Where kink has become the “new normal” within the popular discourse, vanilla sex has become the new target for derision, with the unfortunate trend of “vanilla shaming” leaving those who enjoy non-kinky sex unnecessarily ostracized. “Vanilla shaming is when there is judgment toward people who have more traditional sex lives,” says certified sexologist Megwyn White, director of education at sex toy retailer Satisfyer. “Some people believe conventional sex is boring, [which they consider a synonym for] vanilla, and this judgment can manifest in various ways, such as mockery [and] exclusion.”
Spend any time on the sex side of social media, and you’ll see the kind of eye-rolling White is talking about. A corner of TikTok called FreakTok is now rife with videos of people denouncing vanilla sex and mocking people, often women, for not being into choking, cutting, slapping, and other rougher kinds of kink, in particular. Even influencer Emma Chamberlain has stated that she feels “embarrassed” about her more conventional sexual preferences.
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As vanilla sex gets the “undesirable” label, people may feel undue pressure to abandon their preferences and embrace kink, whether to appear less prudish or appease a partner (both of which are problematic).
What does vanilla shaming look like in practice?
Vanilla shaming isn’t so much a new phenomenon as it is a new brand of the same judgment long applied to sexual preferences, particularly of folks who identify as women. In our misogynistic society, a woman who seems to have “too much” sex—or, by proxy, enjoys sex or kink too much—has long been labeled a slut, whereas a woman who doesn’t have “enough” sex (or doesn’t get adventurous enough in bed) has long been called a prude.
Vanilla shaming, then, falls on the latter end of that spectrum and is akin to prude shaming, says AASECT-certified sexuality educator Jules Purnell, MEd. “If someone doesn’t engage in kink or BDSM play, they’re considered boring or uncool and aren’t exciting enough in bed.”
“If someone doesn’t engage in kink or BDSM play, they’re considered boring or uncool [by those engaging in vanilla shaming].” —Jules Purnell, MEd, AASECT-certified sexuality educator
Exactly what is considered vanilla in this frame is subjective; after all, one person’s spicy is another person’s “normal.” But generally, vanilla shaming can be any form of putting down someone for liking anything that falls within the traditional realm of heteronormative p-in-v intercourse.
The best way to identify vanilla shaming is to notice your emotional and physical reactions to other people’s actions and comments in regard to sex. Have you ever felt embarrassed when a partner says you’re not adventurous enough? Has your stomach ever dropped when your sexual desire, pleasure, or boundaries have been written off as boring? These feelings are all cues that you may be experiencing vanilla shaming.
What do people engage in vanilla shaming?
Shaming someone for any kind of sexual preference—whether their tendency toward overtly vanilla or kinky sex, or anything in between—is a tactic to make them feel less worthy of pleasure, respect, and care because of their desires. In this way, “sexual shaming can be used to erode a person’s sense of agency,” says White, in order to control or abuse them. After all, an ashamed, powerless person “is much easier to manipulate,” says Purnell.
“Sexual shaming can be used to erode a person’s sense of agency.” —Megwyn White, certified sexologist
For example, someone who is vanilla shamed by a partner (and made to feel as if their desires are unworthy) may be more easily coerced or pressured to try something that they don’t want to do, or that feels uncomfortable, scary, or even dangerous to them. A common scenario? A person urges their girlfriend to try a threesome, and when she declines, he criticizes her for being too bland. That puts her in the lose-lose position of either internalizing the criticism or giving into something she doesn’t want to do—which certainly aren’t fair circumstances under which to offer consent, anyway.
Though this kind of vanilla shaming comes from the same sex-negative root as kink shaming—with both emerging as ways to put down people with particular sex preferences—the two extremes differ in key historical context.
It’s important to remember that people who engaged in kink and types of “cross-dressing” associated with LGBTQ+ gender identities were considered mentally ill (as defined by diagnostic codes for BDSM, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) until 2013. And even to this day, kinky people still run the risk of employment discrimination and job loss, and losing custody of their children. The same level of governmental discrimination has not been applied as a means to shame people who enjoy vanilla sex, thus still assigning these folks a level of privilege by comparison.
