One of my favorite people, who happens to be relatively vanilla, asked me to write a post on the term. Who am I to refuse?

On the most basic level, “vanilla” is just a word the BDSM community uses to designate “people who are not into BDSM”, or “sex acts that are not BDSM-related”. For me, when I use the term “vanilla”, I don’t feel like I’m insulting “vanilla people”. They’re vanilla; I’m not. Some people are gay; I’m not. We’re all friends here. … Which makes me feel a little puzzled, when some vanilla people feel bothered by the designation “vanilla”.

It gets a little more complicated when we consider the cultural connotations of “vanilla”, though. (Not to mention what happens when we start thinking about whether “vanilla vs. non” is a black-and-white thing, or whether there’s more of a continuum there.)

Let’s start with something most of us agree on: vanilla is delicious! It is a layered, complex and interesting flavor that can be used in many exciting ways. But, while there are lots of awesome things about vanilla, most people also agree that it’s not as awesome as richer/more exotic flavors (particularly the perennial favorite: chocolate!). Think about the way we talk about “plain vanilla” … it wouldn’t be “plain” if vanilla weren’t considered boring, expected, dull. The major cultural connotation of “vanilla” is “not as good as chocolate”.

So … if BDSMers refer to non-BDSMers as “vanilla” … does that mean we’re looking down on their sexuality? That we’re saying it’s “not as good”?

I’ve tried thinking about this from the vantages of other alternative sexualities. For instance, if “straight” weren’t such an established term — if it weren’t a word that I’d grown up using — I think I might feel slightly miffed that it’s the word for non-LGBTQ folks. I mean, I may primarily be interested in having sex with men, but must the word for that be “straight”? Am I “straight”? Is all of my beautiful unique snowflake personality a “straight” one? … How boring!

Obviously “straight” is only a descriptor of my sexual preferences and not my entire personality. But that’s not necessarily how it feels when I hear it. And from that perspective, it’s somewhat understandable that some vanilla people feel insulted when called “vanilla”. No one wants to be “not as good as chocolate”!

I don’t think vanilla people would find it insulting when I call them “vanilla”, if they perceived the term to be an expression of neutral preferences. Vanilla people who feel insulted by the term must feel insulted, not because they think I’m describing an unimportant difference, but because they feel that I’m saying something about them. Perhaps this points to an issue about how we think about sexual preference: perhaps we consider sexual preference as defining a lot about a given person. We probably shouldn’t. I don’t think that most people’s in-bed preferences actually correlate highly to other specific personality traits.

This also points to some larger issues. Specifically: this highlights the way that non-“alternative” sex — sex that isn’t BDSM, queer, multiple partners, etc. — is perceived by some as being boring and limited and “plain” by default. That sucks, because there are lots of fun things you can do with straight, vanilla, one-on-one monogamous sex! Straight, vanilla, one-on-one monogamous sex should not be seen as boring and limited by default!

Part of the problem is that non-alternative sex has not been forced to develop the same kind of self-consciousness, ingenuity, negotiation techniques, etc. that other types of sex require and facilitate. We all know that American culture too often shames its members into being unwilling to discuss or acknowledge their sexual needs. But even the liberal subcultures that teach kids to think that sex is a beautiful thing still don’t teach them how to talk to their partner or determine their needs — which means that even kids raised in sex-positive households often find themselves floundering and confused once they actually start having sex.

The only places that provide guidelines for those things are the sexual outlaw subcultures — because we’ve had to develop them. BDSM, for example, has been forced to invent very specific sexual negotiation tactics because if we don’t carefully work out our interactions, we end up violently assaulting our partners. That is, we’ve developed very careful communication practices because if we fail at sexually communicating, the consequences are arguably more serious than they would be for other sexualities. The BDSM community has an entire vocabulary — words like “kink”* and “squick”**, for instance — developed to help us parse our sexual experiences. Within the BDSM subculture, you can frequently find actual workshops or lectures to teach negotiating sexual preferences. You don’t find words or workshops like that in the “normal world”.

I’ve been reading a really great anthology called Pomosexuals; it’s a little old by now (1997), but so much of the commentary in there remains smart and important. It includes Pat Califia’s essay “Identity Sedition and Pornography”, and writing this post brought the following quotation to mind:

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Straight people blithely assume it’s their prerogative to write about us [queer people]; but we know a lot more about them than they know about us. We came out of them. Most of us made a rather extensive study of heterosexuality before leaving it behind. Even after we come out, we have to be experts in straight presumption, ignorance, and frailty in order to survive.

… We are not the only group of people dealing with a heritage of sexual shame and repression. Heterosexuals really need our help and inspiration, and I wish they’d admit it.
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Moral of the story: No one should look down on vanilla people for being vanilla. Nor should anyone think vanilla sex is automatically “plain” or “boring”. Conversely, vanilla people would do well to understand that they have a lot to learn from BDSM ideas about sexual communication (and from other sexual subcultures, on other relationship topics).

We’re stuck with the word “vanilla” now, along with all its connotations. It would be annoying and probably impossible to invent a different word for “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But, hey — we’ve reclaimed so many other terms in this modern era … why not reclaim “vanilla”? Let’s make “vanilla” mean “delicious, complex, layered and interesting”, rather than “plain”!

As a side note, one interesting thing that my vanilla friend pointed out is this: “I feel like we should have learned by now that all these things occur on a spectrum. Maybe I’m not gay but I am queer. Maybe I’m into handcuffs and blindfolds but nothing else. Maybe there needs to be language to describe that spectrum rather than trying to draw a line in the sand. My sense is that the grey area is vast. Embracing it could be a useful strategy.”

There’s a term, “french vanilla”, that BDSMers sometimes use to indicate people who are “kind of into BDSM, but not heavily into it”. It’s cute, but I don’t ultimately find this term very helpful, and here’s why: as soon as you start talking to BDSMers about their BDSM preferences, you quickly find that they are more into some things than others — and that there are many BDSM acts they just aren’t interested in.

Usually, I think about this in terms of “sliders”. On the most basic level, I envision several BDSM sliders: a Bondage slider, a Dominance slider, a Submission slider, a Sadism slider, and a Masochism slider. Frequently, these sliders overlap — for instance, many people with a high Masochism slider have a high Submission slider. You can get even more complicated and talk about the specific acts that people enjoy or dislike, but I tend to find that those sliders are a good place to start.

So basically, if we’re going to complexify the conversation by talking about the BDSM spectrum, then I think we might as well go straight for the sliders, and skip vague terms like “french vanilla”.

… I just had a startling thought. Arguably … what we’re actually describing, when we talk about “vanilla people” vs. “BDSM people”, is more about the way people think about these acts — how formally people articulate these acts — and less about how much, or how heavily, people actually do them. But this post has already gotten quite long, so I’ll have to explore that idea another day.

* “Kink” = “a specific sexual preference”. For instance, if I like whipping people, then you could say that I have a kink for whipping people.

** “Squick” = “a non-judgmental dislike of a certain sexual act”. For instance, if I feel really bothered by the idea of someone whipping someone else, then you could say that I am squicked by whipping.