Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Vanilla

I occasionally notice some people getting all wound up over the term "vanilla," angry because they don't like what they look like through deviants' eyes. Here's one particularly over the top example:
The term itself is hardly used as often as it is in circles devoted to Bondage/Discipline/Sadomasochism (the acronym “BDSM” seems overly benign compared to its long form, perhaps by intention), who often employ it to describe anyone outside of their preoccupation and the capitalist webs that serve as a backdrop for their fixation: Vanilla, always referring to others, is a way of focusing on the insider-outsider dynamic and to privilege the group in conceptual space. Accusations of Vanilla do not at all rely on factual evidence of what others do in the bedroom but what one group needs to imagine them doing in order for the insiders to shore up their own sense of identity. Thus, the very idea of hypocrites tends to be elided. While exposing the kink of the God Fearing might be good for a giggle, the amusement is its own end and political implications remain unexplored; outsiders must forever remain Vanilla, just as adherents must remain “otherwise,” even if their own acts begin to mirror the very worst aspects of mainstream culture. If, on one hand, Vanilla Sex is indicative of pre-feminist consciousness and inextricably linked to subjugation (hypothesized as inherent to the missionary position), and is therefore suspect, that the new and improved alternative-sexuality to Vanilla actually includes the word “bondage” in part of its acronym is a galling admission.

To be Vanilla is not just to be normative, it is to be banished wholesale from the new process of identity-politicking that favors choice: Vanilla people have none and are forced to derive their class-based identity from outside opinion, whether they are receptive of the outcome or not. Whereas identities that resulted in nonstandard or exotic “flavors” were once a liability (as it continues to be for those existing in, and under, traditional minority categories), today they are more often than not the result of privilege as it is upwardly mobile and highly educated whites who are most able to carve out for themselves a non-Vanilla identity while simultaneously working to buttress the myth of Vanilla to and append it to their social competitors.
On one hand I can almost understand the butthurt: "Vanilla" means boring and dull. No one likes to hear or wants to hear that the way he fucks (recall that this article writer is that most infuriating of creatures, the pompous feminist man telling us all how it is) is dull. Sex and sexuality are very personal, and most people leap to defend our sexual practices.

Then there's the added wrinkle of the political as well. Most feminists subscribe, to a greater or lesser degree, to the idea that sexuality is affected by culture and cultural norms. If a certain sexuality is stressed, promoted, expected by the culture around you and you rebel against it, you're even more invested in that fight.

Of course this guy and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what we believe the status quo actually looks like with respect to sexuality. He's subscribing to the radical feminist "sadomasochism (I hate 'BDSM' too, actually) is an exaggerated version of standard, compulsory sexuality under patriarchy" view, and I'm subscribing to the view that SM is nonstandard, deviant, the kind of thing that lands you out of jobs, losing custody of kids, in jail if you're unlucky, etc.

Which leads me to the part of me whose response is "oh PLEASE honey." "Vanilla" is a term chosen by people outside the mainstream to describe those in it. It's true that SM is in fact gaining more and more acceptance in mainstream society (at least in the US). More people are joking about it, trying it in the interest of being "GGG," etc.

But the people who really do identify with it, invest themselves in the community, experience it as orientational? We're still rare. We're still not taken seriously. We're still a counterculture, a community, a sub-society with its own culture, language, and traditions.

And whenever you have one of those, you generally have some term for people who aren't a part of the community. Often the word is, indeed, somewhat disparaging. I'm not disputing that "Vanilla" is often said scornfully or sadly by people who never fit into the mainstream and want to distance themselves from it.

But... what you have there is merely the obverse face of subcultural pride. It's "we as a counterculture feel downtrodden and scorned, so we'll spit in everyone else's eye a little. You think we're violent or sick or antifeminist or whatever else? Well, we know how boring you are..."

It's a piece, perhaps a somewhat ugly one, of reparative pride by a small and downtrodden community.

And yes, I said "downtrodden." I know it's a big fad for people to claim that the SM commuinity is all whiny and drama llamaful claiming we're "oppressed" and all. I can see the rolling of eyes begin.

But we are. Our conventions get shut down. Our names get published in the paper. We lose our jobs. We lose custody of our kids. Mental health care professionals decide that our sexuality is the source of our distress, regardless of what the DSM says (in the US; I believe it's the ICD-10 elsewhere, and I don't know how it's worded). We get raided, busted. Kicked out of feminist circles or conventions, some of us (consider all the recent messes in the UK.)

AND SPANNER AND PADDLEBORO WERE REALLY NOT THAT LONG AGO, PEOPLE.

Which makes the whole idea that we're the darlings of the system... quaint, to me. Where's the muscle that we flex when no hotel will take us? I've never seen it. Maybe I'm just not good enough at spotting cloak and dagger dealings.

