Vanilla sex refers to conventional sex that conforms to the very basic expectations with a culture. Classically, in heterosexual sex, it refers to sex in the missionary position, and broadly speaking, it excludes fetishes such as S&M. When we examine the act of sex more deeply, vanilla sex sometimes signals different forms of anxiety. And it is important to examine sexual practices because there is an amazing opportunity to relieve anxiety when sex represents a safe place to be. However, when "safety" is the result of anxiety, this can limit physical expression. What are some of the forms of anxiety that exist and what can you do about this?
1. Fear of standing out: The idea of "vanilla" suggests a plain flavor—nothing that is "too different" or "stands out." What is so frightening about standing out? To understand this, imagine the fear of a failed theatrical performance, or the fear of being scrutinized. When sex is vanilla all along, it may make sense for both partners to address these fears and to ask themselves why theatrical experimentation or being scrutinized is anxiety-provoking. Can you tolerate your own imperfections? Are you too self- critical? Do you feel insecure about your partner seeing too much of you? Asking these questions may pave the way to lessen the anxiety.
2. Fear of being "weird": People who keep the sex "vanilla" also want to avoid feeling "weird". They associate any sex out of the ordinary as being weird and subconsciously relish the idea of being "regular" at the risk of being boring. It often helps couples to dispel with fears of being "weird" by exploring their own limits of "weirdness" and to explore what crossing this line safely would mean. What would happen if you let go of "weird?" How can you be "weird" but safe?
3. Fear of being excluded: Many people who practice vanilla sex imagine that they are mainstream. But this is often because many couples do not reveal their non-mainstream practices. Vanilla couples may seek comfort in being in the in-group at the expense of expressing their individuality. Thus it is important to examine the blind following of what is expected at the expense of giving up an opportunity to feel "included" by being one self.
4. Fear of taking chances: The only way to "discover" anything is to walk into the uncertain. Fear of taking a chance makes this impossible. While unsafe chances are often good to avoid, small steps can help people make small discoveries about themselves. A new sex position may not work out immediately or even after a few times, but the more you take a chance to make it work, the more you may just find the feeling of success and discovery.
5. Fear of losing control: People who stick to vanilla sex are uncontrolled in a controlled way. They have a pattern of predictable pleasure and they stick to this. This occurs in part because they are afraid that they fear that if they start out on an unpredictable path they will lose control. Helping your partner feel safe may help them have the chance to explore their sexuality with you.
Overall then, there is nothing wrong with vanilla sex. And there is something wrong with deliberate pain during sex that leads to injury. But between these two extremes, there is a world of opportunity for discovery.
Not being vanilla does not have to mean not being loving or artful. It is an intrinsic permission to explore and to discover what you are or are not through your sexual curiosity. The dangers of this exploration lie in making it into a fetish, another theatrical replacement for anxiety. To truly overcome this anxiety, the opportunity to explore beyond vanilla would be most flavorful if the driving force for excitement is love. As I explained in: "Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Ways To Overcome Fear", love and trust decrease activation of the fear center in the brain, and this in itself can improve sexual performance.