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Vanilla-isms: Causes and Cures

Author: Lady Green

Filed in: speech, vanilla

The psychotherapeutic establishment is still struggling to understand the subset of sexual activity characterized by hysterical insistence on the appearance of complete equality at all times, as well as by a marked preference for physical and emotional sensations so mild that many would consider them inadequate or boring.

The practitioners of this so-called "lovestyle," colloquially known as "vanilla" sex, maintain that their preferences are perfectly normal (many statistics indicate that the majority of adults have at least experimented with this type of sex) and harm nobody.

Expert opinions, however, are divided on this controversial topic. Most therapists feel that vanilla-ism can be traced to early childhood experiences, and that the patient desiring relief from his or her vanilla impulses can indeed be helped to experience a broader and more fulfilling range of sexual practices.

Theories about the source of vanilla desires vary. Some of the most widely accepted ones are:

-- Early trauma. One researcher has traced several cases of vanilla-ism to early childhood experiences in which the child's normal although alarming impulses toward egalitarianism have been suppressed by ill-informed parents or teachers. She cites one young woman who, in deep hypnotic regression, recalled a scene in which her attempt to share an ice cream cone with a pre-school playmate was diverted by a young teacher, who heedlessly steered the well-meaning child to the blocks corner. Upon being awakened from her trance, the patient cried in a voice of discovery, "It was mine! I could give it away if I wanted to! Nobody has any right to tell me what I can and can't give away!" Her path from vanilla-ism toward a more fulfilling sexual life was clear from that point forward.

-- Inability to distinguish affection from gentleness. Another practitioner cites his study of a middle-aged man who sought treatment for emotional distress stemming from his wife's desire to have him administer sharp blows and wooden clothespins to her genitalia. After several years of therapy, the therapist traced the man's belief that gentleness was the only way to express love back to his mother's hobby of raising Siamese kittens. The patient had been repeatedly told to "be gentle with the little kitties." The patient's recognition of the source of the problem did not resolve it, but the therapist's suggestion of daily repetitions of the affirmation "A pussy is not a kitty" did the trick. The couple is now enjoying harmonious marital relations.

-- Extraordinarily low sensation threshold. Some experts feel that vanilla-ism stems from a (possibly neurological) need for milder-than-average physical and emotional stimulation. They point to parallels between vanilla behavior and such highly unstimulating activities as situation comedy watching, counted cross-stitch, and the consumption of Cream of Wheat. While moderate success with such patients has been achieved by gradually reconditioning them to more challenging stimuli, one researcher shrugs, "Some people seem to simply be born vanilla."

Vanilla-ism, however, need not be a life sentence. Patients can be reconditioned to find healthier outlets for their desires: group hugs, non-strenuous tandem bicycling, team sand-castle building and similar activities can all meet the need for egalitarianism in more socially acceptable ways. Some patients find it satisfying to verbally role-play vanilla sex with their partners during more conventional sexual activities, sharing fantasies like "I'm stroking your breast now... that's not too hard, is it?... OK, I've eaten you for five minutes, now it's your turn."

Of course, a small radical faction of vanilla practitioners is demanding that their deviant practices be considered a normal sexual variation. Some have been so vocal that the media have sensed an upsurge in public interest in vanilla sex, and responded with such popularly successful ventures as Cosmopolitan magazine, "The Bridges of Madison County," and virtually the entire oeuvre of Barry Manilow.

A few therapists are coming around to an agreement that vanilla sex, particularly when practiced as an occasional variation within a committed relationship, need not be inherently harmful to its practitioners or those around them. Yet persistently vanilla fantasies and behaviors are probably still a subject for concern.

If you find yourself deeply distressed by indications that sex need not always appear gentle or egalitarian, or if you have lost friendships or romances due to your need to act out your vanilla fantasies, you may wish to seek help from an appropriately trained specialist.

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