Vanilla shaming and early exposure to pornography

6 Mins read

Vanilla. Everyone’s favourite ice cream flavour: reliable, enjoyable, easy.  

Somehow, the positive characteristics we associate with ice cream don’t translate when describing someone’s sex life. Increasingly, the term ‘vanilla’ has been used as a negative way of describing intimacy. But what’s wrong with enjoying something classic? 

‘Vanilla-shaming’, typically associated with missionary positions and endeavours limited to the bedroom, has been linked to increased viewership and demand of kink-filled porn and the male gaze. 

It’s been argued that this has led to a shift in the status quo when discussing sexual escapades.

As most schools in the UK still teach, what many consider, inadequate sexual education for pupils, many young people’s first exposure of intercourse comes from what they see in pornography. 

The majority of the time, this is catered specifically towards the male gaze; leaving women as mere objects to conquer rather than people who deserve to enjoy their sexuality as much as their male counterparts or co-stars. 

London based psychotherapist and sex councillor Jakub P. Potorski, who runs his own therapy services in West London, reinforced the importance of sex-ed in schools to create a safe space for discussion and inclusion.

“The lack of proper sexual education, which isn’t compulsory subject at schools across the UK, is a major problem. Teenagers should be taught how to define, communicate, and protect their own boundaries when it comes to sexual relationships and consensual sex,” he told us.

“Very often, I see people in my practice who are unaware of of how to talk about sex to their partners and don’t understand the importance of being clear and honest about their own needs. Certainly, sex should not be treated as a competition or comparison.”

Grammy award-winner Billie Eilish, who recently turned 20, spoke out about her experience coming across pornography at a very young age and how it affected her own early sexual education and encounters.

Girl under pink neon lights with a hand on her stomach
Girl Under Neon Lights [Unsplash: Logan Weaver]

“I think porn is a disgrace. I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest. I started watching porn when I was, like, 11,” she told the Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM Radio. “I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.”

EIlish went on to detail how “the first few times I, you know, had sex, I was not saying ‘no’ to things that were not good. It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to,” emphasising the impact pornography had on her standard for consent and female enjoyment. The singer even detailed her experiences coping with nightmares and sleep paralysis due to her exposure to graphic pornography.

Increasingly, much of the pornography catered towards a male audience involves hyper-sexualisation and glorification of violence against women; in addition to the use of micro-aggressions, such as choking, slapping, or degrading remarks. Couple this with the overuse of performance in porn too, and actresses make it seem as if they enjoy and even relish this type of behaviour towards them, something that doesn’t necessarily translate to the average woman going about her sex life. 

A recent BBC study of women in the UK between the ages of 18 and 39 revealed that 38% had experienced unwanted choking, slapping, or spitting during consensual sex; additionally, the use of “rough sex defence” in murder cases has risen by 90% in the last decade, The Guardian reported. 

Both of those statistics are staggering, and should prompt important conversations within the progression of sexual education, as well as sourcing better avenues for adolescents and those in their formative years to learn from.

In the modern era of social media, children and teenagers are even turning to social media apps for education on the subject, this includes apps like TikTok. With little to no censorship, videos and pictures glorifying sexual violence can trend, leading young people to associate intimacy with a level of violence, usually predominantly against women.

KinkTok, as it’s been named, is the side of TikTok that shares content relating to more unconventional sexual experiences. This specific ‘side’ of TikTok has consistently come under fire for glorifying acts of violence against women in the bedroom, with videos and challenges such as the #365 challenge.

Coined from the Netflix film which depicts a woman getting sex-trafficked and falling in love with her captor, the #365 challenge is aestheticising excessive bruises on women after intercourse.

In her video titled Normalising Rough Sex & Kink,YouTuber Jordan Theresa, a self-proclaimed member of the ‘kink community’, said of the term ‘vanilla’: “It’s been used by the kinky community for years, and it isn’t an insult, as much as it’s been twisted to be an insult now. I’ve been seeing it a lot on social media, especially on TikTok.

“Moreover, a decade since publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, I see more people who admit that they’ve been pressured or ashamed for not consenting to unconventional sex.”

“The immediate response from people in the comments is calling someone boring or using vanilla as an insult, rather than partaking in a healthy conversation about kink. This has spiralled into a load of people throwing vanilla around as an insult and calling people who don’t want to be smacked in bed boring.”

