Sex-positivity works hard, but the patriarchy works harder
Living in an increasingly sex-positive culture has lifted the burden of so much unnecessary shame around sex. From casual hookups to kinks to voluntary abstinence, there is more conversation than ever around different choices and preferences — and thank god for that. A sexual preference, so long as it is performed consensually, should not be subject to judgment or outside opinion, but sometimes social patterns (including those surrounding sex) suggest a shared idea that’s worth paying attention to.
I’ve noticed more social media discourse around “vanilla” sex lately. The idea that vanilla sex makes a person “bad in bed” was one of those insidious social messages I’d subconsciously adopted long ago and never questioned, but recently, it has become something I can’t get off my mind.
As I was scrolling through TikTok one day, I came across video after video, all with similar captions along the lines of: “Why does he have to hurt me for the sex to be good?” It made me wonder, does vanilla sex really deserve its negative connotation, and where does its bad reputation stem from in the first place? The answer, of course, has to do with patriarchy being hard at work, as per usual.
I’ve heard countless stories from friends, usually women who have sex with men, of new sexual partners initiating rough, sometimes violent sex. The friends in these instances often didn’t object because either their partner seemed to be enjoying what was occurring, or they “didn’t want to be a buzzkill.”
When I’ve witnessed somebody receiving a negative reaction for being “vanilla” in bed, it’s mostly been a woman who has sex with men who receives the backlash, and oftentimes (but not always) that criticism is coming from men. The preferable alternative for these critics often seems to be sex that involves either performative or genuine violence or rough treatment. When practiced with mutual consent, BDSM and other kinks that can include physical violence are just like other kinks and kinds of sex — fun. But it’s worth considering why “rough sex” is an increasingly popular category in porn for men who have sex with women, and why it is simultaneously becoming an apparently default form of intimacy in real-life hookups, because this sexual dynamic mirrors a problematic patriarchal power struggle when there is an implicit lack of consent or the feeling that one must “play along.”
If enjoying vanilla sex somehow means that you’re bad in bed, and social pressure (particularly in heterosexual contexts) nudges women to participate in rougher sex, a culture of coercion is taking hold. Women who have sex with men feeling subconsciously pressured to be hurt in bed appears to me like evidence of patriarchal attitudes at work. Not to mention, the men in those unions seemingly being increasingly drawn to rough, violent sex and performing that way in bed as an unspoken default, points to the same expression of patriarchy.
Everyone should feel safe in anticipating that their sexual partner won’t be rough or violent toward them in the bedroom without their consent, nor should they have to expect rough sex because of what is represented in popular media. It’s time to interrogate socially patterned sexual dynamics as expressions of larger themes in society. It’s time to ask the hard questions. But most importantly, it’s time to make room for all sexual preferences in sex positivity — including vanilla sex. Whether you’re into vanilla sex, BDSM, something in between, or nothing at all, you deserve a non-judgmental reception, and the space to be proud of what you enjoy.