In Praise of Vanilla Sex

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Vanilla sex: traditionally penis-vagina intercourse, typically in just two or three no-frills positions.

Of course, some people think fellatio is kind of vanilla, while others think it’s exotic. Same with toys, handcuffs, being watched, and so on—some people think those things make sex exotic, while others just call that kind of sex “Tuesday.”

Vanilla sex is what most people do. That doesn’t mean it’s “normal,” just that it’s really common. Some people love it, while others find it unsatisfying. Either way, it’s still what most people do.

Vanilla sex doesn’t get enough respect. In fact, it’s getting less and less respect every day. That’s a shame. We can appreciate the diversity of everyone’s unique sexuality without dissing the old-fashioned stuff that society used to call “sex.” Everyone can be sympathetic about the struggle to legitimize our personal preferences without attacking vanilla sex as bad, misogynist, passive-aggressive, or inherently coercive. Is it necessary to trash vanilla sex to establish one’s #MeToo, queer-affirming, non-heteronormative credentials? It shouldn’t be.

In her 1949 The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir describes all insertive sex as “a kind of rape.” In her 1987 Intercourse Andrea Dworkin went further, writing that all penis-vagina intercourse is rape (“violation is a synonym for intercourse”). This is hardly the most common experience of intercourse for women or men.

Vanilla sex is, unfortunately, what people most often do when they want to have sex and they lack the essential tools of sexual satisfaction: communication, emotional presence, self-soothing when disappointed, and the ability to say no.

And so vanilla sex is sometimes the domain of the awkward, the hostile, the inhibited, the pressured. It’s the default sex for people struggling with Aspergers or cultural injunctions to have sex in the dark—both literally and figuratively. But don’t blame vanilla sex for any of that.

I’m praising vanilla sex today in response to so many patients saying they’re dissatisfied with sex—who search for exotic techniques, go to Tantra workshops, or insist they need to explore non-monogamy. While some people find value in each of those things, I do patients a disservice if I say the equivalent of “Well, what do you expect? You’re depending on the McDonald’s of sex positions, so of course it won’t offer you much.”

Rather, I challenge them to discuss the details of their sexual dissatisfaction. When people say “I’m bored” or “I don’t like it” that should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I encourage people to go a little deeper. That’s when people talk about things like feeling alone during sex; feeling self-protective (either physically or emotionally) during sex; hiding their body, or attempting to prevent their body from scary things like wetting the bed or farting.

And when people say they get distracted or their mind wanders during sex, I rephrase that as “I don’t focus enough during sex” or even “During sex, I don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on, or the ways in which I’m getting what I want.”

Just like a simple position is no guarantee of boredom, an exotic set of activities is no guarantee of bliss. What makes any sexual experience enjoyable is the ability to be present; acceptance of one’s body just as it is; communication skills and the ability to negotiate activities with grace and good humor; and the ability to manage disappointment. Those things will ensure you get the most possible enjoyment from whatever sexual activities you do—including vanilla sex.

Note that “guaranteeing an erection, lubrication, or an orgasm” is NOT on the list. Those things are nice, but no one can guarantee them. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to do so. People who are sexually self-confident in a healthy way aren’t sure their body will do exactly what they want or hope every single time. Rather, they’re confident that they have the skills to enjoy sex whatever happens. That’s far richer than mere genital functioning.

When a sex partner says they don’t want to try a toy or new position, the best response is “sure, no problem.” Of course you’ll want to explore what their concern is (what they don’t want about the activity they’re rejecting), but the best time to do that is rarely during sex. Talking about this over lunch or while driving to the supermarket makes it more likely that people will be calm and not take things too personally.

Some people think that experimenting with sex is dangerous: what if they don’t like using toys, or discussing a fantasy, or they feel turned off by rough language? Most of us aren’t afraid of small experiments in non-sexual areas like cooking or choosing clothes. But somehow the idea of trying something sexual and not liking it is very scary to some people.

I invite people anxious about sexual experimentation to be more adventurous, not less—because as long as you don’t take a contraceptive risk, the unwanted consequences of a sexual experiment are rarely awful. The bedroom is actually one of the safest places we can take chances.

Try sex in the shower and it’s way more trouble than it’s worth? Not fatal. Try on lingerie (regardless of your gender) and decide you feel silly in it? Take it off (and donate it to charity). Try rear-entry and the penis keeps popping out? Decide it’s not your thing and simply have sex a different way. Don’t forget to laugh, too.

Remember—an experiment in which you learn what you don’t like (as long as no one loses a limb or their job) is a success, not a failure. It’s certainly possible to be disappointed without feeling you’ve failed. And everyone recovers from “disappointment” sooner or later.

When patients ask psychologists about making sex more exciting, one of the best responses is to send patients right back to vanilla sex—challenging patients to slow down, pay attention, and discover all the stimulation and delight they’ve been overlooking. Experimenting with new things is fine, but stopping to smell the roses offered by vanilla sex is the low-hanging fruit of erotic exploration.

When it comes to sex, perhaps Yankee legend Yogi Berra said it best: “90% of the game is mental. The other half is physical.”
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