What Do We Mean When We Ask for Rough Sex?

Exploring one of the most popular—and dangerous—trends of our generation.

Fluffy handcuffs
(Image credit: RUBEN CHAMARRO)

This May, a 20-year-old Texas man was charged with the 2014 death of his prom date, who didn't wake up the next morning after a night of allegedly "rough" sex. Though her death was exacerbated by the alcohol and hydrocodone in her system, Eddie Herrera choked Jacqueline Gomez while having sex, and, due to the drugs and "deep hemorrhaging" around her neck, she died in her sleep that night. Yet despite the inherent risks of engaging in increasingly physical sexual activity, our generation is clearly captivated by it.

In Pornhub's 2015 Year in Review, a comprehensive look at the search analytics of their users worldwide, one of the most interesting statistics went relatively unnoticed. Ranking just under "lesbian" and "solo male," women are searching categories like "hardcore," "rough sex," and "bondage" significantly more often than men. The "rough sex" category alone was viewed by women 106 percent more often than men last year. Under "top gaining searches" for both men and women, the term "hard rough" was searched 454 percent more often in 2015 than in 2014.

Our porn habits aren't necessarily indicative of what we want IRL, but if we're watching rougher porn, does that mean our generation, generally speaking, is having rougher sex? And, furthermore, what do we even mean when we say "rough sex"? We spoke to six millennials and a sex therapist to investigate whether twentysomethings are playing harder in bed—and, for the first generation to have access to porn since before we even knew what sex was, what that actually looks like. Okay, we're not knocking on apartment doors with a postcoital census poll, so we can't exactly prove whether millennials are, in fact, getting rougher. But we can look at some common themes to examine where our boundaries tend to be and explore what seems to be the most dominant trend: a disturbing lack of education surrounding consent to these activities.

Are we getting kinkier?

Dr. Gloria Brame, sex therapist and author of Different Loving Too: Real People, Real Lives, Real BDSM, doesn't necessarily believe people are kinkier than they've been in previous generations, because she believes those desires to be inherently genetic.

"We're all wired for different things," explains Dr. Brame. "Some people are always going to be more intrigued by intensity. People in BDSM communities will say it's the internet that's transformed BDSM...I think that's because it allowed people who might previously have had a tiny fantasy to suddenly realize, 'Wow, does that mean I have the potential to be kinky?'"

In 1953, a Kinsey Institute study found that 55 percent of females and 50 percent of males had experienced an erotic response to being bitten. Clearly, desires for rougher play have always existed in some incarnation. We're also undoubtedly influenced by what we see around us. A University of Arkansas study from 2010 showed that 88 percent of the scenes from 50 top-selling porn videos contained a variety of aggressive acts, from spanking to gagging. 

Whether or not these desires are innate, it's undeniable that we've experienced a culture shift of rough sex and BDSM culture permeating mainstream media. As evidenced by the success of the (arguably misinformed) Fifty Shades of Grey and even the trendiness of bondage-inspired clothing, elements of BDSM have become increasingly commonplace. Rihanna's 2010 song "S&M" featured copious whips-and-chains references. Even a recent commercial for pistachios featured a dominatrix seemingly, um, making a pistachio submit to her command. So while humans have likely always had kinky desires, there's no question those desires are more widely accepted and embraced by pop culture today.

What does "rough" or "kinky" mean to us?

"Rough sex" is a fairly broad, vague phrase. When you search the category on Pornhub, words like "brutal," "punishment," and "anal humiliation" are among the first results. Clearly, it's varied, but we can explore what we consider to be "rough sex" in 2016, particularly as porn has made viewing physically aggressive sex more accessible. For some people, it means light hair pulling, and for others, it means being tied up and dominated.

In our discussion with millennial men and women on how they define "rough sex" (sex that may incorporate things like physical domination, spanking, or name-calling), these were some of the (pardon the pun) dominant themes:

Emotional Domination

If you spend much time on certain corners of the internet, "daddy" culture is a real, thriving thing. Appropriated from the gay community, "daddy" signifies an older man (or old-enough man) who's the dominant partner in the relationship. It's definitely trickled into the heterosexual realm, as indicated by the top five search results when you search "daddy" on Tumblr and, dare I say, Kylie Jenner's "Come to Daddy" T-shirt.

