Whether you’re single and sleeping around or shacked up and living vicariously through your mates’ wild dating lives, you’ll have likely heard that sex is going through a rough patch right now.
You might remember the fever dream that was Matty Healy kissing fans on stage, which feels like a decent indicator of a candidly kinky sexual climate. And, although I’ve never read it myself, I subscribe to the fairly mainstream view that this kind of thing is a direct result of a certain horny-mum book, which has helped divide modern sex into two distinct eras: pre- and post-Fifty Shades of Grey.
There’s a whole generation of people, myself included, who’ve never had sex in a world uninhabited by the 2011 erotic phenomenon. Granted, we weren’t the target audience for the franchise, and many of us have probably never engaged with it, but the fact remains. Despite being naff, poorly written (so I’ve heard) and derided by BDSM practitioners, who accused it of presenting the kink as a pathology and conflating it with abuse, Fifty Shades undoubtedly brought BDSM into mainstream consciousness, even if it portrayed it badly.
Of course, it’s not the only reason kink practices are more publicly prevalent now: we’ve got internet porn, social media, dating apps and pop culture in general to thank for that, too. But Fifty Shades has been hugely influential – not only in terms of the sex we have today, but also the way we talk about it, even subconsciously. Basically, Christian Grey walked so you could do a bit of light spanking in bed and post about it on KinkTok afterwards.
OK, maybe that’s a little reductive, but there are stats to back it up. 2015 data links 2012 and 2013 spikes in sex toy injuries to the publication of Fifty Shades. Then, following the release of the film, BDSM-related searches on Pornhub skyrocketed.
Later stats point to the popularity of rough sex more specifically, which falls under the umbrella of BDSM, with 2018 research finding that rough sex is one of the two most common things people fantasise about. More recently, 80 percent of participants in a 2021 study said they were into rough sex. Pornhub statistics seem to support this: rough sex porn is consistently popular, particularly with women aged 18 to 34 and Brits. We may be an island of batshit traditions, but at least we’re kinkier than other nations. Even though rumours of a “sex recession” have been swirling around the internet for the last couple of years, it feels good to know the sex we are having is at least a little rough around the edges.
So, Fifty Shades aside, what’s made us all so horny for rough sex? And what does that look like for young people in the UK?
22-year-old David* from Milton Keynes has been having rough sex since losing his virginity (well, the second time he ever had sex). What does he consider to be rough? “Choking, hair-pulling, face slapping, fingers in the mouth, manhandling, throwing your partner around, holding them down and hard, fast, deep sex”, he says. “I’m into the power, the control, the possession of it [all],” he says. “Vanilla sex is passionate, yes, but you’re physically pushing yourself and your partner to the brink with [rough sex]. I like to watch those limits knowing I’m breaking them. It’s a power trip for me.”
London-based Phoebe*, 25, takes on a more submissive role during rough sex. “I suppose I’m into all the entry-level BDSM stuff, like slapping, spitting, hitting and really degrading talk like being called disgusting or a slut,” she says. “On a surface level, I like the intensity of feelings; how extreme and passionate it all feels, and how you’re forced to be really in the moment focusing on pain [versus] pleasure. On a deeper level – and I’m yet to talk to my therapist about this – liking rough sex could have something to do with feeling like you should be punished for wanting sex, which in turn makes it hotter because you feel like you’re doing something wrong.”
The dynamic isn’t always this gendered, though. In fact, the bondage category “femdom” was one of Pornhub’s top 20 categories worldwide in 2022. 25-year-old Rayna from Portsmouth, for example, is a dominant whose definition of rough sex is a little more extreme. “I really like blood,” she says. “[An ex] really hated the back tattoo he’d gotten years ago, so I attached sword razor blades to a cat‑o’-nine tails whip and spun it as slow as I could, brushing the tails across his back and drawing blood. It was brilliant.”
Even if we’re not going so far as to make our lovers bleed, more of us are definitely choking, or getting choked, during sex, as per recent surveys. This is great if you’re into it, doing so consensually, but it seems this isn’t always the case. Yes, porn probably does have an influence, but despite what anti-porn crusaders would like us to believe, it’s more likely sex misinformation and a lack of comprehensive sex education that’s really to blame. (Until 2020, UK courts allowed perpetrators of violent crimes to use the “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades” defence to claim that injury or death, often inflicted via strangulation, was an “accidental” result of “rough sex gone wrong”.)
If you’re interested in rough sex, then, particularly on the more extreme end of things – like consensual non-consent – it’s important to do proper research. Before you get too excited, watching porn doesn’t count as research, because you don’t see all the prep or aftercare that goes into a rough consensual encounter. But there are plenty of online kink schools that can guide you instead.
Still, plenty of people are safely, consensually and roughly engaging in BDSM behind closed doors, or wherever else. This boom could be a result of the increased normalisation of casual sex with strangers, which has helped open up a new world of sexual experiences for many, which is partly fuelled by kink-specific apps like Feeld.
For Phoebe, having rough sex in these scenarios “is more accessible than slow, loving, relationship-esque sex because it feels less personal,” so she feels she’s able to let loose and “enjoy casual hook-ups more”. Also, shagging strangers is often accompanied by drinking, which itself is a lubricant for more adventurous, riskier sex.
Then we have the after-effects of the pandemic to contend with. Maybe we’re all indulging in some post-lockdown, sex party-era hedonism, responding to our months-long boredom and, for some, celibacy, with wild, passionate and intensely tactile sex. It’s also just a fairly shit time to be young. We have very little control over our lives and our futures, so engaging in some hot, rough sex feels like a way of mindfully reclaiming some of that control, particularly for marginalised groups.
There are other plausible explanations, too, like the possibility that people are conflating rough sex with good sex, the former being an “easy” go-to when you don’t know what someone likes; that people are watching more rough porn and enjoying emulating it; or that we’ve all been having rough sex for ages, but are simply more vocal about it now.
Or maybe there isn’t a rhyme or reason to any of it. Rough sex can make for exciting escapism, feel really good and even enhance orgasms. Surely those are reasons good enough to (consensually! safely!) slap the hell out of each other.