Thursday, July 25, 2013

On the Term "Vanilla"

I hardly ever take part in forum debates about BDSM anymore (see my post Sense and Futility of Online Debates for some insight into why), but I still read through them every once in a while. I saw a point in a debate the other day which I would like to bring up here. The issue of contention was whether or not the term "vanilla" for people who are not into BDSM is derogatory.

One user wrote: "I don't like the term 'vanilla' to describe sex, period. It's part of the pattern that I see with some practitioners of alternative lifestyles who want to believe that their choices are not only acceptable, but superior." Another replied: "On the one hand I have the same problems you have with 'vanilla' as a term, but on the other hand I realize the problem is connotation. 'Vanilla' has come to mean 'bland' in spite of the fact that it's a lovely, complex flavor that's primarily derived from the seed pods of a beautiful orchid through an elaborate process. Yes, it's wordy, and it would take quite a bit of work to alter the 'bland' connotation in peoples' minds, but I think those who are genuinely 'vanilla' should wear the term with pride." A third user added: "Yeah, but anytime the phrase 'vanilla sex' is thrown around, it's in opposition to 'exciting kinky sex'. There's really no way to read it non-perjoratively. All subcultures need to continuously remarginalize themselves in a opposition to normativity in order to maintain status as 'awesome alternative lifestyle'." People in the discussion also pointed out that BDSM practitioners usually like "vanilla" sex as well, and that the boundaries between "vanilla" and "kinky" are fluid instead of the two being a rigid dichotomy.

Personally, I do not feel that the term "vanilla" is inherently derogatory. I frequently use it on this blog as shorthand for people who are not into BDSM, and I do not mean anything bad by it. That said, I am aware that there are people in the BDSM community who use the term disparagingly. Over the years, I have had the misfortune of meeting some of these snotty, big-headed "We are sooo special!" kinksters. You have probably met them yourself. I never liked them. I feel that they are compensating for insecurities and inferiority complexes with their ostentatious looking down on "normal" people, and with some of them, I wonder whether they are really into BDSM or just jumping on the bandwagon of a "cool", controversial subculture. However, those snotty kinksters are a minority, and I don't think that we should shy away from the term "vanilla" simply because a few people use it in a derogatory manner.

A more valid objection to the term "vanilla" is that it really isn't very clear. What is "vanilla sex", exactly? Is it only sex in the missionary position with the lights out? Or does it include, say, oral sex, which is a bit more risqué, but enjoyed by a large number of people and thus statistically "normal"? What about anal sex, is that vanilla? For quite a few men and women, it most assuredly isn't. So how many people do there have to be who are into a certain sexual practice in order for it to be eligible as "vanilla"? Half the population, maybe? If that is so, bondage might be a part of "vanilla" sex - if certain studies are to be believed, fifty percent or more of the respondents have tried it out at least once. Heck, bondage is probably more "vanilla" than anal sex.

There really isn't a clear definition of "vanilla sex", neither is there a clear boundary between it and practices that are usually deemed "kinky". And there is the fact that "kinky" people usually enjoy "vanilla sex" as well - Kaelah and I certainly do. Despite all this, I still hold the opinion that "vanilla" is a useful term. When you come to think of it, most of the words we use are not very clearly defined. That is just the way human language works. But we do know what the words mean from their context. It's like that with "vanilla" as well. I simply use it as a short-hand for people who do not engage in BDSM practices regularly, and I think it works just fine as such. So, in the unlikely case that there are any "vanilla" people reading this blog (why, I wonder?): see, as I said, I don't mean anything bad with the term. It may be the most popular ice cream, but it is nonetheless a pretty complex flavour, so I don't see anything boring about it at all. Glad we could clear that up.

What about you, my fellow kinksters? What are your views on the term "vanilla"? Do you find it derogatory, or do you see nothing wrong with it?


Anonymous said...

If you want to use icecream terms, perhaps strawberry, raspberry or boysenberry might be suitable for folks here!

Val said...

Very good question, what is it that make is "vanilla?" I think that an answer to this falls in the category of the famous definition of obscenity by judge Stewart, here:
" I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that [...] description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it [...] "

Fenris said...

I don't think the term "vanilla" is derogatory itself, at least I do not mean to offend anyone when I use it and none of my non-kinky friends felt offended when I told them about its meaning in the BDSM scene. But, as you clearly put it, there is probably no universally accepted definition, especially as some practices considered once very risqué are becoming more mainstream.
Maybe one could also differentiate between kinky vs. vanilla activities and kinky and vanilla people. Kinky people can, of course, enjoy vanilla sex and so-called vanilla people might engage in some activities more or less kinky like blindfolds and a bit of bondage or spanking.
Nonetheless, I think there are also those I like to call hard-wired kinksters, by which I mean people whose sexuality is deeply linked to their fetish. From the blogs I read and the kinksters I have spoken to, it seems these people fantasize about their fetish long before they develop more common sexual interests. At least, that is true in my case. Of course, this fact does not make them better or worse than those who just engage in some kinky fun once in a while or never at all. Maybe these hard-wired kinksters are more tolerant than those who vocally claim how special and anti-mainstream they are.
By the way, what ice cream flavour is BDSM? Dark chocolate?

MasonPearson said...

I find 'vanilla' useful with no negative overtones at all.

Lea said...

I agree with your definition. It's useful to distinguish non BDSM things.