Sex is is not always hard, fast, intense, rough, or kinky. Sometimes sex is slow, soft, gentle and deeply relaxing. This kind of sex is called vanilla sex, and a lot of people really love it.
So this article is about what vanilla sex is. Why people might like it (or do it). How we can do it with more consent and safety.
I did a disclaimer when I wrote about kink and rough sex so it’s only fair that I do one about vanilla sex. For any kind of sex it’s good learn how to communicate. You will also need to find other people who are good at this too and who you can trust. This is harder to do for younger folk which it’s a good idea, at first, to have sex which is slow, soft, gentle, and relaxing. It’s just assumed that all young people will do this all the time, which is why there’s very little sex ed for young people about kink and rough sex.
You might still find that for vanilla sex, or any kind of sex, it takes a lot of hard work that you just might not be experienced enough to do yet. Though sadly this is true of a lot of adults too.
This is an explainer. Just as with all sex education, just because I’m explaining it, doesn’t mean I’m encouraging it. You might be someone who is just interested in learning about it and needs a trusted source. Perhaps this is something that you think about but aren’t interested in doing with someone else at the moment, or ever. Maybe you have friends who talk about it and it worries you? You may have seen it in porn and have questions. Or you just want to be a well informed and smart young person of the world.
There are no sexy pictures below.
What is vanilla sex?
Vanilla sex when you have sex that involves more of a mutual give and take of pleasure. It could be any kind of sexual activity, like kissing, masturbation, oral sex, entry sex, or any number of positions. But, like with kink and rough sex, it’s not about what you do, but the way that you do it. It’s how you might look at each other, or hold each other, or talk to each other. Being gentle and slow. It’s a vibe.
Sometimes it might lead to quite intense feelings (like an orgasm) but you are not doing intense things to make that happen. So you’re not growling at someone, or hurting them, or restraining them, but just gently holding them or looking at them softly.
Vanilla is not rough or kinky sex
Vanilla sex is often just described as anything which is not kink or rough sex. So that means it’s any sex that does not involve things like: slapping, gripping, spitting, strangulation, hair pulling, biting, gagging, or domination/submission, consensual exchange of power, role playing, discipline, restraint, humiliation, or pain of any kind.
I don’t really like this description, for two reasons. One, it implies that vanilla sex is the default and normal option for sex. Vanilla is not the default or normal option for sex. Two, it implies that vanilla sex is boring and not exciting. Vanilla is certainly not boring and if it is you’re probably not doing it right! Vanilla is a spice and it’s delicious and valuable. Try having vanilla ice cream without any vanilla in it and you’ll see what I mean.
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Also, with vanilla sex, people think that it’s always safe and consensual. That’s wrong. I would recommend it for people who are new to having sex with other people because the slowness and gentleness (and how relaxing it can feel) means that I think it’s easier to make it more consensual and safe. But that doesn’t mean that all vanilla sex is consensual. Just as with any other kind of sex, consent is the absolute key. If there’s little or no consent, these things are acts of violence and criminal offences. Doing these things without consent is also unethical, harmful, wrong, or immoral, however you want to call it.
As I was saying, there is an overlap with kink and rough sex because you might be doing some of the same things. Even something as simple as holding someone’s hand can be done in a vanilla, or rough, or kinky way. Sometimes during rough or kinky times, very vanilla things might happen, even if the overall vibe is not vanilla.
How common is it?
It’s a guess, but I reckon that the vast majority of people have experienced vanilla sex, at least some or most of the time. In my article about rough sex, I was revealing some startling statistics about how many people have experienced it. Well sadly the statistics aren’t really there to see how many people either have only experienced vanilla sex or mostly do vanilla sex.
For example this study asks people about whether they have experienced various acts of rough sex. But they didn’t ask who hadn’t experienced any of them, or how many times when they had sex they had vanilla sex. Also I referred to this study which found that a significant minority of students had experienced choking / strangulation last time they had sex, but this also means that the vast majority didn’t. That doesn’t mean that other forms of rough sex didn’t also take place.
Studying vanilla sex
It’s interesting to note what questions get asked when people do sex research and what doesn’t. When we only ask about what is considered ‘not normal’ (eg kink or rough sex) it means we lose interest in what is considered ‘normal’. In that way, vanilla sex is seen as being default, or ‘more real’, which means people think it’s boring and something we don’t actively choose to do (when we could).
Does this make sense? See how what we are taught about sex, even from sex research, actually makes it harder for us to choose what sex we might want? If you want to learn more about this try my Teach Yourself Sex Ed course. We cover this in lesson one and it’s totally free. What would you ask if you were doing a study about sex?
Why do people do this?