Emily, 24, and Brian, 22, are a couple who have explored this fantasy dynamic in their relationship. "We have rough sex sometimes, but it's usually more psychologically rough, like me being dominant in a 'motherly' way. There's nothing physically rough about it, but he's asked me to say some pretty mean things to him," Emily says.

Brian agrees that it doesn't have to be physical to be rough. "I think people are generally ignorant of just how kinky everyone else is," he says. "I was afraid of leaving my high school girlfriend because she was the only person I told about my mother/son fetish, but I've had a handful of partners since then indulge me in that. I'm into ... the idea that I'm not good enough to satisfy her."

Of all the themes that arose while reporting this story, this was the most disturbing. Robin, 23, described a one-night stand who tried to choke her during sex without asking first. "It was not okay with me by any means," she says. "Would it have been okay with me if, instead, they were a long-term partner? Most likely." But BDSM activity, even when consensual, can still be prosecuted under state criminal laws, according to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. In March, a federal court in Virginia ruled that there is "no constitutional right" to engage in even consensual BDSM.

There's a lot of interesting, valuable discussion surrounding consent and BDSM scenes on FetLife forums and through talks sponsored by the NCSF. Much of that conversation, however, may not reach young people who are experimenting without really becoming part of that community. Eddie Herrera's 25-year sentence for choking his girlfriend is proof of what can happen when these acts go wrong (and it is all too easy for something to go wrong).

We also tend to think of consent in the steps leading up to sex. But even if you're already in bed with someone, asking for consent needs to continue, particularly when playing around with anything that could potentially hurt someone. Kristin, 24, has had experiences with an ex-boyfriend who didn't seek her consent before trying things like name-calling and anal sex. Several months into the relationship, he all of a sudden started calling her a "dirty slut" and attempting anal sex—all with no warning. "It was the most unchill situation I've had with a partner I was actually dating," she says. "I most definitely stopped him and asked what the heck was up. It shifted the entire dynamic of the relationship, unfortunately."

Choking, Slapping, and Bondage

For Breanna, 26, hair-pulling immediately came to mind when asked what she considered to be rough sex. "Also choking—not like totally, but just a little bit," she added. Robin echoed that sentiment, citing acts like hair-pulling, slapping, and getting tied up. She enjoys more physically aggressive sex to an extent, but says she's on the lighter end of things—not a "BDSM dominatrix," but not a "vanilla missionary-style type" either.

But for some millennials, (including yours truly), light choking and hair-pulling are pretty standard bedroom play, and don't necessarily constitute rough sex by themselves. "Hair-pulling isn't very rough to me and can be part of non-rough sex," says Mark, 29. He considers bondage, whips, and pain play to be rough, but draws the line at choking. "Choking is next-level shit to me," he says. "I can't even see that. But I have enjoyed [rough sex] when I feel the idea was broached respectfully with me."

Face-slapping, in particular, is also discouraged by some members of the BDSM community, mostly because of risking permanent damage to your ears, eyes, or sinuses. This sort of education, though easily found on sex ed sites or even more informal forums like Reddit, might not be intentionally sought out when so many of us consider ourselves only casual experimenters.

Submit to Safety

Whether or not millennials, more so than previous generations, are playing rougher in bed is debatable, and when "rough" means so many different things to different people, asking for consent becomes even more crucial.

"Today, most of the people who do BDSM don't go to BDSM clubs," Dr. Brame says. "I feel like most of the rough sex is actually just going on between people who are exploring what gets them off. Today, it's about going out and having relationships that make you happy, whatever the dynamic…but sex can excite people to a degree of foolishness."

If we're reenacting what we see in porn in the bedroom, or if we're asking to be tied up after being inspired by FKA twigs's "Pendulum" video, what matters is that we're educated about the power of these acts beyond their pleasurable aesthetics. 

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