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Paolo Raeli 1
Photography Paolo Raeli

Why are hickeys so underrated?

Tracing the secret history of the controversial coital practice, here we ask experts why love bites are taboo

There are many ways for us to show our love (and lust) to someone. Whether it’s a simple snog on a summer night or a sweaty palm on the crotch in the dark – whatever floats your boat really. I’m not judging – us humans are pretty good at demonstrations of passion. But if there’s one bedroom antic that’s way more underground than it should be, it’s the love bite. Despite it seeming like a simple by-product of making out, it’s often viewed as carnal baggage, a bruise your mum absolutely cannot see. And yet, perhaps this raw assault of the neck is actually more paramount for sexual connection than culture is letting on.

Concerned that the hickey could spend another age under itchy scarves and at the very back of sex ed textbooks, I did what any hickey enthusiast would do and read some old books and consulted the professionals.

“It’s thought that we first got our neck-biting inspiration from watching animals fucking”


As with many sexual phenoms, the love bite can be traced back to ancient literature. It’s thought that we first got our neck-biting inspiration from watching animals fucking – naturally. English physician Havelock Ellis, intrigued by the meaning of the blessed hickey was luckily a man ahead of his time. In his 1913 book, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 3Ellis claims hickeys were first noticed in mammals. Land animals such as lions, wolves, and donkeys nibble each other as a sign of affection and to strengthen bonds. Early humans caught on followed suit.

The hickey’s first poetic nod comes from German romantic poet Heine, who wrote in 1855: "And at the shoulder looked she too – And them she kissed contented – Three little scars, joy-wounds her love In Passion’s hour indented." Surprising as it may be that the first literate love bite mention was penned barely 150 years ago, the act hasn’t reaped much more attention since. Its silence was broken in 1928, when the love bite became a source of investigation in the erotic guide Ideal Marriage. The book’s author H Van De Velde brands the hickey as having a “peculiar violence”, and that, at the time they were “so rare that they cannot be regarded as ‘normal’.” Awkward. It’s almost 100 years on, but things haven’t changed all that much for the hickey. Although modern people living in this sex-positive world wouldn’t necessarily call hickeys ‘abnormal’, they’re still vastly taboo and marks of lust to be ashamed of.


Often reduced to school playground fun and amateur sexual antics, even well-seasoned shaggers dismiss the hickey as stuff for neophytes – blow-jobs for kids. Like Grease’s hypersexual babe Rizzo, who powdered over her hickey from Kenickie with disdain, hiding the bruise from sight.

“It’s like the red scarlet – the mark of indecency,” Shannon Boodram, clinical sexologist and YouTube sexpert, who likes to keep it real when it comes to Gen Y sex advice, told Dazed Digital. “It is stupid because, at the end of the day, it’s just someone kissing on your neck, which most people probably have enjoyed in the past week.” But why would a sexual act that anyone can enjoy still be shameful? “For some reason the visual representation of it, people represent with being ‘classless’.”

Boodram also says that our culture, which likes to hide away sexual antics, can’t deal with hard evidence of a love bite bruise being flaunted around. “When you see a visual representation of (sex), then everyone knows what you did last night versus everyone doing the same thing but not talking about it. Which is how our society seems to prefer sexual activity.”

Ultimately, it might just be that the sexual satisfaction between love, pain and power is still too controversial for flaunting publicly. However, there is a slight resurgence in the visual proof of hickeys – photographers, artists, and sex-positive fiends are turning those negative connotations on their head and rejecting the taboo. Is it possible the obscure sexual act is becoming “trendy”? According to Boodram, it actually is. “It’s something that we’ve looked at for a long time as a ‘teenage’ thing or the mark of an inexperienced lover,” she told us. “As there’s more information about what an erogenous zone is and there’s more experimentation encouraged, more people are just going back to experimenting with the joys of touching and the elements around [sex] rather than just penetration.”

“When you see a visual representation of (sex), then everyone knows what you did last night versus everyone doing the same thing but not talking about it. Which is how our society seems to prefer sexual activity” – Shannon Boodram, clinical sexologist and YouTube sexpert


Despite society’s old-fashioned opinion of love bites, the act is highly primitive. Throughout the evolution of pleasure, enjoying giving and receiving love bites has been pretty organic. The neck is an erogenous zone highlight, and if you’re lucky enough to have a sexual partner with a mouth and a neck then you can get right to it.

“(The love bite is) one of those things that shouldn’t be ignored as you get older just because it’s a teenage thing,” says Boodram, adding: “Because it’s a human thing, it’s a pleasure thing.”

Giving love bites is also a classic in exerting power over our baes. Historically used by the male to tighten his grip on the female, Ellis wrote that the love bite wasn’t just a sexual impulse, but a way to prove your power. Pandering to stereotypical claims that women prefer to be submissive while dudes revel in dominance (this dated approach isn’t necessarily the case for all gals – the guy was alive in the 19th century), the physician also claimed the suck of love was an add-on to human sadist tendencies. Boodram agrees, but says women might actually be more likely to give their partners love bites to “stabilise their position as the head bitch.”

“There are so many subtle things we do sexually that are exertions of power,” Boodram says. “Playing with power is a very pleasurable thing. Playing with domination and submission, sadism and masochism, even on very small levels at the end of the day are very pleasurable elements. And love bites are a gateway drug to that.”

But how do we rid the rampant prudishness we find ourselves stuck in and free the hickeys of the world from their wooly cover-ups? Well, it’s unlikely to happen with one article or movement. “I think it takes a small shift over time,” says Boodram. “It’s the normalisation of conversation and people talking about it out in public.”

I guess, at the end of the day, if love bite lovers wish to unite and destigmatise those mottled bruises, breaking sexual taboos of all forms is the only way. Lips, teeth, tongues… loads of us are going full Twilight anyway, so we should be able to use those body parts to talk about it.