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How Do Most Couples Define "Rough" Sex?

Most commonly, being tied up, pinned down, slapped, or bitten.

Key points

  • The term "rough sex" has made its way into our pop culture, however no research to date has defined what exactly that term means.
  • Among people of different genders, orientations, and political ideologies, what behaviors are considered to be "rough sex"?
  • Being tied up, being pinned down, slapping, and biting, were the most commonly endorsed behaviors associated with rough sex.

While the concept of “rough sex” isn’t new, it is becoming an increasingly common part of our mainstream discourse. Whether it’s the rise of media attention on choking or song lyrics on the radio that describe spanking and sex that hurts, “rough sex” is without a doubt entering our pop culture lexicon.

But what exactly do we mean when we say we like, don't like, or want to try having, rough sex? And do our sexual partners mean the same thing when they think about rough sex?

The Study

In a new study, recently published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, researchers set out to explore how people conceptualize rough sex, specifically focusing on comparisons across genders, sexual orientations, and political-ideological backgrounds.

The study included 4,898 participants (2043 women, 1858 men, 10 transgender women, 16 trans men, 46 non-binary individuals). The vast majority of participants (n = 4081) were heterosexual and, while participants ranged from “extremely liberal” (n = 428) to “extremely conservative” (n = 47), the most common response (n = 1253) was “liberal.”

Participants were asked the question: “People have different ideas about what they think rough sex means. What does it mean to you (select all that apply)? Followed by 13 behaviors. They included: hair pulling, being pinned down, biting, being tied up, slapping, chocking, scratching, hair thrusting, punching, spanking, throwing someone into a bed, making someone have sex, and tearing clothes off.

What Do We Mean by "Rough Sex?"

Some of the most commonly endorsed behaviors that were considered rough sex across all participants were choking, hair pulling, and spanking; each being endorsed by at least two-thirds of each subgroup.

Being tied up, being pinned down, slapping, biting, and scratching were endorsed by about half to two-thirds of participants, and throwing someone into a bed was endorsed by approximately half of participants. Just under half of the participants in this study identified tearing clothes off to mean rough sex. Punching was only endorsed by around one third of participants. Making someone have sex was the least endorsed behavior considered to be rough sex, endorsed by less than one-fifth of study participants.

The authors also looked and which behaviors might form together in a cluster or, in other words, be considered somewhat similar or related.

Hair pulling, being pinned down, hard thrusting, spanking, and throwing someone onto the bed were found to create one cluster of behaviors for both men and women. The second cluster consisted of being tied up, slapping, choking, punching, and making someone have sex. Across genders, tearing off clothes was the only notable difference, with women having this fitting in with the first cluster and men having it as a separate third cluster.

In terms of sexual orientation, 10 of the 13 rough sex behaviors were clustered in the same way across heterosexual, gay and lesbian, and bisexual subgroups. Specifically, hair pulling, being pinned down, hard thrusting, throwing someone onto a bed, and tearing clothes off were all grouped into one cluster. Additionally being tied up, slapping, chocking, punching, and making someone have sex were grouped together in a second cluster of behaviors. Three of the remaining items (spanking, scratching, and biting) varied across groups.

There were virtually no differences across political-ideological subgroups in terms of how behaviors were clustered.

Take Away

Whatever kind of sex we like having, whether vanilla or rough sex or anything in between, it’s important to have a shared understanding of what we want or don’t want and be able to communicate our needs clearly with our partner. While this study suggests mostly similar perspectives across subgroups, there was still a fair bit of variation in terms of what constitutes rough sex within each group. Further, there are behaviors outside of the list used in this study that some people may consider rough sex (e.g., feeling degraded, name-calling, and so forth). It's important to communicate clearly what you are comfortable and not comfortable with when exploring rough sex with a partner.

Facebook image: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock


Svetina Valdivia, D., Herbenick, D., Fu, T., Eastman-Mueller, E., Guerra-Reyes, L., Rosenberg, M. (2022). Meanings of rough sex across gender sexual identity, and political ideology: A conditional covariance approach. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2022. 2029781

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