Posts Tagged ‘vanilla’

2011 21 Jun

S&M Superpowers

I’ve gotten so bored of the biases and stereotypes against S&M. It’s like, “Hey, another person who implies that those of us who do consensual S&M were all abused as children? Sweet! That person is wrong, and I consider those views highly stigmatizing and sometimes damaging. So, can we go for a swim now?” (For the record, however, there is nothing wrong with people who consensually process past abuse through BDSM; see footnote [1].)

It’s much more entertaining to imagine how people would talk about S&M, if we lived in a culture where S&M wasn’t wildly stigmatized. In fact, what if S&M were admired or seen as a great thing … instead of being repressed and forced underground and seen as a dark, evil, disgusting thing? I’ve known people who called S&M and other fetishes “superpowers”, in a kind of ironic twist on this concept.

Many people have written about how S&Mers can offer lessons in sexuality that we gleaned from our outside-the-box perspective (there’s a whole paper on this topic for clinicians, written by a psychologist and titled “Learning from Extraordinary Lovers“). I myself have talked about how S&Mers tend to use much more careful and precise sexual communication tactics than the mainstream (examples include checklists and safewords). But these lessons are hardly confined to S&Mers — there are lots of vanilla people out there who are awesomely careful and precise about communicating sexually.

The superpower framework is a bit different ….

+ For example, it’s been demonstrated that S&Mers are not more likely to have endured non-consensual acts — so we know that despite what Freud would have had you believe, all S&M does not arise from childhood abuse. But maybe it does arise from a childhood experience … an awesome childhood experience. Maybe the Missing S&M Link is that something totally wonderful happened to S&Mers in our childhoods.

Hey, vanilla people? I’m so sorry you all had such bad childhoods. Really, you have my sincerest sympathies.

+ For example, some folks will say that we S&Mers have a wire crossed somewhere; some genetic inferiority. But maybe we are totally way superior. Maybe average dominants and sadists are, say, more empathic than the norm. (There is, after all, actual research showing that consensual S&M increases intimacy.) Maybe average submissives and masochists are better at processing pain and enduring challenges, both physical and emotional, than the norm. [2]

Sorry vanilla people, but we’re going to have to start screening for your gross vanilla genes in the womb. Nothing personal.

+ For example, one of my exes has a story about how he was down in Latin America and he only had access to incredibly cold showers. So he gritted his teeth, stepped into the shower, and told himself that a dominant woman was forcing him to take it. “Actually it made the shower a million times easier to deal with,” he said later. “And I had a raging erection the whole time.”

Aren’t submissives awesome? I pity those of you who lack submissive tendencies.

I leave the question of whether S&M superpowers can properly be attributed to people who don’t feel a so-called “sexual orientation” quality to their kink as an exercise for the reader.

Just because anything on the Internet can and will be misread, I will conclude this post by hammering down the point that this is all a thought experiment, and I do not actually think vanilla people are any less wonderful than S&M people. It’s okay vanilla folks. I love you just the way you are.

* Footnote: For the record, the biggest and best-designed study ever done on this topic surveyed 20,000 people and found that S&Mers “were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity” than the general population. But — also for the record — an S&Mer whose sexuality was associated with being abused would not be “less legitimate” than the rest of us, as long as that person practiced kink consensually. Because what makes S&M okay is consent, right? Right. S&M isn’t okay (or not okay) because of its “source” (whatever that might be) — it’s okay only when it’s practiced consensually, right? Right. So this is all actually kind of a silly conversation to have in the first place, right? Right. It’s too bad stigma tends to make zero sense, isn’t it? Stigma loves to trick you into debating on its own terms.

** Footnote 2: Although I did recently sprain my ankle, and I was not at all awesome at enduring the experience. For the record.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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2010 5 Nov

BDSM vs. Vanilla, Part 1: Why I Pretend I Don’t Date Vanilla-But-Questioning Men

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!

2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

UPDATE 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

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Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.

One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.

Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)

The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.

Recently I was going through the SM-Feminist archives looking for a couple of posts to cite in a piece that I’m working on, and I was stunned to see how much of it overlapped with things I’ve written — even though I’ve specifically tried not to recapitulate what’s already been said over there. Some examples:

* This post basically encompasses everything I said in my old post BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Complications of the Orientation Model, except that it’s more complicated, and also touches on some points I made in my more recent post 5 Sources of Assumptions and Stereotypes About S&M.

* The post How a Girl Learns to Say No elegantly makes one of the major points from my post on safewords and check-ins.

* This post on the term “vanilla” is a more complicated and interesting take on a question that I first started considering way back when I started blogging, in my post Vanilla: Dissection of a Term. It even encompasses all the things I meant to write when I wrote the followup to my post, you know, the followup that never actually happened.

And then there are the SM-Feminist posts that say things I’ve either never gotten around to saying, or that I simply haven’t bothered to blog about because I know they said it better. I’ve even cited some of these posts in lectures. Here’s a (doubtless incomplete) list of those posts:

* BDSM and Self-HarmI want to make this perfectly clear. I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point.

… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

* Why BDSM?Radical feminists are quick to point out to any kinky person who feels uneasy hearing that her fucking is just standard heteropatriarchy that they’re not trying to control what anyone does in bed. “I’m not trying to take your whips away,” etc. They’ll be extremely careful to mention this, and understandably irritated when someone goes “They’re trying to make me hang up the whips and go home,” given how clear they are that this isn’t what they want to do.

What I don’t understand is exactly what good the theory does at all, if they’re not trying to change people.

* OppressionIn discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

“People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you’re insulting people who really are oppressed. It’s as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. “

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we’re using. I realized that I don’t actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it’s used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don’t know an official definition, such that it’s possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don’t have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren’t close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

* Safer Communication PracticesThere are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like “safeword” or “safe, sane, and consensual”. And sometimes they’re tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they’re tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they’re attempting to express.

Last but not least, I’m just going to list the titles of some posts on BDSM and abuse:
* Wut About The Abuuuuzers?
* Not Your Usual BDSM and Abuse Story
* Confession
* The Nature of Abuse

The influences on my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse are obvious.

So there you go, folks. Right there, in the above links, are actually most of my major theoretical influences as a pro-SM feminist (and, indeed, as a general S&M practitioner). Someday I might find something to say about S&M and feminism that Trinity (and her fellow bloggers, occasionally) haven’t already said five times, better ….

… but I’m not holding my breath.

REMINDER from 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2009 8 Jan

“Vanilla”: dissection of a term

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:

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.

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.

2009 2 Jan

BDSM-related relationship screwups

Bloody Laughter has recently started a fantastic series of posts about BDSM screwups, and how it would be helpful if the BDSM community were more willing to talk about the encounters we’ve had that went wrong. You know: the encounters where we miscommunicated — felt confused — felt like we were pushed into things before we were ready — pushed our partners into things they weren’t ready for ….

Miscommunications happen even in committed, loving relationships. (They even happen in totally “normal”, heterosexual, vanilla relationships — imagine that!) Sometimes those miscommunications are overall positive, because they help partners figure out where their boundaries are. Sometimes they’re overall negative: they strain the relationship, they cause fights, someone ends up feeling violated, someone else feels misunderstood. But either way, talking about these things is one of the best ways to figure out how to avoid them in the future. We cannot create a truly safe, consensual BDSM community unless we’re willing to articulate and describe what it means to be unsafe and unconsensual.

Obviously, I agree with Bloody Laughter. And I’ve got some ideas for posts about some of the problems that have come up, the mistakes I’ve made in my BDSM relationships. But I’m also terrified of posting them. I identify primarily as a bottom — a mostly heterosexual one to boot … so I’m a woman who likes being hurt and dominated by male partners. (Though I’ll admit to a couple of toppish screwups in my time, too.) And that means that the average audience could map all kinds of scary, incorrect abuse images onto my stories. I mean, even I — when I was coming into BDSM — even I was afraid that my desires meant I “wanted” to be assaulted, that I “wanted” to be raped, that I was participating in something deeply warped and abusive.

Of course I don’t want to be assaulted, I don’t want to be raped — of course I am not participating in abuse. But. If even I had these thoughts, once … then how can I expect an audience containing vanilla people to look at my desires, my fantasies, my consensual experiences without flinching in horror? In this particular case, how do I talk about BDSM experiences that went wrong? If I discuss my less-than-perfect moments here, I think I’m mostly telling them to a BDSM-friendly audience: an audience that will get something constructive out of what I’m saying, and might use my experiences as a guide to avoid screwups themselves. But then again, this is the wide world of the Internet, where the audience potentially contains everyone. And the last thing I want is for Concerned Women for America to pick up one of my blog posts and quote me out of context and tell the world about Clarisse Thorn’s abusive BDSM lifestyle.

Arguably, this is a particularly important problem for me, because I am specifically trying to do BDSM outreach right now. I am trying to let the world know that kinksters are not scary. Do I have more “responsibility” in my self-representation? Is it more dangerous for me to talk about problematic BDSM experiences, than it would be for other people?

So. I’ve got some stuff written out, that I’m scared to post. If I post, am I damaging the BDSM community image? If I don’t post, am I allowing anti-BDSMers to silence me?

(Never mind that every vanilla person ever born has had sexual experiences that crossed boundaries — sexual experiences that were poorly negotiated. That’s understood and expected, goddamnit. For so many people out there, their standards for sexual communication are so low, they don’t even notice screwups that the BDSM community usually recognizes as major. Not that I think the BDSM community is perfect, not that I think every kinkster is a brilliant communicator … but we train sexual communication in ways the outside world simply doesn’t.

For instance, there are so many people out there — girls and guys — who are being pressured into sexual acts they’re not comfortable with. Here’s just one example: How many people don’t understand that it’s unacceptable for their boyfriend/girlfriend to demand — say — that they perform sexual acts at times when they’re not in the mood? How many people don’t feel empowered to tell their partner, “I’m not up for that right now, sweetheart”? There’s a lot of them.

