When It Comes to 'Vanilla Sex,' No Two People Taste the Same Flavor
Our societal understanding of what we mean when we say a sex act is “vanilla” isn’t as obvious as we might think.
Image by Sarah MacReading, photos via iStock.
When 21-year-old Bianca Monteiro came of age, she knew she wasn’t interested in “vanilla sex.”
“My first boyfriend was really into sadomasochism and into ball busting, which was a huge dive into sexuality for me,” the college student, who identifies as non-binary and uses both she and they pronouns, told me over email. Those first sexual experiences set a precedent for the array of “non-vanilla” needs her future partners may have. “It basically became weird for things to be vanilla following that,” she explained.
Monteiro and her partners are far from alone. With the term “BDSM” prompting almost 400 million Google results and TV shows like Broad City wrapping plotlines around pegging, the lines of what’s “normal” or not in bed feel, to me, more blurred now than ever. In the past couple years, “daddy” has morphed from a term reserved for dominant/sub relationships to an internet meme. There’s a Wiki solely for the sexualization of feet. From where I’m standing (or sitting in my chair, on the internet), everyone seems kinkier than ever—and if everyone is kinky, does that mean everyone is actually just vanilla?
I myself didn’t put much thought into what is normal or “vanilla” until a couple of years ago. I had heard the term various times throughout my life, sometimes used as an insult, but never took the time to actually consider what it meant, and what the implications behind it were. It wasn’t until a couple of men choked me during first sexual encounters that I began questioning what I believed was traditional about sex; prior to those consensual, if thought-provoking experiences, I was under the impression that choking was a “hardcore” thing to do.
When I mentioned what had happened to friends, it became apparent that choking (often without asking first, which is an entirely different conversation!) was far more common than I had imagined. I also discovered that not only was I interested in choking, but my friends often were as well, though none of us had ever explicitly described ourselves as “kinky.” If someone had asked me to classify what I enjoyed, I probably would’ve said I was “pretty vanilla.”
After these encounters and conversations, though, I became unsure of how to categorize myself, or if it was appropriate to even do so. Is choking “normal,” or expected during sex, or during a first time with a new person?, I wondered. Is it “vanilla” now?”
Studying how sex and sexuality has changed over the years is no easy feat. Perhaps partially because of this, the topic endlessly fascinates; there’s no shortage of reports from publications on the dismal status of sex today, whether they lament that we’re just not having it anymore, or that young people in particular aren’t interested in it. But so much of this work relies on assumptions that we’re on the same page when we use certain words to describe what people are doing in bed. That’s why I set out to see if I could find a better sense of what “vanilla sex” really means now. I consulted both experts (a sex historian, sex sociologist and speaker, an author, and a product developer for a kink app), as well as VICE’s audience. For the latter, I created a Google form survey and sent it out on VICE’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
I received 4,242 responses, from people aged 18 to 71 living everywhere from middle America to Australia, according to their self-reporting. I asked three demographic questions: age, location, and gender. I then asked two free response questions: "What sexual activities do you consider 'vanilla'?" and "What sexual activities do you consider 'kinky' or NOT 'vanilla'?" Some people who submitted were trolls (shout out to the person who listed their gender as “Dank Memes,”) but the vast majority were not. I had by no means conducted a scientific survey like The Janus Report of Sexual Behavior of 1993 or the groundbreaking Kinsey Reports before that. I didn’t ask for people’s race, sexual orientation, religion, or marital status—all things that can impact opinions on sex. But I did get a lens with which to view how people beyond my narrow set think about sex now.
We’re living in a post–Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, post– Sex and the City world, where we can watch a hardcore porn video in seconds if we want to. Generation Z is the least heterosexual-identifying generation to date. Monteiro is representative of the largest self-reported age group in the survey, 21-year-olds, meaning she is also squarely a member of Generation Z. In terms of her survey responses, she is part of the 53 percent of respondents who considered missionary sex “vanilla,” and part of the 24 percent of respondents who mentioned the acronym “BDSM” for what they considered kinky.
