamed is crucial, whatever your orientation. And those who set and respect sexual boundaries—kinky or non—will always be the folks who who emit "the most sensual aroma" to me.

Previously: Secretary and the Female Submissive; No, Female Submission Doesn't Mean Oppression

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Comments

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I kind of doubt Dworkin would

I kind of doubt Dworkin would agree with me, but this post is awesome.

Let's be real: Vanilla is pretty delicious.

Prejudice in the scene

Loving this series. The one thing that I would have to regretfully disagree with (in my own experience) is the idea that most kinky folk know better than to disparage someone else's sexuality. I'm often frustrated in my own local bdsm community by comments that people make mocking "vanilla" folk (there is even a much-loved t-Shirt that reads "Vanilla is boring".) Completely agree with your stance, though: "The right to say, "No thanks, that's not for me" without being shamed is crucial, whatever your orientation." Well put :)

I've seen a lot of the same

I've seen a lot of the same thing between the poly/mono folks.... poly people getting the idea that they are someone more "enlightened" than mono folks just because the way they do things falls outside the mainstream. The way I see it, if something is considered mainstream, that doesn't automatically mean that no one in that mainstream actually made a conscious choice to have that lifestyle.

I agree. In addition, not

I agree. In addition, not making a conscious decision doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't work for those people and makes them happy.

I still don't sense the pejorative

Because technically, I'm vanilla when I'm out walking unless I'm hiding bondage underneathe, and I'm vanilla in the kinks I don't share. I guess it's unfortunate that people tend to contrast themselves with others as a way to validate themselves. But I agree that it's mostly the things profiting from your insecurities than kinky people pressuring you to go freaky because if you were to ask me if you should be kinky after hearing my enthusiasm, i'd suddenly go cautious and ask you to think about it. there's a lot of self evaluation i think should go into prepping for one's kinky or even sexual debut.

I was also a bit skeptical

I was also a bit skeptical when I read that line. As Bex mentions in her comment about the poly community, I have found similar disparities in the LGBTQ community. You would think the struggles of coming out as gay or lesbian would make one think twice before supporting claims that bisexuality is just a phase, isn't real, or is damaging to the queer community, but sadly, I have found the lack of understanding and acceptance in that area to be greater than I would have expected.

So you can imagine how much

So you can imagine how much fun is it to be vanilla, mono, AND bi! Seriously, I'm all three. I've learn to say that I love sex as much as anybody, I just don't want to do it with anybody.

I am too; well, I guess I

I am too; well, I guess I consider myself pansexual. But I agree with your comment whole-heartedly. I do not believe in polyamory--I just see blow up in too many faces (not that it's something I would want to attempt) and I don't enjoy a lot of kinky sex.

Saying "no" is as important as saying "yes"

I was just talking about this with my boyfriend last night. Something that I forget while trying to be open-minded to kink is that it's okay to say "no" when there's something I have zero interest in doing. It's better to occasionally turn down ideas and be comfortably vanilla than to wind up feeling talked into a scenario you felt squeamish about to begin with.

Absolutely.

In the quest to be 'sexually liberated' I sometimes think we forget that there's as much liberation in saying 'Nope, not my bag' as there is in saying 'Sure, I'll try that!'. Especially if you're a kinkster and therefore feel that being sexually open is part of your identity. But I don't think there's any point in competing to be the 'person with no limits' - cos that person is likely to end up in the emergency room! Also, I think it's easy to forget that no truly caring partner wants their partner doing something they hate, just to please them. In my experience people appreciate the honesty of "That doesn't appeal to me, and I'm not interested in trying it" because then it reassures them that the stuff you do agree to is entirely consensual and pleasurable for you.

Hindsight

When I was 19, I developed an eating disorder. Sometimes I'm ashamed to say it becasue it seems so cliched. But it wasn't/isn't cliched. I put myself through hell just as I was beginning to explore my sexuality. I shamed myself, starved myself because (or partyl becasue) I had been bombarded by years of media messages that exotic sex was the only way to attract a mate. I thought I had to be perfect, had to be confident, had to know the 'Top 10 Ways to Turn on Your Man" (thanks every single issue of Cosmo). But the truth is that the best sex (for me) is the sex that is in my control with my voice being heard even while feeling vulneable and unsure. Vanilla/not vanilla: if sex is consensual and you're in touch with your own needs, then just f-ing GO FOR IT! Thanks for speaking to this. I feel less alone and less ashamed with every relatable post.

Thank you for sharing.

I think so many of us can relate to your experience. Women are told we're 'sexually liberated' but what that often means is 'liberated to look, act and fuck in a way that pleases others, not ourselves'. That's why I don't read 'women's magazines' - because although they're meant to be for women, they're often entirely about pleasing men.

If you didn't catch the link already, I think you will appreciate Clarisse Thorn's post "I'm Not Your Sex-Crazy Nympho Dreamgirl". http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2011/05/27/im-not-your-sex-crazy-nympho-dr...

You may also enjoy Cliff Pervocracy's regular 'Cosmocking' where she takes on each month's Cosmo - http://pervocracy.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/cosmocking

I wish you a happy and blissful journey being sexual in whatever way YOU choose.

awesome resources. thanks,

awesome resources. thanks, Catherine! (and thanks for taking care of the 4 mistaken re-posts. oops). In August, a new LGMT online community is going to launch its website and I'll be a contributing writer. Your writing always gets me going, and I'm excited to be inspired to write more about my true sexual desires. Your gentle encouragement means the world!

This is such a great series,

This is such a great series, and this post is great as well. A friend and I were just talking today about how judgmental lots of communities can be when it comes to other communities. Seems such a waste of energy to me to tear others down, especially when so many communities have their own histories and experiences with being judged by others (and I'd wager they're not happy ones). I know things can't be ideal, but it would still be nice to see it happen.

Well, once again, the problem

Well, once again, the problem all comes down to labels. With sex, labeling something as "kinky" or "non-kinky" seems ridiculous, because what's crazy and out there to some is a typical weekday night for others. Sex is so personal, is it really possible to draw a line? What if you're into kink sometimes but not others? Where do we delineate the varying degrees of kinkiness? I'm sorry if this has been covered before; I haven't been able to keep up with this series, but it seems to me that the whole labeling of "kinky" and "vanilla" actions is as impossible to do objectively as labeling foods "appetizing" and "unappetizing" due to the infinite variety of personal tastes.

Labels are pesky...BUT

"With sex, labeling something as "kinky" or "non-kinky" seems ridiculous" - I agree. But we all still do it.

Wanting to define things is a very human need. When push comes to shove, we all like to have words for things. If you ask me about myself, I could say 'I'm a white cisgender straight British woman' or I could say 'I don't label myself', but for the purposes of information I'm probably going to go with the former. That doesn't mean I feel defined by any of those things, just that they give you some clues as to where I'm coming from. Ditto vanilla/kinky.

Even if it's just to let someone know that I am not going to judge them for enjoying bondage, spanking, golden showers, polyamory, etc etc, I would identify myself as kinky. I don't demand that of anyone else, but I think it's overly-idealistic to think we'll ever be able to live without labels. Besides, even 'undefined' or 'I don't do labels' are labels of their own, when you think about it!

What I'm looking at in the post is when labels become less about giving neutral information about a person, and more about making a negative judgement about how someone lives their life. But as people have done with 'dyke', 'queer', 'cunt' and the n-word, some folks might argue that we should be reclaiming and redefining the word 'vanilla' rather than jettisoning it altogether. As someone who thinks that vanilla is a delicious flavour, I'm inclined to agree.

Yeah.

My point was that when it comes to something like sex, labels become much more subjective than labels which pertain to race, ethnicity, trans- or cis-ness or things like that (and there's plenty of gray area there, too). To me, it seems sexual proclivities often come down to personal taste, and that therefore the definitions of "kinky" and "vanilla" would vary from person to person, while a term like "white," while again there would never be a definitive line, would likely have much less variance because sex is so much more personal. For example, I would label ketchup as "gross," but many, many people would label it "delicious." Both adjectives would be correct for the people describing their personal thoughts on ketchup. It seems to me that kinky vs. vanilla would ultimately come down to opinion. Case in point, I know several people who categorize doggy-style sex as "kinky."

My comment was not a diatribe against labeling, as, yes, it comes in handy, but rather how perhaps labeling systems must be altered based on what we're attempting to label. Like I said, there are people who are sometimes into kink. It's rarer to find someone who's sometimes white (though if Bitch has taught me anything, it's that there probably are people who could classify themselves that way). And I never said anything about "living without labels," so I could do without your condescension.

Subjective labels

Firstly race is subjective. For instance a person may identify as Irish and Nigerian but due to resembling their Nigerian father be automatically labeled black by most of society. Think of President Barack Obama he is multiracial and chose to identify as African American. Race is more of an arbituary social construct. In many colonized countries people of color were sometimes able to "buy" whiteness if they accumulated enough wealth, they could legally have their documents identify them as white. Think about the fact that "octoroon" is pretty much a none existent term, we no longer use it as a race qualifier.

Though I agree with you. Labeling is a tricky sticky business that is almost always subjective. Though I think intent and context are really the only way of looking at labels. Certain things vary between individuals due to different life experiences, but common things help us indicate an idea. I often use vanilla as meaning baseline sex, it simply means having anal, vaginal, or oral sex and , my interpretation, of normal foreplay with or with toys. Yet there are others whose tone, and wording...even body language indicate that when they say vanilla it means boring or dull. The word is ultimately not important, our definitions and syntax change every day, but the intent is what matters. Going to my race comment, the intent of "buying" whiteness was to signify status within certain societies, however in other places white was not equivalent to an economic status but was something a person is born to. The cultural context and intent of what whiteness was mattered. Vanilla and kinky are the same way, but as you point out can be broken down into more personal definitions. Despite that fact the individuals choice of words and tone when describing sex as kinky and vanilla communicates ,at least general ideas, that I think help individuals understand each other better in the short term.

Missing the point

As a man, I can tell you.... you are missing the point. It is not vanilla vs. non-vanilla, it doesn't come down to technicalities. It is simply a matter of attitude, setting up a proper environment, picking up the right time, building up the expectation, foreplay, and so on. If you just do your "duty", following the same old routine, how long you think your partner will be genuinely excited? Five years, quite possible, ten years, maybe.. but after that you need to change something. I understand that most women are just not interested in doing anything special in order to make sex more fun but if that's the case, don't ask us to act as if you did. Of course, men have to do their part as well - this is team work!

My wife spends much (and I mean much!) more time trying to look good for a lunch with her girlfriends than looking her best before having sex with me. Unfortunately, she is a "proud" vanilla-sex provider... Yes, she says that she's available anytime but I get more romance just masturbating :(

~blinks~ are you attempting

~blinks~

are you attempting satire/sarcasm?

geeksdoitbetter

But what about the vanilla people?

It's nice to think about whether the term "vanilla" is meant pejoratively or not. However, let's think about some actual consequential stuff as well. Have you known anyone who has lost their children for being non-kinky? Their job? How about been jailed? Kinky folk have been jailed as abusers, they have lost custody of their children, and they've lost their job, just because they were outed as being kinky. When we can move beyond this kind of thing happening, just because of a sexual preference, then I might be more sympathetic about whether someone's feelings are hurt because they were called "vanilla". But, sorry, it's just not important to me right now.

i hear you i also think one

i hear you

i also think one post out of a tremendous series (so far ... 6 posts total, i think) is a fine amount of time to consider the vanilla folks

geeksdoitbetter

13 posts and counting actually!

And yes, it is hard to please all of the readers all of the time. Hopefully after 24 posts most people will be able to find something that speaks to them!

It's a good point.

And one I'm definitely interested in - I'm currently working on an article about a woman in the UK kink scene who lost her job after being outed as a kinkster. If you know of any other cases, here or overseas, that might exemplify the hypocritical attitude to kink (e.g. women talking about 50 Shades around the watercooler? Groovy! Actual kinksters? Get out of my office!) I would be very interested in hearing about them.

