Wednesday Words: Defining vanilla and other sexy terms

Each Wednesday, I answer one of your burning questions on the blog. This week Anonymous asks:

Just would like to say I love the podcast. I think you’re wonderful, Dawn. I found you on Spotify and I’m proud to say that I’ve listened to all your shows. It only took me a few weeks! I enjoy listening to you read listener stories and you sharing your own stories as well. Plus, all of the wonderful guests on the show. I’ve really learned a lot and share things with my husband all the time.

I have to be honest. I consider myself pretty vanilla, but by no means is the sex my man and I have is boring or dull. It’s awesome.

I guess one thing I want to ask is I think it would be really great if you could maybe give your own definition of what some things are. Like, I had never heard the term ‘vanilla’ until I heard it on your show. You’re so good at explaining shit, Dawn. You do it in a way that I can understand. You’re just awesome.

So yeah. If you could, in your own words, break down what something means for those of us that don’t have such an awesome sexual vocabulary as you. Love your stuff, Dawn, and miss Dylan so fuckin much!

Thank you so much, Anonymous. What a terrific request!

I’ve put together a little sex vocab list down below. Please keep in mind these are not official definitions, but rather my own definition based on my experience and usage.

Feel free to comment with your definitions at the bottom of the post, too. Especially if you have a significantly different understanding.

Dawn Serra’s Unofficial Unalphabetized SGR Dictionary


Vanilla: Sexual acts and behaviors that fit within what you consider typical/traditional for a sexual relationship. “Traditional” is usually informed by your parents, your community, your identity, your sexual history, and your partners.

For example, some people feel oral sex is not at all edgy and a rather typical experience for a sexual relationship – a vanilla sexual act. For others, especially those in cultures or communities who see sex as shameful or bodies as inherently dirty or disgusting, oral sex may be incredibly edgy and taboo. In this case, oral sex may not feel vanilla at all.

The mainstream definition of vanilla is either to define a person who is not kinky or to label a sex act as not kinky. People see vanilla as largely heterosexual sex acts between people in conventionally acceptable bodies doing things like intercourse and blowjobs that follows the Hollywood script for what sex looks like. But for some people, it’s SUPER kinky to do heterosexual intercourse, so I take a more liberal approach in my definition.

Kinky folks can engage in vanilla sex and it can be delicious and fun. Vanilla sex can be wonderful and is not better or worse than kinky sex.

Kink/kinky: Sexual acts and behaviors that are subversive, edgy, risky, or outside the norm for you. Can also be an identity and a way to move through the world.

Kink is vast and constantly shifting. Though there are some more traditional threads that run through kink – like bondage, impact play, power dynamics (Dom/sub, Master/slave), sadism, masochism – the truth is, kinky is endlessly personal in its experience and expression.

Kink ranges from simple and straightforward (a little spanking or hair pulling or some handcuffs) to an identity you live 24/7 with house rules, protocol and every moment of your life dedicated to living in this created experience. For some super queer folks, it can be extra kinky to dress up like 1950’s husbands and wives and pass in the world as straight and “normal.”

I use kink in the general, mainstream sense and also to recognize the diversity in sexual experiences – one person’s kink can be another person’s vanilla and vice versa.

SexAny act or behavior that is sexual in nature. Something so much bigger than genitals and intercourse.

I know, I know. Why in the world would I include the word “sex” in this list since it seems fairly obvious what it means?

Well, because when I ask people “when was the last time you had sex?” 95% of the time their answer immediately defaults to intercourse. Which makes me sad.

When I talk about sex on the show, I mean hand sex, mouth sex, toy sex, intercourse, anal sex, solo sex, group sex, mind sex, and any other kind of sex that feels delicious and sexual.

In my book, a handjob in the car counts as sex. Using a toy on someone counts as sex.

Sex is an erotic exchange of energy – how you decide to negotiate that exchange is up to you. But I desperately want sex to mean more than intercourse.

Queer:  An umbrella term for any identity or sexual orientation outside of straight/cis. Inclusive of asexual, aromantic, non-binary, butch/femme identities. Often used to make a political statement. Also, can be a specific identity/label for folks who fall outside other identities like gay, lesbian, bisexual.

