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Sex talk: What even the most vanilla among us can learn from the BDSM community

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Witching Hour: Erotic Vulnerability, Joy and Consent

Iowa City Public Library — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 12 p.m.

Witching Hour: Do You Want to Play?

The Mill — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3 p.m.

Photo by Frankie Schneckloth

“Sex is not what you do, it’s a place you go.” —Esther Perel

Americans carry a lot of anxiety about having an exciting sex life. This anxiety inspires Cosmopolitan, Redbook and the like to publish a steady stream of articles flouting “100 ways to spice up your sex life!” and “The top six ways to add more color to vanilla sex!” Shame about having “boring” sex is used to sell magazines as well as drive sales of sex toys, fluffy pink handcuffs and sexy nurse costumes, bought in half-hearted attempts to “spice things up.”

But these articles and products usually fall short of providing real avenues for change because they don’t address the mindset we need to have a fulfilling sexual experience. Many of us are afraid to ask our partner for what we are interested in exploring, or don’t know how. We need to feel safe in order to have a positive sexual experience, and sometimes “safe” can be limiting to sexual expression.

Insecurity around sex is a common issue I see in my psychotherapy practice. My friend Alison Oliver (sex educator and all-around epic woman) and I discussed the results of an exercise she has asked her students to complete in which they describe an average sexual encounter from start to finish. The formula was most often as follows: touching, kissing, light petting, heavy petting, oral sex, penile/vaginal contact, coitus, orgasm.

A common frustration among more vanilla folks is the pressure felt to spice up a basic or “boring” sex life. There is absolutely nothing wrong or pathological about wanting a vanilla sexual experience, but if you’re not satisfied, don’t have the skills or feel pressured to get kinky, what do you do?

“The frustration of vanilla — this constant quest to kinkify normative sexual relationships — seems to be the result of people’s actual sexual practices and desires butting up against the idea that there is one unified, normative way that ‘most’ people have sex,” Gawker’s Monica Heisey wrote in the 2014 article “Vanilla Sex: A Perfectly Fine Way to Fuck.” “If I’m supposed to be the default, the married man wonders, why do I want my wife to peg me sometimes? If I’m not kinky, a 22-year-old straight woman who only watches lesbian porn asks, why am I so interested in the idea of a threesome? The danger of vanilla is seeing it as ‘default’ when it’s as amorphous as any individual kinky person’s sexual preferences.”

How do we reframe our expectations so we are not constantly critical of ourselves or our partner? Let’s move away from who-does-what-to-whom and towards a curious and honest exploration of guiding principles that impact mindset. How do I get into the mindset of sex being a place we go, instead of what we do to each other? How do we explore our sexual appetite without anxiety or the pressure of an outcome?

It starts with pondering what we like — what brings us pleasure, and what mood we must be in to explore it — and being open about this with our partner or partners. When we reframe the erotic experience to focus on presence as opposed to performance, we can draw on erotic communication tools within the kink/BDSM community.
The guiding principles of kink/BDSM make no assumptions about what your appetite might be and are not limited in the menu of possibilities. Kink culture is grounded in safe, sane and consensual communication.

Oliver draws on kink/BDSM principles by supporting her students in communicating their sexual boundaries, interests and erotic preferences with an exercise in which they divide sexual menu items into three columns:

  • Yes, please — Favorable activities you’re always or often in the mood for in a sexual/erotic encounter.
  • No, thank you — Activities that are out of bounds for whatever reason, and are off the menu.
  • Maybe? — Activities that have conditions necessary, or you would enjoy under specific circumstances. These are menu items you are curious about and might be open to trying.

These erotic communication tools allow us to express, negotiate and explore our appetites. We can also access the tools of mindfulness to explore presence as opposed to performance. In mindfulness, we are not eating to get to the end of the meal, but to enjoy and experience the food. This can easily be translated to an erotic or sexual experience.

During a mindful eating exercise I do with clients, they are asked to eat a raisin or a nut and act as if they are an alien from another planet and have never seen or experienced the object in their hand. They are prompted to explore it with all their senses and notice not only what they see, hear or smell but also what they think. If their mind wanders, as it often does, they are prompted to gently bring their awareness back to the object of attention. Then they are asked to put the food in their mouth and explore it without biting it, then chew and swallow it and notice how many stages of the experience are automatic or intuitive.

What if we had this kind of presence of mind during a sexual encounter, instead of being distracted wondering if the other person is looking at the size of our ass or critiquing our performance? What if we could be brave and vulnerable in expressing our yes, no or maybe interests to our partners?
Sounds kinky.

Oliver and Benway will explore these issues more in depth at their lecture and workshop at the Witching Hour festival on Oct. 13.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 250.


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