Couple laying in bed after sex

What is vanilla sex and why are we embarrassed by it?

According to a poll in The Independent Newspaper, vanilla is by far the UK’s favourite flavour of ice cream.

But why do connoisseurs of the cone own up to that fact, when saying the same for sex has us squirming with embarrassment?

Sex therapist Vanessa Marin explains. “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.”

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.

What is vanilla sex?

Vanilla sex is what society has deemed as ‘normal’. Just like its frozen counterpart, it’s a no-frills, nothing-added flavour that hits the right spot.

According to Urban Dictionary, vanilla sex is “sex that involves no twists or kinkiness, and no S&M. Basically plain regular sex. Typically sweet and happy and very lovey-dovey.”

Everybody’s definition of ‘regular’ is different, though, so the explanation isn’t as simple as it sounds.

To some people, vanilla sex might mean a once a week coming together (or not) of two people in the missionary position, while to others it could be ‘anything goes’ as long as there is no kink involved; no BDSM, no toys, no fetish, just good old fashioned love-making.

‘Vanilla’ is simply a label, and not something you have to take any notice of.

As certified sex educator Alicia Sinclair says “The nuance is the emotion behind the sex. If you enjoy ‘vanilla sex’ — you look forward to it, you experience pleasure from it, you ask for it — then, well, that doesn’t sound like boredom to me.”


Couple kissing in bed

What is the meaning behind vanilla sex?

To understand the meaning behind vanilla sex, we need to look at where the term came from. Thought by some to have made an appearance when the swinging sixties meant free love was the norm, this time also coincided with the introduction of the contraceptive pill.

Giving women the freedom to enjoy sex as a recreational activity, the pill meant that women could explore their own sexuality without the fear of getting pregnant.

Of course, this experimentation wasn’t for everybody, and those who were happy to continue along their well-trodden path were deemed boring, or vanilla.

A more widely-accepted explanation is that the term comes from the kink community of the seventies, who used the term ‘vanilla’ as an insult.

It was an about-face for the world of sexual preferences, because prior to the seventies, kinks and fetishes had been kept largely in the shadows, an underground movement that was seen as ‘wrong’ somehow.

By finally being open about their preferences, the kink community (or parts of it), had managed to turn the tables on vanilla sex, and made it something to be embarrassed about.

Why is vanilla sex so stigmatised?

Thanks to books such as Fifty Shades of Grey, and movies like Secretary, ‘normal’ sex was suddenly seen as boring. After all, when there is a whole buffet of exotic fruits to be devoured, why would anyone stick to a plain old apple?

The nineties saw the release of the Sex and the City franchise, which made it possible, fun even, for groups of gal pals to get together and openly discuss their love lives.

This openness, bizarrely, sent many women running for the closet, though, as their nearest and dearest friends ‘came out’ with a flourish, announcing their porn-worthy preferences for all to hear.

Suddenly, it became a dirty secret to enjoy straight-up sex, and many people (because men can enjoy vanilla as much as women) either lied about their lives between the sheets, or just kept quiet.

Pink and purple adult sex toys

Are there any benefits to vanilla sex?

If there are so many downsides to vanilla sex, why would anyone bother with it?

The truth is, vanilla sex can be amazing for many reasons:

1. Better the devil you know.

Most of us cut our virginal teeth with the missionary position, aka vanilla, so it stands to reason that that which we are most familiar with is what we’re better at. The adage ‘practice makes perfect’ stands true for no-frills sex, and even those who enjoy BDSM, for example, will revert to the norm sometimes. Many fetishes and practices require equipment, or dressing up, or setting the scene, whereas vanilla requires just you and your partner, with no bells and whistles.

2. Eye Contact

Nothing is sexier than eye contact when we’re making love; it’s fascinating to watch the emotions and feelings playing out in our lovers’ eyes. In fact, eye-gazing is an integral part of tantric sex, which promises to take your intimacy to a whole other level.

3. Kissing

Kissing is one of the most intimate things you can do with your partner, and few things can beat it. In order to kiss, though, you need to be face to face, something that’s impossible in many kinky practices. Sharing a kiss at the point of orgasm can be mind-blowing, and that fact alone makes vanilla sex anything but boring.

4. Love-Making

While there’s no denying that non-vanilla sex can be thrilling and a huge turn-on, there’s something about regular sex that is tender and sweet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being face to face with your partner, holding each other, kissing, and maintaining eye-contact brings a beautiful level of intimacy that can be difficult to achieve with other methods.

5. Conversation

While you don’t want to be discussing next week’s shopping list in the throes of passion, it can really add to the intimacy when you whisper sweet nothings to each other. Even if you don’t want to actually speak, just listening to your partner’s sighs and moans can be as sexy as hell, and that’s a damn sight easier when you are going head to head, as it were.

Why vanilla sex might not be working for you

When it comes to sex, what works for one person might not work for another. If you find your sex life is leaving you frustrated, it could simply be that vanilla sex just isn’t doing it for you.

  • While vanilla sex doesn’t have to be boring, it does – by its very definition – mean it’s a no-frills approach, and that usually means it concentrates on positions such as the missionary. This might not work for you if you find yourself wondering what it would be like to try a reverse cowgirl, for example, and could lead to frustrations within the relationship
  • Some people thrive on routine, while others can start to feel confined by it, and if you belong to the latter category, you might find that you yearn for spontaneity. A quickie standing up in the shower or bent across the kitchen table is outside the remit of vanilla for many people
  • Foreplay is, in many cases, better than the sex itself, but it might not fall under the vanilla umbrella. If you love the idea of teasing and being teased into a frenzy with a whole day’s worth of verbal and/or physical foreplay, you might need to branch out a little and try adding a little spice
  • Vibrators and dildos might be part of your usual routine, but to other people they are strictly for the kinky crowd. This could lead to a divide in the bedroom if one of you wants to try adult toys, while the other prefers things au naturel
  • Exploring is another much-underrated activity between the sheets (or anywhere else, for that matter) but the standard missionary position does not allow for much of it. Hands, tongues, and even feet can be used to create different sensations for both parties, and not being able to do that can leave one or both of you feeling unfulfilled
  • Noisy sex can be a massive turn-on, but it might seem out of place when love-making is tender and sweet. If loud moans, groans, and screaming really do it for you, the quietness of love-making vanilla-style can feel a little empty

A little vanilla didn’t hurt anybody

Sexuality is a fluid term, which is why it is so hard to pin down an actual bona fide definition. Our sex lives are constantly evolving.

In a world where anything goes, perhaps it’s time to claim back the term ‘vanilla’ when it comes to sex.

Nobody has any right to criticise your preferences, just as you don’t have the right to criticise theirs.

In such an enlightened age, we should be able to enjoy our sex lives without feeling ashamed, or boring, or unadventurous. As feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin once said, “The pejorative word [being] ‘vanilla,’ … is ironically, one of the most sensual aromas.”





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