How to Do It

Uh, Do These Things Really Count as “Vanilla Sex” Now?

Forgive me, I am from the 1990s.

A man looks longingly at a vanilla ice cream cone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

Has the definition of “vanilla sex” expanded over time or has it remained constant? Are there things that were not “vanilla” in the early ’90s (when I started having sex) that are deemed “vanilla” now? Are oral sex and anal sex “vanilla”? Were they always? How about practices that result in ejaculating on a partner instead of inside that partner? To be clear, I’m not “asking for a friend.” I just like definitional clarity in other facets of my life, and would like the same for this realm.

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—Dubitando Ad Veritatem Parvenimus

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Stoya: Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 lays out an argument that we talk a lot about sex by avoiding talking about sex. I think the time in which the concept of “vanilla sex” was conceived was a time like Foucault describes, when most people didn’t talk about sex. Or if they did, it wasn’t in deep detail.

Rich: Yes, there are two separate concepts that guide this question: The popular usage of “vanilla” to describe sex and the concept of “normal,” which undoubtedly predated “vanilla” but has come to be synonymous. And what you’re saying tracks with the actual etymological history, according to this great 2019 Vice piece by Anna Iovine.

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Stoya: Oh wow.

Rich: In it, the historian Hallie Lieberman traces “vanilla” back to ’70s kink scenesters who defined it as an absence of kink.

Stoya: Sweet.

Rich: Probably soft pejorative, like the way one might talk today about “normies.”

Stoya: Yes. Vanilla and kinky can be dangerously vague. A quick scan of the article you linked mentions casual choking?

Rich: Yes, as being basically vanilla at this point.

Stoya: And vanilla status frequently makes an act less likely to be discussed beforehand or— asked approval for.

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Rich: ”Everyone seems kinkier than ever—and if everyone is kinky, does that mean everyone is actually just vanilla?” writes Iovine. That’s something of an eternal question given the moving targets.

Stoya: I’ve been seeing a definition lately that’s more of a “vanilla is missionary, and romantic connection, and comfort,” or even an opportunity to focus on the basics for variety, or for their own sake. So I think we may be moving toward a concept of vanilla as a neutral way of having sex with value, with “normal” as its own tangle.

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Rich: Oh that’s interesting, in terms of its use going beyond describing whatever behaviors and into a qualitative realm.  The Vice piece is really good because using Kinsey’s reporting in the ’50s and then Janus in the ’90s and then Iovine’s own contemporary survey, it traces the growing social acceptability of oral sex. In the past 80 or so years, it has gone from being taboo to being totally commonplace. I looked at the original 1972 Joy of Sex, and “mouth music” is in the “mains” section, whereas anal sex is in “sauces & pickles.”

Stoya: So we have something concrete for our writer: Vanilla, as originally defined, did not at the time include oral or anal sex, and now does include oral.

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Rich: In Iovine’s survey, which was open-ended (she asked people to name what acts were considered vanilla and which were not), “anal” had the highest response number for not vanilla—70 percent of respondents listed it. However, I would say that among gay men, anal is not kinky. I consider myself vanilla, and I think most would, and I am no stranger to anal. So it also depends on the norms of the subset you’re talking about, too.

Stoya: It’s kind of like the issues with orientation labels, too. Not only are they individually subjective, different communities have different norms, and they can be so broad as to communicate virtually nothing, or at least come in different flavors. See also “polyamory” and “monogamy.”

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Rich: Also, to Foucault’s point, anal is so … present in sexual discourse that even if people aren’t practicing it as much as they’re talking about it, it’s so obvious as a “kink” as to be mainstream. It’s vanilla kink if it’s kink.

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Stoya: I’m aware that I have a very specific set of life experiences, and I’m investing hard in this qualitative, non-judgmental definition of vanilla, but I see it as a cluster of simple and tender ways to have sex, and there’s a vast swath of people who have specifics, or quirks, for sure. I think of kinky as stuff that’s pretty out there. So, for me, having my toes sucked or using them to stimulate someone’s genitals isn’t kinky. Sex on camera, just another day at work for most of my 20s.

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Rich: Exactly. I am a fan of group sex, I practice nonmonogamy, and like sniffing men’s armpits, and as far as gay men in major metropolitan areas go, I don’t think you’d find much resistance of the idea that if these are the extent of my “kinks,” I’m pretty damn vanilla.

Stoya: I keep dancing around this point: This is an incredibly fun subject to think about and talk through with Rich, but the real definitional clarity is in the conversations you have with every partner.

Rich: Yep. You brought up labels before, and that’s spot on. It’s all symbolic. The broader the language, the less in tune with the reality of the nuances of life. “Vanilla” is basically just a relative estimate, an approximation of what that actually looks like.

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Stoya: Vanilla is an invitation to ask what that entails for them. Or volunteer something about yourself that you feel is vanilla.

Rich: And I think many will find that we do different things with different partners. So I might be my most vanilla with one, and my least with another. The spectrum creates the possibility of versatility.

More How to Do It

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