What are the negative effects of vanilla shaming?
Feeling ashamed of your sexual preferences can keep you from being able to connect with and act on your desires, says Purnell. “Once we’ve been shamed for long enough, we take on that shaming as a personal project and police our own desire, too.”
That means you could start denying your desires, identity, or sexual orientation in the face of shaming, says White. “This suppression of self can not only hinder personal growth and self-acceptance, but it can also have a negative impact on your sexual well-being,” she adds. Indeed, disconnection from your sexual self “can contribute to sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction, difficulty experiencing orgasm, or lack of sexual desire,” she says.
More broadly, feeling ashamed of your sexual desires could also cause you to neglect your sexual health, perhaps leading you to bypass the use of STI tests or birth control, or to refrain from seeking out information or education on sex, adds White.
On an emotional level, vanilla shaming can also create barriers to intimacy. “Intimacy is, at its core, about embracing vulnerability and creating trust between partners,” says White. “Sexual shame erodes both the ability to be vulnerable with your partner and the trust necessary for a healthy and fulfilling sexual relationship.”
How to deal with vanilla shaming in a relationship and feel confident in your sexual self
Have a conversation about sexual shaming
If a sexual partner in your life is engaging in vanilla shaming (or any kind of sexual shaming), ask them to have a conversation. Let them know you’ve noticed their recent put-downs about your sexual preferences and share with them how these comments or actions are negatively affecting you and your ability to feel comfortable and intimate with them.
If their response indicates that they’re willing to be more mindful of their actions and to avoid vanilla shaming in the future, be clear about the kinds of behaviors and comments you’d like them to change, and what would allow you to feel completely shame-free during sex.
Set boundaries around sex talk
Boundaries are personal guidelines for behavior and are communicated to let others know how you will act in certain situations. “A boundary that may be important in this scenario would include not participating in conversations that engage in shaming the sexual experience, desires, or expression of others,” says therapist Jessica Good, LPC, owner of Good EMDR Therapy.
Abiding by this boundary would look like this: If you’re hanging out with friends or family members, and someone starts to make comments putting down or shaming the sexual preferences of another person, you would say, “I’m not comfortable with the way you’re talking about this person. If it keeps up, I’ll need to leave,” suggests Good. This way, you’re more likely to keep your interactions with sexual shaming to a minimum.
Re-evaluate the relationship
If sexual shaming is a continued issue with a romantic or sexual partner, it may be time to reconsider the relationship altogether. “If you are able to share your feelings, and your partner responds in a positive way, showing that they’re listening to your perspective and [are willing to] change their behavior, that is a positive sign for the relationship,” says Good. “However, if they seem disinterested in your experience or dismiss your feelings and concerns, it would be wise to exit that relationship.” There’s no amount of sexual shame that’s worth enduring as a cost to remaining in a relationship.
Embrace personal sex-ploration
Sometimes, sexual shame can be so pervasive, you begin to apply it to yourself and perceive your own preferences or desires as the problematic thing that needs to change. Allow this to be a reminder that whatever preferences you may have—so long as they don’t harm anyone else—are valid and acceptable. And learning to celebrate your desires is a part of resisting sexual shame and reclaiming your right to sexual pleasure in the process.
A good place to start? Learning more about sex, pleasure, and anatomy. Consider reading up on pleasure, attending online sex-positivity workshops, exploring your sex personality type, or embracing the benefits of masturbation as a way to reconnect with your sexual self.
Seek professional support
If vanilla shaming is getting in the way of your ability to engage in sexual or intimate activities, or you can’t shake the belief that your vanilla preferences make you less-than or not “good” enough for a partner (or prospective partner), Good suggests seeking support from a sex therapist or mental-health practitioner. A professional can help you disengage from harmful beliefs internalized from others or from societal narratives, and reconnect with your worth, as both a person and a sexual being.
At the end of the day, it’s essential to remember that there’s nothing broken about enjoying vanilla sex; it’s one flavor among many.