"Vanilla" is a counterculture's way of reframing the mainstream, for purposes of reparative pride. It's not a profound insult.

If you don't like being part of the mainstream, don't be.

Just know that you don't get to clap your damn hands and claim you're not, and then we get to be and you get to feel good.

There is no mirrorshaded, leather-clad Illuminati of tops, sitting around waving sceptres or nightsticks while a harem of bottoms in slave bells sets in motion our evil plots to quash the vanilla. Or even to skillfully seduce the usually egalitarian into trying the terribly seductive fuzzy handcuffs.

We don't run this world. YOU DO. Wake up.

40 comments:

Devastatingyet said...

My best friend is pretty insulted by the term "vanilla" and I try to say something like "non-bdsm" instead, when appropriate. I understand the insulting nature of the term. (Humorously, she once asked what flavor of ice cream we are? Blood? Leather? Um.)

A lot of groups, especially minority ones (as you pointed out), have a word for outsiders. Think "goyim" and whatever the term is that gypsies use (I forget, but I know they have one). The most irritating part is the inclusion of everyone outside of the group, as though simply not being X puts you in a category together.

My compromise is just to say "vanilla" among bdsm folks and try not to say it around people it might offend.

ellefromtheeast said...

I clicked through to that original article, and my good God, was it ever tedious. I'm used to academic prose, but that was more soporific mud than most.

I take issue with this claim of his:

"Whereas identities that resulted in nonstandard or exotic “flavors” were once a liability (as it continues to be for those existing in, and under, traditional minority categories), today they are more often than not the result of privilege as it is upwardly mobile and highly educated whites who are most able to carve out for themselves a non-Vanilla identity while simultaneously working to buttress the myth of Vanilla to and append it to their social competitors."

Didn't this blog have a thread a couple of months back about race in the kink scene, and how kink isn't just for white people? Also, I think this implicitly presumes that kinky people are hetero (people who are "choosing" their non-mainstream identity). This, of course, is another lousy assumption.

Moreoever, the click-through article talks about Lilith and Eve, so let's talk about this in terms of the "creation myth" of kink. This author's creation myth of kink seems to be something along these lines:

In the early 1970s, second-wave feminists, led by brave white women like Mary Daly, questioned the oppression of patriarchal sex. Then along came "identity politics" and Audre Lorde, and messed up our easy Marxist analysis. People started wanting to claim oppression in a variety of complicated ways, and mess around with power. Thus was born kink and its anti-thesis, vanilla.

This is crappy, crappy history. What the hell??? What about gay men in leather (the "Old Guard", such as it was), which is where most of what it is that we do has come down from? Plus, I take this to be kind of racist, like black women's feminism is a distraction to this guy or something.

Yuck.

SnowdropExplodes said...

ICD-10 is the World Health Organisation's "Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders Diagnostic criteria for research".

The relevant section is F65:


F65.5 Sado-masochism
A. The general criteria for F65 Disorders of sexual preference must be met.
B. A preference for sexual activity, either as recipient (masochism), or as provider (sadism), or both, which involves at least one of the following:
(1) pain;
(2) humiliation;
(3) bondage.
C. The sado-masochistic activity is the most important source of stimulation or necessary for sexual gratification.


Section F64 lists "gender identity disorders", including transsexualism.

The campaign to have F65 changed has a website here: http://www.revisef65.org/

SnowdropExplodes said...

I forget where it was, but the last time this debate came up, I drew an analogy with the term used by Sci-fi/fantasy fiction fans to describe people outside the fan community. That term is "mundane" used as a noun.

Now, most people think "mundane" means "boring" and might take offence at the usage because (as pointed out in the OP) being called boring is usually an insult. Someone new to (or observing from outside) the SF/F fan community might even think that it is a term that developed as a way of making us nerds feel superior to all the people who deride us.

But the word "mundane" originates from Latin, and is literally, "of the world". It is fair to say that most science-fiction/fantasy fans have at least one foot in the imaginary universes. To us, it is a fair comment that those who stay grounded in reality, are "this-worldly", while we are "other-worldly". There is no intrinsic sneer or disparagement implied by the coinage, any more than there is a disparagement in describing someone from abroad as "a foreigner".

Similarly, vanilla is a very pleasant flavouring - I love baking, and use it a lot, and really enjoy the taste. That it is the "standard" flavouring to use is because it appeals to lots of people, not because it is bland or boring. [NB vanilla-flavoured ice cream rarely uses real vanilla, because the flavour is actually too strong in ice cream, so purely in ice-cream terms, "vanilla" flavour is actually a toned-down and bland flavour; but in baking, as I say, it is very good to use the real deal].

That small note aside, "vanilla" describes not a "boring" or "bland" sexuality, but simply "conforming to the norm". And the norm only becomes the norm because most people enjoy it (just as using vanilla flavouring in baking and ice cream became the norm).

