I recently found myself in yet another conversation with a longtime kinky player who made a disparaging comment about vanilla sex. If you’re not familiar with the term, it pretty much means anything sexual that isn’t BDSM, and it’s often used dismissively, as if sex that doesn’t include leather, whips, or pain is boring. Although I enjoy BDSM, I always find this kind of thing unnecessarily sex-negative.
I get where this attitude comes from. Marginalized communities of erotic affiliation often respond to their circumstances by diminishing or devaluing the dominant group. I’ve heard plenty of queers call straight folks “breeders,” though that’s been happening less and less as more queers raise kids of their own. I understand that it can seem like a useful defense mechanism, but grouping such an incredible spectrum of sexual desires and preferences into a single category renders all of the complexities of human sexuality invisible and irrelevant. That just doesn’t help anyone. The irony of this kind of speech is that dismissing someone else’s sexual preferences simply because they aren’t your own is exactly the kind of discrimination and stigma that the kink world struggles against.
Implicit in this language is that vanilla sex is boring, which I find really strange. I suppose if the only vanilla you’ve ever tasted was cheap supermarket ice cream, that might make sense, but real vanilla is one of the most complex and exciting flavors in the world. If you don’t believe, me, try a shot of Navan in a brandy snifter. You have a treat in store for you! It’s also really wonderful in hot chocolate.
Then, there’s the history of vanilla as an aphrodisiac and the studies suggesting that it’s rated as one of the more arousing scents, at least for some people. While I’m generally skeptical of such claims, it does seem to me that if vanilla was actually boring, it wouldn’t have maintained such a sexy reputation for so long.
I know that some kinksters talk about non-kinky sex like this because it makes them feel cool for being transgressive or for being bigger freaks than anyone else. I’ll admit that I used to do things like that until I realized that all that does is creates new definitions of what sex “should be” and reinforces shame. It also tends to foster a performance model of sex since it sets us up to compare what we want to do with our notions of what the cool kids are doing.
Having said that, I do recognize that we don’t have any other terms for sex that isn’t BDSM-oriented. “Non-kinky” begs the question of what “kinky” means. And “regular sex” doesn’t mean anything since we each have different notions about that. Plus, not all BDSM includes sexual or genital stimulation anyway, which makes it even trickier.
Until we have a more nuanced language, I’ll continue to call it vanilla sex. But in my world, vanilla is delicious, delightful, and a whole lot of fun.