The Journal of Sexual Medicine published a new study last week and, as always, it was a treasure of information. Mostly, the study reveals how common our desires are — Mark in IT or Sophia in marketing are probably just as kinky as you are — and how we might need to reconsider our valuation of “vanilla” sex.
This week, I went on a date to a sex shop. In hindsight, I’m not sure why we thought it would be a good idea for a first date, but there we were. Maybe it was because we were bored with our lives and wanted to do something different. Maybe it was because she felt like I was open-minded or particularly kinky. Maybe it was the false sense of intimacy. Whatever the reason, surrounded by every toy and trick you could think of I found myself thinking more and more about “vanilla” and how difficult it must be to try and explain the “ins and outs” (pardon the pun) to someone who is visiting a sex shop for the first time. As the Journal of Sexual Medicine points out, while we all have fantasies, few of us actually act on them or would even know what to do if the opportunity presented itself. For the most part, we settle for regular vanilla.
Like most artists, my sexual imagination can be a bit prolific. Vanilla, while nice, isn’t my go-to or even something I think that much about professionally when I think and speak of sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior. I tend to think primarily about the ways that we can “spice things up” or “add a little kink.” But what if, I wondered, I have lost touch with the simple enjoyment of plain, everyday, average sex? Vanilla sex gets a bad rap when we’re chasing a thrill to break the monotony of a 9 to 5, to feel appreciated, to feel desirable. Vanilla is basic. It’s boring. It’s kinda fun, but it’s so… blah. Normal. Bland. Unexciting. Uninspired. Unarousing. Basic.
I’m supposed to defend the field and say, “Vanilla is bad — let me show you all these magical ways to bring the sexy back and blow their mind!” And as a sex writer, that’s my bread and butter. I love helping people find new things to stimulate them. I love going to sex shops with people and helping them find something to play with. I love opening people up to new positions and helping them get off. I love talking about, top to bottom, everything we can talk about with it comes to sex. But sometimes, most times, I think vanilla is still pretty freaking amazing. In fact, it’s all most couples get. One partner wants it too much, the other not enough, there’s stress at work or our parents are visiting this weekend and life and relationships are exhausting enough without sex. We learn to first endure, then enjoy this situation because there is, we realize, a genuine caring underneath it all that makes “basic” meaningful and we savor those sparse trysty moments where we can get them. Even the mundane can be a happy occasion. More than that, as the report points out, while we have active fantasies, a disproportionately small number want to make those fantasies a reality. In other words, while we may have very flavorful imaginations, vanilla is what we actually want.
As we head towards the new year, it won’t surprise me to notice increased interest in kink with the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation. But what we haven’t been discussing is the way that the relationship between Christian and Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey changes. As exciting as the Red Room might be in the first part of the trilogy, by the third installment, our favorite couples have stopped using it entirely. Their relationship is about trust, love, family obligations, and domestic concerns — not whips and safe words. Might we be ignoring the larger message? While sexual adventure might be a great thing, in the end our heroes want the comfort of the unexciting routine. They want the vanilla — just like us. We don’t want to “mix it up” all the time. We just want to know we are loved, noticed, and appreciated; we readily acknowledge that sex can still be enjoyable even if it is anticlimactic.