One criticism of the sex positive movement is that along with setting up the norm that people should be having sex, and that sex should be relatively unproblematic, it also, in an effort to be ‘pro-kink’ tends to set up the expectation that everyone has some kind of fetish, or at least a desire for some kind of kinky sex. I’ll admit, I’ve never seen any serious sex-positive media make this mistake explicitly, but lots of sex writing and sex advice columns aide their readers to self-acceptance with a glib ‘everybody has a fetish.’When so much emphasis and representation is given to kink in sex positive communities (and,for good reason, as these aspects of sex and sexuality are often made invisible or ridiculous by mainstream culture) it’s easy to see how an avid consumer of sex-positive media (read: me) could easily get the impression that everyonehas some sort of kink lying under the surface, some special thing that turns their crank, if not every time, than at least some of the time, an unconcious inner conflict or unexplored corner of their personality that screams to be worked outsexually. Aiding this impression is that I have a few of these things myself.
A relationship that I was in recently complicated this human being-as-treasure trove-of-hidden kink narrative that I had so uncritically developed. He was completely GGG with all my stuff, but no matter how much I asked, probed, and made my openness to his desires clear, he wasn’t spilling any kinky beans. This made me nervous. As a religious listener of the Dan Savage Lovecast (the only thing I do religiously), I had the idea that if a man (especially a man!) wasn’t owning up to his perversions, then it must be Something Awful – or at least something he thinks is awful. So I continued to probe and convince him of my utter and complete and non-judgemental GGGness. When he continued to insist that just liked playing around in bed, doing whatever felt good, I began to worry that it might be Something Truly Awful and I braced myself for the necrophiliac reveal.
It never came. Our knowledge of each other in and out of bed simply grew and we had two years of terrific 85% vanilla sex (I’d compare it to the Vanilla with Caramel and Cashews ice cream at BitterSweet Bakery).
Vanilla is an interesting term. It doesn’t just refer to sex, people use it to refer to general non-descriptness. I blame imitation vanilla extract for this. As anyone who’s had homemade ice cream or good creme brulee knows, good vanilla flavor is unmistakable, and it is light enough to allow the quality (or lack thereof) of other ingredients in a dish to shine through. You can’t fake good vanilla or the level of quality underneath it.
In reference to sex, vanilla usually means ‘not’ kinky. Kinky people are always having to explain who they are and what they want to do – if only to find others with similar kinks. It’s rarer for someone to probe being vanilla or the nature of vanilla sex. As in the cases of being white, male, heterosexual, monogamous or cis-gendered, when the culture supports your identity and your practices then there is little impulse to articulate them to yourself or others. When a set of practices is considered the ‘default’ then they enjoy a certain amount of priviledge, but then it is more difficult to appreciate what they offer, and it is harder to build authentic, communicative community around them (since they are what everyone is doing, we all know what they are, and there’s no need to talk about them. Right? Wrong!).
Kendra (of TBK and SEX+STL fame) gives lists of practices that she considers to be vanilla, drawing lines in the sand, while admitting that these lines move over time. She gives the example of oral sex, which used to be kinky, but is de rigeur now. She also, like myself and others, notes that “Oddly, I’m finding it easier to say what is NOT vanilla than what IS vanilla. The line dividing the two is increasingly blurry, and every concept deserves qualification.” Anal sex is listed as kinky for straight couples, but I think it already is and I’d be willing to bet you a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that that MFF threesome will be vanilla in 5 years. My litmus test for what’s vanilla? If it’s in Cosmo, it’s vanilla. Period.
Perhaps I should be more thoughtful about this. For me, kinky sex is sex with an agenda. Not necessarily one that’s slavishly followed, but where you start out with an idea in mind, something that you want to accomplish, maybe boundaries that you want to explore, maybe expand. Midori expresses this beautifully when she writes “Kink is about . . . vulnerability manifested with intention.”
Kink strikes me as starting in the head, and gets articulated verbally in the negotiation process, and then is enacted in the body (and sometimes through words too). It seems that vanilla sex generally sparks in the mind but finds its way to the body pretty quickly and stays there. Ok – sometimes there’s some negotiation – in my experience certainly more than Mistress Matisse claims when she claims that ” . . . nonkinky people don’t talk about fucking. Not before they fuck, and definitely not while they’re fucking.” Still, I’d have to agree, beyond pre-sex questions like “What are you into?” “Where do you like to be touched?” “Do you have any no-fly zones?”, a couple harders/softers/fasters/slowers in medias res and a walking-on -eggshells post-game review, not much gets said. And these vanilla sex discussions are generally more about sharing information, than negotiating what will happen.
Not being explicit and unconciously resting on (assumedly) shared assumptions is often a recipe for trouble, especially in relationships. BUT, I find that cultivating the ability to maneuver between silence and full-on negotiation can also allow one to become more sensitive to other ways in which people communicate — body language, non-verbals sounds — which can in turn open the door to exploring sensations that neither partner had even considered beforehand. Some sex writers dismiss vanilla sex by defining it as ‘sex that lacks advanced technique’ or characterizing it’s practitioners as settling for “the usual routines and positions without adding much more than candles and lingerie to the picture.” Even vanilla-sex friend writing on Geeky Sex may belie some of the potential that good vanilla sex has for creativity, spontanaeity and dynamism when he writes “Vanilla is ONE of the 31 flavors, which makes “kinky” everything else in the metaphorical Baskin Robbins, including the frozen yogurt and the ice cream cakes [and don’t forget the clown-face ice cream cones].” In this response to Mistress Matisse he gets at this really well “Being in tune with your partner’s reactions is the source of a lot of the intimacy in vanilla sex. With no dominant-submissive power dynamic, the subtlety of nonverbal communication — when it’s working well — is a fabulous way to feel like the evening’s activities are taking shape organically and in a way that is controlled equally by both partners.”
Does vanilla sex have a place in your life? Do you think of it in that way? What would it look like to be actively mindful of vanilla sex not as the ‘default’, but as one kind of sex among many others, with it’s own riches to offer and skill set to learn?