Sex Ed

How Many People Have Ever Had Rough Sex, and Who’s Most Likely To Do It?

February 17, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

In my previous post, I discussed results from a recent study exploring how young adults define “rough sex” and their enjoyment of this activity. Today, I’m going to be discussing other findings from this study, including how many of them have ever had rough sex before, and who is most likely to have tried it.

These findings come from a survey of 4,998 undergraduate college students in the Midwestern United States who were asked about their previous experiences with rough sex, including whether and how often they do it.

Among those who had a current sexual or romantic partner (about 36% of the sample), 79% of them said they had engaged in rough sex with their partner before. Put another way, just 1 in 5 people in relationships said they had never done it. Only those in relationships were asked about their rough sex behaviors, which means it is unclear how many of the single participants had ever tried it.

Of the 79% who said they’d had rough sex, this is how frequency of the behavior broke down: 29% said they do it rarely, 37% said they do it sometimes, and 13% said they do it often. In terms of who initiates rough sex, participants were split between those who said that they initiate (46%) versus having their partner initiate (54%).

However, some gender differences were observed. Specifically, transgender and non-binary participants reported higher rates of rough sex engagement than cisgender persons. Also, men were the most likely to report initiating rough sex, while women were the least likely, with trans and non-binary participants falling in between.

There were also sexual orientation differences, with bisexually-identified participants reported the highest frequency of engagement compared to persons of other sexual identities. Also, while heterosexual men reported initiating rough sex more often than sexual minority men, sexual minority women reported initiating rough sex more often than heterosexual women.

Several other demographic factors were linked to odds of engaging in rough sex:

  • Hispanic participants engaged in rough sex at higher rates.
  • International students engaged in rough sex at lower rates.
  • Alcohol consumption was linked to higher rates of rough sex. The more frequently participants drank, the more often they participated in rough sex (i.e., there was a dosage effect).

How long people had been in their relationships and the nature of their relationship (casual vs. committed) were unrelated to frequency of rough sex. In other words, rough sex had less to do with characteristics of the relationship itself and more to do with individual factors.

As always, we must be mindful of the limitations of this study, including the fact that all participants were young adults living in the United States. Research on more diverse populations is needed to better understand the overall prevalence of rough sex and how it might vary across different groups.

That said, these results add significantly to our understanding of rough sex. As I’ve found in my own research on sexual fantasies, which I discuss in my book Tell Me What You Want, rough sex is one of the main types of fantasies most people report having had before. However, it seems to be more than just a fantasy for most young adults in relationships—it’s also a common reality.

In light of this, we need to change the way that we think about rough sex. Historically, it has been lumped in with kink and BDSM and has been considered to be a fringe interest and activity—however, the fantasy and behavior actually seem so common as to be a normative part of human sexuality.

These findings are also interesting to discuss in light of widespread opposition to including kink and BDSM in collegiate sex education and awareness efforts. A few years ago when I was teaching at Harvard, some students there started a BDSM interest group that ended up making international news. As the resident “sex professor” at the university, journalists all over were asking me to comment.

The sense I got was that a lot of people were outraged at the idea and thought it was ridiculous—but if kink/BDSM is so common, why can’t we even talk about it? Wouldn’t we be doing our students a favor by talking more openly about issues of consent, safety, and communication? Not providing education on these issues creates risk in that students may turn to unreliable sources of information that may ultimately put them in danger.

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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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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & 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.

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