Is “Vanilla” the New “Frigid”?

Having now been on TikTok for a while I was unsurprised when a section of the app called KinkTok or FreakTok has come under fire in a recent VICE article by Lucy Robinson. This thriving subculture on the app may have originally started as a safe place for the Kink community to share experiences and tips but it has recently been overrun with some very problematic and even dangerous content. Some of the top videos in this community often cover knife play, choking and rough sex of all levels and there have been frequent instances of the Kink term ‘Vanilla’ being used as an insult. This term may not be familiar to those not in the kink community or in the younger generations but we will all be familiar with the insult ‘Frigid’, a fan favourite of secondary school boys everywhere. But really, what is wrong with liking non-kinky sex?

TikTok seem to be dealing with a double-edged sword when handling the issues cropping up on KinkTok. On the one hand, the do not want to be seen as silencing what is, on the whole, a sex positive and educational part of their platform. The larger issues seem to appear in the hijacking of the KinkTok tags by young people attempting to gain a following throught ‘Thirst Traps’. The violence seen in some of these videos that are masqurading as ‘sex positive’ content is alarming for lots of reasons, the main reason in my opinion is TikTok’s guidelines. The age limit on TikTok is 13+ according to their safety guidelines, this is a fair age limit considering the amount of content geared toward this age range but what is to stop these young people watching these misleading videos? The sex education system in the UK is bad enough without teenagers learning from TikTok that choking and spitting in peoples mouths is apparently a requirement for sex these days rather than a choice. Perhaps the most damaging assumption that comes out of these trends is that everyone has kinky sex all the time. This narrative is already been extremely prevalent within the porn industry (something we all know young, hormonal teens spend far too much time on) but to have these problems catapulted into the mainstream media makes it incredibly hard to avoid.

While the normalisation of exploring kink culture is a big step in the right direction for sex positivity but these big conversations don’t always translate into individual communications between partners. I think we are all intelligent to understand the importance of consent when embarking on sexual intercourse with someone, but how often are the smaller aspects of sex discussed openly during a hook up or even in a relationship? Well, the sad answer is not as often as it should, especially in younger people. I’ve certainly had times as a teen when a guy has assumed I wanted to be choked, slapped or degraded during sex and it was only after he tried that we had to have the conversation about that fact I didn’t want kinky sex. I know I’m certainly not the only one who has had an experience like this, in fact almost every woman in my life can share a similar story no matter what they actually like in bed. And yes, a lot of people do enjoy the kinkier side of sex but the problem lies in the expectation to enjoy it and the public pressure to engage in rougher sex.

Our routine over-exposure to hardcore sex in the media and porn has led sex to feel like a performance rather than something to be enjoyed by two people. But it’s not just playing the part of a Dom or Sub that causes issues, it is the underlying nature of violence portrayed in pornography and KinkTok that can be very dangerous unless approached properly. Those who regularly have kink-specific sex are well versed in the necessities like after care and safe words but these are not common practise when the kinky-ness is seen as the default for ‘good’ sex. For those who do not enjoy the mainstreamn kinks like domination, choking or spanking sex can often feel terrifying not only because of the automatic assumption that these things are for everyone but also the shame surrounding not enjoying kinky sex. This atmosphere of embarassment and shame treads a very thin line, at what point does the delegitimising of vanilla sex stop being about sexual preference and become coercion? Not taking no for an answer and convincing someone that they might like being spat on if they tried it both seem to work along the same thread, both of circumstances orginate from some kind of embarrassment or shaming and lead to giving in anyway to avoid confrontation. But when this unfolds outside of the bedroom and in the comments sections of a TikTok the narrative becomes suffocating. Young people are being routinely invalidated online and offline for not enjoying rough sex, something that is usually quite niche and comes through having experience and experimenting, something these teenagers don’t have. In many cases, rough or kinky sex is being normalised from a younger age and leads to a difficult and complicated relationship in later life as a result, at which point those around you have become to desensitised to rough sex that it is seen as default, and so the cycle continues.

Realistically, what can be done and who should be held responsible for the conversation surrounding kink on platforms like TikTok? Any sort of ban or restriction of kink content would most likely be viewed as censorship of the kink community, and in many ways this would be correct. On the whole, KinkTok is actually a very educational environment aimed at educating people on safely engaging in kink experiementation but as this sub-section of the app grows in popularity more and more creators are appropriating the KinkTok simply to create thirst trap content for their audiences. Yes, the age restriction on TikTok should probably be higher but we all know that wouldn’t stop young people from accessing the content one way or another. In my opinion, the blame does not lie with TikTok, even the porn sites aren’t to blame. The root of this issue lies in the UK’s failure to appropriately educate children and young people on sex. Sex education must cover more than simple reproduction and STI prevention because modern sex is about so much more than biology. Consent, sexual orentation, kinks and communication all need to be properly addressed in schools if any change in societies definition of ‘good’ sex is to be seen. If kids keep having to use PornHub as their primary mode of learning when it comes to learning about sex then we will continue to see generation after generation of teenagers believing that rough sex is the only viable type of sex to have. Sex positivity may be all the rage right now but until it can be translated into our homes and our education system then there is not an end in sight for this vicious cycle of vanilla-shaming.

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Aimee Fisher

I’m Aimee, an English Literature Undergraduate at the University of Exeter, writer and poet.