There have always been words for "us" and "not-us" whatever group you choose to look at: sometimes "not-us" is used to disparage, but sometimes it just means "does things differently"; and "differently" does not imply "wrongly".

Tom said...

At the outset, I should say that my experience of the BDSM scene is more-or-less limited to snippets and anecdotes garnered from verte's journal as well as reading the occasional post here. Bearing in mind then that these comments arise from the midst of general ignorance about the details of the topic, I nonetheless suspect that there could be a grain of truth in Richard Leader's analysis, albeit buried beneath his spectacularly clumsy attempt to deploy a set of theoretical concepts, not to mention the awkward, nauseating writing-style, etc. (In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as marking an awful first-year undergraduate essay: specifically, that of a student whose pretensions far outstrip their abilities.)

The potentially promising thought comes in one of the sentences highlighted in the post: "To be Vanilla is not just to be normative, it is to be banished wholesale from the new process of identity-politicking." This line of thought connects up with a critique of identity politics given by some of those on the radical Left (e.g. Slavoj Zizek). This critique identifies a general phenomena to be found amongst those acting within liberal democratic horizons: privileging the position of the victim, especially insofar as that victim can be taken to be an exotic Other. It is important to realise that the problem here is not a privileging of the interests of the downtrodden -- for it is precisely the agenda of the Left to help improve the lot of the marginalised -- but that the position-of-enunciation of the victim is problematically overemphasised. The concrete effect of this restriction of the sphere of fully legitimate speech is to encourage people to speak only qua victims since the victim-position is a protected one that provides a right to speak; so too it promotes a sensibility that invites people to frame all their grievances as victimisation, as direct oppression by those in power. Again though, the problem is not so much people thinking of themselves as victims (that this is somehow disempowering or counterproductive) -- besides, a large chunk of people are explicitly victimised or marginalised, and it is important that there be an opportunity for them to be able to discuss this. Rather, the problem is the distortion of the field of speech -- the implicit valorisation of the account of the victim, the Other, the marginalised, the exotic, and so on, simply for its own sake. That is, the valorisation of a perspective not because of the content of what someone says, but because of the formal property of it being them who is saying it.

To relate all this back to BDSM, as with the majority of identities and subcultures, there is a danger of privileging the position of marginality and exclusionary victimhood -- the way in which one exeperiences oneself as cutting against the 'mainstream', buffeted and targeted in virtue of one's difference (which one nevertheless often is and the effects of which should not be underplayed). Defining oneself in a thorough opposition to the 'mainstream' -- via signifiers like 'vanilla' insofar as they are used scornfully and dismissively (I take it there is a perfectly anodyne, descriptive usage too?) -- opens up access to this protected position of the excluded subject. It seems that the risk especially attendant to an SM-identity (in contradistinction to other marginalised groups) is not so much implicitly taking the fact of victimhood or exclusion as itself providing a privileged perspective on the world, for that danger is just a function of identity-politics in general. What struck me about some uses of the term 'vanilla' gestured at here (do correct me if I'm wrong about this) was that there was perhaps a self-conscious championing of exoticism from some quarters, and perhaps implicitly exoticism for its own sake. So, not Otherness as victimhood, but Otherness as diversity, glamorous outlandishness or difference may be seen as a positive value, legitimising the bearer of SM-identity as against boring fuckers (pun intended). (I certainly don't want to suggested conceitedness amongst BDSMers -- only that there may be a structural pattern here.) This also seems to link in with another trope that seems to be floating around, namely the idea of exoticism as transgressive and transgression as liberatory. Again, maybe this sort of thought is pretty much absent from the BDSM scene (and, naturally, I give way in the face of people's superior experience of this), but it seems to be present in some form in a few things I've read about the topic without much justification of why this should be so.

Oops... have rambled on far too much so better stop there. Again, this is very much an uniformed outsider's perspective, so forgive any grievous crudities.

Myca said...

I'm with SnowdropExplodes here. I've always used 'vanilla' (and heard it used) in a non-pejorative way.

I enjoy vanilla ice cream, vanilla in my cookies, and the vanilla air freshener I once had in my car. I love vanilla sex! I love the hell out of it! It's not the only thing I do, but it's great!

What it is not, however, is nonstandard. That's okay . . . but I don't get to bitch and moan and whine if my mode of sexual expression is shared by 90+% of humanity, and the tiny remainder uses a nickname I don't like.

I mean, Christ, stop being such a fucking baby, really.

ellefromtheeast said...

tom, I understand in general the concern about how privileging marginilazation means that only the "marginalized" can speak, and I understand how this has the effect of both belittling deeper oppression and of focusing on identity rather than argument.

