Photo Credit: Marie Dehayes via Unsplash.

Why are we still using “vanilla” as an insult?

By Kate Fryer

Kate Fryer discusses why we are still shaming people for their sexual preferences.

For a while, “no kink shaming!” has been the headline exclamation of many a friendly sex-based convo. This acceptance of a wide range of sexual preferences and desires is something I, and undeniably many others, can get behind. Moving away from the idea that there are only certain ways in which sex can be defined and accepted is surely a good thing for everyone, making it possible for people to more openly discuss and appreciate their sexuality and enjoyment of sex. However, instead of sex-based shame being “eradicated” as we expect, considering the gradual move away from kink-shaming (at least amongst younger age groups), it seems the onus has shifted. Being “vanilla” has now become a mockable offense, the word in this context being synonymous with “boring” sexual behaviours, the term being coined based on the common (yet delicious, let’s be real) ice-cream flavour. This mocking is now commonly referred to as “vanilla-shaming” (ground-breaking, I know). In general, this involves belittling those who don’t seem to partake in any kinks or fetishes, instead opting for what could be regarded as “normal” sex, and thus earning the label of “boring” in bed.

While matters of consent are an increasingly visible, especially on university campuses such as our own, you would hope that this would influence how we treat others when sex lives and preferences are discussed. This normalisation of vanilla-shaming amongst young people problematises the matter of consent and safety in sex. Even unintentionally, mocking or shaming peers for being “vanilla”, “boring”, or the vintage “frigid”, can arguably influence and pressure people to try kinks they may well have no real desire for. They may actually feel unsafe in these circumstances, and only with the goal of being deemed “interesting” in bed.

For many young people, sexual relationships and developments were somewhat hindered by many a lockdown and Covid restriction (I know – I’m sorry to be another person bringing up coronavirus – but bear with me please). Porn has long been criticised for its potentially detrimental effects on how people regard sex, shaping what is expected from partners and the development of young peoples’ understanding of sexuality. However, during the pandemic years, the influence of online content was arguably exacerbated as we were all locked away with little apart from our tech devices to occupy us. 

Social media played into this, with one platform booming in particular – TikTok. Trending hashtags such as #freaktok glamorise certain kinks whilst often prescribing an unhealthy dose of vanilla-shaming. With TikTok’s young audience this is concerning, as attitudes around sex (and how to act during those first fumbly encounters) may well be influenced by such content. This will cement the idea that anything less than experimenting with kinks is “vanilla” and thus embarrassing.

I’d like to clarify – I am not here to bash kinks. I am all here for healthy and consensual sexual expression. However, I do want to address the problems with vanilla-shaming permeating the way that so many think about sex. Particularly for young people who may have limited experience, it is increasingly important for people to consider what they are really comfortable with in the bedroom; how we talk about different types of sex; and for those engaging in slightly more “rogue” practices with their partners to make sure those partners are comfortable and consenting to what is happening without coercion. This should always be the case. Obviously, sexual curiosity is inevitable, and that’s absolutely grand. However, if the driving motivation is to avoid mocking and shame for being “vanilla”, that doesn’t seem safe, healthy, or the making of a good night. For that reason I think we could all do with checking in with ourselves every so often regarding how we are behaving, as well as how we are talking.

Honestly, while writing this, I have consistently second-guessed myself. “What if people think I’m vanilla?”. But I had to challenge this thought process – why did I care? Why should anyone be concerned with what I, or anyone else for that matter, is doing when it comes to sex? If you and whoever you are with are having a good ol’ safe and consensual time – that’s the main thing.


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