What Does It Mean to Have ‘Rough Sex?’
February 15, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
Rough sex is one of the most popular sexual fantasies. In fact, when I surveyed 4,175 Americans about their fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want, I found that most people had fantasied about some type of rough sex before.
But what exactly does it mean to have “rough sex?” Which specific activities do people include in this? And how many people actually enjoy the idea of rough sex in real life—not just in their fantasies?
A recent study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior provides some important insight into these questions, at least among young adults. Researchers at Indiana University surveyed 4,998 Midwestern college students on the subject. Rather than using convenience sampling (i.e., just posting the survey and seeing who responds), a random sample of half of the student body was contacted to increase diversity in responses. The sample obtained was then statistically weighted to correct any potential imbalances in demographic groups that were under- or over-represented, with the goal of making the survey more reflective of the overall student population.
Participants were asked what rough sex means to them and could indicate their responses via a checklist that included things like hair pulling, biting, and choking. They were also asked to report how much they enjoyed rough sex and about their previous experiences with it.
When it came to definitions of rough sex, the most commonly endorsed items were:
- choking (77%),
- hair pulling (75%),
- spanking (69%),
- being pinned down (66%),
- being tied up (65%),
- hard thrusting (64%),
- slapping (59%),
- biting (59%),
- and scratching (52%).
Put another way, more than half of the sample counted the above activities as forms of rough sex. Items endorsed by less than half of the sample included:
- throwing someone onto a bed (49%),
- tearing clothes off (45%),
- punching (33%),
- and making someone have sex (17%).
There were some differences across groups in terms of what people counted as rough sex, though. For example, transgender and non-binary participants generally counted more of these behaviors as rough sex than their cisgender counterparts.
These activities also statistically clustered into two groups that differed based on intensity. One group of behaviors included things like being pinned down, hard thrusting, and spanking; by contrast, the other included things like choking, punching, and slapping. In other words, there’s “rough sex” and then there’s “rougher sex,” and people’s definitions may center more around one or the other, which points to the importance of clarifying what a partner means when they say they’re into “rough sex.” Don’t just assume that your definition is necessarily the same as theirs.
The researchers also looked at enjoyment of rough sex behaviors. Specifically, they looked at the responses of people who said they had done it before with their current partner. Of them, just 1.3% said “not at all.” The rest said “a little” (14%), “somewhat” (46%), or “very much” (39%). Put another way, almost everyone who had tried rough sex before reported at least some enjoyment of it.
That said, transgender and non-binary participants reported higher rates of enjoyment for rough sex than cisgender persons. Sexual orientation was unrelated to enjoyment of rough sex among men, whereas sexual minority women (but especially bisexual women) reported higher enjoyment of rough sex than heterosexual women.
It is, of course, important to note that these findings come from a study of college students in the United States; consequently, they don’t tell us about definitions or enjoyment of rough sex among older adults, or among persons of different cultures. They also don’t tell us where people’s definitions of rough sex come from, which would be an interesting question to explore in future research. For example, how much are these definitions shaped by exposure to popular media (think Fifty Shades of Grey) and porn?
Nonetheless, these findings suggest that rough sex seems to mean different things to different people and that, among college-age adults in relationships who have tried it, most seem to enjoy it at least a little.
So how many people have ever had rough sex before? And who’s most likely to do it? Stay tuned, because I’ll be exploring those questions in my next post with more findings from this study.
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To learn more about this research, see: Herbenick, D. et. al. (2021). What is rough sex, who does it, and who likes it? Findings from a probability sample of U.S. undergraduate students. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >