What are Kink and Vanilla Sexuality?

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had an interesting conversation last night with some of my close friends about whether there is an inherent distinction between kink and vanilla sexuality.  It was not the conversation I thought it would be.  Everyone commented on how “vanilla” was used with a negative connotation, and more or less described it as “mainstream” pointing out things like hetero PIV sex.  Interestingly, two friends who are a monogamous, hetero- married couple said they typically have “sex” in the same way, but that they’re both kinky people and they consider lots of things they do to be sex.

I don’t think writers like Clarisse Thorn mean “mainstream sex” when they say vanilla sex.  They mean “not kinky.”  But what is that?

What does it mean to try and figure out if there is a distinction in people’s sexuality while we live in a culture that undermines any and all sexuality?  According to the mainstream, it seems kinky people are perverts, sluts, creeps, and get pathologized, often considered to likely be victims of past sex abuse (an accusation meant to undermine and shame them).  Vanilla people are inhibited, sad, frozen, not self-actualized, shitty partners, pathologized, and likely victims of past sex abuse…  It seems like all roads lead to everyone being made to feel like their sexuality is terrible.   And that no matter what their sexuality is like it’s not theirs in that remarkable trick of postmodern culture that shames you for not being self-derived in order to take control of you.

I’ve personal experiences that lead me to feel like there is something being described with vanilla and kink that are important in order for people to understand each other’s sexuality and sexual compatibility.  I’ve only had two experiences of reading about sexuality and having an epiphany of who I am.  One was hearing the term polyamorous described in the book The Ethical Slut.  I was like the boy in Velvet Goldmine yelling That’s me!  That’s me!  And the other was reading a kinky blogger’s description of sex and feeling like I got the gist of what was being described in some intuitive way and thought, “That’s a real thing.  I’ve felt that in other people.  And I don’t have it.”

By my friends’ definition of vanilla, I’m not vanilla at all.  And I think by that definition it’s because I have broken away from having my sexuality restricted and defined by a sex negative and crazy society.  But I think I am vanilla, and that I’ve been with kinky partners and slowly started to figure out how our personal experiences were differing even during the same encounters.  I’m pretty sure I had a frustrated kinky friend who more or less was pushing role playing into her everyday life with confused partners, one of them being me.  And Valerie and I have tried to talk through what we feel is different about each other lots of times.

Here is one attempt to define the difference between kink and vanilla sexuality: 

It seems to me that kinky people focus more on the eroticism of sex.  It’s the mood, the feel, the atmosphere that develops a charge and an edge and makes sex exciting, and this charge is often created by use of a cultural situation that often involves some form of taboo or power dynamic.  That mood, that feeling, that charge, that’s sex, or rather the center of what sex is and what’s most exciting to them.

Vanilla people focus more on the sensual, what’s happening physically and as a result emotionally right then and there with the people present as they are, and on what they can read of what their partner feels physically and emotionally.

I first tried to name this with Valerie after we were talking about what we meant when we even said the word “sex.”  I tried to put it into words by saying she’s focused more on what’s happening externally during sex, and I was more focused on what was happening internally during sex.

I think maybe it’s like Meyers-Briggs types:  Everyone has both; like right- and left-handedness most people have a natural dominant function they use more and more easily; like ambidexterity some people have more ambidexterity than others; society can push you away from your natural inclination; and you can shift over your lifetime, though many people don’t.  And perhaps like ambidexterity, the culture allows for vanilla sexuality more than kink sexuality, so people who are kinky have typically learned to adapt to vanilla sex out of practice and necessity, while people who are vanilla typically find it harder to comprehend and swing towards kink because they are never really expected to.

Like the functions in Meyers-Briggs, I don’t think kink and vanilla are a dichotomy in a separated sense and would be confusing and alienating to understand that way.  I think they’re a duality somewhat in the way that introvert and extrovert and thinking and feeling functions are.  I don’t think that people who are predominantly kinky and people who are predominantly vanilla can’t have sex with each other or satisfying sex with each other.  And I do think that figuring out how to articulate the difference and know that it exists can help people have more awareness of themselves and others and better relationships.



[Added 8/8/12]

One thing I did not write about in this post that is sorely absent is the reality of vanilla privilege – for lack of a clearer term.   While I attempted to show that everyone is hung up on judgments external and internal about their sexuality and this convolutes the situation of us understanding ourselves and one another, I did not point out that you can be as “extreme” into vanilla sex as you want and not be legally abused.  No one is going to take your children away because they find out you can orgasm only from nipple play.  No one is going to put you on trail for having tantric orgasms and enjoying five hours of penetration.  In a sex positive environment, these things are even goals or envied.  However, equal “extremes” on the kink side can elicit violence.  That is to say, we all experience sex negativity, but there is a degree of privilege, of safety in having one’s basic human rights upheld, in being vanilla.  No one should be punished socially or systemically for consensual sex, and kinky people, among others, are.  I think it was an error to leave this out.


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