Vanilla sex is widely considered to be the most basic way to bang. But I bet if you asked 10 different people to define 'vanilla sex,' you'd get 10 different answers. Because I did ask 10 different women to describe what they consider vanilla sex and every single answer was distinct and nuanced. They were similar, sure, but each person's take on vanilla flavor was just that — their own — and way more complex than the reductive term implies.
"One of the biggest issues for most of us when it comes to our sex lives is this comparison to other people's sex lives," says sex therapist Vanessa Marin, LMFT. "Because we don't really talk about sex openly and transparently, a lot of us are grasping for straws trying to look for barometers that we can measure our sex life against to try to assure ourselves that we're normal, that things are okay, and we're keeping up with other people."
The rise of sex boutiques and underground orgies, not to mention the new mainstream awareness of kink left in Fifty Shades of Grey's wake, nurtured a feeding ground for this obsessive worry about being "vanilla" to take hold as the bedroom barometer du jour.
The reality is, there's no wrong way for two (or more, if that's your thing!) consenting adults to have and enjoy sex. Whether your style is wild or mild, the goal "is really about just giving ourselves the permission to like what we like," says Marin.
To help us kick our vanilla judgments to the curb, we asked our favorite sex therapists and dating coaches, as well as women across the country, to share their definitions of vanilla sex — and why its bad rap is totally bogus.
What is vanilla sex, exactly?
The Millennial's slang Bible, Urban Dictionary, refers to it as "plain regular sex" alongside a list of acts that it is not, which highlights the term's ambiguity and leaving it wide open to interpretation.
"Most people use it to describe sex that feels straightforward," says Marin. "You wouldn't be using a lot of different positions, it'd be pretty quiet and probably dark."
Nicole, a Miami-based lawyer in her early 30s, and her husband have their own definition of vanilla sex that they call 'starfishing.' "It's when you've been working all day but still want to scratch an itch," she says. "My husband knows when it's vanilla sex time to ask to starfish so expectations are set and I just lie on my back."
For Manhattan publicist Nadia, vanilla sex is "reserved for someone I'm really close with because it feels more intimate" while adventurous, wild sex is "easier to have with someone random."
Relationship expert Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., points out that even though people use the term 'vanilla sex' to mean "uninspired, unacrobatic, or formulaic sex," vanilla is actually "known by the culinary world to be an extremely complex flavor." So there you have it.
So where did the vanilla sex shame come from?
Ironically, the root of the phrase vanilla sex was coined by the kink community to differentiate sexual preferences — and the idea that vanilla was kink's boring little sister has been reinforced in the media ever since.
"The exaggeration of sexual experiences in the media is problematic to real relationships because it raises expectations to unrealistic levels," says dating coach Lana Otoya. "Freely available porn has also made it easier for the average person to see wild and crazy sex that is not always realistic."
Even Friends — in a scene that would now be considered wholesome by today's standards — featured a vanilla storyline with Phoebe's refusal to believe that Rachel kissed a girl during college, telling her, "It just seems pretty wild, and you're so vanilla." Rachel angrily spends the rest of the episode trying to follow through on her objection ("I am NOT vanilla! I've done lots of crazy things!") before kissing another girl at a party for a sexual Hail Mary.
But women agree vanilla sex can be more intimate and vulnerable than kink or wild sex.
"I think of vanilla sex as exclusively missionary," says Jasmine, an engaged woman living in Detroit. "It's my favorite because we're face to face and it feels like I'm being held and protected. But at the same time, I only like missionary with guys I'm in love with because of those really intimate reasons."
Violet, a lawyer in San Diego who is living and loving the single life, agrees that there's a comfort level attached to vanilla sex, even if she's not currently searching for a long-term partner.
"Sex is super vulnerable and you really have to trust the person to branch out and experiment," she explains. "So any new thing can be messy or awkward and I just haven't wanted to open up like that. Plus, sometimes good old missionary just hits the spot, if he's paying attention," she adds.
"A lot of people say that they enjoy having vanilla sex because it just feels safe and comfortable to them," explains Marin. "And it's really great to have those kinds of comforting, safe experiences with our partners."
Mariana, a Brooklyn-based mixed media artist, considers her sex life with her husband to be "pretty experimental" but on the year's most special days, it's a different story. "Vanilla is the slow and tender missionary sex that I want on my birthday or our anniversary or when one of us comes back from a work trip. I want to be tangled and look him in the eye."
Experimentation doesn’t necessarily equal satisfaction.
"I'll admit it — I totally buy into the idea that the kind of sex you have is a reflection of the intensity of your feelings for the other person," admits Naya, a 20-something student living in Boston. "To me, chemistry and passion equal fireworks in the bedroom, and without it, maybe there's not really any chemistry after all."
It's easy to become swept up in that type of thinking, says Steinberg, jokingly asking, "Whoever wanted to be described as doing anything in an uninspired way?" Then deadpans, "No one."
Steinberg suggests banishing this extreme black and white thinking, which can add unnecessary pressure. "Whether your sex life is boring or passionless depends on if either of you feels bored or unpassionate," she says. "If you do, then yes. If you love it, then it means you're doing a great job."
Bottom line: You get to decide what good sex looks and feels like — and there are no rules for your relationship to be deemed exciting, says Otoya.
Shut down the self-judgment — and pinpoint what rocks your world instead.
Some swear that the secret to great sex starts in the mind, but if the hamster wheel is spinning in unhelpful, negative ways, it may be time to step off and get clear on your 'why'.
"Maybe no one else wants to admit it, but all the adventurous stuff people are doing now, like rim jobs and choking, just don't seem like my thing," says Bridget, a ski instructor living in Utah. "But I do worry pretty regularly about whether my partner thinks our sex life is boring or passionless, or if everyone else is having this wild sex and I'm actually a no-fun prude."
According to Marin, it's exactly that type of judgmental thinking that can lead to a serious intimacy disconnect with your partner. "I think when we haven't actively identified what it is that we like, it's so much easier to fall prey to self-judgment and critique," she explains. "Start with asking yourself, what is it that I really enjoy during sex? What is it that makes sex feel great for me?"
Claiming and naming the specific things you enjoy with your partner can help quiet a distracted mind and feel more secure with what you're experiencing during sex.
At the end of the day, Steinberg offers this reminder: People simply aren't wondering about your sex life as much as you think they are — so you shouldn't be embarrassed about your preferences.
Case in point: "When I'm telling my friends about sex with a new partner, no one is asking me 'was it vanilla?'" says Nadia. "They're asking 'was it good?'"
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