What vanilla sex was (according to experts)
It’s difficult—if not impossible—to determine exactly who coined the term “vanilla” to suggest conventional sex, or when, but Hallie Lieberman, historian of sex and sexuality and author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, told me it was likely defined by the kink movement of the 1970s. “Vanilla” was used as a retort, something to call the non-kink community, since vanilla was seen as the plainest ice cream flavor. This aligns with the Oxford English Dictionary, which added another definition of vanilla—“plain, basic, conventional”—that same decade. The behaviors and positions the term generally lies in contrast to, such as those related to BDSM, have existed since at least ancient times, as evidenced by the art left behind by the Mesopotamians and Greeks—just look at all this sexy pottery. Fast-forwarding thousands of years, works of literature like Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) make Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) look like an adult coloring book. In short, the desire to experiment and go beyond sex for procreation has existed for eons, even if the technology to manifest that desire has evolved.
The way we categorize sexual activities progressed rapidly during the 20th century, largely due to scientific innovations (such as the invention of birth control pills), as well as pressure from social movements (mainly, the civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights movements). Previously, at least in America, “normal” sex was baby-making sex. “It used to be anything non-procreative was considered abnormal and that's kind of how people drew the boundaries,” Lieberman said.
This makes sense, especially if you look at sodomy laws in the United States, which condemned any non-procreative sex, including not only sex outside of marriage but oral and anal sex. Banning beastiality was also wrapped up in those statutes, illustrating just how taboo oral and anal were in the eyes of the establishment.
That doesn’t mean that people only had sex for procreation, or that people did not engage in oral or anal sex—they just did so with sex workers. According to Lieberman, men and women in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s would pay sex workers (either of a different or the same gender) to perform oral and anal sex, things they would usually not do with their spouses. Lieberman—whose next book is on male sex workers—used an example from her research, mentioning “cunt-lappers,” or male sex workers who serviced women by performing cunnilingus.
Modern-day BDSM and kink culture rose out of queer culture in the mid-1900s, as well as male leather subculture, which began post-World War II. The latter was rooted in biker culture, which not only popularized leather in fashion but rejected “mainstream” lifestyles. The gay leather scene was inherently countercultural, both because of its roots but also because it rejected camp gay subculture. Another big influence in BDSM and kink culture was Samois, America’s first lesbian BDSM group, which existed from the late 1970s until the early 80s. Samois started a “feminist sex war” with anti-porn group Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, which the group saw as anti-S&M as well. Through its fights with the anti-porn, anti-S&M movement, Samois became known for broadening discussion around what feminist sexuality can be.
The origin of vanilla, then, was reactionary, and it's significant that queer people were the ones to start using the term because queer sex was considered deviant (or, well, at least more than it is today). Furthermore, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973. The sex kinky queer people were having was considered abnormal; “vanilla” was coined to subvert that thinking, to paint sex that the straight, non-kink community was having as “boring.”
“It was pushing back against the other group that was saying ‘what you're doing is weird and wrong,’” Lieberman explained.
Meg-John Barker, a speaker and author who’s written several books about sex and sexuality such as The Psychology of Sex and Queer: A Graphic History, agreed that the term can be a reclamation of sorts for marginalized communities.
“It can be a way of reframing things so that the people who are often stigmatized, marginalized and pathologized are presented as in some way better than those who often do the stigmatizing, marginalizing, or pathologizing,” Barker told me in an email.
What vanilla sex is (according to experts and you)
What’s considered vanilla now seems to have shifted from the original 1970s definition of “non-kink.” Though the Kinsey Reports ( Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and the subsequent Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953) were not the first studies of American sexuality, Kinsey’s approach—specializing in classification and description—made it innovative. Kinsey interviewed 12,000 “American white men” for Human Male and nearly 6,000 women for Human Female; the interviews were expansive, with hundreds of questions about sexual thoughts and behavior. (Kinsey’s methodology has been criticized over the years, for excluding non-whites, amongst many other reasons.)
Despite Kinsey’s focus on sexual orientation, he also researched how Americans felt about different sexual activities, including S&M. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey found that, 12 percent of females and 22 percent of males reported having an “erotic response” to an “S&M story.” In Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, he reported that 60 percent of college educated respondents had participated in oral sex, while only 20 percent of the high school educated and just 11 percent of the grade school educated had done the same. Considering that only 6 percent of American adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1940, we can assume that most people fell in the latter two categories.
While Kinsey studied behaviors as opposed to feelings about said behaviors, it is telling that the majority of Americans reported that they had not had oral sex in the late 1940s. As Lieberman pointed out, in the mid-20th century, it was still considered taboo.
