You’ve heard people talk about it, and maybe you’ve watched it in a movie or in porn, but you’re still unsure what rough sex and rough play is all about. That’s totally fair, and, truth be told, there’s no solid answer because rough sex means something different to everyone.
However, if you and your partner are both hoping to get a bit rougher in the bedroom, we’re here to help you better understand the rough side of sex and ease you into the actual practice of rough play.
What is rough sex?
A general definition of rough sex” and/or “rough play is “when aggressive behaviors are incorporated into sexual acts,” relationship coach Carmel Jones tells O.school. “It's usually faster, involves elements of consensual pleasurable pain — like biting, spanking, slapping, consensual choking, scratching, etc. — and is often described as 'passionate' or 'kinky.' ”
Julia Koerwer, LMSW, an NYC-based therapist who works with clients who practice BDSM or kink, tells O.school, “much like the definition of "kinky," the definition of ‘rough’ is nebulous and depends on the individual.” For example, one person may consider biting, hair-pulling, and scratching to be “rough,” while another person may consider those activities to be more basic. You can define what rough sex means to you based on your personal comfort level.
Is rough sex BDSM?
“Rough play is just one of the many characteristics of BDSM [bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism], but you don’t have to be involved officially in the BDSM lifestyle in order to have rough sex,” sex and relationship expert, and member of the BDSM community, David Essel M. S. O.M., tells O.school.
Any sexually active couple might enjoy “being in control or being completely submissive and seeing how deep they can go in regards to rough play or rough sex,” Essel says. “But the main lifestyle in which this becomes a normal part of a couple’s sexual experience would absolutely be in the alternative lifestyle of some form of BDSM.”
Jones adds, “Rough sex is not BDSM when it doesn't involve an unequal power dynamic… If both partners are engaging in rough sex without that element, it's not technically BDSM. That being said, BDSM can slip in and slip out, but official BDSM rules are usually defined and discussed before two partners engage in it. With rough sex, that isn't always the case (although a conversation should be had).”
Why do people like rough sex?
There are myriad of reasons why people might enjoy having rough sex, with one reason being that it can feel better than “vanilla sex.” A 2019 study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science found that “rough sex is triggered by curiosity and a need for novelty, and that both men and women often initiate rough sexual behaviors.” And, per Men’s Health, the same study, which involved 734 participants, found that rough sex often leads to women orgasming faster, and both men and women answered that their rough sex orgasms were more intense.
When it comes to inflicting and/or receiving consensual pain, orders, and aggressive actions, either scenario can cause arousal depending on the person.
“Physiologically, many people react very positively if they are the initiator of rough sex, they desire to be in control and allow their mind and body to do just what comes naturally to them,” Essel says. “On the other hand, ‘the submissive,’ in this scenario of rough play can also physiologically become incredibly aroused as the tension and the degree of rough sex increases.”
Again, people like rough sex for different reasons. As long as you’re seeking pleasure for all involved parties, then your want for rough sex is warranted and definitely worth a try.
What to consider before engaging in rough sex.
It’s important to note that what might sound fun to you as a fantasy, might not be fun for you in practice. For that reason it’s very important to ease into rough sex slowly to test the waters of what you do and don’t enjoy. You also need to consider that things you want to try may be triggering to a partner. “A trauma response can be triggered through relatively light rough play in those that have experienced even mild levels of violent trauma previously,” sex therapist and writer at Choosing Therapy Indigo Stray Conger LMFT CST, tells O.school. “Restriction and impact play can cause injury. Breath restriction is particularly important to practice safely […]“
Discussing mental and/or physical health issues before having the rough sex discussion is key to being on the same page and keeping everyone involved safe and happy.
How to have rough sex if you’ve never tried before.
Start slow and with the basics. “When venturing into new territory, move very slowly, talk too much rather than not enough,” Gender Studies scholar and sexuality and consent expert Ariadne Wolf tells O.school, “and prioritize the relationship over momentary sexual indulgence.” Jones agrees, telling O.school, “Start in your comfort zone. Don't do anything wild right off the bat. Ease into it and slowly adjust your boundaries as you become more comfortable.” Check in with yourself and your partner frequently to make sure everything is feeling good and comfortable.
With that said, here are a few tips for those who are ready to ease into the rough sex territory.
1. Get consent.
First, and most importantly, talk to your partner about what’s about to go down and if you’re both okay with it. “When we are talking about something potentially dangerous (emotionally or physically) in a sexual setting, there needs to be a talk in order to establish true consent,” Jones reiterates. “Aggressive sex without that talk is arguably nonconsensual.”