But where is this speech taking place? When have you heard someone claiming authority as an oppressed person because s/he is kinky that they denied to someone "vanilla"? Or, "I really get what you're saying about racism, because I'm in the closet about my D/s relationship."? I just don't buy that this is occuring.

I have heard someone at a kink gathering say that vanilla people are more boring or less creative than kinky people, and I've immediately heard other kinky people call them on it and say that was unfair. This is the standard kind of stuff that subcultures say about mainstream culture, but the community seems to self-police to keep it pretty mild.

(snowdropexplodes: I've heard the phrase "Don't freak the mundanes" borrowed from live-action roleplaying games to apply to not flaunting your kink in public.)

Trinity said...

"That's okay . . . but I don't get to bitch and moan and whine if my mode of sexual expression is shared by 90+% of humanity, and the tiny remainder uses a nickname I don't like."

Right on. If that's all you have to worry about, rather than um police raids... stfu.

Trinity said...

Tom: I'm not familiar with Zizek, and I still see the first-year undergrad "impress with my words, rather than explain my concepts" thing in your comment.

But I will say that: Yes, there is a tendency of groups to define themselves as non-mainstream and overly embrace victimhood.

However, seeing that sort of critique leveled at BDSM from second-wave-leaning feminists strikes me as a bit hypocritical. That brand of feminism is often precisely about the idea that women can and should speak in ways men should not, because women lack privilegs.

So... like I said I've not read Zizek, but if I'm right in understanding what you're claiming he suggests, it seems odd that this guy should use Zizek to defend that very phenomenon for use by another group.

Trinity said...

"Moreoever, the click-through article talks about Lilith and Eve, so let's talk about this in terms of the "creation myth" of kink. This author's creation myth of kink seems to be something along these lines:"

I think what he means is "some women think that they're liberated as a gender if they top. It's not true."

WShich is really rich since it's coming from a man... as feminist or profeminist as he may be it just makes me laugh because if you're saying that, honey, how are you not beating yoru chest and asserting you're still cooler than me?

Fuck you, I'll break your damn knees. ;)

(Yeah, I do actually agree that a certain kind of "sex alone means things are better" analysis is silly and incomplete. I just don't think that a man setting fire to that strawargument is in any way exciting. Ho hum.)

Trinity said...

I don't think it's always used in a non-pejorative way. I've definitely heard people talk about vanilla people as less openminded or less interesting. Usually as a response to a kinky person feeling marginalized or feeling shame.

"Oh, we're not the crazy ones. The vanillas are the closed-minded ones!" etc.

Or to someone saying "I wish I weren't such a perv sometimes" "Who would want to be one of the vanillas?"

Or shirts that read "Vanilla is for ice cream," etc.

So yeah... I do think it's used as a way of putting down the mainstream people sometimes. I'm not convinced that's got any kind of heavy moral weight or even is terribly mean, but yes it does go on at least among my friends. While I don't think it matters, I also don't think it wise to pretend no one talks this way.

Myca said...

I guess I'd analogize 'vanilla' to 'straight'.

Sometimes, GLBT folks will get snarky and sarcastic about straight folks . . . but that doesn't make 'straight' a pejorative phrase.

Straight is a descriptor . . . and sometimes there's snark and unfair generalizations about folks who match that descriptor, but the descriptor itself is still good. "Straight" isn't an insult, on its own.

That's how I hear 'vanilla.'

While the folks who get really offended, I would guess hear something more akin to 'breeder.'

---Myca

Tom said...

ellefromtheeast: You say:

When have you heard someone claiming authority as an oppressed person because s/he is kinky that they denied to someone "vanilla"?

The analogy with how oppression is often implicitly treated was meant to illustrate the phenomenon of tacit encouragement given to people to take themselves to be marginalised (I didn't mean to carry over from the analogy all the details about legitimate speech and so on). So, my point was not so much about people framing themselves as oppressed but with BDSM being connected with notions of exoticism, creative diversity, and so on, as this is what seemed central to the use of 'vanilla' to mean boring and unimaginative over and above it meaning something like 'straight rather than kinky'. What interested me was how signifiers like 'vanilla' might contribute to the formation of people's identity. As you point out, it is pretty standard amongst subcultures for people to claim that mainstream culture is boring, less creative, conformist, and so on. I didn't mean merely to point this out though. The claim was meant to be that, in the same way that the position of the oppressed is a privileged one in much liberal discourse, it might be that within BDSM the very fact of being in some sense outsiders, non-standard, marginalised and so on, is similarly privileged, and so in such a way to provide the basis for a distinct conception of one's identity. The specific connection with BDSM that might seem to separate the use of a term like 'vanilla' from that of one like 'mundane' (as used by SF fans, roleplayers, etc.) might be thought to be the notion that the relative exoticism of SM practices makes them transgressive (by breaking social norms), and that their transgressiveness demonstrates a liberated outlook on sexuality or the world in general. So too, the connection between kinkiness and creativity, being generally interesting and so on, has been mentioned in this connection too. As I say, I don't know whether these are common attitudes at all. From what you say, they seem to be at least present but treated with scepticism by most people on the scene. I was interested to find out whether people actually did take there to be much of a link between their BDSM activity and these things insofar as it is not unusual to find such a move from facts connected to a group's marginalisation to the attribution of some liberatory potential to them (although it is rarely put explicitly that a group embodies some sort of liberatory potential just because they are marginalised). Does any of this connection with the notion of being more free or liberated through BDSM, whether sexually or more generally, (as opposed to simply being more creative, exciting, interesting, etc.) ring at all true of how some people on the scene seem to see themselves?