People have sex for lots of different reasons and everyone who has sex wants to have different feelings and sensations during and after. This means that people do different kinds of sex or do different kinds of sex differently. So just because people might want to do soft, slow, relaxing, or gentle things when they have sex, doesn’t mean they always want to do this.
A lot of men might be a bit worried about having vanilla sex because it kind of goes against how men are ‘supposed’ to be. The ‘man should story’ is to be hard, in control of yourself and others, and to be dominant. But it’s totally okay for men to be soft, cuddly and relaxed.
As I’ve written in my article about stress and the body, we can find it very hard to be turned on if we aren’t relaxed. If our bodies are in react, or panic, mode then vasocongestion (hard ons, throbbing clitoris or vagina relaxation) doesn’t happen. So the vibe of vanilla sex means that people can just be slow and know what to expect. They can breathe and relax their heart rates enough so that they can get excited later on. It can lead to the kind of sex where people out of breath, tingly, sweaty, and stimulated all over. This might also mean orgasms.
Whatever sex you have, the key to enjoying it more is to get the vibe right, to know what’s going to happen, and to be in the moment.
Vanilla sex and consent
So if vanilla sex is really common, and something that people might choose to do, we should be taking this seriously. So the important thing (as with all sex) is to learn about how to communicate and create the right space for sex to be consensual.
Talking about it first
As I’ve written about before, a lot of people take the ‘one thing leading to another’ approach when they have sex. They might follow the script for ‘how we are supposed to have sex’ that we might have heard about in sex education, films, TV, porn, books. This script says that sex is:
Following a script might be okay for some people, if they want to follow the script and agree on what the script is. But what if one person’s idea of ‘the script’ is more vanilla than another person’s? If roughness is part of the script for some people that means we have to start talking about it more because not all sex is vanilla sex.
So if you are keen on doing anything that is vanilla (or any kind of sex), it’s on you to use your words in advance. ‘I really like ________, ____________, and ____________, how do you feel about that?’ Also be prepared to talk about different ways of doing something (for example, how firmly, in what way, how long for, which part of the body).
If this is a bit too daunting, or you’re not really sure how you feel about different kinds of sex, you could talk about what what you definitely don’t want to do this time. A good question to ask your sex partner is ‘is there anything you really don’t want to do? For me, (eg) I like kissing with tongues but not for too long because it hurts my jaw after a while.’ Telling the other person something that you really don’t want to do can give them more freedom to tell you what they don’t want.
As I say, I’ve written about how to talk about the different kinds of sex you might want, and also how to ask. I have also written a book about it.
Please do try to communicate as much as you can before having sex. I know that it’s difficult, and it’s more difficult for some people to do because of stigma, a lack of experience, a lack of good sex education, and power.
However, even if you have talked about it more before hand it’s really important to continue communicating during it. Again I’ve talked about sex talk and communication here and these tips on how to enjoy sex by paying attention are really important.
Give as much idea of what you are intending to do as possible before and as you are doing it. Do things slowly and carefully so that the other person is aware of what is about to happen. Make sure that you are leaving space and pauses so that they can back out. Always give the other person the opportunity to direct you.
If you are having things done to you (perhaps you are the bottom, or the sub) can you give direction? Harder, faster, slower, gently, ow, good, yes, wait, hold on, are all really useful directions.
Check in that this is still something they want. Start slow and gently and see check in with what their body is saying. Are they shaking their heads, or moving your hand, or moving away from you? Then stop. Are they saying yes, nodding their head, or making ‘I’m enjoying this’ noises, then carry on. Pay attention to what’s going on for you too.
Take your time and stay in the zone
All of this is relevant to all kinds of sex. Because vanilla sex can be slower and more relaxed it’s can be easier to do some of this stuff to make sure it’s consensual. Give the other person the opportunity to respond. To think about whether this is something they want, and to communicate with you. This means giving them quite a lot of time actually. Awkward pauses and silences are much better than carrying on.
One thing to always remember is that we are not on an escalator where things get more and more intense. The problem with seeing vanilla sex as default sex is that then people get it into their heads that to be more exciting sex has to get rougher and kinkier. Nope. Vanilla is a kind of sex. Rough is a kind of sex. Kink is (or can be) a kind of sex. They are all different vibes and we should be able to choose what vibe we want.
As with all sex it’s good to be able to talk about vanilla sex afterwards. Go through it and talk about what felt good, what could be done differently. Was anything too gentle, or not slow enough? How relaxed was the vibe? Did it feel mutual or was one person directing it more? If so, how did that feel?
This kind of feedback is incredibly valuable, so don’t get all mardy or pissy. The person we are having sex with is the world’s leading expert on how to have sex with them. So listen to them really intently.
© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here