By contrast, the 1993 Janus Report had a methodology similar to my survey: It was a questionnaire people filled out anonymously. Three thousand people—self-reported men and women from age 18 to 90—completed the questionnaire, the authors said in a Q&A with the Chicago Tribune. Looking at The Janus Report, which, according to the Tribune, was the first broad-scale survey of its kind since Kinsey, a majority of respondents considered oral sex “Very normal + All right”:
In what I’m dubbing the VICE Survey on ‘Vanilla’ Sex (VSVS), the number of people who considered oral sex kinky was only two percent, while in Janus, the number was more like 11 to 13 percent. In fact, 19 percent of 2019 survey respondents mentioned “oral” as something they considered vanilla. (Though I’ll flag again that taking too much stock in the VSVS percentages is unwise, given the unscientific nature of my “study.”)
“We've come a long way from saying any sex outside of marriage is abnormal and any sex that isn't penetrative is abnormal, to oral sex: pretty normal,” Lieberman noted.
Numerous factors can lead to a shift in opinions on sex, but one that is often harped on is the prevalence of sex in our media and culture, often referred to simply as sexualization. The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, the rise of the internet and cellphones and dating apps have all had an effect on how we think about sex.
Another, less discussed, cultural shift is subjectification. In 2003, Professor Rosalind Gill suggested that our culture was moving from objectifying women to subjectifying them. Once seen as passive objects in the media, women were now being portrayed as having sexual agency, popularizing the idea that women are sexual entrepreneurs who should know how to please their partners. According to Barker, in their book Mediated Intimacy, media is the primary source for learning what intimacy looks and feels like. And one of the biggest—and most discussed—form of media shaping our view of sex is internet porn. “I would say porn has been the biggest ‘changers’ [of what’s considered normal],” Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, sex sociologist and speaker, told me. “Specifically around oral sex now being very normal and considered a part of vanilla sex now.”
Of course, porn existed long before the internet, but the internet massively increased accessibility, both financially (there are millions of videos available for free on sites like PornHub) and geographically (you can watch it alone, at home—you don’t have to go to an adult store and risk being turned away or caught). “It's not that our sexual imaginations haven't always been drawn to crazy orgies with all these people and penises penetrating everywhere,” Lieberman said (again, recall 120 Days of Sodom). “It's just that availability has spread.”
Mainstream TV and film projects have also affected how we feel about sex. The famous rabbit vibrator episode of Sex and the City had a lasting effect on the public’s view of sex toys; Vibratex, the producer of the original Rabbit vibrator, told Forbes its annual sales jumped 700 percent in the years following the episode. And while the conversation around whether the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies handled consent appropriately has generally settled on a consensus of “no,” it did undeniably shine a light on BDSM and transform it into what Lieberman and others have called “mommy porn”—a.k.a., porn tame enough that a demographic that might not normally have been interested in or exposed to it dives in.
And as must be mentioned in any piece about changing sexual mores, the last two decades have also seen the explosion of dating websites and apps. Luis P., a 33-year-old from Ecuador who immigrated to Miami two years ago, told me that he first saw “vanilla” used as a sexual term on a gay hookup site in 2008. Luis, who chose not to give his entire last name for privacy reasons, said that the discovery led to better hookups, because the term let him define what he wanted.
“It took me a while to realize that I was not enjoying full penetration sex [during casual encounters],” he said in an email. “So at least in this [sic] kind of meetings I established that they were not going to be beyond ‘vanilla’ (foreplay, kissing, touching, some dirty talking, rimming, licking, oral).”
There are currently dozens of apps covering different niches—including kink. Feeld is one such app; on its website, Feeld says it is “a space where the curious and open-minded come together.” The app launched in 2014 in the UK as “3nder,” intended to be “Tinder for threesomes,” but rebranded into Feeld in 2016 and now markets itself to both singles and couples. According to the company, around 30 percent of users on the app have “couple” accounts, meaning two individual accounts are linked. Notably, all users are prompted to list their sexual desires as part of their bio.
“If you go on Feeld you can see all these people that are into climbing and next to climbing, they like something very sexual,” Ana Kirova, the product lead at Feeld, told me. “It kind of makes you feel normal because if you have some sort of ‘weird,’ maybe at first glance ‘fucked up,’ fantasy, you actually see that, first, it’s not fucked up, and, second, it’s not weird at all.”
The most popular desire on Feeld, according to the company, involves sex with more than two people (terms like “threesome,” “foursome,” and “moresome”), which makes sense, given the app’s history. “BDSM” and “kink” round out the top three desires.