Trinity: I tried to explain the concepts I was using (such as the idea of the 'position' of the subject) as much a possible given that it was a blog comment. I'm sorry if you feel that I didn't succeed, although I think accusing me of trying to be a show-off is unfair and unhelpful.

I'm not sure the guy was trying to use Zizek in particular, more likely that given the length of his ranting he was bound to gesture towards a semi-coherent point somewhere within it in. What I took him to be trying to get at is the idea that insofar as someone's identity is conceived in explicit opposition to the mainstream then that allows them to stake out a position with a special sort of currency and claim to recognition. Obviously, there are ways of taking this position that are reactionary (e.g. as anti-multicultural, anti-gay rights, etc.) as well as more progressive (e.g. as a call for a universalist rather than fractured political or cultural agenda).

As for the notion of a specifically women's speech and writing (Cixous' 'écriture féminine' and all that), I tend to associate that with French psychoanalytic feminism, which seems at best to be ambiguously placed in relation to the second-wave in general. So, I'm not sure quite how incoherent taking such a line is in terms of his overall position. Though perhaps I'm overlooking similar trends within second-wave feminism that he'd want to align himself with. I'd have thought that was the least of that guy's worries though.

thene said...

"To be Vanilla is not just to be normative, it is to be banished wholesale from the new process of identity-politicking that favors choice: Vanilla people have none and are forced to derive their class-based identity from outside opinion, whether they are receptive of the outcome or not. Whereas identities that resulted in nonstandard or exotic “flavors” were once a liability (as it continues to be for those existing in, and under, traditional minority categories), today they are more often than not the result of privilege as it is upwardly mobile and highly educated whites who are most able to carve out for themselves a non-Vanilla identity while simultaneously working to buttress the myth of Vanilla to and append it to their social competitors."

Um. I'm walking straight into Godwin territory here, but am I the only one who's slightly reminded of the sort of tone anti-Semitism takes here? All these 'upwardly-mobile, highly educated' people who've got their own culture and their own way of speaking, lurking in our midst and, ohnoez, having the gall to talk among themselves about everyone else?

Not suggesting there's any connection between the two, only that both seem to be motivated by jealousy/insecurity/fear of the Other.

I'm really not following how people like you are supposed to have RUINED sex for people like me by using the word 'vanilla'. (Sheila Jeffreys also makes no sense on this point). I think that one thing the OP said was true - that identities, especially when applied to others, don't describe specific acts. He's as wrong to equate missionary with vanilla (surely many vanilla people aren't crazy about missionary?) as I would be to equate any particular act with kink. Identity doesn't work that way, and neither does orientation, etc.

Trinity said...

"That's how I hear 'vanilla.'

While the folks who get really offended, I would guess hear something more akin to 'breeder.'"

Yes, exactly. And to me the thing is I hear it used both ways. Ways that are just "those people who are not in our community, bless 'em" and ways that mean "those closedminded fuckheads." Sometimes both in the same conversation.

Trinity said...

Tom: I still think you're waving your brain at people. I'm fine with engaging with you, but I'm not going to interpret what you say any different until you start using paragraph breaks and more direct diction.

"What interested me was how signifiers like 'vanilla' might contribute to the formation of people's identity."

Whose? I don't think "vanilla" contributes to the formation of many people's identity who aren't involved in BDSM (though I have seen some people who self-identify as vanilla.) The reason for this is pretty straightforward: the term "vanilla" was coined by the counterculture to describe the mainstream, and not the other way around. That I think is a big part of why people like this article writer are miffed. Because they were living their lives, trying I suppose to do some political dissecting of sexuality, but generally minding their own business. And then we gave their practices a name. A name they didn't hook up to themselves, delineating a border they never saw.

"As you point out, it is pretty standard amongst subcultures for people to claim that mainstream culture is boring, less creative, conformist, and so on. I didn't mean merely to point this out though. The claim was meant to be that, in the same way that the position of the oppressed is a privileged one in much liberal discourse, it might be that within BDSM the very fact of being in some sense outsiders, non-standard, marginalised and so on, is similarly privileged, and so in such a way to provide the basis for a distinct conception of one's identity."

