Ask the Doctors: Vanilla + Kinky = ?

I am super-attracted to a girl who’s into BDSM but I feel pretty solidly vanilla¦ What to do? I’m scared.
— Vanilla Hoping for Chocolate Chips

There are a few things to do: First, figure out just how into BDSM she is. Is that her main erotic identity, or major icing on the cake? Put another way, would she be into, and sufficiently fulfilled by, vanilla sex with some kinky cherries on top (that you two could negotiate based on your comfort level), or is BDSM very fundamental to her?

Next, make sure you know and understand what she’s actually into, BDSM-wise, since most people are not into all BSDM activities — that includes an incredibly wide range of desires and behaviors, and it takes a real overachiever to try them all. As I like to explain it when I talk to college classes: What if I meet someone cute at a party, say “I’m into BDSM, are you?” and they eagerly say yes; and then we determine I’m a top and s/he’s a bottom. Perfect, right? Wrong!

If my flavor of toppiness is to be a goddess who gets to have my submissive draw me the perfect bath, wash me carefully, dry me off in a pre-warmed towel, and worshiped appropriately, BUT the cutie wants to be a bad puppy, acting up until s/he gets swatted with a rolled-up newspaper, how will we make this date — much less a relationship — satisfying for both? You’ll need to figure out just what your crush object likes to do before you can take the third step of this courtship challenge, namely:

Ask yourself: What might you be open to trying, BDSM-wise?

This might involve a little research on your part. If you know some vague facts about kinky play but not many details, you owe it to yourself to explore a little, for two reasons. One, BDSM often seems much scarier from the outside than it does to people who know what its participants are getting out of it. Something that seems like it’d hurt when you just hear tales of whips and chains can be the center of a vast endorphin cloud for the person who’s really doing it, and feel marvelous. So if you learn more, it may allay your scaredeyness. Second, you will find it much easier to consider things you’d like (and negotiate them with her) if you’re better-informed. Below I’ll include a resource list, in case you’re so into this woman that you want to augment your Stanford program with a secondary course in BDSM Studies.

To reinforce the idea that these things are not always what they seem, consider the scenario above: the luscious bubble-bath scene. Please note that to many people, that set of desires would seem the height of vanilla. But because BDSM has consensual, eroticized exchange of power at its heart (that’s the working definition of two of the great early teachers of the modern BDSM community, Cynthia Slater and Pat Califia [who is now known as Patrick]), if the woman receiving the bath and the “body worship” (oral sex, to the less-kinky) feels like a goddess who is being served and worshiped, the scene automatically falls somewhere on the BDSM spectrum. (This is where you ask yourself just how crushed-out you are on this fine woman. Enough to treat her like a goddess incarnate? You may be getting somewhere! Provided she’s a top, that is.)

Once you’ve done some research, try Cynthia Slater’s tried-and-true negotiation technique and make three lists. In Column One, list the things you know you like, erotically speaking. (If you’ve never tried something but you’re pretty sure you’d like it, you can list it.) In Column Two put all the sexual activities you’re not sure about but might want to do. In Column Three, list your no-go zone: your boundaries, the things you do not wish even to try. (Column Two, by the way, is where the real negotiation is, and the next thing to ask yourself is what things might affect your willingness and comfort level re: the Column Two activities. Trust level? Safer sex considerations? Lust level? Relationship status? Presence/absence of drugs or alcohol? So many things actually affect our sexual decision-making process that this is a very useful exercise indeed.)

Armed with your list and some information about what your crush-ee likes to do, you should be able to figure out if there’s a shaded zone between your Venn Diagrams, so to speak. Are any of her favorite things on your Yes or Maybe lists? Once you have that figured out, you will likely have a good idea whether you two have an erotically compatible space to share, and then the negotiations can begin.

And one more element that might matter as you consider whether to pursue this woman: Are you the monogamous type? Is she? Because if you’re both up for an open relationship, you might find you can have an awesome time with her doing things that are within your comfort range (or not very far outside of it), while she saves her diabolical side for somebody else. A win-win! And, I might add, a common enough strategy in the BDSM world. Many very kinky people have pretty darned vanilla primary partners who are happy to let them go off to play parties carrying fearsome gizmos in their toy kit.

OK then, here’s your reading list! Look at it this way, whether or not you ever get next to this kinky hottie, you can always do an extra-credit paper for one of your Psych or Soc classes. Research is never a waste of time.

Good Vibes doesn’t carry the first three, sadly, but they are well worth searching for:

When Someone You Love Is Kinky

Sensuous Magic

Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism

If you decide you’re going to try some of this kinky stuff:

Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely

The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book (these two are pretty darned sophisticated, best read after one or more of the books above)

And if an open relationship might be in the cards:

The Ethical Slut

There are way more books than these, but these are all very good and will get you started. If anything here seems hot, interesting, or even possible to you, consider checking out BDSM support groups–you might find talking about these issues with other people on whom you are not crushed out is a good idea. Let me know if you need references to any of these. Oh, and if your reading appetite is not sated, kinky erotic stories may well tell you far more about your innate vanilla-ness (or whether in fact you have lots of sprinkles on top) than more didactic reading. Best of luck!


We’re dedicated to getting you the information you need about sex, pleasure and your health. If you have any questions, please email our staff experts, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Charlie Glickman, at education@goodvibes.com! For product-related questions, please email or call our customer service staff at customerservice@goodvibes.com.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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