The Meaning of “Vanilla”

About a year ago I wrote a post wondering about the “NTR” (essentially cuckolding) genre of porn in anime and manga, and in it I had a small aside in the introduction where I mentioned the English-speaking anti-NTR fanbase that has developed in response, people who will proudly and adamantly proclaim their love of “vanilla.” At the time, I referred to these vanilla fans and their fervor as if they were an extreme response to the popularity of NTR because the intense championing of very conventional depictions of sex seemed odd (though understandable). Upon thinking about this subject again recently, however, I realized that I had overlooked something, and that one of the reasons there seems to be this contingent of vanilla supporters is that the definition of “vanilla porn,” at least according to certain fans of anime and manga, is quite a bit broader than how people would normally define it.

In general usage, vanilla (used for sex or otherwise) implies something that is ordinary and simple, and if one is being negative, bland and boring. In depictions of sex, this generally means something along the lines of missionary position between a couple. But when you look at the categories used in English to describe specific works of erotic anime and manga, you’ll sometimes get tag combinations such as “BDSM HAREM INCEST VANILLA.” I’m not making a value judgment on those other categories by any means, but I think that everyone can agree that, typically, those things don’t go hand in hand with “vanilla.”

What this has me realizing is that the ardent support for “vanilla” may be an even more direct response to NTR than I had first thought, because it ends up being defined by fans as essentially “not-NTR,” though to be more accurate it would probably be “anything that is not gay, rape, or NTR.” Given this definition-by-negation, it would seem that the most vital aspect of “vanilla” is loyalty. In this conception of vanilla, the relationships can be polygamous, they can be extreme in one way or another, but if there is a sense of betrayal or if feelings are hurt through sex, then it falls to the other side.

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6 thoughts on “The Meaning of “Vanilla”

  1. I think we’re at the point where “vanilla” porno means “equivalent in content to mainstream US porn.” When it comes to manga, I’m sure some of this stuff must exist, but as far as anime is concerned it seems that you have to search pretty darned hard to find Japanese cartoon pornography that does not fall along the “I really, really, really would rather this not be happening to me right now” spectrum. Even things which may seem at visual glance to be this can often be revealed to feature such content once the dialogue is translated. I know people who tend to prefer they not know what’s being said in these things for precisely this reason.

    In the modern era, the stereotypes of other nationalities/ethnicities are reinforced by the pornography these groups create for themselves. The fact that it actually requires a bit of effort to find anime/manga porn that is similar in tone and content to what would colloquially be considered “regular” US porn (in other words, “does NOT contain any murder, torture, rape, slavery, crying, strong protest, humiliation, vomiting, scatological elements, etc”) is what gives rise to “vanilla” as some distinct qualifying label. It’s also a big part of what perpetuates “weird Japan.”

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  2. Perhaps NTR themes are the nemesis / guilty flip side of harem themes? Both seem to be male-readership fantasies/ anxieties. Hogamous, higamous, man is polygamous (or in this case polyandrous)… Higamous Hogamus, woman monogamous ??? The trouble with -squick- (non-vanilla) is that it always plays on fantasies that will cause real damage in the real world if it gets lose, and therefore feeds a drive towards abjection in its user.

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  3. Old post but it’s one of the only posts that talks about vanilla that I can find and it has my interest. You defined vanilla as anything that is not gay, rape, or NTR and put an emphasis on loyalty, no betrayal and no hurt feelings through sex. I have some questions about that definition and possible ways to refine it.
    On Gay and GangBang:
    What about Yuri? That is technically gay but still often included in vanilla. Straight guys typically like Yuri, but it can get weird when a girl is doing another girl with a dildo, especially if a guy is present. That’s not too far off from transgenders and traps, which I assume gay includes and therefore wouldn’t be vanilla. Gang Bang may be included in vanilla if it’s just a male and two females, but usually nothing else.
    On Rape and Violence: Rape is technically sex without consent, so when the girl is telling the guy she’s not interested, no, or to stop and he’s still doing it, that’s rape even if it’s not violent. She may even cry. But this is often part of vanilla and not even tagged as rape. I’m assuming rape in this context refers to strong protest or resistance, sometimes with violence. Life threats and other kinds of threats are often still included under vanilla, I guess because there’s no actual violence but it can definitely hurt the happy atmosphere.
    On Harem, NTR and GTR: Unlike NTR, Harem fits into vanilla because harem in and of itself does not mean hurt feelings or betrayal. But this is not the case with GTR. GTR is like NTR, but with the roles reversed. The guy gets stolen or cheats, so the girl feels hurt by it. However GTR is often just considered Harem and therefore would still qualify under vanilla, despite any hurt feelings of the girl. Depending on how hurt feelings are, this could result in an unhappy ending such as the loss of one or all of the guy’s girlfriend’s. I would not consider that vanilla.
    With all that into consideration, a better definition might be “anything that is not gay (except yuri), strong rape, strong violence, or cheating that strongly hurts feelings. It’s still a bit subjective, but I think that’s more accurate.

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    • Thanks for the comment! This is actually one of my most popular posts but I rarely get actual responses to it.

      I think all of your suggestions are valid, but one thing is that the description I gave is less a desire to find a proper definition and more an attempt to lay out how the term “vanilla” is used by the audience that consumes hentai. A lot of it was determined by what I observed to be “acceptable” to fans, but of it’s also been a few years since I wrote the post and things might very well have changed.

      There’s a great deal going on, from the desire for loyalty to fear of inadequacy to even just a wish for a relationship where all parties are happy. If perhaps the audience that most actively champions “vanilla” as a concept is starting to see values shift on the direction you specify, it might be worth reexamining.

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  4. Thanks for the reply despite how old this article is. I tried to make a definition based on what I saw too. This is just one site, but as an example of what I was talking about, Fault 3 on Hentaigasm got tagged as Vanilla, Harem, Gangbang, Yuri, Sex toys and a few other things.

    The “Harem” could be considered cheating in this hentai but feelings weren’t that hurt. “Sex toys” includes a girl doing another girl with a dildo which I thought was weird. I think “Yuri” in vanilla usually if not always includes a guy rather than being purely Yuri. The “Gangbang” isn’t violent and is just two girls and a guy.

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