Years ago, an online BDSM questionnaire circulated the internet. At the end of the lengthy quiz, participants are shown a percentage-based breakdown of their sexual proclivities (or lack thereof). When I took the quiz and sent my results to the group chat, my friends were stunned. “No way” was the first response. Somebody else typed, “OMG.”
Shockingly, and a little suspiciously, I was not the sexual deviant that my friends expected me to be. Number one on my list of traits: Vanilla. There it was, all 65% of me, unnoteworthy and uninspired.
I can understand my friends’ incredulity. I have a buzzed head, I’m covered in tattoos and I’m 5 feet 9. All of this makes me stand out and all of it makes me look much tougher and braver than I actually am. It’s unsurprising, then, that people assume this brazen lifestyle follows me into the bedroom. I cannot blame them, for if I saw myself walking down the street in my platform Doc Martens I would imagine that I’m into whips and chains and hot candles and sex that is so aggressive it leaves me covered in blossoming bruises.
The truth is, at one point I was — I lived with the sort of reckless abandon that people expect of me. I was high, drunk and/or in somebody’s bed for most of my late teens, stumbling from mistake to mistake in a sort of adolescent haze fueled largely by self-hatred. I grew up plagued by people’s assumptions of me, so much so that by the time I was old enough to think for myself I didn’t know what to think at all. I desperately tried to form my identity out of what other people believed I was. Even before the shaved head and the tattoos covering my knuckles, I felt largely misunderstood.
These assumptions manifested early on, in the classroom of my elementary school, where kids called me gay before I had ever even had my first kiss. Maybe because of my low voice or maybe because I didn’t wear skirts, I was called lesbian by classmates who refused to sit by me at lunch. In middle school, this continued, resulting in rumors that I watched gay porn and asked straight girls to kiss me. I hadn’t even begun to think about myself as queer before people deemed me “sexually transgressive” and “dangerous.”
Eventually, though, the strain of those early assumptions took its toll. Like many other queer individuals, I began to believe that I was dangerous and that my sexuality was “wrong.” At first, I tried leaning into it. I covered myself in tattoos, I shaved my head and my eyebrows, I did everything to control the narrative that had been used against me.
Around 19, this means of control changed; I began to hyper-feminize myself. I took to wearing a full face of makeup and long acrylic nails. I slept with girls in the dark, in the bathrooms of bars, in the quiet of parked cars, making sure to have my shoes on and my Uber called before the sun ever rose or the light ever touched our skin. Believing that this exhaustive feminine performance would free me of the assumptions about my identity, I dated only men.
While I was spared the speculations about my preference for women, I was subjected to an entirely new form of assumptive violence. Men interpreted my presentation as an invitation to be sexualized. Because of the way I looked, I found that men expected me to throw on the latex and take out the handcuffs. That, or they wanted to get me on my knees and force me to submit.
When I once told a then-boyfriend that I didn’t feel comfortable electrocuting him with a sex toy he had bought, he said, “Well then I guess I’ll just have to bend you over and do it myself.” I started to cry; I didn’t know how to vocalize my wants or how to express that I was not the girl who could get off by electrocuting him, despite however I may look. Sex was never about me, but about the reaction I elicited in others as a result of the way I presented myself.
While I initially thought that I could escape misunderstanding by blending into the heteronormative beauty standard, it became clear soon enough that this produced a whole new means of being overlooked.
Desperately unsure of who I was, I felt the chasms of my personhood inside me and resented them. I warred with myself, struggling to reconcile how the teenager kissing girls in the back of movie theaters could have become a young woman unhappily trying to earn the approval of men.
Over time, by choosing to love myself, I have come to see that I’m not responsible for the way that people perceive me. My dualities are neither dangerous nor complicated. I’m strong, I’m brave, I’m tall and covered in ink, but I’m also radically tender. I’m gay, but I’m also feminine. I’m every flavor of ice cream but most days, I’m okay with just being vanilla.