‘Vanilla’, traditionally, wasn’t used as an insult; it was merely a term for describing someone’s sexual preference. In recent years however, it’s morphed into its negative connotations, mainly due to the way and the context in which it’s been used. There’s an important conversation to be had on how sexual liberation shouldn’t be exclusively linked to ‘kinkiness’.

Jakub noted how pornography could be influencing recent trends: “Susceptibility to vanilla shaming is a complex phenomenon and higher consumption of aggressive porn, as well as over-sexualisation in mass media, certainly triggers those feelings of social exclusion.”

He went on to explain how other factors could also be a cause: “The true origins of such problems are often rooted in a person’s childhood, family environment, upbringing and relationship they have had with their parents or other important individuals.

“Predispositions to experience shame can be determined when caregivers themselves are struggling with sense of belonging, low self-esteem and inability to enjoy intimate relationship. Those people, unfortunately, weren’t taught or had no opportunity to define a sense of core self and practice self-expression within a family environment.”

“With little to no censorship, videos and pictures glorifying sexual violence can trend – leading young people to associate intimacy with a level of violence, usually predominantly against women.”

One Twitter user, aged 27 now, who has been outspoken on the issue of vanilla shaming on the app, told us that ”It’s genuinely a thing I’ve experienced for years, multiple times, with many different people. It’s mainly been with the 18 to 23 year old crowd lately. Above that [age], people seem to be more chill and to understand good sex is dependant on many factors other than something they read in 50 Shades of Grey once.”

And the idea of 50 Shades of Grey being interlaced with vanilla shaming was shared by Jakub: “There are a growing number of clients in my therapeutic practice, who are convinced that there’s something wrong with them because they do not find a pleasure in any form of kinks, rough sex, or fetish.

“Moreover, a decade since publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, I see more people who admit that they’ve been pressured or ashamed for not consenting to unconventional sex.”

Girl under Blue Light. Logan Weaver via Unsplash.
Girl under Blue Light [Unsplash: Logan Weaver]

When recalling his own experiences being vanilla shamed by an ex-partner, the Twitter user I spoke to shared how he addressed the issue with his partner’s preferences: “I voiced my feelings regarding the situation and told her I wasn’t feeling too comfortable with this stuff. That’s when she started belittling me and insulting me.”

When asked if he had an inkling as to what he believed was the root of the issue as whole, he said: “I would assume normal media is more of a source for the problem [as opposed to porn]. People watch porn to observe sex but they use movies, TV shows, books and songs as a platform to observe human interaction. If every exchange they see in media is overtly kinky, even if it was originally intended to be an exaggeration or irony, the younger generations actually develop a perhaps unsalvageable disconnect between sexuality and emotional interest.”

When acts of sexual violence become desensitised, you’re led into a conversation on blurring lines within consent. Glorification of ‘kink trends’ filters into the social pressure to not be labeled as ‘vanilla’, which in turn can lead to young people, especially women, leaning into sexual violence as to not be shunned, even if it’s something they don’t necessarily want to participate in.

This can also lead to a space where people don’t feel comfortable discussing any sexual experiences they didn’t enjoy, from fear of being labeled as boring in the bedroom. 

Jakub shared this fear: “[a] devastating impact of any kind of shaming is the wish to hide, and if vanilla shaming became more prevalent, it would mean fewer people feeling free to express their sexuality in their preferred way. That could mean more isolation and less expression of healthy intimacy. It is important to educate and raise awareness that conventional sex is not boring at all.”

There are companies aiming to transform the porn sphere, such as Bellesa, Lust Cinema or Cheex. Many of them are female-led and all of them create and promote ethical porn, paving the way to normalise more realistic sexual standards within what is essentially, an educational platform. 

Evolution within the industry, specifically producing content more in line with the female gaze, as well as normalising ‘regular’ and ‘vanilla’ sex, can lead to less hyper-sexualisation and violence being filtered down into impressionable ages.

This will lead to more realistic expectations of intercourse, and just general physicality, as well as vital acceptance.

Featured Image by Maria Vlasova via Unsplash CC.
Edited by Wiktor Karkocha and Atiyyah Ntiamoah-Addo. 

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