There's something about the game "Never Have I Ever" that fills me with a sense of dread. Despite being 32 and well past my teenage years, the mere mention of it sends an uncomfortable shiver down my spine. It seems innocuous enough - starting off with harmless confessions like, "I stole a bra from Victoria's Secret when I was 13," but then it invariably spirals into audacious declarations like, "I had sex at the Great Wall."
When it comes to discussing sexual moments and intimacy, it often feels like we're forced to pick a side of two extremes on the ‘sex spectrum’: either remain silent, guarded (wishing you could dig a hole and hide) or we're expected to entertain friends with laugh out loud stories of the most wild, risqué sexual encounters and experiences we’ve ever had (like sex on the Great Wall!). Stray from these extremes and you run the risk of being labeled a prude. It's a curious split that I've been trying to come to terms with during my adult years, and recently, I've come to identify it for what it is - vanilla shaming.
What exactly is vanilla shaming?
Shaming women for being ‘vanilla,’ meaning having a preference for the conventional way of having sex. Wait, what? Go ahead, read that again. Yes, you read it right.
You may be scratching your head right now, still wondering, "What on earth is 'vanilla shaming'?" or, you’ve perhaps been a victim of it (don’t worry, you are not alone). Certified sexologist Megwyn White explains 'vanilla shaming' as a judgment cast upon those who choose to keep their sex lives more traditional. This judgment can take various forms, ranging from subtle mockery, being labeled as ‘prudish’ or “frigid”, or downright alienated.
During a candid conversation with a friend, Sophie, she once said "It feels like there's an unspoken competition about who's having the most adventurous sex." I will never forget her saying that, as I too remember feeling exactly the same. However, it was a taboo no one spoke about, but something I’ve always had in the back of my mind, wondering if my level of sexual pleasure was ‘normal’. Just because you don’t have sex on the world's most famous monuments, doesn’t mean that you should come under scrutiny for being ‘vanilla’.
Labeling someone as ‘vanilla’ can lead to feelings of alienation and inadequacy, which no one should feel about their own sexual pleasure. Yet, it's important to emphasise that every sexual preference, including 'vanilla', is equally valid and exciting. Sexual health and pleasure should always focus on personal joy and satisfaction, free from societal pressure to conform to a certain narrative of what is “right” or “wrong” or “normal”. There is no such thing as normal. We are as unique as our sexual preferences, which should be respected. Let's celebrate our individuality, affirm our unique sexual identities, and remember: there is no 'normal' standard in sexual health and pleasure. Do what makes you happy and feel good!
Signs you might be experiencing vanilla shaming
"Vanilla shaming" - now that we've defined it, you might be sitting there frantically thinking back across all the years wondering, "Have I ever experienced it?" Identifying vanilla shaming can be tricky; it's often not explicit and may come in the form of harmless-seeming jokes or offhand comments. But don't worry, we’ve put together some signs you might spot. Remember, your sexual pleasure is part of your individuality, and it deserves respect and validation ❣️
Offhand comments or jokes: This is perhaps one of the most common forms of vanilla shaming. For example, if someone dismisses your preferences with a comment such as, "You're always so vanilla. Don't you ever want to try something more exciting?" it's a clear sign of shaming. They are belittling your preferences as boring or unadventurous.
Feeling uncomfortable or guilty: The emotional response you have during discussions about your sexual preferences can also be telling. If these conversations leave you feeling uneasy, embarrassed, or guilty, it's possible you're being shamed. For instance, if you're in a group discussion where everyone is sharing their adventurous exploits and you feel reluctant or ashamed to share your more traditional experiences, you might be experiencing vanilla shaming.
Feeling less-than: If someone's comments or attitudes towards your preferences make you feel inadequate or abnormal, this could be a sign of vanilla shaming. An example might be a partner saying, "My ex was always up for trying new things. I wish you were more like that." This comparison not only undermines your preferences but can also make you feel inadequate or abnormal.
Subtle, persistent comments: Vanilla shaming isn't always overt. It can come in the form of continuous, subtle comments that undermine your preferences. For example, a friend might consistently joke about your "predictable" preferences or a partner might continually suggest new, more adventurous practices, ignoring your comfort with more traditional approaches.
Remember, your sexual preferences are a part of who you are and should be celebrated. No one has the right to shame you for them. Let's continue to embrace our individuality and champion healthy, open conversations about sexual wellness.
What To Do If You Are Suffering From Vanilla Shaming
After unraveling the signs of vanilla shaming, you may find yourself identifying with some of the experiences mentioned. This might leave you feeling a bit daunted, but don't worry - these feelings are completely normal. The important thing is that you've taken the first step: recognition. Now, it's time to move on to the next phase: action. Let's explore some ways that you can address and overcome vanilla shaming, because no one deserves to feel that way!
Acknowledge your feelings: First and foremost, understand that it's perfectly okay to have so-called "vanilla" preferences. There's no standard or expectation you need to meet in your sexual journey. Your feelings and preferences are valid. If you enjoy and feel comfortable with more traditional sexual practices, that's perfectly fine and you should feel proud of knowing what you like.
Communicate your discomfort: If you feel you're being shamed, it's important to express your feelings to the other person. You might say something like, "When you make jokes about my preferences, it makes me feel uncomfortable and judged. I would appreciate it if you could respect my preferences as I respect yours."
Set boundaries: Clearly state what is and isn't acceptable in discussions about your sexual preferences. You could say, "I'm happy to talk about our experiences and preferences, but I don't appreciate it when my choices are belittled or made fun of."
Reevaluate relationships: If a partner, friend, or group continues to shame you after you've expressed your discomfort, it might be time to reconsider if those relationships are healthy for you. Relationships should be based on mutual respect and understanding; if your sexual preferences are continually disrespected, you may need to consider distancing yourself from those causing you discomfort.
Self-Care: Vanilla shaming can take a toll on your mental health. It's crucial to take care of yourself. This might involve seeking the help of a sex coach to speak about your sexual wellness, or taking yourself on that much needed masturbation date. Remember, there's no shame in seeking help.
In the face of vanilla shaming, standing up for yourself and your preferences is key. Remember, there's no 'right' or 'wrong' when it comes to consensual sexual preferences - only what's right for you 💘
Don't let anyone else define what your sexual journey should look like. There is no goalpost, no perfect standard. What matters is that you're comfortable, content, and find joy in your experiences. Be mindful of your own feelings and desires, and remember to extend the same respect to others. This isn’t just about avoiding being shamed, but also being careful not to inadvertently shame others. Be mindful of your language and attitudes, and ensure they're respectful and inclusive of all sexual preferences.
If you find yourself struggling with these issues, or if you simply want to learn more about understanding and embracing your sexual preferences, know that help is available. Our resident sexologist, Sara Tang, is here to provide support and guidance in your sexual wellness journey. Don't hesitate to reach out if you need someone to talk to - you're not alone.
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Embrace what brings you joy, discover at your own pace, and never let anyone else dictate your sexual narrative. You are unique, your pleasure is unique, and that's something to celebrate. Always remember, your sexual journey is about you and what brings you joy, so do what feels comfortable for you!