Michael Rosen first published his book Vanilla Sex: Explicit Fine Art Photographs (San Francisco: Shaynew Press, 2007; ISBN-13: 978-0-936705-04-0) as a free PDF download at his website, michaelrosen.com. Rosen invited me to write the introduction to this project. My essay, “Vanilla Is as Vanilla Does: The Sexual Art of Michael Rosen,” turned into a meditation not only on his work but on the state of sexually explicit photography in our culture — a subject to which I’ve turned my attention frequently over the decades.
That PDF recently passed its 10,000-download mark, which strikes me as remarkable success for a self-published project on such a controversial subject.
Now Rosen has published a printed version of the book, via Blurb.com. It’s a handsome 68-page softcover volume, with 68 b&w images, designed by Rosen himself, priced at $40.
Here’s an excerpt from my introduction:
According to a July 2005 poll taken by CNN/Money, vanilla stands as the favorite ice cream flavor of almost exactly one-third of Americans. Historically, it has polled consistently in first place, preferred by almost three times as many people as the nearest contender, chocolate. Vanilla ice cream is what they serve on airplanes, in hospitals, in prisons, and at other locales for captive consumers without the privilege of choice, on the theory that nobody — or at least hardly anyone — actively doesn’t like vanilla, even if it’s not their personal favorite.
Colloquially, like its baking equivalent, “white bread,” the term vanilla has therefore come to connote the predictable, the blandly conventional, and thus (implicitly) the boring, with vanilla in this usage applied most commonly to standard western sexual behavior. Notably, neither term has a flavor-based opposite in Anglo-American slang — no “whole-grain” or “rocky road” to indicate the preference of those with more sophisticated tastes. As with both foodstuffs, once you move past the limits implicit in either white bread or vanilla then connoisseurship kicks in, and the range of options becomes both exhilarating and bewildering.
Suppose, however, that we redefine “vanilla,” using it to stand not for that specific flavor but for a given individual’s favorite variety of ice cream, his or her usual selection, whatever that might be, making it metaphorical in a different way. Thus pistachio might be your vanilla, and coffee would be my vanilla, and every conceivable flavor would be someone’s vanilla. Under such circumstances the vanillin derived from seeds from the ripened pod of Vanilla planifolia, a plant originating in the Latin American tropics, would become just another of many vanillas, perhaps the Ur-vanilla, but the term would lose its onus. At the same time, the normalcy — and thus the acceptability — of all those other “vanillas” would assert itself.
That idea would seem to underlie Michael Rosen’s decision to title this collection of images Vanilla Sex. Some of the sexual behaviors enacted by his subjects do fall within the parameters of “vanilla sex”; people here fondle, cuddle, hug, kiss, and adopt the missionary position, among other things. But the very act of doing those in front of a camera, to generate images that thousands of strangers around the world will view, remains inherently non-”vanilla” in terms of societal standards. And, on top of that, most of these activities unmistakably go beyond “vanilla,” into some comparatively rare and exotic range of tastes that often get lumped under the headings of “radical” or “alternative” sexuality: BDSM, urolagnia/”water sports,” group sex, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) sexual play.
Yet we live in an era when more sexual minorities have uncloseted themselves than ever before, tattooing and piercing have become pervasive, BDSM accoutrements have turned into commonplace fashion accessories, and urine therapy has practically gone mainstream. So positioning such practices as rare and exotic may lead us to overlook the fact that these behaviors have steadily moved from underground to cultural front and center. . . .
You can read the full text in the free PDf download — or in the printed version of the book.