Written by Jessie Sage, originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
As someone who does phone sex and is a member of poly and queer communities, one of the first things new acquaintances ask me is: Are you dominant or submissive? Top or a bottom? Or, more generally: What are you into? What are your kinks?
Framing sex in this way has become so commonplace that fitting oneself in these categories is expected. When I say, “I am not dominant or submissive,” I am almost inevitably met with the response, “So, you’re a switch.” Again, I have to say, “Nope.” All these leading questions assume that everyone — or, at least everyone in these social circles — has desires that fit these patterns. But mine don’t.
I don’t think about sex in these terms. I would almost always rather be kissed than smacked (though, I have my moments!). I don’t have the patience for bondage or rope play. I am not particularly fond of giving or receiving pain. And I think the missionary position is pretty close to perfection.
At lunch with a friend last week, I commented that I am probably the most vanilla person in our social circle, and she laughed and looked at me sideways, as if to say, “That makes no sense, you are the only one in this group who has made a career talking and writing about sex.”
These interactions all point to something interesting: my identity as a queer and poly person who is involved in both sex work and sex writing is taken as evidence of my kinkiness. It is a collapsing of sex-positivity with kink, or BDSM.
The reason for this conflation is not entirely clear to me. It is mostly likely a combination of factors: the mainstreaming of BDSM, a cultural return to identity politics whereby folks are pressured to identify with some group, the influence of categorization on dating profiles and other digital platforms, etc.
What’s clear is that if kink and BDSM are equated with sex positivity, then vanilla sex is equated with sex negativity. And it is here where I become concerned. I am not concerned about this on my own behalf. I came of age in the ’90s: I have an almost kneejerk rejection of any rigid categorization and a skepticism of group identity. I am not embarrassed to call the majority of my desires vanilla; I am not afraid to try the things that fall outside of the norm if they interest me.
My concern is that people coming into sex positive communities now will think that they should conceptualize sex in a narrow way, and worse, that failing to do so will mean that they are boring partners, or that they are close-minded.
Kinks and BDSM are important and legitimate expressions of human sexuality, as are many other sexual desires and relationship structures. But the assumption that anyone who engages in non-normative behavior in one domain must also do so in another erases folks’ desires and identities. We need to be careful to hold space for a range of diversity of desires and not frame everyone else’s experiences in terms of our own. That would truly be sex positive.