I am queer. I use queer often on the podcast to denote non-straight identities, often a political statement – as a way to highlight and honor expressions and identities outside of mainstream culture when it comes to bodies, gender, and sex.

Queer can be an identity you’re born into or it can be a choice. Both are valid, but when you make the choice to be queer, you must also embrace and validate the work that has been done and must still be done in order to de-center mainstream cultural narratives.

Queer is also a recognition by me that traditional LGBT identities and groups have largely been white, middle class, able-bodied, sexual folks. My version of queer makes space for POC, non-binary folks, disabilities, older & fat bodies, butch/femme, asexual/aromantic, etc.

Body safe: A toy or product that has been specifically designed/manufactured to be non-toxic, non-porous, and safe for use on and in your body. 

Most folks have a general idea of what this means when I say it.

So, to get more specific, since I get this question a lot, here’s what I really mean.

Body safe toys are typically medical-grade silicone, stainless steel, hard ABS plastic, or borosillicate glass.

Dangerous Lilly has a COMPREHENSIVE list of toy manufacturers who produce non-toxic products along with about a dozen articles that can help you find a toy that is body safe. (As a blanket rule avoid jelly toys, toys that smell like a shower curtain, and toys labeled “for novelty use”.)

Many of the novelty creams and gels on the market aren’t so great, either. There are also lubricants that are more body safe than others. It’s critical that you support feminist sex shops who typically only carry ethical, non-toxic, body safe products across the board.

For more information on what lubes to avoid, listen to my fabulous chat with Sarah Mueller from Smitten Kitten.

Survivor: Someone who has been abused, sexually assaulted, or raped. 

We are not victims, we are survivors. And each of us has a unique story and a way we move through the world.

Since statistics range from 25-75% when it comes to folks who have experienced abuse, assault, or rape, I do my best to be survivor-centric in everything I do.

I am also a survivor.

Pegging: Using a strap-on to fuck someone’s ass. Typically the person receiving the fucking is a man (cis or trans, in my book). 

All genders and sexual orientations can peg. A person with a penis can use a strap-on to fuck someone quite splendidly.

However, when I say pegging], I usually mean someone who was assigned female at birth fucking someone who was assigned male at birth in the ass using a strap-on.

It’s a delicious reversal of cultural roles. That mindfuck, of bending a guy over and fucking him, can be arousing and empowering.

Charlie Glickman has a really juicy article on why more dudes should take it up the ass in order to be better lovers.

Toxic masculinity: A model of masculinity that values dominance, sex, aggression, status, and violence as the only way to “be a man.” Equally harmful and abusive towards both men and other genders.

Being a man and being masculine are beautiful things (you can be one without being the other, too!). Neither is inherently toxic.

What is toxic is the narrow and rigid belief that some people hold (and many of our cultural myths constantly reinforce) that in order to be a “real” man, you must conquer, dominate, coerce, and win at some invisible game in order to be validated and valued.

There are countless articles about this like this one, this one, this one, and this one. It typically comes with loads of fragility (meaning that even pointing out toxic masculinity can threaten folks to the point of violence and rape jokes).

A few concrete examples of toxic masculinity are believing it’s better to suppress emotion than express it, glorification of violence (like fighting to solve problems), not seeking help and needing to muscle through on your own, homophobia and transphobia, and of course, misogyny.

Often, people don’t even realize they’re subscribed to a toxic version of masculinity because we are so rarely shown a different way or because folks who believe in toxic masculinity vilify other forms of masculinity as sissy, weak, girly, whipped, or pathetic.

The opposite of toxic masculinity in my book is a celebration of masculinity that values self-expression, nurturance, strength, confidence, self-awareness, and curiosity.

Bondage: Restraining someone for sexual pleasure. Boom.

Rope. Handcuffs. Silk ties. Stockings. Scarves. Plastic wrap. Zip ties.

The ways to restrain someone are endless.

What are some words or phrases you’ve heard on the show that you’d like me to add to this list? Do you have upgrades or a differing understanding of a word listed above? Comment below and let us know.

Have your own question about sex, relationships, kink, or your body? Send it my way (there’s an anonymous option) and I may answer your inquiry on the podcast or in the weekly advice column, Wednesday Words.

  • Dawn
  • July 27, 2016