I do think so, yes: we have a sense of ourselves as a community, united as much in being deemed sexually nonstandard and thus a threat as in what we do.

But I don't actually think this perception is a false one. There are periodic attempts to shut down our web sites, prevent us from holding conventions, get the media to smear us, etc. Sure, that doesn't add up to "you'll be shot on sight if you enter the dominant group's territory" so it may not count as "oppression". But I think a lot of the debate on BDSM attempts to assume that those things don't happen and those threats aren't real, and that's just incorrect.

ellefromtheeast said...

"Um. I'm walking straight into Godwin territory here, but am I the only one who's slightly reminded of the sort of tone anti-Semitism takes here? All these 'upwardly-mobile, highly educated' people who've got their own culture and their own way of speaking, lurking in our midst and, ohnoez, having the gall to talk among themselves about everyone else?

thene, I get your concern, but later in the essay, the author specifically mentions people (implicitly Americans) identifying as Irish or Welsh. And there I totally get what he's saying; I've been guilty of it myself. Pale, privileged people who say "YOU are white, but *I* come from the *oppressed* people of Europe, with a long, colorful history of resistance," are annoying as fuck (and I really, really do not mean to include Jews there in the slightest; I mean people who are talking about how they're descended from Rob Roy et al). I'm not sure the author meant to include Jews, although given how dismissive he is of "identity politics" in general, maybe he did.

Myca said...

Yes, exactly. And to me the thing is I hear it used both ways. Ways that are just "those people who are not in our community, bless 'em" and ways that mean "those closedminded fuckheads." Sometimes both in the same conversation.

Well, and I think it's worth pointing out also that even if 'vannilla' is the equivalent of 'breeder,' if you're straight and you're getting your ass completely bent out of shape over the word breeder, you're probably an asshole.

---Myca

Trinity said...

"Well, and I think it's worth pointing out also that even if 'vannilla' is the equivalent of 'breeder,' if you're straight and you're getting your ass completely bent out of shape over the word breeder, you're probably an asshole."

Yeah. I had a friend in college who fell in with other gay men who never stopped with "breeder" and "fish," (at the time, I IDed as het) and we gently sat him down and told him we didn't like to hear it.

But that is a far cry from writing an article about how some gay person calling you a breeder has "forced [you] to derive [your] class-based identity from outside opinion, whether [you] are receptive of the outcome or not."

Trinity said...

"And there I totally get what he's saying; I've been guilty of it myself. Pale, privileged people who say "YOU are white, but *I* come from the *oppressed* people of Europe, with a long, colorful history of resistance," are annoying as fuck"

True... but I also think it depends how, why, and when this is being done/said.

Someone trying to say "I am as oppressed as black people, because I'm Irish" is... not comprehending something huge about race and privilege.

Someone mentioning his family's story and how hard they had it as immigrants and claiming it impacts his point of view or even impacts how some people treat him is not, IMO, annoying as fuck -- because he's not trying to latch onto some other oppression with bad analogies.

This is why I do have a problem with people calling the issues many BDSM people face "oppression", as if it's on the level of institutionalized racism or sexism or ableism, etc. but do not have a problem with people pointing out "yes, there are sexuality hierarchies in Western culture, and yes, deviants are at the bottom and do pay a price."

Because that's true. And unfair.

I hate the way it's framed as you're either oppressed or privileged, and there are only these Major Isms that show up, and anything off that map is a minor irritation only.

No, not really.

Trinity said...

which I'd personally sum up as "boo urns to Karl Marx" or at least to his ideological descendants.

but then, someone wiser about Marxism or its history influencing feminism can probably blow me out of the water there... ;)

ellefromtheeast said...

"True... but I also think it depends how, why, and when this is being done/said."

Oh, I completely agree that using family history to gain empathy is fine and dandy.

But the complaint made both by the original author and tom was about how claiming an oppressed white ethnic ancestry could be used by a white speaker to disavow hir whiteness relative to other white people. This does two rhetorical tricks - it puts the claimant, who in reality is racially privileged, in the same category as people who actually suffer from racism, and it labels other equally white people as "oppressors." THAT is what I agree is annoying - and I think it feeds exactly into your (trinity's) complaint about binary categories of oppression and privilege.

(Yes, racial privilege is tricky, but again, the specific examples given in the article were Irish-American and Welsh-American. I'd add in Scottish-American and stand by this analysis for those categories in the contemporary period.)

What I don't agree about is that making a kinky/vanilla distinction is equivalent to distinguishing between, say Irish-American and white.

I think we're all capable of recognizing intersectionality.
For example, the community members I know in the active military have to stay deep in the closet, because they can be dishonorably discharged for being at a leather bar or having any toys anywhere on base. And the US military draws disproportionately on people of color and those without parents to pay for their college educations.

