Why We Need To Stop Making Fun Of Vanilla Sex

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
It’s 1 a.m., and I’m sitting on a toilet in a house that’s not mine, trying not to cry. My girlfriend lies sleeping in the next room, unaware I just violated her privacy, and I am now imagining a loud, messy breakup as soon as she wakes up.
I’m not proud of it, but my insecurities got the best of me. Moments before, I logged on to her Facebook account and scrolled through her messages with the ex-boyfriend I knew she’d been talking to. I just never imagined she’d been talking about me. “Kassie is such a good person,” she wrote. “But she’d never do the things I want her to. She’s so vanilla.”
In case you didn’t know, Urban Dictionary defines vanilla sex as “boring. uninventive. plain. sex.”
Boring. Uninventive. Plain. Those were the words my girlfriend was using to describe me. To describe sex with me.
We somehow got through that night and the day that followed, after she woke up and we talked — much more civilly than I expected — about what I had read. But we did eventually break up, and I still think of that night as the beginning of the end for us. I lost her trust and she hurt me.
By the time I had sex with a new partner, I told her about my vanilla status before we even slept together, like a forewarning. Telling her that story was like saying, “Hey, don’t get your hopes up. This might not be very good.” Sex with her was good, though. It was amazing. But even though I knew she was satisfied with our sex life, I still never lost the little voice that said I was boring. Uninventive. Plain.

But even though I knew she was satisfied with our sex life, I still never lost the little voice that said I was boring. Uninventive. Plain.

To me, there was nothing boring about the sex I had with her or my ex. Gentle kisses, light caresses, a brush of a hand against my neck or thighs. These are the things that turn me on. And I know there’s nothing wrong with that. Still, being labeled “vanilla” felt like an insult. As Catherine Scott wrote in an op-ed for Bitch, “Being sexually unadventurous is now apparently one of the most grievous character flaws a person (especially a woman) can be accused of.”
Scott mentions a scene from Friends in which Phoebe seems shocked that Rachel had kissed a girl in college. "It just seems pretty wild, and you're so vanilla," Phoebe said. The idea that a woman kissing another woman is somehow a “wild” thing to do is another problem entirely, but it’s Rachel’s reaction that I’m interested in. She was appalled that anyone could possibly think of her as vanilla. Friends has been off the air for more than a decade, but being called vanilla still elicits this shamed response.
It doesn’t help that sex coverage tends to frame being vanilla as an obstacle in the way of a truly fantastic sex life. Whether it’s an article outlining the 15 Ways To Turn Vanilla Sex Into Mind-Blowing Sex or one about Overcoming The Anxiety of Vanilla Sex, it’s clear that a preference for vanilla sex is something people are encouraged to change (though it’s definitely true that people on the other end of the spectrum — kinky people — are also shamed). I’m not saying those articles aren’t worthwhile. Some people do want to be kinkier in the bedroom, and aren’t sure how to make it work or open the discussion with their partners. It’s the use of the word “vanilla” in these contexts that irks me. Because, to me, “vanilla,” like “kink,” is a sexual preference. And, like kink, it’s been demonized.

To me, "vanilla," like "kink," is a sexual preference. And, like kink, it’s been demonized.

That’s a big problem. All this concern about what other people are (or aren’t) doing in bed means that talking openly about our sexual desires, whether they’re kinky or not, is often a source of fear and humiliation. Women are sexually objectified all the time. Yet, we’re also shamed for talking about, having, and enjoying sex — whether it’s vanilla or kinky.
When talking about a client who wanted to be dominated, the sexual guide behind the blog Conscious Kink said, “Her body and soul were shaking in fear….just at the thought of telling the truth about the nature of her sexual desire.” I can relate to the idea of “shaking in fear” at the prospect of telling someone what I want in bed. Not because I fear they’d think I’m too weird or slutty, but that I’m too boring. When it comes to women’s sexual preferences, there seems to be no winning.
Of course, as a white and cisgender person, I’ve taken stock of my privilege in many areas of my life, and I know that being distinctly “vanilla” puts me among the privileged here, too. While I’m sure most women have been shamed about what they want in bed at some point, shaming is pretty much a constant for those in the kink community. Still, sexual shaming is sexual shaming, and criticizing someone for liking straightforward sex is just as messed up as shaming someone for being interested in BDSM, voyeurism, or golden showers.
I’d like to say that one moment with an ex more than three years ago doesn’t still affect the way I interact with sexual partners today, but it does. Even the thought of putting my feelings out on the internet for everyone to read worries me a little. I’ve caught myself thinking, “What if a potential partner finds this, reads it, and decides she’s not interested?” It’s an insecurity I’ll probably have to work on for a long time, but it starts with publicly claiming my vanilla-ness.
I am vanilla. I’m sure it can mean 100 different things, depending on who you’re asking: that you like sex to be soft and slow, or that you can only come in one specific position, or that you’re not interested in adding toys to your sex life, and on and on. To me, it means that I’m open to experimenting with partners — I have, and I enjoy it — but most of the time, I want gentle sex in a bed with only one other person.
What it doesn’t mean is that I’m boring or uninventive or plain.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series