That said, Bitch is a blog about feminism and pop culture, and this is a blog about BDSM and pop culture. And kinky vocabulary and imagery is all over our media at the moment, with debates such as the 'vanilla' one arising. Therefore I'm going to address it, even if you feel there are more 'consequential' issues to be thinking about. Also, I'm not sure that disregarding vanilla folks' feelings just because kinky folks are discriminated against in worse ways is a helpful attitude - if kinksters want to promote a culture of acceptance, we should be leading by example.

When majorities are thrust into a minority position

I see a lot of sad whining from people who are used to having their choices affirmed and seen as normal. People with a mainstream sexuality are suddenly all up in arms for having the fact that their sexuality is mainstream. Monogamous people stomping around saying how MEAN those poly people are to we poor, poor monogamists.

Yet the fact that they're suddenly getting a bitter taste of what it feels like to be a sexual minority, they don't suddenly wake up and say, "Hey, wow, this is super oppressive, I'm going to do my very best to stop cooperating with oppressing others based on their sexuality!"

No, they throw a tantrum and insist on the immediate return of their lost social privileges.

Not quite what's happening here

Hi Anonymous,

I think I understand what you're saying with, "people with a mainstream sexuality are suddenly all up in arms for having the fact that their sexuality is mainstream," but I don't think that's what's happening here. Catherine is discussing the term vanilla and whether or not is has become derogatory—not whining about lost social privileges.

Hope that helps!

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

I don't think Catherine's doing the whining

I don't think Catherine's doing the whining here, but if the biggest problem someone faces in terms of having their sexuality accepted and their relationship choices validated is that someone might dare to call them vanilla, well...

...I have to say, I don't think much of their problem, largely because I need a magnifying glass to see it.

I think we should remind people of the danger that lurks when people who ARE the majority convince themselves that they're oppressed, disrespected, or threatened by the minority. The sexual minorities aren't the people with the big sticks here -- the sexual majority, and their ability to repress, control, and exclude, is and always will be a bigger problem than someone with a t-shirt saying that vanilla is boring.

Open changed mind

I don't think it is right to say that being "Vanilla" is the main stream and that since it is the main stream it is the "majority" whining about being called "vanilla"

I grew up in a family where sex and sexuality was not taught but an open expression. The good bad and the ugly was all on front street at much too young of an age. In my teenage years I experimented with EVERYTHING. BDSM, Bisexuality, Poly.. When I decided finally it wasn't for me and all my friends were into something kinky, I felt ashamed. I didn't understand that it was okay to be normal. I thought it was bad and shameful. I felt like a sheep and that no man could possibly love me for who I am. Boring.

I still struggle with it and I have to say this article really helped me remember that it's not for everyone and it's okay. I am lucky enough to have found someone who doesn't care for anything kink and we are happy and secure with what we have and that's not for a lack of me trying to get him to admit he wanted kink (which isn't for him). I don't care what you do in your life. It is just not for me and it took me a long time to own that and be proud of my flavor.

I understand where you are coming from Lily but I wouldn't want to discourage anyone that has been in my shoes and raised to believe the alternative is the norm and the norm is bad or strange. You have got to do you and let others be themselves. No matter what you're into.

Thinking Kink: Is Vanilla Sex Boring? Who Gets to Decide?

I like the side issue of using the term Vanilla as a derogatory term. It caused me to consider an alternative reference.

I agree vanilla is a wonderful flavour, a charming aroma, and in it's own right quite exotic.

