Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual coercion, sexual violence, and cultural norms that promote sexual violence.
Let’s start off strong: you meet a guy. Maybe it’s at a bar or on the street, in the meet-cute of your dreams, or it’s just pure lust. Whatever. The important part here is that eventually — 40 minutes, a week, or a month in — you have sex.
And the sex is good! Maybe even great, if you’re lucky, but there’s just a bit of a problem: he put his hand around your throat without asking. And then you had a sore neck for three days after. And he hit the “wrong hole” about four times after you said it was the wrong one. And now he won’t stop talking about anal like it’s a natural progression of a sexual relationship. He might even go so far as to say “You’re pretty vanilla” in bed, as if “vanilla” constitutes a category of sex that is different from plain old sex.
Stigmatize vanilla sex, play into patriarchal relationships
Whatever your experience, I believe there is an undeniable stigma that the word “vanilla” holds in the context of sex. ‘Vanilla’ and ‘vanilla sex’ bring connotations of boring, plain, and uninteresting. There are TikToks of people claiming that they pretend to enjoy ‘vanilla sex’ with their partners while secretly thinking about how uninteresting it is.
On the other hand, the word “freak” is thrown around as a token of praise toward a sexually adventurous or promiscuous woman. Some men claim they want a “lady in the streets, freak in the sheets” — a statement that I see as likely implying that a woman should uphold herself to traditional ideas of femininity in public, and even ‘act out’ the idea of free will or personhood, but, in private, conform to the fantasies of the person who is ‘really’ in power: the man. By imposing this expectation on women, men reinforce that what they truly want is a woman who will, at the end of the day, bend to their sexual power and act how they want in bed.
I see many women in both my personal life and in the media push themselves past their comfort zones to pander to male sexual fantasies of the perfect, submissive woman in an attempt to escape the label of ‘vanilla.’ The Guardian reported on a sex educator’s Instagram poll being plagued with responses such as, “I don’t want to disappoint him, I don’t want to be bad in bed.”
The way I see it, stigmatizing vanilla sex plays directly into the hands of the patriarchy and normalizes women’s sexual subordination, with violence and the male gaze as the tools to enact this subordination. So, what is the root issue of this stigmatization?
Women’s sexual liberation in the hands of men
I posit that this phenomenon directly corresponds to how the women’s sexual liberation movement has been co-opted by men. In one article, PBS reported on the American sexual revolution of the 1960s and how the movement, due in part to the increasing availability of contraceptive methods, put forth the idea that “single women had the same sexual desires and should have the same sexual freedoms as everyone else in society.”
While that idea still stands today, I believe the patriarchy has taken this idea to mean a constant supply of sexually available women that men can be serviced by. As writer David Quinn puts it in The Times, “The only sexual rule today is ‘consent,’ and men have been taught that women are potentially always sexually available because that is what ‘liberation’ means.”
I think this patriarchal ideology, coinciding with the ever-increasing accessibility to porn, is creating an environment that feeds women the message that they must be okay with a man’s sexual preferences — including those that are rough or violent in nature — to be sexually liberated. After all, if you are not comfortable with that, there is always another, more willing, more liberated and less ‘prudish,’ less ‘vanilla’ woman to take your place.
Pornography and its stigmatization of vanilla sex
Hannah L. Fegley, in her masters thesis at Smith College, wrote that pornography — specifically through sites such as PornHub — influences our ideas of consent. Fegley found that people were more likely to interpret non-verbal cues as sexual consent if they perceived pornography as realistic. One obvious issue is that we don’t see negotiations happening before more violent scenes in porn, and we don’t know about the specific actions that actors consented to.
While depictions of sexually available women in porn may lend to the idea of men’s sexual fantasies, I believe porn also sets a precedent for a lack of informed consent between sexual partners. It suggests that the women in porn accept violence without consent. In popular media, I’ve even seen the idea that having consent “ruins the fantasy,” or that asking for consent would “ruin the mood.”
I have heard some men that I know argue that power dynamics in sex emerge organically because of preconceived gender norms, and I am not going to disagree with this — however, I believe the type of sexual violence that we see directed toward women in real-life relationships is atypical. Pornography lays a perfect patriarchal blueprint for the way women “should” be treated during sex and the lack of visible consent that comes with it.
The stigma that surrounds vanilla sex directly feeds into the patriarchy’s aims. Patriarchy seeks to keep women subordinate, and it can do so by accepting sexual violence under the guise of liberation and using pornography to perpetuate dangerous ideas about consent — or the lack thereof.
At the end of the day, chains and whips can excite. And if that’s your preferred mode of getting it on, let your freak flag fly! Just remember to keep it safe, sane, and consensual. But also remember that vanilla sex isn’t dead; in fact, it can be incredibly rewarding. Vanilla sex can bring emotional connection, intimacy, and self-confidence.
I’d say find someone who listens when you speak and asks you questions about yourself. Then put on your favourite sultry album, light some candles, and have the mind-blowing vanilla sex of your dreams!
Amelia Spong is a first-year student at Woodsworth College studying humanities.