In the Lashings version of “Hand in my Pocket”, we list some of the labels we use to describe ourselves which might be regarded as contradictory. We also invite the audience to share their own labels on the Board of Contradictions. The song and the board pretty much just put the labels out there, as a way of drawing people’s attention to the fact that yes, people who are both of those things do exist. Here on the blog I’d like to explore some of my own lines from that song in more detail - what do the labels mean to me, and why might people think they are contradictory, and how is it possible for those things to co-exist in one person? And why, when labels are associated with so many problematic stereotypes, are we so keen to use them?
One of the difficulties with labels is that they mean different things to different people. I will be discussing what these labels mean to me when I use them; other people might use the same labels to describe themselves but mean something different. Somehow we need to strike a balance between allowing everyone to self-identify in a way that is meaningful for them, and ensuring that we are still speaking broadly the same language and able to communicate with one another. A label is always just short-hand for something that will take more than one word to fully explain, but often we don’t have the time to explain in detail so the short-hand has to suffice. What I want to do here is to start a conversation where we do have the space to explore in detail the different things each of us means by these labels, so that we can use the short-hand with a greater awareness of the various nuances it may stand for.
I’m going to start with the first line of my verse in the song - "I’m queer and vanilla". I describe myself as queer because my sexual and romantic desires don’t match up with what society expects of me. As a woman, social norms decree that I should be sexually attracted exclusively to men. But in fact, I am attracted to people of different genders - men, women, genderqueer and androgynous people. That doesn’t mean I fancy everyone, but it does mean that the line dividing people I do find attractive from people I don’t, is not defined in terms of gender.
However, for me, the word "queer" is about more than my personal preferences. It’s also associated with a particular moral and political position: acceptance of the full range of different gender identities, forms of relationship, and sexual and romantic preferences that exist. It’s about respecting each individual’s expertise about what is right for them. It’s about believing that the things that divide behaviour that is OK in sex and relationships from behaviour that is not OK, are consent, trust and respect. Consent is more important than social norms, and it’s more important than my own feelings about whether or not somebody else's preferred activity is appealing to me. So long as the people involved are all consenting adults, it is not for me to say whether the way they conduct their relationships and sex lives is right or wrong. It is that radical acceptance of gender and sexual diversity which is summed up for me by the word “queer”.
If I’m honest, my involvement in queer communities has more to do with my politics than with whom I fancy. I feel at home in queer spaces because more often than not, an event or group with “queer” in it’s name will be based on the above principles. This is one of the reasons I think that labels, for all their shortcomings, are useful: they help us to find communities. If I were only attracted to men then I wouldn’t identify as queer, but I might well still seek out queer spaces which were open to straight people. In fact, before I came out, I did exactly that.
I’m aware that “queer” has, and does, mean different things to other people. I frequently have to remind myself that many people find it an offensive term, with good reason. Nonetheless, for me, “queer” is an overwhelmingly positive term which gives me an alternative to the somewhat problematic term “bisexual”.
So, that’s queer. What do I mean by “vanilla”? That’s tricky. Vanilla is generally defined in opposition to kink, which in turn is defined in opposition to “conventional sexual practices” (OK, yes, I am relying on Wikipedia here). So, vanilla means into conventional sexual practices and not into unconventional sexual practices. I don't want to go into too much detail about my personal preferences here, but specifically, I’m not into role-playing, power play, costumes and toys, bondage, or pain. I am into being mindful during sex, and for me, being present in the moment requires me to turn down the volume on those parts of my brain that I would need to use for role playing. Some people obviously get a lot out of role playing and power play, as anyone who has seen "You're the Top" can attest, but for me, engaging my imagination distracts me from experiencing the physical sensations. And as physical sensations go, the feel of my partner’s skin against mine brings me far more pleasure than any toy, clothing or other object. I don’t think any one way of having sex is better than another per se, it’s just that vanilla is better for me.
So why should “Queer and vanilla” be regarded as a contradiction? Aside, that is, from Julie Bindel's definition of queer as "into kinky sex". For me, the pressure to associate queer with kinky came not from outside, but from within the queer community. When I say pressure..... it wasn’t that anyone told me that I had to be kinky to be queer, exactly. It was more that, when I was first coming out and trying to figure out whether the label “queer” suited me or not, it seemed that every queer-identified person I met was also kink-identified. This made me feel doubtful about whether I could fit into the queer community. Most of these people were queer in the political sense described above, so they were entirely accepting of different sexual preferences, including vanilla. It wasn't anything anyone said or did that made me uncomfortable, it was simply the presence of so many people who shared something with one another that I did not share myself.
