The conversation around sex is changing with 'vanilla shaming' and more openness than ever before

Jenna Ryu
  • Historically, the sex conversation has been uncomfortable, taboo and limited.
  • But on TikTok, people are shaming "vanilla sex" and opening up about enjoying kinky sex.
  • Experts say the trend is just one example of how the sex conversation is expanding after years of stigma.
  • Contrary to popular belief, unconventional sex can still be healthy sex.

Talking about sex openly has long been taboo, and when those conversations do occur, they've historically centered on what is seen as conventional, "healthy," plain, old sex. Or what some these days are calling "vanilla sex" – and rolling their eyes at. 

Recently, some on social media have started a trend of "vanilla sex shaming," or ridiculing those who enjoy conventional sex – devoid of kink or fetishes .On TikTok, people have been making videos rejecting it as inherently bad, boring or plain, and even high-profile influencers, such as Emma Chamberlain, have admitted being "embarrassed" for liking vanilla sex.

Michelle Hope, a sexologist and reproductive justice activist, says our outdated perceptions about sex are rooted in "Christian fundamentalism, and the idea of, 'What is the correct moral obligation when sex is an activity we do?'"

"Vanilla sex shaming" involves ridiculing those who enjoy conventional sex —  devoid of kink or fetishes.

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"Historically, we've seen it as a means of procreation, and that's how it's been sold to us, especially in the realm of this purity culture, the idea that if you have sex before marriage, you're not pure," she explains. 

Though public shaming is never acceptable, the trend of mocking vanilla sex is just one example of how the conversation around sex is changing after years of stigma. The reality is that sex is not a monolith, and it can happen healthily across different sexualities, genders and relationships with one partner or multiple partners, consensual BDSM and more.

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The sex conversation is expanding. 

Many relationships thrive when partners engage in "vanilla sex," but some couples enjoy more unconventional alternatives, like swinging, threesomes, polyamory, BDSM or role play.

And now, these interests are being included in the narrative. 

"This stigma definitely used to exist and still exists in some circles, but I think as a general norm that narrative is really getting pushed out," says Jenni Skyler, a certified sex therapist and board certified sexologist. "It's interesting to see that we've now demonized the type of sexuality that used to be the only permissible form."

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Part of why the conversation is changing is due to the Internet and social media, Skyler says. People now have a "safe space" to seek advice or hear stories from strangers – without shame or discomfort. 

It's also provided an avenue for women to learn more about female pleasure – a topic often excluded from male-centric sex conversations.  

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"Historically, we haven't really addressed female pleasure when it comes to sex education, and the idea of women's pleasure as an important part of healthy sex is a whole new concept for many," Hope adds.

Our expanded views on sex can also be attributed to our evolving recognition of identity: In recent years, young people across the U.S. have made great efforts to recognize diverse sexual identities and gender expressions, and this has challenged the norm to include these communities. 

"When we start to look at what those real life experiences are, it can open us up to new ideas, information and concepts that were never applied to our own sex lives," Hope says. "The more conversations we have about queer lifestyles, the more opportunities one can glean to explore different types of sex."

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Unconventional sex doesn't mean unhealthy sex

Some people have been brought up with restrictions as to what "healthy sex" should look like.

But just because kinky sex is different, doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, studies have shown that unconventional sex and fantasies, like consensual BDSM, polyamorous sex or role play, can reduce psychological stress and improve mental health for some. 

"As long as everyone involved is consenting adults, I think anything goes," says Vanessa Marin, a licensed sex therapist. "Consent. excitement, good communication and trust are so important for healthy sex."

Skyler adds that it doesn't matter "what you do or how you touch. None of that matters as long as the people involved have consent, they're excited to be there and they aren't doing it out of obligation or violation."

But it's important to embrace kinks and fetishes without disparaging those who don't prefer those things. 

"I do appreciate that people are being more sexually open, comfortable and progressive… (but) it's important to be accepting of all kinds of sexuality and not creating a hierarchy," Marin says. "Being kinky is great, but it doesn't make you superior to someone who prefers vanilla sex."

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Why talking about all kinds of sex is so important

As lawmakers have been attempting to ban books dealing with sexuality, some open conversations about sex are being shut down, and experts fear this can point us into a direction that is "regressive and very oppressive."

If we view sex as dangerous or taboo, we don't stop people from having sex. Rather, we stop productive, healthy conversations about how to engage in these behaviors safely.

"It contributes to the internalized shame and discomfort that can lead to unsafe experiences with ourselves and others," Marin says. "It can lead to sexual assault or to more unwanted pregnancies. It can heighten the risk for STI transmission or lead to unpleasurable sex that leaves one feeling disconnected and dissociated."

Not talking about it can also be dangerous or even deadly for LGBTQ+ youth. When we exclude these communities from age-appropriate, culturally competent education, we may make them feel more isolated and unseen. 

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"We're putting people who don't identify as heteronormative at risk, and we do that by not giving them information that affirms their identity," Hope says, noting that this can cause "long term mental health issues and put them in positions where they 're afraid to ask for help when unfortunate situations could arise."

Experts emphasize that the sex conversation goes beyond just the physical act of sex. For many, it's about love, relationships, and validating a sense of self. 

"From the womb to the tomb, sexuality is part of your everyday life," Hope says. "And when we cut off the opportunity to have conversations about his, we're limiting people's ability to express themselves in the most authentic ways possible."

Marin adds, "If we can learn about these varied ways to have healthy sex and accept them, that's going to go a long way in helping dismantle the shame that's shaped this conversation for centuries."

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