- A recent study of college students' sexual behavior found that while the definition of "rough sex" differs from person to person, the practice should be considered normative.
- Of participants in relationships, about 4 in 5 had engaged in rough sex with their partner, and almost all reported at least some enjoyment of it.
- Transgender and non-binary individuals reported higher rates of rough sex enjoyment than others.
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. 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%)
- 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%)
- 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 assume that your definition is necessarily the same as theirs.
The researchers also looked at experience with and enjoyment of rough sex behaviors. Among those who had a current sexual or romantic partner (about 36% of the sample), 79% 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 previous 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 the 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. Greater frequency of rough sex behavior was linked to trans or non-binary identification, bisexual identification, and higher levels of alcohol consumption. 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 terms of rough sex enjoyment, 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 rough sex enjoyment 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, prevalence, 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?
That said, these results add significantly to our understanding of rough sex and suggest that this is more than just a popular fantasy for most young adults in relationships; it’s also a common reality (although it is important to recognize that "rough sex" seems to mean different things to different people).
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 considered to be a fringe interest and activity; however, the fantasy and the behavior actually seem so common as to be a normative part of human sexuality.
Facebook image: 4 PM production/Shutterstock
Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Hachette Go.
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.