I believe we should replace the term "Vanilla" with "Beige" when referring to the non-kink environment, and in particular when describing those individuals who are openly and loudly strident in their view that those of us who enjoy "alternative" sexual practise are somehow "sick"or a threat to "proper society"

As Billy Connelly often proclaimed "beware the beige jobbies"

Great post

I agree that the alt community is not responsible for "vanilla" being termed a pejorative. In fact, I like that I have the ability to admit, "I like vanilla, too." It's an easy way to communicate that BDSM is not the be-all and end-all of my needs/wants/desires as a sexual being. I also like that Thorn addresses the issue that sex should not be a competition. Sex should be a great part of a full life, not a bucket list, and finding a partner/partners/community where you can have a fulfilling and joyous sex life should be the goal of any human being, be they asexual, vanilla or off-the-charts freaky.

I am someone who actually

I am someone who actually buys vanilla flavoured ice-cream every time. My feeling is that if a parlour can do vanilla well, then that justifies the other sixteen billion flavours. If the vanilla sucks, it's like someone who can play fills from Mahavishnu orchestra but can't paradiddle. Same with sex: I've met people who are into BDSM or just somewhat kinky sex who, for all the leather, don't seem to be able to have a conversation or keep going until I come. Different things turn different people on, but for me, it's always about doing the simple things, which are the foundation for everything else. It's also about flexibility. The idea of there being some kind of sexual divide is worrying to me.

Seems like another double standard

I am all for consenting adults to do whatever they choose to do in the privacy of their home. But for feminists to embrace the BDSM lifestyle while ranting on about the evil Patriarchy, seems to be very disingenuous. And to use the term "vanilla" as a pejorative is really over the top. How about we use the term "normal" It wasn't too long ago that BDSM was widely viewed as mental illness and even today you can find doctors who still think it is.

I think it's time for folks in the "kink" community to turn the rhetoric down a notch.

See previous posts.

"But for feminists to embrace the BDSM lifestyle while ranting on about the evil Patriarchy, seems to be very disingenuous."

You might want to read this post before saying that being a kinkster and a feminist are incompatible:

http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-female-submissive-pop-cultur...

Catherine Scott

I was replying to that post. I'm all for everyone being and referring to themselves as whatever they choose. I'm all for everyone having whatever sex life they choose to have. But blogs I've read about feminists, sex positive spin and BDSM are hypocrisy on steroids. I read one blog posted by a guy named Thomas,claiming to be a lawyer, and he clearly stated that even consensual BDSM is a crime of sexual assault in most states even today in 2012. You can read on Wikipedia that up until 1994, BDSM was considered a mental illness. And I bet you could still find some professionals on the subject that would say it still is. Once again I'm all for freedom of choice for people to be whatever it is that makes them happy. But let's call it what it is. People in the BDSM and Poly lifestyle are playing a high risk game. So are skydivers and that's their choice. But don't insult the majority of other people that you refer to as "vanilla" as assholes, that are boring. Just like old Humble Howard Cossell used to say in the 70's, "Tell it like it is" or another 70's staple "Do your own thing" But in the exercise of your rights to your pursuit of happiness, there is no need to trash the rest of us "boring" mainstreamers.

Grow some skin

I hate this kind of victim-mentality sensitivity crap. Grow some fucking skin.
Why do you care what other people think? They're not beating you up or taking your money. I ask you again WHY DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?
I have to ask my girl-friends this all the time. What the fuck does someone else's opinion matter? Is your ego so fragile that you depend on positive reinforcement from random people to feel worthwhile?

Someone said they were ASHAMED because their friends were into kink and she wasn't?! What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you a baby?

I do not understand people 'getting offended', or any of that bullshit. You know what I do when people insult me? I stop talking to them. THAT-FUCKING-SIMPLE. Stop being a pussy. Nobody 'owes you' respect, friendship, love, or consideration. Accept the fact that the world is full of people who disagree with you and may not like you for all manner of reasons. Jesus Christ.

I blame this on liberals.

- A Non-Vanilla Woman with Better Things to Do Than Wonder What My Neighbour Thinks of Assfucking

Vanilla VS Adventorous

I recently red a few books by David Xzenre who is advising BDSM in assorted fashions to marriages in trouble. I have to agree with him to re invent a marriage or relationship the bedroom is a great place to start!

Needed to hear everything

Needed to hear everything this article talked about, am worrying too much over labels at the mo. Thank you so much for the article.