In the early days of Lashings, about half of our repertoire was about kink. Well, OK, I'm going back to a time when our entire repertoire consisted of 5 or 6 songs. And in the early days, when I was still figuring out what I was and wasn't comfortable with, I used to perform some of those songs. At some point I realised that I wasn't comfortable singing songs like "You're the Top" and "Favourite Things" because it felt too much like pretending to be kinky in order to be accepted as queer. By this point I had decided that the term "queer" was the best way for me to describe my own experience of my identity and desires, and that it was consistent with also being vanilla. However, I remembered a time when I had felt differently, when I hadn't been sure if I was "queer enough" to deserve the label, and I didn't want to do anything that would reinforce that worry, either for myself or anyone else. I wanted to be part of a show that would celebrate many different ways of being queer, including but not limited to kink.
Now, at this point my complaint begins to sound a bit reminiscent of "What about the mens?": a relatively privileged person enters a space which is explicitly set up to meet the needs of a marginalised group, and then complains that as a privileged person, they are not having their own needs met in that space. If I were to ask my fellow Lashers not to write and sing so many songs about kink, or insist that every show should have an equal balance of kinky and vanilla songs, or try to steer the conversation away from kink during rehearsals, then I would certainly be entering "What about the mens?" territory. In a different context, if I were to complain to the organisers of BiCon that the programme contains too many kink-themed sessions for my comfort, I think that would also be inappropriate. My discomfort at feeling that I didn't quite fit in does not even begin to compare to the oppression faced by kinky people, who are at risk of being arrested for engaging in consensual activities in private places (see eg the Spanner Case - link contains brief descriptions of S&M, no images) or for possessing pornography produced by consenting adults (see the extreme pornography law - link to Crown Prosecution Service site, not explicit but may be triggering for anti-kink language).
However, this is not quite as simple as vanilla=privileged and kinky=oppressed. My feelings about kink intersect with how I, as a woman, think about my sexuality. The idea that the purpose of my sexuality is to enable me to fulfil other people's expectations and fit into certain roles, is one that is all too familiar to me. As an adolescent I was firmly convinced that if I ever wanted to fulfil the role of girlfriend, this would require me to meet my partner's sexual needs. It would be easier for me to do that if I also enjoyed it myself, especially if my partner's needs including seeing me appear to enjoy myself, but fundamentally my enjoyment was not the point of sex. The point of sex was to bring somebody else pleasure, and thereby fulfil my roles as a woman and a girlfriend. It took me quite a long time to move away from this view and to come to believe that I have just as much of a right as anyone else to enjoy sex, or to enjoy something other than sex, if that's what I happen to want to do at the time. And so when I began to suspect that, in order to claim the label "queer", I needed to enjoy or at least pretend to enjoy kink, there was a ready-made framework in my mind to make that plausible. I want to reiterate again that nobody said or implied that I had to be kinky to be queer - I inferred it simply from the presence of lots of kinky people in queer spaces, and from my pre-existing belief that my sexuality exists to fulfil roles and meet expectations.
I think this raises some important issues about intersectionality. As a woman, I am oppressed with regard to my sexuality because I live in a culture that represents women's sexuality as something to be performed for the pleasure of men. As a vanilla person, I am privileged with regard to my sexuality because I can express and explore my desires legally. As a member of a group which combines performance and expression of sexuality, and which is focused on celebrating non-heteronormative identities, I've sometimes found that being encouraged (though never pressured) to sing about kink taps into my worries about whether my own desires actually matter, or whether the important thing is to perform the kind of sexuality people expect of me in this context. In other words, being in a group which celebrates kinky sexualities is not in itself oppressive, but it reminds me of other ways in which I am oppressed, and therefore has sometimes felt very uncomfortable. At the same time though, I'm aware that the kinky women in the group - and in the audience - are doubly oppressed, and need this outlet to express their sexualities.
So, I had a problem. I wasn't comfortable about my own sexuality in such a kink-themed space, but it wouldn't have been acceptable for me to ask other people to change their behaviour to make me feel more comfortable. I needed to find something I could do to make myself feel better without infringing on other people's expressions of their sexualities. Including the line "I'm queer and vanilla" in One Hand in My Pocket was a small but surprisingly effective way for me to assert that I do belong here, that there is a place for both kinky and vanilla people in the queer community. Simply standing up and saying "I'm queer and vanilla" was enough to make me feel that I was taking ownership of my sexuality and not allowing it to be defined by other people. There is something very powerful about letting the world know that I belong to group A, and whatever you might think, that doesn't mean I can't also belong to group B.
So, that's the story behind queer and vanilla. What labels do you use, and what do they mean to you? Do any of them seem contradictory? Does that bother you, or not, and why? Answers