Kinky sex is back. Again. As Laura Antoniou, author of popular erotica series The Marketplace puts it, "the mainstream media 'discovers' kinky sex every 10 years or so." This time around, the discovery has been linked to more than a few sources: Rihanna, "the Internet," smartphones, and almost inevitably, the 100 million copies sold worldwide of 50 Shades of Grey.

Quietly accompanying these resurgent think/kink pieces is coverage of kink's less-sensational sister: vanilla. Media discussion of vanilla sex tends to take the form of escape routes: "15 Ways To Turn Vanilla Sex Into Mind-Blowing Sex," "Top 6 Ways To Add Color To Vanilla Sex," "No More Vanilla: 8 BDSM Moves To Try Now." Occasionally you'll find a spirited "In Defense of Vanilla Sex" but the very premise of these pieces suggests that this type of sex = zzzzzzzzzzzz.

So what's the problem with vanilla sex?

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That depends on whom you ask. The issue with understanding vanilla—the supposed "standard," mainstream version of sex—is that its definition is relative. Initially used by the kink community to indicate (in what seems to have been a largely non-judgmental way) the "norm" from which they deviated, it is now widely used as a catchall phrase denoting sex free of the bells and whistles of kink. No toys, no power play, no costumes, no imagined identities, safe words, or porn. It is generally imagined as missionary-style sex in the dark between a monogamous, white, heterosexual couple, with minimal foreplay, some quick (but not too quick) P-in-V intercourse, and at least one (but certainly not more than two) orgasms. The kind of sex The Cleavers probably had, if they had it at all.

There's not much to work with because vanilla is defined by what it isn't, rather than what it is. It is perhaps because of this definition-ingrained lack that self-help books and relationship therapists and articles constantly suggest you "spice up" your vanilla sex life by taking a page out of EL James' terrible yet ubiquitous book. Feeling like things are lagging in the bedroom? Buy some silk boxers! Tie him up! Have you thought about handcuffs? In an especially hot take, the Huffington Post suggests: "be different" (this seems to mean the application of a temporary tattoo).

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Not a notoriously imaginative bunch to begin with, the vanilla-identified sex havers of the world are buying the suggested sex toys and other accessories in droves, reinforcing the time-honored truth that making people feel ashamed of themselves is a great way to sell basically anything.

The problem, of course, is that buying a riding crop for a night doesn't make you enjoy getting spanked. Sexual preference can't be faked (at least not well or to everyone's mutual pleasure), and the couple playing around with a set of fuzzy handcuffs might get some thrill out of feeling "bad" for an evening, but those cuffs will quickly end up in the junk drawer with the all the crumpled receipts and paint stirrers (incidentally a fantastic DIY stand-in for spanking paddles) if it's just not their thing.

The absolutism of the fight against vanilla sex (it's never just like "have fun with it!") suggests a total lack of awareness re: the actualities of the kink community. As even a light bondage enthusiast could tell you, 50 Shades of Grey is not an accurate representation of BDSM, let alone a reliable representation of the entire realm of kinks out there. To say someone is either kinky or vanilla is to ignore the incredibly varied world of fetishes and preferences nestled under the umbrella term "kinky." It's a logical extension then, that the same is true of vanilla. Not everyone who is into power play is into water sports; not everyone who likes it missionary likes it with the lights off.

It's worth noting that any fear or self-consciousness felt by those participating in vanilla sex is not the same as the real, actual stigma facing practitioners of kink. The worry that others might find your sex life boring is not the same as being unable to be open about your sexual preferences for fear of losing custody of your children or facing repercussions at work. Sure, our sex-obsessed yet sexuality-negative culture means everyone feels kind of terrible about their sexuality, but "vanilla privilege" is very much a real thing, intersecting in particular with the more familiar white and heterosexual privileges. In sex as in anything else, it's easier to be (or even just appear) mainstream.

For it really is just the appearance of normality. No one's sex life is exactly like anyone else's, and as such, to try to classify one type of sex as standard or basic is ridiculous. The frustration of vanilla—this constant quest to kinkify normative sexual relationships—seems to be the result of people's actual sexual practices and desires butting up against the idea that there is one unified, normative way that "most" people have sex. If I'm supposed to be the default, the married man wonders, why do I want my wife to peg me sometimes? If I'm not kinky, a 22- year-old straight woman who only watches lesbian porn asks, why am I so interested in the idea of a threesome? The danger of vanilla is seeing it as "default" when it's as amorphous as any individual kinky person's sexual preferences. Tying someone up with some cheap handcuffs might seem turbo-vanilla, but to the 60-year-old married couple who haven't had sex with the lights on in 12 years, it's kinky as hell.

So forget role playing. The one thing the kink community definitely has on vanilla sex havers is that they are, generally, better equipped to talk about it, less embarrassed to try new things, more open to the idea that sex and relationships involve a continual renegotiation of boundaries and preferences. Because their way of sex, rightly or wrongly, is not considered the default, the kink community has had to develop an incredibly specific and far-reaching vocabulary with which to discuss and examine wants, desires, and actions. There are workshops, conferences, and message boards all designed to let kinky people understand themselves and their parters better—so they do.

And that, I think, is what's missing from vanilla sex. Rather than trying to "spice up" your love life with imported sexual practices that don't fit your tastes, why not borrow kink culture's emphasis on dialogue and enthusiastic consent? The hottest move your sex life can steal from kink isn't handcuffs, it's discussion.

Sorry if that sounds kind of vanilla.

Monica Heisey is a writer from Toronto. Her work has appeared in Playboy, The Hairpin, VICE, The Toast, and many other Internet and print publications.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]