I’ve been thinking a lot about “mainstream” sex versus “alternative” sex. In the S&M community we have a term, “vanilla”, which basically indicates “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But is there really a bright line between BDSM and vanilla? Probably not. Most everyone has their own specific sexual preferences, and I tend to see BDSM vs. vanilla as a continuum rather than an either-or. (Some theorists, such as the amazing Dr. Marty Klein, argue that assuming the existence of a bright line between kink and vanilla hurts both vanilla people and kinksters. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll save it for another day.)

Lately, I’ve been asking a lot of sexually experienced guys I know for some explicit details about their experiences with women. And frankly, it sounds like the vast majority of women — based on this anecdotal evidence — like at least a little bit of pain. One of my most promiscuous male friends was actually unnerved by this. “It bothers me that all the women I’ve slept with seem to enjoy a little bit of pain,” he insisted, with a shudder. He then added, “It’s just creepy,” which goes to show that even being friends with me won’t cure a person of their BDSM stigma.

It sounds like I, as a very heavy submissive masochist, am outside the mainstream more because of my preferred degree of intensity than anything else (although I also enjoy a lot of S&M paraphernalia that seems to be considered inherently extreme by the mainstream, like whips and needles and stuff). In other words, love bites apparently sound appealing to most people; it’s just that the kind of love bites I like most, which ideally leave bruises for over a week, aren’t.

So, is it silly that I tend to seek partners in the BDSM community rather than the mainstream? After all, during one of my recent conversations with a mainstream dude — who is very promiscuous, by the way, with a reported number of partners over 150 (and no, I don’t think he was lying to impress me) — this dude told me that a fair number of the mainstream girls he sleeps with have rape fantasies, slave fantasies, etc. And, gosh, I mean … if slave fantasies are vanilla, then sign me up: I’m Vanilla Girl.

Except not really, because there are some real and important distinctions between most BDSM communities and the mainstream. Firstly, most BDSM communities have a greater emphasis on specific communication and boundary-setting, which I love. My mainstream dude friend seems familiar with safewords (which I consider the Level 1 BDSM communication tactic), but unfamiliar with more complex communication ideas like the sterling example of checklists. Secondly, guys in the BDSM community have already overcome their sexual stigma at least enough to actively seek the community out — which is a big deal, even if they don’t feel S&M as quite a core, innate desire the way I do. And thirdly, guys in the BDSM community are much more likely to have tastes as extreme as my own, which is awesome for me.

Sometimes people ask me, “Can you date vanilla guys?” That question has a very complicated answer. When I date guys who aren’t in the BDSM community, I find that they’re open to some stuff. But:

(a) Vanilla-but-questioning guys are usually open to a much smaller amount of stuff, with sharply delineated boundaries against anything perceived as too “weird” (such as flogging), and a lot of struggling to differentiate themselves from “those people”. I once had a long-term relatively-vanilla boyfriend with whom I did semi-intense BDSM on a regular basis — and yet when I confessed the fact that I had BDSM fantasies starting at a very young age, he replied, “Oh, you’re one of those people.” He was kind of joking, but he also kind of wasn’t. It was important to him that I, as a relatively hardcore self-identified kinkster, be different from him. Other. “One of those people”. And I am frankly a lot less interested in fucking a guy who insists on putting me in an “other people” box (especially when he himself is doing “that stuff” with me).

(b) Recently-vanilla-turned-BDSM guys can’t be relied on to take responsibility for their sexual desires, to do research or think deeply about their sexuality — maybe because they’re too busy fighting off stigma. People in the BDSM community are likely to have processed least some of the stigma around sexuality, especially BDSM sexuality, such that we aren’t likely to freak out randomly and we’re much more able to really get into things. This is presumably true of women too — a mostly-vanilla lover told me recently, in a marveling tone, that a lot of the women he hooks up with request a little bit of pain … but “I mean,” he said, “it’s true that you like pain more, but also it’s amazing how okay with it you are.” I guess he can tell by my whole body, all my reactions to what he does, just how much I’ve relaxed about wanting the BDSM I ask him to do.

(c) A lot of the time a relationship with a recently-vanilla guy will slide, apparently inevitably, back into vanilla territory. In other words, I don’t trust vanilla-turned-SM guys to stick with it. Most of them simply don’t stay SM, and worse, I’ve had cases where a partner will then start getting anxiety because he’s aware that he’s not meeting my needs. Whatever people may say, I’m not so sure it’s sustainable for people to be into something just because their partner is; not in the long term. Doing something new can be exciting, but if it’s extreme and a person isn’t personally drawn to it, then in my (sad) experience, that person won’t retain enthusiasm for it. I’ve met BDSM people who report success with “converting vanillas”, but I tend to suspect that those “vanillas” were already drawn to BDSM.

In many ways I’m lucky, because I prefer to live in large cities and large cities usually have BDSM communities. Also, I can be open about my BDSM identity among my friends, though not with my employers. This removes a lot of potential barriers around finding BDSM partners. At the same time, though, I still find myself interested in apparently-vanilla guys sometimes — partly because vanilla guys often think they’re way more into BDSM than they are, usually due to stereotypes of BDSM as “advanced sex” (rather than “just another flavor of sex”, which is a lot closer to the truth).

Yeah, of course I meet hot vanilla-but-questioning guys, and I always go through this process in my head where I weigh up the emotional risks. It goes beyond questions like “what if he can’t understand how deep-rooted this is for me?”, which is something I can handle pretty easily. It’s more like: “What if he’s all gung-ho about BDSM at first, and then loses interest only after I fall in love with him?” This has happened to me. “What if he freaks out and decides that although he likes me and he thinks I’m awesome, this sexual territory is just too scary?” That’s happened to me, too.

When people ask me, “Can you date vanilla men?” I’ll often say “No,” or “Not unless there are extreme extenuating circumstances,” or “It never seems to work out when I try.” But the truth is that I frequently end up going for it anyway. There are some seriously attractive vanilla guys out there, and non-BDSM sex is still fun, and you only live once!

And fortunately, this is all a lot easier now that I’m determinedly experimenting with polyamory. One thing that makes me glad that I finally feel comfortable messing with poly is the fact that if there’s something I want to do sexually and my partner doesn’t, I can go do it with someone else. So simple! The flip side is that sometimes you deal with two quasi-breakups in the same morning, but this is also a topic for another day.

UPDATE: I want to be sure that I don’t come across as saying that dudes who aren’t BDSM, can’t be sexually adventurous. Of course they can!