The kink community isn't inventing these boundaries; the US government is. I can't see why it's our fault for giving the categories a nickname.

pepomint said...

Don't have much to add beyond the awesome central point and the fine comments, other than to say:

I'll merrily stop using the term "vanilla" on the day that the mainstream stops considering kink to be sick, perverted, in need of treatment, etc. Anyone who is upset with this usage is welcome to address the mainstream's problems as a tactic to bring about this day more quickly.

We like to say "oppression hurts everyone, even the oppressors" but we are often terribly short on examples. Here's one. If being called vanilla bugs a person, they should chalk it up to the oppression in question ("kinkphobia"?), not to the people actually using the word.

Same goes for "straight".

I do this all the time for gender stuff. If I'm upset that men are much more likely to be read as creepy than women, do I blame women for it? Nope, men are at fault, specifically creepy men and the sexist system that supports them. If I want to fix this, I gotta talk to the creepy men first.

So our good friend Richard, confusing though he may be in prose, should consider taking a close gander at himself and his mainstream sexual politics before blaming the BDSM folks for anything involving the mainstream.

Trinity said...

"I'll merrily stop using the term "vanilla" on the day that the mainstream stops considering kink to be sick, perverted, in need of treatment, etc. Anyone who is upset with this usage is welcome to address the mainstream's problems as a tactic to bring about this day more quickly."

Yes.

EthylBenzene said...

"I'll merrily stop using the term "vanilla" on the day that the mainstream stops considering kink to be sick, perverted, in need of treatment, etc. Anyone who is upset with this usage is welcome to address the mainstream's problems as a tactic to bring about this day more quickly."

I'll second the YES. I can't find the book right now, but in Dan Savage's old collection of letters he adressed a reader who had a problem with "breeder," because she was childfree by choice (don't even know if there was a name for it yet back when these letters were published -- I think Dan was still using Hey Faggot at that time even!). And Dan basically said "tough titties. Talk to the breeders about it then."

Also, I might step on some toes here, but I'm a scientist and all this po-mo-type language and analysis makes my brain hurt. But probably if I was to lecture you all on stable isotope systems and uses, you'd chew off your own arms... :)

Trinity said...

"Also, I might step on some toes here, but I'm a scientist and all this po-mo-type language and analysis makes my brain hurt."

What's counting as "po-mo"? Are you talking about Tom's long comments or are you talking about the way I'm wording my posts?

Zonk said...

Oh God, I really wanted to read the comments but... you've all written so much.

:P

EthylBenzene said...

"What's counting as "po-mo"? Are you talking about Tom's long comments or are you talking about the way I'm wording my posts?"

Mainly the stuff you quoted in the original post plus Tom's comments. Just, brain hurty. No offense meant, it just reads like gobbleydegook to me :)

Trinity said...

ethylbenzene: Both did to me.

I mean, I'm a grad student in philosophy so I'm used to jargon, but I don't much like it in my off time. If we're making some serious point about theory, okay, as long as we try at least to explain it in layman's terms, y'know?

EthylBenzene said...

"If we're making some serious point about theory, okay, as long as we try at least to explain it in layman's terms, y'know?"

No kidding. But that's true of any academic profession. I bet I really could talk to you about stable isotope systems in a straightforward way that would be interesting and engaging, if I really wanted to. I actually think it's kind of lazy to rely on jargon when you're not writing for your speciality audience. Using that much jargon just reads like "nyea nyea I use big words!"

What was it you said earlier? "... the first-year undergrad "impress with my words, rather than explain my concepts" thing.." So true. There's a couple of posters here (some seem to have dissapeared thankfully -- you know who I mean!) who really read like sophomore philosophy majors impressed with their new vocabulary.

And this kind of thing is definitely not relegated to the "soft" sciences! Like I said, didn't want to step on any toes, all I really meant was that we're not all familiar with the jargon, so let's try to speak English!

Ok, done ranting off topic now :)

Trinity said...

"I bet I really could talk to you about stable isotope systems in a straightforward way that would be interesting and engaging, if I really wanted to. I actually think it's kind of lazy to rely on jargon when you're not writing for your speciality audience."

Yes. I'm actually really trying to write my dissertation in a way that engages with literature but also so that anyone I know can pick it up, read it, and get what I'm saying. That's difficult, but it's also really a worthy goal.

Way too many people get so invested in their particular little niche that they can no longer talk in a way that people who don't know what they're saying can even understand.

In the case of the writer of the original article, I think it's a way of flashing feminist creds and intimidating people who disagree.

LaurynX. said...

This is why I do have a problem with people calling the issues many BDSM people face "oppression", as if it's on the level of institutionalized racism or sexism or ableism, etc. but do not have a problem with people pointing out "yes, there are sexuality hierarchies in Western culture, and yes, deviants are at the bottom and do pay a price."

