After a year of bone-dry social distancing, heading to a stranger’s house for casual sex has, once again, been allowed. Increasingly, though, there’s a new worry for some men returning to the world of late-night hook ups: being too “vanilla”, AKA too stereotypically conventional in bed (whatever that means).
Take Michael, who says that he often attracts women who expect him to be “dominant” or even “aggressive” during sex. All the men in the piece requested anonymity in order to speak freely about their sexual experiences.
“There’s nothing wrong with that – if you’re into it – but one time I got with a friend of a friend and I later found out she said the sex was boring,” he says. “It felt a bit brutal to be honest, because she was tiny and I didn’t want to hurt her, but she expected to be properly thrown about.”
As kink positivity has become mainstream, so too has the idea that if you’re not into kink, you’re a boring shag. This attitude, which can veer into shaming, is clear across social media, where phrases like “choke me”, “step on my neck” and “please run me over” have become totally casual ways of saying you fancy someone. On the other end of the spectrum, “just say you're vanilla and boring and go” is now an insult.
Off the back of this trend, young people who aren’t into violent or kinky sex are the subject of mockery in TikTok videos that have been viewed millions of times. Writer Lucy Robinson recently delved into #FreakTok – a subculture where the line between kink positivity and vanilla shaming is regularly blurred – and thinks some of the videos make uncomfortable viewing.
“One of a girl encouraging her reluctant boyfriend to choke her, has 1.1 million views,” she wrote of a video that has since been made private. “Another, of a user mocking viewers for being quote-unquote ‘vanilla’ has 78,000 likes.”
In pop culture too, we don’t have to look far to find men who are put down for not being into kink. Charlie, from HBO drama Girls, is a classic millennial example: in the very first episode he’s described by his girlfriend Marnie as “having a vagina” and touching her “like a weird uncle on Thanksgiving”, for being too affectionate inside and outside the bedroom. She soon leaves him for an artist with much (much) kinkier tastes.
For some men, trying to navigate this new kink-positive era can be confusing – particularly for guys who are vanilla themselves.
Ben, 25, has noticed an uptick in women being more forward with certain kinks on dating apps, where he thinks there is often an assumption that men should be dominant.
“It can feel a bit awkward when they say things like ‘I’m looking for a REAL man to control me’ or whatever,” says Ben. “I’m not bothered about women being forward on apps, because I’d rather know what they’re into and it’s just texting. I just don’t agree that being a man means being kinky or forceful.”
In some ways, porn has a lot to answer for, with a 2010 study finding that 88 percent of the 304 scenes analysed contained physical aggression, predominantly toward women from men. Currently, women are also more likely to be on the receiving end of unwanted behaviour, with a 2019 survey of 2002 UK women aged between 18-39 finding that 38 percent experienced unwanted physical aggression during consensual sex.
With this in mind, some men are increasingly wary of overstepping during sex, but also feel pressure not to be perceived as boring compared to what seems to be becoming the new norm. Striking this balance is partly why Ben likes to keep things vanilla at first, especially with new partners, where he says it can take time to work out what is fantasy and reality.
“It’s happened before where we’ve met up and I’ve not been sure how hard she wanted me to choke her if she asks for that during sex, or if she’s as into that as she was over messages,” he says. “You might be taking it too far, or not far enough. You don’t want to overstep, or bore her. It can be distracting!”
Understandably, kink makes some men nervous – particularly if they feel there’s an expectation for them to take the lead, or else their masculinity gets called into question. But this type of emasculation isn’t just happening in bedrooms, or in group chats where sexual encounters are gleefully unpacked with friends moments after they end. It’s being displayed publicly on social media too.
Brad, 26, feels like there’s a double standard at play when it comes to how sex with men is discussed on social media, which makes him feel self-conscious.
“There’s been a few times where I’ve seen guys being made fun of for being too conventional sexually, mostly in screengrabs of texts but a few times talking about the actual sex being boring,” he says. “But it takes two to make [sex] fun and I’m not sure it’s fair to make out that’s one person’s job. When men say shit like that about women it’s rightly called out – or should be, I think!”
It’s not just straight men who are affected by this type of online chat. Mitch, 27, describes his sexual tastes as “open”, but he’s noticed a particular stigma towards gay men who aren’t hugely into kink.
“Especially now that kink is more spoken of, which is great, there comes that stigma that you need to be kinky to have sex,” he says. “You see it constantly on the Twitter timeline: ‘Oh, you’re not into spit? Gross’. Or ‘You don’t like feet and pits? What’s the point?’ The way some gay men will literally shame others for not being ‘kinky’ or ‘kinky enough’ is so weird.”
In a similar way to the young people of #FreakTok rebelling against their “conventional” elders, a high prevalence of vanilla-shaming among gay men might be some sort of rejection of more “basic” heterosexual norms. After all, homosexuality was once considered to be a kink in itself, and there’s a long, political history of queer kink and fetish communities helping LGBTQ+ people to resist oppression. When iPhones arrived, gay men were among the first demographics to widely embrace fetish and hookup apps, too. But it can surely be alienating for queer men who’ve faced stigma and marginalisation relating to their sexual orientation to then be shamed by their peers for their supposedly “vanilla” sexual tastes.
As “Freedom Day” approaches, we’re hurtling towards a summer of safe (and legal) sex, finally free from the fear that Priti Patel will turn up to arrest us halfway through. But just as it's crucial to discourage kink-shaming, respecting that kinks aren't for some people is also important.
“If they’re not kinky, it doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of great sex. I think people conflate the two,” Mitch says. “You don’t need to be kinky to be good in bed.”