Sex isn’t always a gentle, kissy-kissy, hand-holdy, flowers in meadows, magical soft focus, lovey dovey thing. Sometimes sex is hard and intense. A lot of people have, what is called, rough sex. Some some studies are showing that it’s pretty common with young people. So this article is about what rough sex is and why people might like it (or do it). It’s also about how we can do it with more consent and safety.
Most articles about rough sex (and kink) are for adults and there’s probably a good reason for that. In order to do rough sex consensually you need to be pretty good at communicating about sexuality related things. You will also need to find other people who are good at this too and who you can trust. This is harder to do for younger folk. So although this website is for over 14s, I think you need to be quite a bit older to do a lot of this stuff consensually. (Readers here are mostly in their teens and twenties). You will see that it takes a lot of hard work that you just might not be experienced enough to do yet. Though sadly this is true of a lot of adults too.
This is an explainer. Just as with all sex education, just because I’m explaining it, doesn’t mean I’m encouraging it. There are no sexy pictures below. I’ve tried not to be too graphic, or heavy but I am going to describe different kinds of rough sex that (without consent) would be violent.
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What is rough sex?
The kinds of things that researchers talk about when they refer to rough sex are:
- Gripping (holding someone firmly or pinning them down).
- Choking (which should actually be called strangling, as that’s more accurate).
- Hair pulling.
- Gagging (restricting someone’s breathing with something in or over the mouth).
There are other things too but this is the kind of thing that we are talking about generally.
Just as with any other kind of sex consent and care is the absolute key. If there’s little or no care or consent, these things are acts of violence and criminal offences. Doing these things without consent is also unethical, wrong, or immoral, however you want to call it.
If you’ve read my recent kink article you will see that there is a bit of overlap between what is rough and what is kink. As I say in that article, kink is about doing these things with a lot of intention and in a scene. With a start, middle and end, where there is some element of power exchange. I’ll get to this later, but rough sex could be seen to be somewhere between kink and vanilla sex.
Please read my guide to relationships, it’s really useful!
How common is it?
I don’t want to worry everyone but researchers looking into rough sex are finding that it’s actually quite common, particularly with young people.
Just looking at what is called strangulation / choking. According to this recent study of uni students, 26.5% of women, 6.6% of men, and 22.3% of trans / trans non-binary people reported being choked at the last time they had sex. According to this survey 54% of 18 – 24 year old women in the UK have experienced choking, at some point.
That last survey (I’m just giving the 18 – 24 year old stats) also asked participants about the rough sex. 56% said it was unwanted (always 11%, most of the time 18%, some of the time 29%) and 41% said that none of the rough sex was unwanted. When asked whether these acts of rough sex left them feeling scared or frightened, 69% said never (with 21% saying they were at least once). About whether the acts of rough sex were consensual (I’m paraphrasing): 52% said it was consensual, 46% saying not consensual (everytime 11%, most of the time 11%, some of the time 24%).
We should treat these studies with caution as they have a small sample size. But they do suggest that rough sex is quite common, most of the time it is probably consensual and / or wanted, but a lot of the time it isn’t. If you’ve experienced this yourself, or done some of these things to others, you might want to just take a minute to think about this for yourself rather than focus on the statistics of other people.
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Why do people do this?
People have sex for lots of different reasons and everyone who has sex wants to have different feelings and sensations during and after. This means that people do different kinds of sex or do different kinds of sex differently. For people into rough sex it doesn’t mean that they are violent or aggressive people (although some are).
A lot of people want to feel lots of sensation to enjoy sex. If you’ve read my article about stress, you’ll know that sometimes our bodies experience a good kind of stress. Like if you are playing sport, or on a fairground ride, or watching a scary film it can be really enjoyable (you do you, I hate these things). The same can be true for sex too, both for kink and rough sex. The kind of sex that might get people out of breath, tingly, sweaty, and stimulated all over. Sometimes people need to be in their body and not in their heads (if that makes sense to you).
Teach Yourself Sex Ed – Bodies
However, this is definitely not for everyone. A lot of people just really like vanilla sex. Sex with nothing scary, no pain, no marks being left, no power exchange. It’s a mistake to think that vanilla is boring or that rough sex or kink are always more exciting. Vanilla sex can be incredibly exciting and rough sex and kink can be very dull and not do it for people at all. Whatever sex you have, the key to enjoying it more is to get the vibe right, to know what’s going to happen, and to be in the moment.
Here’s an article about how to enjoy sex more
How do we judge this?
When we see stats like this and think about what this might mean, it’s easy to be kinda shocked by it. I must admit that a lot of this worries me a bit. However it’s important that we don’t rush to judge ourselves or other people, particularly about the times when rough sex is happening consensually. It’s not great to say that some kinds of sex are normal, healthy, and safe, and some not.
What a lot of people would say is ‘normal’ sex, putting a penis inside a vagina, is actually pretty harmful, painful, and not safe in many cases. I was about 9 when someone told me about this for the first time (school playground, we were playing football) and I was horrified! Putting a part of your body inside someone else’s? What was your first reaction when you found out about this? Can you see what I’m saying? The fact is, all sex acts can be strange to some people and you don’t have to like all of it.
