What Is ‘Vanilla Sex’ and Is It Necessarily a Bad Thing?

what is vanilla sex

Kinky sex seems to have been mainstream for a while now. Maybe it became official when 50 Shades of Grey hit our Kindles. Or maybe it was when Broad City's Abbi ruined her boyfriend's dildo by putting it in the dishwasher. Rosara Torrisi, PhD from the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, describes kink as “something sexual that someone likes to do with themselves or consensually with partners.” So there's a wide range of what kinky sex actually means. But something most people would say kinky sex is not? Vanilla. But does vanilla sex automatically equate to bad sex? We asked Torrisi for her professional take on the matter. 

What exactly is “vanilla sex”? 

The most common example of vanilla sex that people refer to would probably be missionary position, in the dark with one partner. But vanilla sex, Torrisi explains, is just as subjective as kinky sex: “Vanilla sex usually doesn't explore the edges of people's comfort zones the way kinky sex might. Vanilla sex is also a term for whatever is stereotypically normal in any given period of time or social circle.” So if you don't have a drawer (or closet) full of toys or a Samantha Jones-type sex swing in your living room, your sex life might be considered “vanilla.” Still, it's all subjective. Maybe having sex during the day is totally “normal” for you, but your best friend thinks it's peak kinky. Vanilla sex is in the eye of the beholder. 

Why does it get a bad rap?

You may hear or read about people bashing vanilla sex as boring; or maybe someone's “bad in bed” because they're not exciting. Why is that a problem if it works for them? Well, Torrisi sees this outlook as a cultural phenomenon, especially as kinky sex has become somewhat cool in pop culture: “Vanilla sex might get a bad rap as a reaction to the negative stereotypes of kinky folks. Since vanilla sex is often considered the stereotypical norm, going outside of that norm can cause a counter reaction in folks...So when people aren't into some sex act that might be considered kinky, sometimes put downs are used to insult.” Long story short: if vanilla sex gets a bad rap it's because it's not for that person, which is totally OK! 

But what if your vanilla sex life isn't working for you?

“If it isn't giving you pleasure, why keep doing it?” Torrisi asks. Everyone has different preferences. So whether you identify as kinky or vanilla or somewhere in between, Torrisi stresses that what matters is being able to identify what you like and communicating that with a partner. “If you don't like the sex you're having, start up a conversation with a partner about what you already do like about your sex with them and then add in some ideas for what else you might like.” Remember: No one is a mind reader. If you don't let someone know you want something, they can't have sex with you the way you want them to. But, warns Torrisi, some folks just aren't into the same things as a partner—that's OK too. Though, it might mean your sexual relationship won't work out. “If this is an area of constant struggle for you, speaking with a kink-aware sex therapist would be a good idea,” suggests Torrisi.

What are signs your vanilla sex life is absolutely awesome?

“If you're happy, you're happy. If it gives you pleasure, keep doing it!” Noted.

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...