“Get into specifics as much as possible,” Koerwer says. “What activities are okay? What parts of the body are okay for which activities? How will we decide when we're done with one type of play and want to move into something else? How will we check in with each other?” And absolutely establish a safe word that can be used at any moment to signal a full stop to any activity. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during a sexual act.
2. Be your own guinea pig.
In order to figure out what kind of rough play you might like, it’s important to try it out on yourself first to better inform your partner. “Studies show that different people register very different levels of sensation from the exact same touch, such as a caress, scratch, slap, or pressure, so it’s important to communicate about which sensations feel good to EACH of you,” Relationship and sex coach Michele Lisenbury Christensen tells O.school.
If you think you might enjoy harder thrusting, practice with a sex toy. Or, if you think a nibble here and there could be fun, nibble your own arm first and test the intensity that works for you. Another great way to check out what kind of rough play is available to you is to watch some porn to see what turns you on.
3. Get into the right mindset.
Set the mood for rough play by talking dirty with your partner or sending a few sexts to build up the tension for when the sex actually goes down. If you’re feeling awkward about it, there are ways to ease into dirty talk and phone sex, too.
4. Have the right tools on hand.
Before getting down and dirty, make sure you have lube ready to go. (You can never have enough!) Have things that might feel comforting or sweet to you or your partner after engaging in rough sex — perhaps candles, comfy pillows, etc. Having water close by is always recommend, too, as rough sex can be a workout.
5. Get your grab on.
When getting into rough sex for the first time, it’s good to start small. Before bringing in any toys (if that’s what you eventually want to try), experiment with some light hair-pulling. Pay attention to what feels good for you and your partner. If you’re enjoying your hair being pulled, you can ask your partner to pull harder. You can grab your partner’s wrists while you kiss, or grab their waist tighter. Positioning your partner to get more handsy than usual is also a great way to set your rough playdate into motion. A firm grab communicates to your partner that you want them, and badly.
6. Nibble an ear or finger.
There’s something cheeky about giving your partner a gentle, yet firm, bite during a make-out session or sex. Start with light biting before leaving any teeth marks — some people aren’t into the whole Jaws thing.
7. Kiss harder than you usually do.
Christensen recommends engaging in something like, “shoving your partner onto the bed or against the wall and kissing them hard.” Harding kissing, with a good amount of tongue, can also effectively communicate your lust for your partner.
8. Put some oomph in your thrusting.
Harder thrusting shows you’re energized, and again, expresses your want for sex in that moment. Plus, it will feel just as great for you as it does them.
9. Experiment with speed and pressure.
If you and your partner are enjoying intense kissing or thrusting, then try going faster and harder. You can use dirty talk to communicate whether or not you’re both into it. Something like “Yeah, baby, do you like that?” works just fine.
10. Try sex positions that allow for more control.
Positioning a partner or yourself up against a wall, while they are behind you, is a great position for rough sex. This allows for tight waist-grabbing, and for more intense movements. You can try slapping their ass, if they’ve okay’ed this action, and you can do more hair-pulling while talking dirty.
Aftercare is just as important as taking care of your partner during rough sex.
Once the sex winds down, check in with yourself and with your partner. Did you both enjoy what just happened? What could you two do differently next time? Koerwer says that discussing the aftercare period before sex might result in a better experience.
“How would you like to be treated by your partner after rough play? Some basics, like making sure you have water on hand, are always a good idea, but would you like to be held or soothed? Do you want to jump right into the shower? Do you want to be left alone?” Koerwer notes.
Once you’ve nailed down the basics, you might want to take things to the next level.
Perhaps once hair pulling, harder thrusting, and grabbing become part of the norm, you can venture into biting, spanking, and minor restriction (rope play, handcuffs, basic bondage, etc.). Again, this upgrade should be a discussion between all involved parties, and safe words should be adhered to. Before trying something like rope play, be sure to educate yourself on how to safely tie and untie ropes. Safety and consent should always be the priority.
Once you feel comfortable with different types of rough play, you and your partner can even work within a “levels system,” as Christensen says. “I’ve had clients establish [three] or sometimes [four] different levels of aggression so they both understand what they mean by the shorthand ‘level 1’ (maybe hard kissing or gentle nips or pressure) or ‘level 4 (this might leave a welt or a bruise). It’s totally okay for one of you to want to receive more roughness than the other does.” Just be sure to both be on the same page about what you’re willing to do or not.
Pleasure during rough play is key, and as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing rough play right.
Remember, if anything hurts too much or feels wrong in any way, stop what you’re doing and communicate how you’re feeling. Although the moves themselves are aggressive, both parties should be open and encourage the sharing of thoughts and feelings. Rough sex should feel good and fun for all involved, and half the fun is experimenting with new forms of play.