What's wrong with "vanilla"?

The sexually progressive community isn't always that enlightened when it comes to non-kinky sexualities

Published September 16, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

Once, Steven walked out of a sex party because he noticed someone pointing their cellphone camera at him. But among his friends, he says, “The story goes that 'Steven freaked out at the group sex and ran away.’ That was also the same party where I was laughed at for asking a woman for her name before she touched my penis.”

As you might have gathered, Steven is hardly a prude. In fact, he’s the 2010 national title-holder of the Air Sex Championships (for which I had the dubious honor of serving as a judge). But despite this 35-year-old San Franciscan’s stage-humping bona fides, he’s felt dismissed by his freakier counterparts for having certain boundaries and expectations (like knowing a woman’s name before she touches his penis).

“I'm beginning to realize that I'm only a semi-kinky romantic with a predilection for serial monogamy,” says Steven. “Hardly the stuff of San Fran sex godhood.”

This is something I’ve come to realize about “sexually progressive” communities: They’re not always that progressive. For all our bluster about sexual liberty and choice, there is a sense in some corners that certain freedoms are freer. I’ve come across a surprising number of supposed radicals who subscribe to a sex-positive hierarchy, with private monogamy at the very bottom and public poly-whatever-y at the tippy top. My unwillingness to make out with a female friend or participate in an orgy has been greeted on numerous occasions with, “You’re the most prudish sex writer I’ve ever met!” (I could go on to list my sexual “street cred,” except that would kind of contradict the point of this article.)

Lynn Comella, a sexuality scholar and women’s studies professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has had a similar experience. She’s dated people “who think that because I identify as a sex-positive feminist and, moreover, because I study and write about sexuality, I am of course someone who swings naked from chandeliers while having group sex on film,” she says. “And while I am not at all opposed to that in theory, in practice it is just not who I am.”

Comella has noticed that “there's not much, if any, discussion among the sex positive and sexually progressive folks that I know about monogamy as an active choice, rather than a relationship default,” she says. “[Monogamy is] the relationship configuration that works best for me, in large part, because I've always felt the most sexually free and experimental within the context of monogamy.” Sexual freedom means different things to different people.

My friend Anna Pulley, a sex writer and culture editor at the SF Weekly, has noticed an impatience with sexual privacy, specifically on OKCupid. “The match questions can be answered publicly and then anyone can see that you're ‘into gagging’ and whatnot,” she says. “I've been chastised by potential mates because almost all of my questions are private.” She’s also noticed that many women’s profiles say things like, “vanilla girls need not apply." “It's like if you're not poly and kinky and into going to orgies all the time, you're dismissed as a potential dating or sex partner,” she says.

She generally sees a culture of one-upsmanship in our liberal city by the bay -- but also specifically with regard to sex. “It's like, the Folsom Street Fair is considered kind of wholesome now, people take their babies there and such, and the tendency to be bigger, pervier, more outlandish is pervasive,” she says. “Because S.F. is already provocative as fuck, you have to kick it up another notch.” Editing sex stories for the Exhibitionist, SF Weekly’s culture blog, she often sees “generalized statements about ‘vanilla people’ that are quite often disparaging or pitying in some way,” she says. “For instance, ‘even vanilla people have tried anal sex at least once.’”

It’s hardly just San Francisco. Miguel Canabosis of Boston tells me, “I have occasionally felt there's a vague and unacknowledged exclusionary ethos among self-identified progressives in all matters, not just sexual. And that's annoying.”

Emily, a 42-year-old monogamous woman living in Los Angeles, has close friends who are “gay, poly, or currently working for a sex-toy retailer.” She doesn’t even watch porn, but Emily tells me in an email, “I know BDSM slang and listen to Dan Savage religiously.  I identify as a third-wave, choosy-choice, sex-positive feminist who has seen Susie Bright read and Annie Sprinkle perform.”

One of her kinky friends is “a little condescending about it,” she says. “I love her but it’s almost like since she discovered her deepest desires and freed herself to fulfill them, she thinks everyone in the world must secretly feel the same way and want the same things, and she’s more evolved than we are for being in touch with it all. She’ll imply that I couldn’t possibly understand the quality of the orgasms some complicated thing provides her with.”

The judgment goes both ways, though. “I’m not 100 percent sure she’s not still acting out some ... pain,” she writes. “Or damage. You know, all that stuff you’re not supposed to think about kinky people.”

Occasionally, Emily wonders if her friend is right that she’s missing out: “My mate and I often discuss the fact that we have not felt much of a need to venture beyond the same five or six acts,” she says. “We keep kicking the tires on our sexual happiness, and yes, it’s still running.”

Of course, there's great reason for people to wear their kinks like badges of honor. It can be one hell of a journey to confront and then embrace taboo, marginalized desires. Emily knows this: “Most of the time, I know I’m the one with the privilege so I’m OK playing the rube.  It’s really my job to make them comfortable, not the other way around.” It’s also true, as Julie, 32, of Austin, Texas, points out to me, that some division in the sex-positive community is simply practical -- for example, between swingers and the polyamorous: “[P]eople need to have different expectations so groups sometimes splinter off so people can find those they connect with.”

But there is a desire among many of the people I interviewed for greater recognition that one's sexual progressiveness isn't measured by how kinky you get in the bedroom. If anything, it's measured by the kinky activities you're willing to respect, support and defend. You don't have to join in on naked chandelier orgies in order to be a sex radical; you just have to fight for others' rights to naked chandelier orgies. While we're at it, we might as well do away with the term "vanilla" -- or at least reimagine its use. As Steven says, “I'd like to thank a chef friend of mine for setting this straight: ‘Have you ever tasted real vanilla? It's spicy!’”

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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