Sunday, August 30, 2009

Defending Vanilla Sex

I just read Mistress Matisse's latest Control Tower column from The Stranger. I read every edition of Matisse's biweekly column, follow her blog and listen to her podcast and this is the first time I've found myself completely disagreeing with her.

The premise of her column is this: Matisse is kind of a celebrity in the Seattle kink and poly communities. She thought it would be fun to go on a few dates "without the backstory" so she dated several guys through a social networking site and found herself having vanilla sex for the first time in a long time.

Quoth she:
I went out with several pleasant, good-looking guys from a social-networking site. I told them all, "I'm pretty kinky." They all replied, "That's cool." But the sex was all pretty unkinky—and not terribly successful. I have skills and confidence in bed, but I came away from those encounters thinking, "I do not understand how to be sexual like this."

Now, one can debate endlessly about what qualifies as kinky sex. But I've figured out exactly what makes sex vanilla. The defining feature of vanilla sex is this: You communicate about it using only mental telepathy. Or so I'm forced to assume, because nonkinky people don't talk about fucking. Not before they fuck, and definitely not while they're fucking. With every kinky person I've ever dated—which is a lot—there was some conversation about "So, what are you into?" And during kinky sex, it's normal to give overt instructions: "Lick me there. Higher—yeah, like that!" Or ask questions: "Is that good? Faster or slower?"

I don't use this blog to write about my own sex life much but I will divulge that at various times I have sex that is kinky and at various times I have sex that is vanilla too. I think I've experienced what Matisse is describing. When I've gone a long time without having vanilla sex it will sometimes seem like kind of a letdown -- like it's less exciting than the kinky variety. But I've experienced the opposite too -- gone a long time without kinky sex and missed some of the tenderness or felt unsure of myself in the dominant or submissive role. That's because being vanilla and being any one of the different kinds of kinky are skill sets that require practice. You have to relearn them after too much time away.

Matisse is oversimplifying dramatically when she says that people don't communicate about their vanilla sex. She's probably right, however, that vanilla people communicate less. Vanilla sex does not always require the same amount of conversation. Vanilla is ONE of the 31 flavors, which makes "kinky" everything else in the metaphorical Baskin Robbins, including the frozen yogurt and the ice cream cakes. When you embark on kinky sex one of the first things you have to do is talk to determine what's on the menu and what isn't -- if someone tells you they're kinky you can't be sure they're into bondage, electo-stim, pegging, worshiping your feet, dressing up in a fur suit or even getting fucked. You have to ask.

When you decide to have vanilla sex, on the other hand, you can be relatively sure that certain things are on the menu. You've basically got making out, caressing each other's bodies, kissing, nibbling, sucking, manual and oral stimulation of various erogenous zones, oral sex and vaginal sex in a wide variety of positions (or anal for a lot of vanilla gay guys), possibly some light spanking -- other things too, but you get the idea. Vanilla sex doesn't always have to include all these things but, if you're not told otherwise explicitly, you could be forgiven for assuming. Knowing beforehand approximately which activities are involved doesn't eliminate the need for communication but it cuts down the amount of ground that needs to be covered. Since the key to vanilla sex isn't so much knowing what your partner wants you to do but knowing how and when you should do it, a lot of the remaining communication takes place through body language. You try something out and pay attention to your partner's reaction for guidance.

This isn't a bad thing. Being in tune with your partner's reactions is the source of a lot of the intimacy in vanilla sex. With no dominant-submissive power dynamic, the subtlety of nonverbal communication -- when it's working well -- is a fabulous way to feel like the evening's activities are taking shape organically and in a way that is controlled equally by both partners. Then, if the train goes off the tracks, or if you suddenly have a desire that you know you partner won't be able to intuit, you can give verbal instructions too. You only run into trouble when one of you, due to shyness or cultural inhibition, can't give verbal instructions when necessary. But just because you're vanilla doesn't mean you're inhibited -- an assumption a lot of kinky people are always making, myself included when I'm not careful. When Matisse says that vanilla people don't communicate she's essentially implying just that -- they're too inhibited to communicate. To support her implication she's forgetting about all the people who do communicate verbally, then grouping all the people who communicate mostly nonverbally, but successfully, together with the people who really don't communicate at all. Not fair.

