Do It Better

Why Some People Love “Vanilla” Sex

| 11/10/2020

vanilla sex Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

This holiday season, our theme is Simple Pleasures: small wins, solid foundations, appreciation of comfort. Let’s acknowledge our nostalgia for pre-pandemic times and calm our anxieties as we venture (again) into the great indoors. It’s time to focus on making our body home wherever we are.

Before my first sexual encounter, I held a lot of assumptions about my sex life that lacked any real-world understanding. My sex life would be sticky and explosive, flustered and mischievous. It would be kinky but not dogmatic, intimate but not delicate. It would be everything I saw as “attractive sex” from the movies watched under my covers. The appeal of sex back then was in the dramatics—or so I thought. 

My change of heart came after a line of strangers and strewn sheets. Some men I knew, most I didn’t. It was rough at times, dizzying the next. I’ve felt like a pincushion and a rag doll, a body and a replacement girlfriend. I’ve been cuddled to sleep and left in the morning, been asked to stay, been bored to death. I’ve felt many things, but not like myself.

After one summer, I laid in bed and thought about my last few encounters. I became so angry about it all. I wanted to pull them by the shoulders and scream: When will you see me for what I am and not what I show to be? Stop acting tough, stop playing cool, stop moving me from A to Z like my orgasm is a prized possession you need to claim!

My conclusion? Sex wasn’t anything like I assumed. Maybe my impatience to reject what I saw as “safe” and “vanilla”—like moving through the same motions without any form of erotic play or suspense—could actually mean surrendering to a greater vulnerability. It was far easier for me to hide myself in dramatic, baroque sex than it was to slow down and allow somebody else to see and explore me.

Now I’m 25. I met my partner last year. We’ve been friends for a while and dating for the last four months. Nothing feels like it did on TV. It feels slow and hushed and heated. I’ve learned that sex doesn’t need to challenged by new positions or shiny toys every week to feel different, because now I feel different in it.

I asked three other people about why they like having so-called “vanilla sex.” It turns out that what most of us see as “safe” can in fact be the greater risk.

It was emotional. It was different. It felt right. 

Kirsty, 35

For me, sex isn’t always about exaggerated adjectives: explosive, mind-blowing, toe-curling. Sometimes, the sort of sex I crave is where I feel more connection than ecstasy. As more of a spiritual person, I think sex can be a gateway to someone’s soul. While “fucking the brains” out of someone can be fun and journal-worthy, “vanilla sex” can allow me to hear someone’s breath, or really get a feeling of myself in my body. It can often be slower and without expectation hovering around it.

As a high achiever, I experienced such trauma as a teenager when I couldn’t reach orgasm; I thought it was my fault and felt less and less inclined to try anything out of my comfort zone for fear of failure. So “vanilla sex” has become a safe space to help me grow from. To give me the confidence to explore further and further. You’ve really got to start somewhere! 

Just like life, sex comes loaded with expectation, elation, and sometimes disappointment. But the more honest I am about what I need at that moment in time, the less I worry about an outcome or a destination in the bedroom. To have great sex, I need vanilla sex. It’s like sexual maintenance for me in order to experience other types of pleasure.

Genevieve, 25

For a long time, vanilla sex was all I knew. I was and am a big fan of one-night stands, and, for the most part, it meant most of my experiences became limited to sexual partners who also (I assumed) were playing it “safe.” It wasn’t until I met my current partner that I realized vanilla sex was something else. It was meaningful. It was less hot and steamy, and more “I like you, a lot.” Very off-brand for me.

It’s a comfort, it’s a home, it’s a place I feel safe.

Months ago, there was a moment where we were in the dark – skin on skin, in the thick of it – staring into each other’s eyes (which is uncommon for me, and probably him) while our hands remained entwined. It was emotional. It was different. It felt right. 

I remember trying to make sense of it. My conclusion? We had feelings, a whole lot of them. And they’d entered our sex life – in a good way.

Now, we’re more than happy to keep it simple (and emotional) or mix it up with shared fantasies. Vanilla or no vanilla, we’ve got a good thing going on and I’m not mad about it.

Pete, 28

Sex is something I’m still very new to. Having recently parted ways with my longterm girlfriend (we started dating after high school), I’m realizing how much I don’t know or rather, how uncomfortable I was. I was never a hyper-sexual person growing up—most of that was probably a confidence issue on my part—but as I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing it’s because I don’t want to just sleep with anyone and even if I try to, my body doesn’t seem to respond that way. 

An anxiety creeps over me when I am with someone new: Will it be ok? Will I be ok? Will things work as they should, and if they don’t, is it because I’m attracted to other types of people, other genders? I’m confused and in my head, something that’s hard to talk about as a white guy because most people assume that hetero men who have sexual angst or difficulty must be “gay” or have “issues.”

With all these thoughts moving through my head, I thought back to my ex. Our sex life was in no way explosive but there was a comfort there in knowing whatever happened, I would feel ok, more than ok. I’d feel safe and happy. Vanilla sex maybe isn’t so vanilla to me. It’s a comfort, it’s a home, it’s a place I feel safe to be as much as I can be in order to explore everything else I could.

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