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Vanilla Sex

Illustration by Caitlin Metz

By Chelsea G. Summers

“Vanilla” is never a compliment. Blank as a piece of tasteful stationery, “vanilla” conjures a bland palate that is at best a canvas for spicier imaginations and at worst a nadir of creativity. You can’t do much worse than vanilla. It’s banal, it’s uninspired, and it’s ubiquitous—and that’s just using “vanilla” to talk about desserts, fabrics, or aesthetics. When it comes to sex, to call it vanilla is to conjure a pallid tapestry of pubic hair, pudenda, penises, and pouting mouths in a dreary tableau of straight-up, unapologetic missionary sex.

Given the undisputed dullness of vanilla, it’s no surprise that vanilla sex is an insult. “It was good,” you could say to a BFF about your new lover, “but it was vanilla.” And both you and your BFF understand that you and your lover had tender, caring, mutually satisfactory sex that also wafted with the fug of faint disappointment.

We accept without question that, as in a chocolate or strawberry-dipped soft-serve, vanilla is good only as the foil to something tastier. By itself it’s boring unto condemnation. But ice cream is nothing like fucking, and you have to wonder how or why vanilla sex came to be something that people feel bad about having—much less enjoying.

So here’s a thing: “vanilla,” like much of the best sex slang and the very best hook-up apps, migrated into the heterosexual world from gay male culture, who used the term to mean tame, boring, non-experimental sex—the first citation for this usage is 1989’s gay pride primer After the Ball by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, but that’s hardly the last. It’s fair to assume that from its first coining, vanilla sex held the inoffensive insipidness of a Nilla Wafer. The term named sex so wholesome it was contemptible, and it denoted a failure of vision. What was the point of being gay, “vanilla sex” seemed to say, if you were fucking in ways as staid as a straight couple?

It’s easy to think of fucking as a monolith, but it’s not. Sex has fashions that rise and fall like hemlines, and this season we’re wearing a haute suit of power-exchange-style fucking. The literally visible tip of this new kinky chic sits in porn because porn is the place where we can see people fucking. Let me put it this way: the release of Deep Throat, the game-changing 1972 porn flick, made blow jobs A Thing. It wasn’t that people didn’t give or receive blow jobs—of course they did—but “blow job” wasn’t on everyone’s lips; moreover, standard fellatio was more or less a just-the-tip affair. The seminal Linda Lovelace movie didn’t invent blow jobs, but it did make them chic, especially blow jobs that were deep, sloppy, and thick with spit. Sex chic gives people a big blank check of permission to push boundaries that were just sitting there, waiting.

We can debate until we’re blue in the ovaries whether porn predicts or reflects culture’s sexual trends—and whether it does is somewhat beside the point in a meditation on “vanilla sex”—but there is no question that culture at large knows about more kinky acts than it used to, and it has embraced them. The sex we watch, the sex we read about, the sex our friends tell us about in the hush of a crowded bar, the sex acts our partners request of us, and, indeed, the sex our own minds play on the walls of our brain during a restless wank on Sunday afternoon has—as a fucking society—moved further along the sexual spectrum and progressed deeper into the land of kink. Choking, bondage, spanking, power-play, pegging, face-fucking, electro-stim, and, yes, even anal have migrated to the center, making a lot of sex acts turn pale, puddling in that cast-off pool of vanilla. You can thank 50 Shades of Grey for this shift, the gender-bending queer kink of Jiz Lee’s Crash Pad series, or the casual bend-over-boyfriend in Broad City, but kink has gone mainstream; even my mom (and likely yours) knows what a butt plug looks like. No wonder that “vanilla” is a sexual epithet.

When I think about the times I’ve used “vanilla” to describe the sex I’ve had, I at first see a pastel fucking wash that wouldn’t be out of place in the classic ‘70s sex manual The Joy of Sex. But if I look further and search my kinky soul—and there’s no doubt that my soul like my flesh enjoys a lurid dab of perversion—I remember sex that was unquestionably great and unquestionably vanilla. Devoid of bondage, spanking, choking, accessories, and bells of whistles of any kind, this sex was as vanilla as crème anglaise and just as silky. It wasn’t boring; it was celestial. Planets formed and stars swirled with the power of this vanilla fucking.

In the time that has passed since that starry-eyed vanilla sex, memories have filled with shibari ropes and leather spankers; I have passed those years stuffing them with experimentation and questing, looking for the rich tapestry of stimulation that would electrify my flesh and (for the love of all things perverse and sacrosanct) not bore me. But that search has been a little fruitless. I have some outstanding memories and some great stories. I also have a bunch of questions about this period of my life that feels like an exercise in increasingly baroque fucking. So much kink, done with so little passion and even less skill; kink, I’ve found, has grown boring as heck.

Everything old is new again, and recently I find myself circling back to “vanilla” sex. It’s not that I want a fucking life free of perversion; rather, it’s that I’ve grown to understand that nothing in and of itself is inherently boring. Bad sex is bad sex, and it can happen hung up on a St. Andrew’s cross with a Hitachi glued to your clit as easily as flat on your back in missionary. These nights, I’m less interested in what I label something and more interested in having my lover fuck me good (and, of course, fucking him good). Vanilla is like the sauce for my berries; a bowl of custard can be uninspiring, but it can also be comforting. Choke me, please. But kiss me as you do it. Be flexible, be creative, but above all, be caring.

It’s hard to have caring sex without elements of vanilla, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason why every dessert recipe calls for a teaspoon of vanilla. A kiss of simplicity makes the sweet treat taste better. There’s no shame in the vanilla game, no matter what fucking fashion tells you.

Read more essays like this in Sex Etc, a zine by Babe Vibes. $10