Talking about sex is sometimes extremely awkward and difficult. Confiding to your friends or partner about what you’re enjoying or disliking during sex can feel scary. When you finally get vulnerable with someone and hear “Oh my God, you’re so vanilla!” followed by a laugh in return, it, well, sucks. But it wasn’t always like this—and it doesn’t have to stay this way forever.
In the 1970s, sodomy and other non-procreative forms of sex were criminalized and pathologized as deviant. In response to the stigmatization of their sexualities, members of the queer kink community began using the term “vanilla” to subversively talk about the non-kink community. Since then, however, “vanilla” has been appropriated outside the queer kink community, and the word is now used as a dig at those who aren’t interested in having rough or “non-normative” sex—even though acts you or I may consider “vanilla” might be totally daring and non-normative to someone else. While I personally see “vanilla” sex as sex that follows basic heteronormative scripts with no added kinkiness or fetish play, there’s really no definitive idea of what “vanilla” means. And though there are many different non-vanilla sex acts and interests, rough sex comes to my mind as the most prevalent grouping of these “non-normative” acts that counters the “vanilla.”
Sexuality and relationship expert Dr. Logan Levkoff defines vanilla as “conventional types of sex or sexual positions that are reflective of (arbitrary) cultural norms.” But as traditional cultural norms that reinforce puritanical, sex-negative ideas are eroding in the face of Gen-Z hookup culture, sex that is casual and kinky is, in fact, the new generational norm. Accordingly, equating vanilla with “boring” or “unadventurous” has created a culture of vanilla-shaming antithetical to the very aims of the sex-positivity movement. Sex-positive speaker and writer Allena Gabosch, after all, has defined the sex-positive movement as “encourag[ing] sexual pleasure and experimentation” while fighting for all consensual sexual behavior to be seen as healthy and pleasurable.
Sex positivity has become a central belief in many feminist spaces over the past few years. In my experience in gender studies classes, feminist student organizations, and among friends, there are times when the meaning of sex positivity has been twisted to imply that sex is always a liberatory act for women. Instead of talking about “non-normative,” non-procreative sex as healthy sexual options, we end up talking about them as necessary steps on the path to becoming the ideal, self-actualized feminists we all want to be. But the reality is that no two people like the exact same kind of sex. Sex-positive feminist spaces, especially within communities comprised of folks just beginning to feel at home in their sexuality, should hear every person out when they express their sexual desires—free of shame. In the meantime, let’s make it clear that no one should ever feel like they have to be having rough sex just because it feels like everyone else is. (Besides, people aren’t having as much rough sex as you may think.) Desire is personal—we shouldn’t feel embarrassed to declare boldly that vanilla sex is just fine, thank you very much.
But if someone does happen to favor vanilla sex, it may feel like a preference best kept to oneself. Taking the Rice Purity Test and the BDSM test in high school and college is a rite of passage for many American teens, but it can often turn into an unspoken competition amongst friends over who’s the “wildest.” All three Fifty Shades movies came out while I was in high school, and the “cool” girls would sneak into the R-rated screenings to prove that they knew all about kink and BDSM. Listening to Rihanna’s “S&M” or Ariana Grande singing about being sore after sex on “Side to Side” made it feel like women's rough sexual experiences were the only ones worth musing about.
Media portrayals of rough and vanilla sex have a lot to do with how we reproduce cultural knowledge—the norms, values, symbols, and worldviews that affect everyone within a certain culture—in our own sex lives. Dr. Levkoff explains that “we often want to emulate what we see, particularly if we think that it will make us seem more experienced, advanced, and sexually savvy.” She cautioned, though, that while we want to replicate what we see in pop culture, there’s no such thing as one singular “normal” sexual experience.
Yet the media we consume directly affects what our generation perceives to be a “normal” sexual experience—and further perpetuates the idea that “vanilla” sexual interests lack passion. One Gen-Z woman who’s been particularly impacted by these media representations is Sophia, a 20-year-old from Canada. She says TV shows like Skins and Gossip Girl, along with Fifty Shades of Grey, use rough sex as a way to show passion between the characters on screen—and it’s affected her. “When you're always inundated with the stuff on TV and in movies, it's definitely easy to think that hot, passionate sex is rough, and missionary sex or more normative sex is, you know, for old people [or people in a] loveless marriage—not as passionate,” Sophia says.
But misleading or confining portrayals of “normal” sex aren’t the only issue that pop culture perpetuates when attempting to showcase female sexuality. Some Gen-Z women, like 20-year-old Cate, see a different message in rough sex on-screen. She feels like too many of the depictions of rough sex in media are also stories of sexual assault, especially “when [assault and roughness are] always equated.” The difference between “playfully” rough sex and nonconsensual sexual violence comes down to two crucial things: communication and consent. Dr. Levkoff states that in order to have rough sex (or really any kind of sex) safely, “clear boundaries and clear safewords are imperative and non-negotiable.” Cate’s first experience with rough sex was unfortunately a nonconsensual one with a serious boyfriend. However, her second experience, with a different long-term boyfriend, was positive for her because they explicitly communicated what they wanted to try to feel safe with each other.
While some people see specific acts like hair-pulling, spanking, and choking as what makes rough sex rough, others are motivated by broader desires and fantasies. For Sophia, what makes something rough and “not vanilla” comes down to the power dynamics at play. When she was a bit younger and more insecure, she says that “messages from society [that] women should be small and submissive” influenced her decision to “act out that dynamic.” However, taking up these roles can only be empowering when they’re talked about first and exist within clear boundaries. So it’s no surprise that talking openly with her past and current partners about rough sex dynamics beforehand has been crucial for Sophia to enjoy them, and now she can confidently say that she likes having rough sex.
In addition to anecdotal evidence like Sophia’s experiences, there’s also new research being performed on the benefits and outcomes of rough sex for young people. Rebecca Burch and Catherine Salmon’s 2019 study of young adults’ experiences with rough sex found that the characteristics and outcomes of rough sex were different than those of “typical” sex: “orgasm occurred much faster, more frequently, and was more intense, partners made more effort to satisfy each other, and not surprisingly, sex was more aggressive and arousing.” For sex-positive feminists, advocating for exactly these results—women achieving orgasm while their partners specifically focus on their pleasure—may feel like a win when compared to centuries of sex being centered on male ejaculation. The results of this study, however, do not indicate that the only way to orgasm or enjoy oneself during sex is by having rough sex. If choking, spanking, bondage, hair-pulling, or any other rough sex acts aren’t for you, it’s still more than possible to have pleasurable sex that’s worth talking about. Or, if you’re just wading into the sexual waters and are still figuring out what feels good for you, the focus should be on understanding your body and desires during sex rather than conforming to new sexual standards.
The media we consume and the way we talk to each other about sex have created an atmosphere of competition and conformity. We are prioritizing what Dr. Levkoff describes as “perceptions of what is considered sexual savviness or prowess” over truly being in touch with our individual desires. Discourse about sex positivity shouldn’t favor rough sex or vanilla sex—instead, both concepts should be discussed with equal amounts of respect and enthusiasm. And, with increasingly even-sided conversations, we can all refrain from creating hierarchies of “coolness” within sexual behaviors, thus upholding the true goals of the sex-positive movement. We need to think about creating a world where everyone’s sexual experiences, desires, and questions can be voiced openly without any expectations or judgments. In Cate’s ideal world, “Whatever sex anyone wants to have would be talked about openly—not criticized or scrutinized or made assumptions about.” And that’s the kind of world we should all be working toward.