According to the experts I spoke to, oral sex has entered the mainstream, while activities like BDSM and choking still largely exist in the realm of the kinky. And, fittingly, the VSVS suggests that people do draw those same lines.
The overarching view is that anal is considered kinky, or at the very least, not vanilla. For thoroughness, I checked if anyone mentioned “anal” as an answer to the vanilla question; interestingly, around 6 percent of respondents did. Those numbers are actually pretty close to those in the Janus Report:
Other terms that were popular in the kinky portion of the VSVS were those related to group sex (threesome, foursome, orgy, etc.), which got 579 mentions, and “rough,” mentioned 206 times.
No one term was as dominant for vanilla as “anal” was for kinky, but there was one that was mentioned by a majority: “missionary.” As previously stated, 53 percent of surveyors mentioned the word “missionary” as something they considered vanilla.
There were also a few dozen sentence-long answers beginning with “Anything” in the vanilla section: “Anything that’s not part of kink or BDSM” and “Anything that doesn’t explore beyond the most basic positions/acts” are two examples, suggesting people may think about “vanilla” in terms of what it’s not, rather than what it is. As it was in the 1970s, vanilla seems to be a reactionary term, a kind of “I know it when I see it” catchall. The fifth most commonly associated term with vanilla is “basic”—a characteristic of the sex rather than an activity done during it.
When breaking down the top terms by age and country, an interesting pattern occurred, in that there was no pattern. The overall distribution of answers appeared the same, both when it came to looking at how people of different ages and nationalities responded.
After seeing the top terms of the VSVS, Gunsaullus believes that the results would be similar across generations. “Overall as a society I think our understanding of kinky versus vanilla has predictable social norms and beliefs,” she told me in an email.
One term that did stand out to Gunsaullus was, coincidentally or not, the inspiration behind the survey: choking. “I think [choking] is specific to 20-somethings, in a way that wouldn't show up with folks, say, in their 50s,” she said. “Which makes me think that perhaps the respondents in their 20s were more likely to see this in the porn they consumed as teenagers.”
Looking at the survey, two main results are apparent to me. One is obvious: that, despite our shared desire to reach broad classifications and conclusions about sexual habits, no two people have the same answer about what is vanilla or kinky. Some responses listed off many activities; others were one-word answers; others described personal experiences. Monteiro, for example, has a different view of vanilla than most respondents. She told me, “I think someone being into really vanilla sex now is the equivalent to just being totally weird—things like choking, being rough, it’s now more a given and closer to vanilla sex in my circles.”
For Alexis, a 19-year-old from Indiana, what is vanilla and what is kinky depends on the power dynamics in the relationship. The college student, who requested I only use her first name for privacy reasons, said that power relations that are unspecified are vanilla while stratified and agreed to (S&M relationships and owner/pet relationships, for example) are non-vanilla/kinky.
Furthermore, just because 70 percent of surveyors consider anal kinky doesn’t mean that the ones who said it was vanilla are wrong. While anal sex may be kinky to cis hetero couples, it may not be for those who are not cis or hetero.
The other thing I realized is that, 25 years later, we’re not too far off from The Janus Report of the 1990s, in that, while there's not one thing that means "vanilla" to everyone, there are some broad themes. Granted, Janus did not use the term “vanilla,” but the similarities in what that term meant to the people surveyed by VICE with regards to oral, anal, and BDSM, are there.
Choking, the activity that made me question what is vanilla and what isn’t in the first place, is one of the top kinky terms, though, it doesn’t matter whether my view coincides with that of 16 percent of surveyors, or how an activity is categorized. What does matter is whether the activities are safe, consensual, and enjoyable for everyone involved. As Barker told me, “If you count up the numbers of people who are openly or secretly non-monogamous, with the number who have kinky desires, and the number who have attraction to more than one gender, or very low or high sexual attraction, actually that leaves very few people in what we've been taught to believe is ‘normal.’” As much as Kinsey and Janus and I want to find out once and for all what “vanilla” means, it may not sit still long enough for us to achieve success.
“Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we have terms for all of these activities because that means they have been identified as relevant enough to need a name. But I don't like using them,” Alexis explained. “When I'm talking with my friends, we're not talking about whether the sex was vanilla; we're talking about whether it was good.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Anna Rose Iovine on Twitter.