Last week, I laugh-snorted my way through a live show for the popular podcast Guys We F*cked in Toronto. Comedy duo Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson host the sex-positive “anti-slut-shaming podcast” and are also the co-authors of F*cked: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That’s Screwed, which hits shelves next month. Together, they’re helping dismantle the stigma around women and sex, including the persistent notion that we neither like nor want it — and if we do, we’re deviant, unworthy, and deserving of ridicule.
I hadn’t listened to the podcast before, but my friends love it, so we went. Early on, Fisher and Hutchinson invited audience members on stage for rapid therapy sessions. They put seven minutes on a timer and tried to get through as many people as possible. The second woman to go up told the audience she was heavily into kink — to hearty applause.
But after she’d asked her question — which involved BDSM, her recent discovery that her partner was married, and her feeling that as his submissive she couldn’t confront him about it — and heard an answer she didn’t like, she turned to the audience and laser-beamed scorn at us: “You vanilla people don’t understand anything.” By that she meant people who enjoy quote-unquote typical sex — boring people. Fisher and Hutchinson noted that it was just as uncool for her to shame those who liked “vanilla” sex as it was for people to shame her for preferring the kinky kind. And the audience cheered that, too.
Still, in my years researching sex-positive communities, I’ve often encountered the “vanilla is bad” argument. In November 2015, I attended a sex-positive conference in Toronto called Playground. For two days, a wonderful and diverse array of people, of all orientations and genders, took over the bland Holiday Inn. During one packed workshop, we were forced to introduce ourselves to one another by sharing something about ourselves: our favourite ice cream flavour. Unused to describing myself as a frozen dessert (and not realizing the flavours were sexual metaphors), I followed the instructions literally, shaking hands and declaring “tiger tail” for 15 agonizing minutes.
Only when the host asked who’d picked vanilla and just a few people sheepishly raised their hands did I realize what we were doing. (I also wondered where tiger tail landed on the sexual-preference-as-ice-cream spectrum.) When she asked participants to describe the flavour, shouts of “Boring!” and “Plain!” thundered through the stuffy conference room. As the vanilla-ites turned red-faced, our host explained that while some found it bland, others thought vanilla was rich and creamy. We should, she said, never judge what other people liked. Sex positivity was about accepting all flavours — even the unexciting ones.
The idea persists, however, that if you like “vanilla” sex, you’re a loser. And where sex-positive rhetoric gets murky is in promoting the idea that a woman who’s into threesomes or BDSM, for instance, is more sexually empowered than one who isn’t. The danger in accepting this — that empowerment somehow correlates with adventurousness — is that it uses all the same patriarchal tropes to define our sexuality and our desires.
Shortly after Playground, I interviewed Kate McCombs, a New York-based sex educator and founder of the sex-positive group Sex Geekdom. “I’m really tired of seeing sex-positive meaning sex-mandatory,” she told me. “It’s this idea that everyone needs to be having all this super sexy sex all the time.” For McCombs, sex positivity is about eradicating people’s feelings of shame around sex, regardless of how much they’re having — or what kind. Sex-positive spaces should also be “safe spaces.” We shouldn’t let them become hypersexual UFC octagons — may the most adventurous woman win.
“We talk about sex in the wrong way,” said McCombs in our interview. “I see a lot of conversations about what is sexy, or about what celebrity is humping whom, but we don’t talk about sex in a way that’s actually meaningful.” Popular conceptions of sex positivity still rely on musty stereotypes about wild women — ones that only reinforce male standards (and fantasies) of female sexuality that continue to inform mass-media narratives, romance novels, and rom-coms.
In pursuit of our own sexual lives, it sometimes feels as if we’re creating duplicates of the same box we’ve been to confined forever. We are liberated only so much as we are able to be fantasies; we are allowed to reclaim, but not to create.
I don’t want us just to step outside the box: I want us to throw it away. I want us to talk more meaningfully about sex, to engage honestly with one another and ourselves about what our sexual lives and fantasies might look like outside our restrictive history. That’s no easy task. But we can start by eliminating shame and normalizing desire as a powerful force in and of itself — by enjoying vanilla, and every other flavour we damn well please.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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