I fully agree. As a black woman, I have various social identities beyond being a person into bdsm that are in need of attention and are subject to opression. I'm sorry, but I do not feel opressed as a person into bdsm. As a black woman, yes. A woman into bdsm? No.

"Whereas identities that resulted in nonstandard or exotic “flavors” were once a liability (as it continues to be for those existing in, and under, traditional minority categories), today they are more often than not the result of privilege as it is upwardly mobile and highly educated whites who are most able to carve out for themselves a non-Vanilla identity while simultaneously working to buttress the myth of Vanilla to and append it to their social competitors."

ellefromtheeast
Didn't this blog have a thread a couple of months back about race in the kink scene, and how kink isn't just for white people?


I'm proof that kink isn't just for white people, however one of the reasons I am NOT invested in the bdsm "scene" or "community" is because I'd feel pretty damn out of place in the majority of it. White people have the privilege of investing in parties and munches and extravaganzas and whatever else, because there are ALOT of middle to upper class white folk. Racial minorities in the U.S. don't have those kinds of resources. (Yes, there are POC munches and get togethers but they are few and far between.) BDSM culture, I found to be alienating, as I do not see myself in it. Yes I share the desire for "kink", but that's where it stops. Hence, I do not invest in the "vanilla" terminology. Being "kinky" is not part of my core identity.

Trinity said...

Laurynx,

Thanks for dropping by! And... yeah, to everything you said about oppression. Yeah. Yeah. Just yeah. The judgments people pass on perverts are nowhere near the same level as racist violence.

Or other stuff, too. I mean, I'm middle class and white and very invested in my identity as kinked -- but I also have a disability, and well, MURDERS OF CHILDREN based on ableist "I'm tired of taking care of this disabled child" happen all the time, and I, well, don't see that sort of thing happening based on kink.

I often wonder how PoC in the local scene feel about this stuff. There seem to outsider whitey me to be a lot of groups around here for PoC and a lot of support for them. I wonder if it is easier here, or if I'm not perceiving accurately.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Coming at this late because I've been quite mad of late and behind on my blogs ...

Short and semi-tangential: I'm always bemused when I run into people who claim that 'vanilla' is a pejorative because it's boring. S'my favorite sweet flavor.

I've actually run into far more pejorative use of "mundane" (from SF fandom and SCA) than I ever have of 'vanilla' as a pejorative, though I have seen both used both neutrally and with hostility. A lot depends on sample size and location and context, I suspect.

And a chunk of that was because I was actively in fandom and SCA circles for a while in my late teens/early twenties, and have never been actively in kink circles, really. And late teens/early twenties is more likely to do the 'our difference makes us speshul' thing, I think, more likely to be identity-insecure and thus flagging 'not one of us' as 'lesser, less creative, less aware, less meaningful'.

I have more to say, I think, I just don't know what it is right now. :P

hexyhex said...

I think the word "vanilla" is important, in the same vein as words like "straight", "cisgendered", "monosexual".

Having a label for the unusual is othering. Having a label for the unusual AND the usual is simply drawing a distinction.

Trinity said...

"And late teens/early twenties is more likely to do the 'our difference makes us speshul' thing, I think, more likely to be identity-insecure and thus flagging 'not one of us' as 'lesser, less creative, less aware, less meaningful'."

Yes, which is about when I got into the scene. My lover was older, but some of the conversations we'd have to bolster my self-esteem were "no, there's not something wrong with YOU hon, there's something wrong with MOST OF THE POPULATION for having such a huge blind spot."

overpowered said...

I think the term vanilla is often said in a contemptuous way. But more importantly perhaps, I think the distinction between bdsm (or whatever you want to call it) and vanilla is a false dichotomy. It reinforces the idea that only some special people (whether you are in favour of or opposed to them) take part in sadomasochistic activity.

I've often felt like I'm not 'proper' BDSM because I don't engage in it as a community or a hobby or a lifestyle. Nevertheless, I like pain, I like violence, I like being cut and branded and slapped and choked and tied up. But really who's to say where the line is between 'vanilla' and 'bdsm'? Biting? Pinching nipples? How rough does sex have to be before it stops counting as 'vanilla'? I just think it's an oversimplification of sexuality.

And if you're (rightly) concerned about incidents like the Spanner case, then the last thing you want to do is reinforce the 'us vs. them' mentality. Saying 'you're normal' and 'we're deviants' is not helpful. It would be more politically expedient to encourage so-called vanilla people to recognise the sadomasochistic elements in themselves.

Trinity said...

"It would be more politically expedient to encourage so-called vanilla people to recognise the sadomasochistic elements in themselves."

I'm not sure that's possible. There are a lot of people who very strenuously resist the idea that their psyche has anything dark about it.

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