I am a straight white male. My straightness, maleness, and my whiteness put me very near the tippy top of the pyramid of privilege (looking up only at the very wealthy and very attractive), and makes me feel a little silly complaining about anything. Still, as a member of the sex-positive community, as a regular reader, listener, watcher, and participant of discussions of sexuality, and as a friend to many people in communities that span the spectrum of sexual experience, I’m also a bit of a word nerd when it comes to sex. I’ve got some complaining to do about the words we often use.
I often get called Vanilla. I object.
I do not object that the things I do and who I do them with and how and how often I do them are generally heterosexual, non-kinky, and, for lack of a better term, mainstream. I am a straight guy with pretty typical straight guy fantasies, not because I’m not open to other things, but because pretty typical straight guy fantasies just happen to be what appeal to me most. This means that in many conversations about sex had by many people I respect and adore, my lifestyle and life experiences are referred to as vanilla.
Ok. So, I’m pretty damn vanilla. Still. We can do better than this.
There are a few problems I see with using the term “vanilla” to describe anyone, anything, or any experience (other than ice cream). I mean, all the words we use to describe ourselves are imperfect, and do not fully reflect the person that we are (words like “straight” “bi” “gay” “slutty” “boy” “girl” “partnered” and “positive” come to mind as being either particularly vague or too broad a brush stroke to paint a person). “Vanilla,” however, is one of those words almost no one self-applies. People call other people “vanilla,” and that should tell us there’s something wrong here.
The term “vanilla” doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s one of those sneaky words that we use to mean something “different than.” When a kinky person says a person is “vanilla,” they mean something entirely different than when, say, a polyamorous person says it. Because of this, the term isn’t really all that helpful in explaining who a person is, just who a person isn’t. Again, that should tell us there’s a problem.
Because of this, we are too often free to use words like “vanilla” derisively. A vanilla thinker, fucker, or lover is a boring one. For some, that may be the point. The word is a handy way to poke fun at people not involved in kink, group sex, role play, or anything else that is thought of as “non-vanilla.” I’m sure many of those “vanilla” people also deride people who are into kink, group sex, or role play, so why not? Well, because sex-positive people should be better than that.
As sex positive people, we should understand that there really is no “vanilla,” and using the term lends credence to the myth that there is a “normal” way to be sexual. As sex positive people, we should shy away from definitions meant to place someone as “other” and “different” even as a push back against mainstream discrimination. As sex positive people, why not build our communities and vocabularies around being inclusive and inviting?
So, let’s get rid of vanilla already, huh? Let’s be proud of who we are and who we fuck and let everyone else define themselves. I identify as a straight white male because I think those words speak most to my life experiences. So, I was surprised the other day when I read that I could be straight and queer at the same time.
I, just a week or so ago, was very indirectly called a word I’ve never seen associated with someone like me before. Kate Bornstein, the groundbreaking and brilliant, and wonderful Kate Bornstein, by way of a Savage Love column, referred to a young man much like me as being a “queer heterosexual.” The young man was sex positive, an advocate for gay and trans rights, and into girls.
I would argue that the boy was just a heterosexual that wasn’t an asshole. I’m not sure that makes him queer.
Now, queer has become a word that means many things to many people. I’ve always found it to be a powerful word, a word re-claimed by communities and used with pride and in rebellion to their marginalization. There is certainly an argument to be made that making the word increasingly broad to include more and more people is an intelligent means to include more and more people in that movement.
So, I won’t be upset if Kate Bornstein refers to me as queer. Kate Bornstein can refer to me as any damn thing she wants, because she is awesome. Just don’t expect to see me identifying as queer any time soon.
Sure, I like the idea of gay and trans friends calling me queer, much as I liked when a black friend called me “the blackest white person they know.” Groups that have been marginalized have fought hard to maintain a sense of power in the face of oppression, and for me to take the name of that group is to tap into that power, that belonging, all the positives that come with being a member of that group. However, my place in culture as a straight white male means that I will never have to experience a single bit of the negatives. That doesn’t seem fair to me to access the power of the word but not have to live with any of the discrimination.
I’m a straight white male. Those are words I claim so as not to attempt to ignore the privilege they afford me. Of course our world would be far easier without such labels. Of course our world would be so much more complicated without such labels. I’m not queer, but I will try my hardest not to be an asshole.
John Stark writes sex fiction and essays on WeSleepTogether.Blogspot.com. His non-monogamy memoir, Small Things, is available on iTunes. Dirty Bits, an audio book of dirty stories, is also available on iTunes.