The sexual stigma we'd all be better off without.
CW: This article discusses topics of harassment, mental illness and sexual abuse which could be distressing to some readers.
As if there weren't already enough ways to make people feel bad about sex, 'vanilla-shaming' has come bursting onto the scene through social media. Whilst the definition of 'vanilla' sex can vary from person to person, it's often associated with missionary positions and endeavors limited to the bedroom.
To gain a little bit of context, you’ve probably already heard of ‘kink-shaming' - the act of shaming someone for their unconventional sexual preferences. For a very long time throughout history, kinks of any kind were viewed as socially unacceptable and often went unmentioned.
But thanks to the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and sex-positive movements that have become increasingly mainstream since the early 2000s, sexuality finally stopped being such a stigmatized topic.
And this is an amazing thing.
It's created an environment for people to talk openly, without judgement, about human sexuality, particularly women’s sexual pleasure. However, whilst 'kink shaming' is becoming less and less common, it's slowly becoming replaced by something else - 'vanilla shaming'.
But what if vanilla is my favourite flavour?
Vanilla is often viewed as the most standard, common flavour of ice cream, and to some people, indicates that type of sex would also be boring. The idea that people with a preference towards vanilla sex are inherently 'boring' leaves a pit in my stomach. I remember having conversations with my friends about all of their sex stories - car sex, field sex and BDSM. I remember ex-boyfriends suggesting all sorts of public places we could try having sex, or how to 'spice' things up in the bedroom. I remember making up kinks to make myself sound more exciting and so I could 'fit in' to conversations about sex. It would bring me close to tears. 'I'm not into any of that', I'd think in despair, but would smile and nod along to avoid being labelled as 'boring'.
At 20 years old, I usually feel like I'm just one comment away from being labelled ‘frigid’. I see it every day on social media - people bragging about their kinks and laughing at people in the comments who don't agree. People telling you that you don't know how to have a good time, that you're just not comfortable with your sexuality.
As a result, I began to wonder what was wrong with me, question my own preferences, and if I really knew what 'good' sex was. I even considered the fact that I might just be asexual. For years, I dreaded sex, or any mention of it. It began to feel like some big competition. Young people are growing up with social media telling them that everyone is doing this, or that, and if they don't enjoy choking or spitting, they're not normal.
Women in particular have faced endless unnecessary sexual standards for decades. It ranges from completely unrealistic portrayals of their bodies in porn, to the overestimation of our ability to orgasm, and even debates over body hair. Nowadays, people are now feeling forced into complying with their partner's kinks to maintain the illusion that they are some sort of sex wizard.
However, this has all become detrimental to our self-esteem and mental health.
This trend is sweeping across social media, colleges, and university campuses. Now, people who don't want to engage in any kinks or violent sex are being called boring and plain. The term 'vanilla' has become an insult, and is something people are expected to fix about themselves.
Suddenly, the conversation has shifted from all sexual preferences being valid, to shaming people who aren't into kinks.
The Case of Social Media
The danger around vanilla shaming not only lies with the effects on self esteem, but what it means during sex, too. Vanilla shaming often revolves around the shame of people wanting, or needing, a bit more respect and consent.
One of the most notorious places for it is 'FreakTok' - a community on TikTok that often boast about rejecting 'normal' sex. And it isn't as niche as you may think - at the time of writing, #Freak has 4.1 billion views, with #KinkTok boasting over 10.9 billion views. Considering a lot of children and teens have access to TikTok, the amount of NSFW content is staggering. This section of TikTok is filled with content offering explicit advice on sex, and many users often joke about those who lean more towards the vanilla side of sexuality- vanilla-shaming at its most socially-acceptable. Hundreds of people laughing at the idea that people might enjoy sex differently to them.
An alarming survey of UK women between aged 18-39 discovered that 38% have experienced unwanted spitting, choking or slapping during consensual sex, a concerning effect meaning that the normalisation of these behaviours has been confused with consent.
In an era where children and teenagers are turning to social media and pornography for education on sex, where there's very little censorship and videos and pictures glorifying sexual violence, young people have begun to associate intimacy with a level of violence. These people are becoming desensitised to anything ‘normal’ before they have even experienced sex for themselves.
Grammy award-winner Billie Eilish has discussed her experience being exposed to pornography at a very young age, and the effects it had on her own early sexual encounters.
“I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn. The first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying ‘no’ to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.”
It's clear there’s a vital conversation to have on how sexual liberation shouldn’t be exclusively linked to ‘kinkiness’.
Vanilla-shaming on social media can have serious consequences, leading to a space where people don’t feel comfortable discussing sexual experiences they didn’t enjoy, out of fear of being labeled as boring and unable to please.
The sex-positive movement should include everybody, including those not interested in being clad in leather, gags or being beaten up. Rough sex is not the only way for people to have fun in the bedroom.
To all the younger people reading this article - whether you're comfortable with vanilla, or a lover of all things kinky, you and your preferences are valid and you have every right to be respected. If your partner wants you do to something in bed that you don't feel comfortable with, discuss it with them.
Communication is extremely important. Never be afraid to use it.
In an ideal world, young people should be taught to be comfortable with their own sexualities, and should have a safe environment to explore it consensually.
Overall, no matter how you enjoy sex, your preferences are completely valid. You should always be met with respect. In the sex positive movement, there's room for everybody, no matter what your preference is.