Sometime in the early '70s, a couple who were very worried about their sex life came to discuss their problem with me. After some gentle questioning, they reluctantly admitted that they used their mouths on each other's privates for sexual pleasure. Did this mean they were sick or perverted?
As hard as it may be to believe in this day and age, this is a true story: oral sex and other sexual activities such as anal sex were considered by many at that time to be immoral and degrading.
To be honest, because of the limited amount of sex education of the time, many people didn't even know what oral sex was, and explaining it to some naïve-but-curious folk was a delicate task. It did mean that my early years as a sex therapist were extremely rewarding and often a lot of fun, opening up new sexual horizons for people and addressing the shame and guilt that were hangovers from Victorian ignorance and prudery.
In couples work, I often found myself validating one partner's desire to explore new sexual options against the judgement of the more conservative partner who saw these interests as abnormal, and who hoped I shared this view and would tell the partner so. My approach has always been to treat each partner with respect, and my view is that anything that isn't illegal or abusive is open to discussion and consideration. Sometimes the more hesitant partner would be prepared to try new things, and often found them quite delightful, other times the conservative partner believed they had the moral authority on their side and the curious partner would abandon hope of doing anything new.
Over the following years, however, this dynamic changed. By the '80s, it was the conservative partner being judged and the experimental partner taking the high moral ground: "What's wrong with you that you won't try oral sex/anal sex/threesomes etc?", "You are too uptight, you need to get help", "It's not fair that you are stopping me from trying what I want."
At this point, therefore, I found myself giving support to the sexually reserved partner: people have the right to find different sexual activities, even one as commonplace now as oral sex, unpleasant or disgusting, without being labelled a prude or dysfunctional.
So what happens when two people are attracted to each other, find they have a lot in common, except... one prefers plain vanilla sex and the other thrives on the joy of kink?
Kink refers to unconventional sexual practices, but what this actually covers changes as specific sexual practices become more accepted and new ones reach our awareness (the internet is a major source of new ideas).
The range of sexual activities that clients have described to me seems limitless; I keep thinking I have heard them all, then someone tells me about something they enjoy and I realise I still have a lot to learn. Interestingly, the traditional view was that the need or desire for unconventional sexual behaviours was only a male characteristic, but this is changing rapidly, as more females experiment with diverse activities.
So, back to our vanilla/kink couple. Maybe Kink finds dressing up in leather or being tied up highly arousing, and wants this to be included in partnered sex, but Vanilla finds this idea strange and is doubtful about trying it. Where to from here?
The most basic principle is that neither individual needs to apologise for their type of sexual interest. If you find yourself having to defend your preferred sexual activities, it's time to bail. Then, as with any couple's issue, communication is the key to a good outcome, either that they discover a mutually enjoyable sex life, or they separate with respect.
Then the initial and ongoing conversations need to cover the following points:
1. Each needs to describe their preferred sexual activity, so it is clear what they will be agreeing to. This isn't to say the script can't change, but new activities need to be talked about before you introduce them into play. Vanilla, in particular, doesn't like to be taken by surprise, especially by an activity they have never heard of before.
2. Discuss whether your desired activities are a want or a need. If they are a want, then there is room to enjoy some sexual sessions which don't include your preferences. If they are a need, that is you can't become aroused or experience any pleasure without them, the problem often arises that, even if you initially agree to a 50/50 split with the type of sexual sessions, you are likely, over time, to start asking your partner for more and more sessions to be about what you require, ignoring their desires. In this case, some Vanilla partners say this makes them wonder if Kink is only in the relationship for the opportunity to have their kind of sex; some Kink partners say they feel their sexual needs are trivialised or judged.
3. Understand that if your partner agrees to have sex based on your preferences, they may not get the same pleasure you get from it. If you need your partner to appreciate your activities as much as you do, and over time they only enjoy them in a take it or leave it kind of way, or if your partner is clearly bored by your type of sex, is this a deal breaker for the relationship?
4. Through all this, avoid pressure tactics. Blackmailing ("I'll leave if you don't"), name calling ("You are inhibited/weird, etc"), nagging ("You know I can't enjoy it unless we do it my way") are at the least disrespectful, and at the worst abusive. While your partner may give in to keep the peace, ultimately the relationship will likely end in tears.
So, can Vanilla and Kink live happily ever after? In general, yes it's possible, but it takes a sound relationship and lots of generosity on both sides.