As a person who writes about sex and pleasure, I meet a lot of pleasure activists — people working to reclaim pleasure and sexuality as radical domains.
Many are kinksters, queers, or both; all on a mission to return some dignity back to folks who have been marginalized. Recently, though, I came across a pleasure activist who’s advocating for the validity of “vanilla” sex. Frankly, I was a bit taken aback. Do people who like simple sex really need activism? Isn’t “normal” sex just, well, normal?
Sure, in the past decade, kinky sex has become much more socially acceptable. I’m not saying you should try to bond with granny about your favorite shibari harnesses, but you can probably post about them on social media without much to-do.
But while the #trending of kink seems like some form of progress in our generally prudish society, if folks who love “vanilla” sex feel shamed by their preferences, our culture is still far from being a sex-positive Eden of earthly delights.
“As soon as you say something like, ‘Umm, you know, I love vanilla sex,’ you might as well grow a Victorian-style bonnet on your head,” Alice Queen, a sex writer in Detroit who runs a sex toy blog dubbed “Vanilla is the New Kink,” tells me. “I’m under the impression that society as a whole will never stop trying to whip us (back) into shape, one way or another, by framing any and [all] of our sexual behaviors into social mores.” Basically, Queen believes vanilla sex oftentimes gets the same negative treatment from others as sex that’s widely considered “deviant.”
But does Alice think there needs to be an actual, formal movement to advocate for those who like to keep sex simpler? “On the one hand, I’d love for people to be able to freely admit their vanilla preferences without being scoffed at,” she says. “On the other hand, I’m more than aware of potential pitfalls: Before long, someone would try to hijack my genuine vanilla [sex] pride and use it as a wrapper for exclusion because it’s just so easy to do from a traditional point of view.”
In other words, no, even vanilla sex “activists” view something like an earnest “vanilla sex pride” movement as something that would harm already marginalized communities who actually need or benefit from Pride movements.
The experts I spoke with agree that there’s a big difference between taking pride in your sexuality and trying to make a social justice movement out of it. “Benefiting from, or even being an activist in, a social justice movement or a project to make the word ‘sex’ non-judgmentally inclusive of more sexual options (especially your own) doesn’t necessarily open you up to true comfort with and belief in sexual diversity,” Carol Queen (no relation to Alice), co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, tells me.
The truth is that while Alice may be a self-described vanilla sex “activist,” she’s not vying for the primacy of any one kind of sex. Yes, the name of her blog could be read as creating a divide between vanilla and kink, but it’s really just catchy phrasing meant to wink at sex negativity.
“I wouldn’t want to end up unwittingly promoting exclusion,” Alice says. “On the contrary, my starting point is that the only thing that should be excluded is exclusion itself — as well as, of course, any practice that lacks consent or can never have it by definition.”
The point Alice is trying to make is that, while the preponderance of BDSM-themed merch may make it seem like America has gotten really freaky, our culture is actually still so sex negative that even people who prefer “normal” sex feel like they can’t state their desires without being judged. The fashionability of the aesthetics of kink in many ways masks the reality that the U.S. is still a sex-negative culture, as evidenced by, among other things, our egregious sex education policies.
In fact, the whole idea of kink versus vanilla is essentially just a tool used to create divisions between anyone who might attempt to reclaim pleasure. After all, there’s not even an agreed-upon definition of vanilla sex. We invent these categories in order to express our desires, which should be fun, but our overly prudish culture has turned even the most normative desires against us.
Alice describes vanilla sex as simple and mindful, which honestly, is a great way to approach any kind of sex, kinky or otherwise. “We do not have to have sex a certain way — except, y’know, consensually — no matter what right-wing politicians and preachers [or] hipper-than-thou ‘sex-positive’ folks might say,” Carol says. Basically, in a genuinely sex-positive culture, all sex — vanilla, kink, clown, whatever — would be welcome.
In working toward such a culture, it’s crucial that we don’t get the idea of sex positivity twisted. “Since humans tend to one-up each other, that ‘Yippee, sex!’ POV has morphed into ‘Sex-positive means I like all the sex — [and] if you don’t, you are not sex-positive,” she says. “This is not what sex-positive means.”
The truth is, as Carol notes, that what’s considered sexually “normal” or “fashionable” is always in flux, and it doesn’t always correspond to how we actually think about — or do — sex.