As I said right at the top, the most important thing with any kind of sex is that is it consensual and safe. I’ll get on to this shortly but first of all let’s deal with something which may well have popped into your brain as soon as you started reading this.
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Is it porn’s fault?
It’s a bit of an annoying question really but I think we need to talk about it because it always comes up and it gets in the way. Yes there’s a lot of rough sex in porn but it’s not as simple as ‘people watch it and it makes them do it.’ That’s not how any media works.
Most important point is this: porn is not making you do anything. If you do something you have seen in porn, you are doing it and you are responsible for doing it safely and consensually. This is true for any kind of sex and it’s true if you saw it in porn, or Normal People, or Game of Thrones, or in Team America World Police. Also it’s not like things like choking are just a sex thing, you know what they do in wrestling right?
Read an Educational Guide to Porn
I think the way to think about the role of porn is that it is one source of information and yes porn does have a lot of rough sex in it, and maybe it has more things like ‘choking’, grabbing, and spanking in it. And yes, it is depicted as a ‘normal sex’ thing rather than a kink thing. I do think that this is a problem, and I have a lot of criticism for porn companies, but I don’t think we can say that porn is causing more rough sex. The responsibility for rough sex is on those doing it.
If this interests you a lot you should try my sex ed module on the sex we see.
Rough sex and consent
So if rough sex is as common as the research is saying, we should be taking this seriously. Of course some rough sex is going to be negotiated beforehand but given that a lot of it seems to be either not consensual, or not wanted, or scary, maybe this isn’t happening. So the important thing (as with all sex) is to learn about how to communicate and create the right space for sex to be consensual.
Talking about it first
As I’ve written about before, a lot of people take the ‘one thing leading to another’ approach when they have sex. They might follow the script for ‘how we are supposed to have sex’ that we might have heard about in sex education, films, TV, porn, books. This script says that sex is:
Following a script might be okay for some people, if they want to follow the script and agree on what the script is. But what if one person’s idea of ‘the script’ is rougher than another person’s? If roughness is part of the script for some people that means we have to start talking about it more.
So if you are keen on doing anything that is rough, it’s on you to use your words in advance. ‘I really like ________, ____________, and ____________, how do you feel about that?’ Also be prepared to talk about different ways of doing something (for example, how firmly, in what way, how long for, which part of the body).
If this is a bit too daunting, or you’re not really sure how you feel about different kinds of sex, you could talk about what what you definitely don’t want to do this time. A good question to ask your sex partner is ‘is there anything you really don’t want to do? For me, (eg) I really don’t want to be bitten anywhere that can be seen.’ Telling the other person something that you really don’t want to do can give them more freedom to tell you what they don’t want.
As I say, I’ve written about how to talk about the different kinds of sex you might want, and also how to ask. I have also written a book about it.
Please do try to communicate as much as you can before having sex. I know that it’s difficult, and it’s more difficult for some people to do because of stigma, a lack of experience, a lack of good sex education, and power.
However, even if you have talked about it more before hand it’s really important to continue communicating during it. Again I’ve talked about sex talk and communication here and these tips on how to enjoy sex by paying attention are really important.
Give as much idea of what you are intending to do as possible before and as you are doing it. Do things slowly and carefully so that the other person is aware of what is about to happen. Make sure that you are leaving space and pauses so that they can back out. Always give the other person the opportunity to direct you.
If you are having things done to you (perhaps you are the bottom, or the sub) can you give direction? Harder, faster, slower, gently, ow, good, yes, wait, hold on, are all really useful directions.
Check in that this is still something they want. Start slow and gently and see check in with what their body is saying. Are they shaking their heads, or moving your hand, or moving away from you? Then stop. Are they saying yes, nodding their head, or making ‘I’m enjoying this’ noises, then carry on. Pay attention to what’s going on for you too. If you are distracted, high, and not paying attention to the scene you are in you might be harming the other person or yourself.
If you are wanting to do spanking, or choking there are some specific ways to make these safer. You should definitely read this on safer BDSM from my Kink article.
Read more about consent and sex
Keep making pauses
All of this is relevant to all kinds of sex. If you want to do things like spanking, choking, biting, or gripping, do so very very slowly and gently at first. Give the other person the opportunity to respond, to think about whether this is something they want, and to communicate with you. This means giving them quite a lot of time actually. Awkward pauses and silences are much better than carrying on.
You could be doing something non-consensual or unwanted almost immediately with some kinds of rough sex. For example sometimes people don’t want their hair to be touched at all, let alone grabbed or pulled. For spitting you can’t really do that more gently or more slowly: see also ejaculating on someone. So if you know you want to do these things or definitely don’t want to do these things, it’s better to try and flag it up before sex starts.
As with all sex and kink, it’s good to be able to talk about rough sex afterwards. Go through it and talk about what felt good, what could be done differently. Was anything too rough, or not rough enough? Do you need to put your hands in a different place next time? Is there a way that you could have done a bit more communication.
This kind of feedback is incredibly valuable, so don’t get all mardy or pissy. The person we are having sex with is the world’s leading expert on how to have sex with them. So listen to them really intently.
If you want to read more about violence and sex generally read this excellent book, which is out today, Rough. The author joined me on my podcast for adults, which you can listen to here.
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© Justin Hancock, 2023
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.
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