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Is Everyone Having Rough Sex?

Women are finally talking about wanting forceful sex—and what it means about you if you do.

It first happened at a party last November. I was making small talk with some girls I didn’t know too well. Given the context (strangers plus relative sobriety), I was surprised when the conversation turned to something pretty risqué: one of the women mentioned wishing her boyfriend was rougher with her in bed.

Another chimed in with a story about coaxing a hesitant ex into experimenting with rougher, kinkier stuff. Pretty soon, we were all gabbing about forceful sex with the same breezy air we’d use to discuss an episode of The Mindy Project. Even otherwise decorous party guests seemed to have something to say about, maybe, slapping and spanking during sex.

Since that party, the topic of rough sex has come up again and again, as improbable as discussing it in public once seemed to be. It’s not that rough sex as a concept is new (the Romans were down with it, according to ancient frescoes), but rather, rough sex seems to have come out of the closet. Women (and men!) have long experimented with sexual power dynamics—it just hasn’t been fodder for polite cocktail conversation. Until now.

The Rough-Sex Renaissance

In the era of fourth-wave feminism, equal rights, and Leaning In, it can be tricky for some women to admit that when the lights go off, they want to be dominated and pushed around a little, even in the context of consensual play (which is, to be clear, what we’re discussing here). But the truth is, many women (as many as 57 percent, according to a University of North Texas study) are turned on by the idea of forceful sex, as unpleasant as it might be. “This is not a fringe desire,” says sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at New York University and founder of the Casual Sex Project blog. “This is much more common.”

In 2011, Fifty Shades Of Grey marked the first time a book about kinky and rough sex disappeared from bookshelves at an astonishing rate. Yet much of the buzz it sparked initially was hushed conversations at girls’ nights. And its immense popularity as an e-book—it was the first book to sell one million copies for Kindle— suggests that many fans weren’t cool with friends coming over and seeing a fetish-themed book jacket on their coffee table. Fast-forward to July just three years later: the racy trailer for the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades premiered not on HBO, not on latenight TV, but on cheery, morning-time Today (US). That made it official: kinky, rough sex has gone mainstream.

“I had a partner who choked me a little bit, and I liked it,” confesses Nikita, a 29-year-old teacher from Bengaluru. “We talked about it afterwards, and things progressed from there—slapping, spanking, degrading sex talk. Since then, it’s been a part of my sex life.” But even for women who, like Nikita, consider rough play an integral part of their sexual appetites, the perceived implications of wanting to be dominated can lead to self-doubt. As 21st-century women, we’ve worked hard to be respected, treated as equals, and viewed as strong. What does it mean for women that we’ve made all this progress, only to like being roughed up or degraded during sex? “I constantly wonder what my fetish says about me as a person,” Shreya, a 23-year-old student admits.

The Psychology of Submission

Liking to be choked or dominated doesn’t mean you’re damaged, it doesn’t mean you’re sexist, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re okay with being bossed around in any other context. “Most women who are into rough sex are into it for a very simple reason: it turns them on,” explains sex and relationship therapist Stephen Snyder, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NYC. As evolved as we’ve become, some aspects of sexual attraction are, well, primal. “Physical size and strength and muscularity are essential differences between men and women,” says Dr Snyder, “and those kinds of differences are going to be erotic.”

That’s not to say a penchant for rough play is the sole domain of hetero couples. What really makes rough sex sexy is the urgency factor— someone wants you so badly, he can’t stop himself from pinning you to the bed. “To feel that power, that’s a seriously arousing situation!” says Claire Cavanah, co-author of Moregasm and co-founder of US-based sex-toy store, Babeland.

For many women, who so often grow up thinking sex is dirty or bad, engaging in sexual play in which they’re ‘forced’ into sexual acts can help alleviate feelings of guilt or anxiety. “It’s a way for women to share responsibility for their desires,” explains Vrangalova. “During sex, I’m so often thinking neurotic thoughts, so the more someone is able to shake me, literally, into the present moment, the easier sex is for me to enjoy,” says Amena.