Everyone knows that people are sometimes pressured into heterosexual vanilla sex, and yet no one uses that as an argument against heterosexual vanilla sex in itself.

The contrast just kills me. Sure, there were a few problematic miscommunications with — for example — some of my recent BDSM partners. But my slight frustration when I think of those moments pales in comparison to the rage and resentment I feel against my first real boyfriend, whom I dated on and off for six years. My relationship with Boyfriend #1 was entirely vanilla — it was the most vanilla relationship I’ve ever had; we only indulged in genital and oral sex — and he managed to screw me up way past anything anyone else ever did to me. Just thinking about him makes me feel used.

And it just seems totally unfair that I can talk about anything he said to me and people won’t be shocked; but if I mention some of the things my most recent ex-boyfriend said to me, people could be horrified and use it as ammunition for anti-BDSM rhetoric.)

You know, maybe what I should do is write a series of posts in which half the post is about a totally vanilla relationship screwup I’ve experienced, and half of the post is about a BDSM-related screwup. Just to put it all in perspective.

* * *

Check out my later post, Communication Screwup Post 1: Isn’t Tickling Cuuute?

2008 30 Dec

That hilarious weird “vanilla fetish”

I volunteer up at Chicago’s own Leather Archives and Museum; because I have some archival experience, they’ve lately had me sort a bunch of ephemera. I look forward to my time at the Archives — every time I go up there, I discover something awesome in the files. Today was no exception.

The box I went through was devoted to Outcasts, an San Francisco “Educational, Support and Social Group for all Women interested in SM between women including Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Women”. Regrettably, it looks like Outcasts folded in 1997, but there’s some really smart writing in the file (no surprise for an organization that included Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia and Dorothy Allison).

The Outcasts’ newsletter was called “The Lunatic Fringe”, and the Leather Archives has two April Fools issues that are just hysterically funny. The following is excerpted from a “book review” in the 1991 April Fools issue ….

The Invisible Ring and Other Stories, by Ferdinand Bull. Vanilla Press, 1991.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be vanilla? We have all read the sensationalistic newspaper stories of vanilla sex rings uncovered by diligent vice squad officers, or watched the recent television special exposing the squalid vanilla sexual subculture operating in the bars and back alleys of Milwaukee. More than one family has discovered, while going through the personal belongings of a recently deceased uncle or sister, that the whips in the bedroom had never been used and that their relative’s true sex life was confined to a few well-thumbed vanilla porn paperbacks hidden under the mattress. If the contemplation of these more sordid aspects of life make you queasy, or if you approve of the recently passed legislation requiring the IRS to maintain lists of suspected sexual deviants based on those who fail for two consecutive years to claim a tax deduction for purposes of sexual toys and equipment, then perhaps you should ignore this book in favor of the latest blockbuster sadist-meets-masochist romance.

… Following the essay is a group of short stories set in a small Midwestern city. My personal favorite was the first of the group, the heroine of which is Leona, a middle-aged reference librarian at the local public library and a reluctantly closeted vanilla. When a controversy erupts within the library over whether to add a copy of Romeo and Juliet to the library’s collection, Leona finds her closet suddenly too small.

“I don’t see how we could possibly add it,” said Donna. “Our patrons would be upset, and rightfully so.”
Leona fingered her black leather collar and thought once again how she hated it. No matter how loosely she wore it around her neck, it always seemed to be choking her.
“There’s no way we could justify keeping something as disgusting as that,” added Paul.
They can’t do this, thought Leona. They can’t shut us out. They can’t ….
“Well,” she said, “I’m vanilla, and I don’t find it disgusting.”
There was a stunned silence.
Finally the director said, “I think this is a good question to refer to committee,” and turned away.

After her initial outburst, Leona is scared at her own temerity, but sticks to her guns. “I know it’s not great literature,” she pleads with Susan. “But it is a classic vanilla work.” In the end, she wins a qualified victory — the library adds the book but keeps it in a locked case. “And tell Sharon,” says the director, “that she is never to order the video.”

… Bull does his best to make his vanilla characters appealing, but the task of rendering vanillas sympathetically is an overwhelming one, at which Bull not surprisingly fails.

The collection concludes with a series of explicit vanilla fantasies, of which the less said the better.

If you feel you must buy this book a few alternative bookstores do carry it, or you may order it directly from the publisher.

I love this fake book review because it’s not merely hilarious — it also highlights the ways in which BDSM-identified people and media are routinely exoticized and censored. It reminds me of this funny blog post I read recently, which takes a similar tack; of course it also brings to mind Renegade Evolution’s now-widely-linked post on vanilla privilege (that one’s a must-read, if you missed it).

Pretty much the entirety of the Leather Archives is awesome, but if you’re interested in issues of BDSM-related organization and social justice, the Outcasts file is for you.