Reading Matisse's column, I had to wonder if her vanilla skills have atrophied from lack of use. It has happened to me in the past. Going from kinky sex to vanilla is like listening to quiet classical music when you're used to blasting punk. It takes a little while to stop missing all that raw power you're used to feeling and re-learn how to appreciate the nuances. If she was appreciating those nuances she may have noticed that some of the communication she sought wasn't required -- or she might have realized that the guys she were sleeping with were just awful in bed (sounds like at least one of them was) and gone looking for someone with a more complete set of vanilla skills. Having vanilla sex well is, after all, it's own unique group of skills, and it requires every bit as much skill and finesse as being a good bondage top or delivering a good spanking. Sometimes you need to shop around.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Stacks - Brokeback Mountain

“Brokeback Mountain,” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx
Scribner, 1999

A few weeks ago I was reading the Spring ’09 issue of The Paris Review (yes, I do read things that aren’t about sex). It features an interview with Annie Proulx, writer of “Brokeback Mountain” and The Shipping News and in that interview I there was a passage I found extremely surprising and though provoking.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve said that the characters of Jack and Ennis from “Brokeback Mountain” were the first two characters that started to feel “very damn real” to you. (…)

PROULX: (…) I think it happened with “Brokeback Mountain” because it took me so long to write that story. It took at least six weeks of steady work, which is not my usual pace. So yeah, they got a life of their own. And unfortunately, they got a life of their own for too many other people too.

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean?

PROULX: I wish I’d never written that story. It’s just been the cause of hassle and problems and irritation since the film came out. Before the film it was all right. (…) But the problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends—they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild. They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way—I’m not gay but… The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I do how these people would have behaved.

The first thing that occurred to me is that Annie Proulx, as a literary author, leads a pretty sheltered life compared to some writers with a wider following in pop culture. It’s sort of funny to imagine her curiously reading the mountains of slash fiction arriving at her Wyoming ranch. A different writer—say, Joss Whedon, who created the lesbian couple Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, equally influential to a certain group, in their own way, as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and also controversally doomed—would never look at these fan stories. Whedon probably has an assistant whose job is to round file that stuff. You have to feel a little sorry for Annie Proulx, who was not prepared for the consequences of a couple of her characters accidentally becoming pop culture icons.

But, on the other hand, Proulx is right. "Brokeback Mountain" is not a novel. The fantastic film by Ang Lee significantly expands the scope of what is, after all, a short story. Not just a single short story but an installment in a collection of short stories about Wyoming cowboys. Annie Proulx is a very geographical author. The books and stories she writes are about the places the stories occur, not the characters. Proulx characters are frequently the inevitable product of the places they live more than autonomous human beings.

The beauty of "Brokeback Mountain" the short story, as opposed to the movie, is the sense of longing Proulx captures. "Brokeback" the story lacks the movie's grandiose dramatic moments. Proulx tells us little about Jack Twist's life when he's outside of Ennis's company, instead focusing on Ennis, the patient cowboy who over the course of the story watches his entire life pass by as he floats from job to job, living only for the occasional fishing trip with his lover. The story, like the movie, is a tragedy but it is a quieter, more desperate kind of tragedy. It is the tragedy of a man who embodies the socially conservative, homophobic Wyoming cowboy lifestyle in every way except that he happens to be gay -- a fact that his place and time will never allow him to acknowledge and embrace.

Proulx brings up the fact that she is a woman in the interview, and I think that is one of the greatest things about this story. It has really earned a place as one of the watershed pieces of gay literature, yet it was written by a straight woman. In my opinion, we shouldn't be so surprised. It would take an outsider to take this story about an oppressed minority and make it so universally powerful.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fet Life Interview

I have been a lazy blogger lately. My apologies about that. What have I been up to? Enjoying the summer, reading some good books, going on a few dates, traveling quite a bit and trying to be a bit less technological. But now it's nearly September and the deep seated memory of getting ready to go back to school in the fall is kicking in. I'm getting back into the swing of things. I've been working on a few posts that will appear here pretty soon and I've been catching up on all the great sexy stuff I've been missing -- like my favorite podcasts.

I just listened to a very interesting one. It's an episode of The Ropecast from way back in June where Gray Dancer interviews John Baku, the founder of Fet Life. If you're not familiar with the site, it's like a kinky Facebook and it has been taking the kink community by storm, according to a couple of my friends. I'm not personally a member but two people have asked me if I'm a member on one of the dating sites I do frequent.

I've never joined Fet Life because I've never really felt all that comfortable in the BDSM community. I'm a fairly kinky -- or at least fairly experimental -- person but I always feel a little intimidated at kink events. They are so single minded. It is sex geekery in its most concentrated form and even though I write a blog called Geeky Sex it's a little too much even for me sometime. However, the interview with Baku has changed my mind about giving Fet Life a try. He describes himself as someone who was kinky mainly in his own bedroom and who got kicked out of kink events in Toronto and Montreal for not having the correct fashion sense. He also talks about how he still has trouble reconciling his feelings for his girlfriend with his desire to inflict pain upon her. In short he was someone that I could identify with. In the interview Baku says he created Fet Life to include people like himself. According to the interview there are now 177,000 members, which is pretty incredible, and a very hands-on staff of volunteers.

Sounds like it's past time that I join. I guess you'll be reading my first hand opinion in later posts.