25 March 2017


I have made every effort to locate the precise origin of the term vanilla. It appears in italics in a 1985 issue of Outrageous Women, one of the first magazines devoted to lesbian s/m. The italics here may signify that it was a fairly new term among lesbians at the time, or it may simply refer to the particular writer’s desire to signal that she means it in a special sense, though what that special sense is is not possible for me to verify. In Different Loving, the term is glossed as “conventional relations, or any intimate relations that do not include D&S or S/M sexuality” (49). This definition marks the term as an absolute “other,” while obviously there are elements of “vanilla" in s/m and vice versa. Such definitions erect a very rigid binary, a dualism that is bound to lead to tension and sometimes hostility. 

Larry Townsend uses the term as early as 1972: “Knowing the scene as I do, I feel it is important not to deflate someone else’s bag, simply because it isn’t mine. For this reason, you will find a good many comments wherein I will preface my remarks by saying, ‘It’s my opinion that . . . .’ I do not feel that there is any mutually agreeable activity, regardless of the number of people involved, that is intrinsically ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘evil.’ I don’t happen to like vanilla ice cream, but it is not for me to tell someone else he won’t enjoy it. It is a matter of taste, and the way a thing tastes is sometimes difficult to describe. In an attempt to overcome this hurdle, l have included a number of vignettes to depict the particular action I am discussing. If some of these grab you, even just a little, I will have enabled you to sample the flavor” (The Leatherman’s Handbook, 1st ed. (New York: Affiliated with Olympia Press and Traveler’s Companion, 1972). (I wish to thank Gayle Rubin for providing me with this citation).

I cannot establish that this was the first use of the term, but it does establish the referential context as existing at that time. The question of the origin of the term is not, in my view, as significant as the way in which it came to take on a rigid oppositional connotation during the sex wars of the 1980s between lesbian feminists who were antiporn, anti-s/m and pro-sex, pro-s/m lesbians and their supporters. Obviously in the context in which Townsend is using it, he means to signify a range of possible sexual practices (a variety of “flavors”), none of which are subjected to judgment or censure in his mind. Sexual practices, as he states quite clearly, are a matter of “taste”—hence the analogy with ice cream. While on the one hand the ice cream analogy is an obvious one—signifying bland, ordinary, and pure—it also strikes me as interesting that vanilla would be lifted out of this context and come to signify non-s/m sexualities. It seems quite likely that the term began in the gay leather community, since Townsend uses it here as vanilla ice cream (my inference being that had it been current at the time he would simply have said “vanilla,” not that Townsend was the originator of the term).

Risking that this is the worst sort of overreading, the kind that literary critics and theorists are often accused of performing like the sending up of hot air balloons, I can nonetheless not resist wondering how or if vanilla signifies white in the Western collective unconscious? Freud’s depiction of women’s sexuality as the “dark continent” has been picked up by a number of writers and discussed as a racialized term (see Doane and Kofman). Both outside and within various s/m communities, sexual practices that deviate even slightly from normative, reproductive, heterosexuality are often referred to as the “darker side” of one’s desires. In Fatal Women, I pointed out that Havelock Ellis relegates the women who really do it primarily to his footnotes (the underside of the text). And that there we find that it is the women of color in other (“othered”) countries who are the ones that hold the place of the “real” in Ellis’s representation.

To go back to the cartoon in Bad Attitude, it is interesting that the s/m couple is depicted as interracial, while the other two couples are white. What was once called “miscegenation” was threatening for all sorts of reasons, but basic to the fear of interracial mixing was the threat to white supremacy and simply (or not so simply) the basic idea of “mixing” (of any kind) in and of itself. That is, “mixing" as a confusion or recombination of categories, the breaking down of boundaries. S/m communities have achieved this kind of mixing not only in terms of making affiliations between and among people who are otherwise kept separate by identity categories (bisexual, trans-sexual,’ lesbian, etc., etc.) but also along racial, ethnic, and class categories. These communities are held together, however sometimes uneasily, not by identity categories but by theoretical and and political affiliations. As Gayle Rubin has written: “There is a lot of separation between the straight, gay, and lesbian S/M communities. But there is also pan-S/M consciousness. As one wise woman who has been doing this for years has said,  ‘Leather is thicker than blood’ ” (“Leather Menace," 218-219). That is not, by any means, the way in which racial categories are held together by the dominant culture. The “white” race holds onto its “purity’ and psychic coherence by trying to guarantee the exclusion of all others. As James Baldwin put it in “The Price of the Ticket,”: “white people are not white: part of the price of the white ticket is to delude themselves into believing they are” (xiv).

I am not saying that vanilla = white, but I am suggesting that it is an interesting choice of words that conjures certain racial associations. For I think that part of the threat to the dominant culture of s/m communities is that they have achieved an intellectual, spiritual, and political bonding in ways that precisely contradict the dominant culture’s notion of maintaining order through disciplining categories. It is the dominant culture that is really “into discipline.” The “discipline” within s/m is inclusive and heterogeneous, though certainly not without its tensions and fears arising from racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual practice/preference differences. If white is the term that oversees the discipline and regulation of Western cultural orders, then it is a clever and apt (if unconscious) political move for s/m cultures to disidentify themselves from this particular “flavor.”

The etymologies of the word vanilla complicate this term further. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us entries that tell us “Vanilla” was an “Indian Nectar” ( 1662), which was “mingle[d] with Cacao to make Chocolate” (1673); it is of the “climbing orchid variety. . . which, like the ivy, grows to the trees it meets with” (1783); the pod-like capsules of the plant produce an “aromatic substance [which] is the succulent fruit of a climbing West Indian plant of the order [Orchid] ” (1830). If vanilla has come to signify plain or old-fashioned in the latter half of the twentieth century (“go to Schrath’s for a plain vanilla” [1955] and “old-fashioned vanilla sundae” [1984]), in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries it was an exotic import from Panama, Brazil, Jamaica, and Granada.

Furthermore; bizarrely enough, its etymology is linked to the word vagina“. “Vanilla dim. of vaina (:-L. vagina) sheath.” The vanilloes are “long flattish pods, containing a reddish pulp, with small shining black seeds” (1812); hence, I presume, lts association with vagina-from the Latin sheath.

—Lynda Hart, Between the Body and the Flesh

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