Can you count off the top of your head how many hickeys you saw on campus today? Chances are you can’t, either because there were too many to keep track of or because you barely thought anything of them. Hickeys are so normalized within the college culture that it’s easy to forget they weren’t always that way.
In most environments, hickeys are ranked within the realm of taboo. I remember getting a lot of looks one time when I had a hickey in high school. It wasn’t my first one, but, to this day, it was definitely still the worst. I literally experienced movie-esque moment of kids whispering and pointing at me. And sure, it was dark purple and the size of a golf ball. And I mean, yeah, it was on the back of my neck, causing questions like “How did that even happen, bruh?” But honestly, can’t we all just be mature? Sex is natural. As long as you’re being safe, whatever you choose to do in your sex life shouldn’t be controversial. So why are they such a big deal to some people?
My mom always told me that hickeys are trashy. The few times she saw me with one—which wasn’t often because I would almost always find a way to hide them—she would ask me why I was letting my boyfriends disrespect me, or why that was really the way I wanted to be viewed at school. I wasn’t really thinking about what people would think or the power dynamics in my relationships. Hickeys just kind of… happen. They’re an exchange between two people, so they shouldn’t be anyone else’s business, right? That sounds simple enough, but it neglects the fact that hickeys are prominent, bright marks bound to draw the eyes of the public. If something is left out on display, is it really no one else’s business?
Typically, when I spot someone with a hickey, my impulse is to quickly look away–not because I feel scandalized or abashed, but more because I’ve just gained access to a piece of someone’s personal life I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. It feels like I’m intruding, especially when I don’t even know that person. And before anybody gets skeptical about the impact I’m claiming to have over these encounters, I’d like to argue that you can infer a lot by looking at a hickey. Shape, size, intensity, location… it all combines to paint an image of exactly what went down. I’ll even wager that if someone really trained themselves and honed in on the art, it would be possible to determine pieces of a person’s, or maybe more so their partner’s, psychology just by examining their hickeys.
While most of us aren’t precisely trained in the field of hickiology, I think that on some level, we all gain unnecessary insights when we spot a hickey. So it’s understandable that some people get uncomfortable or view them as taboo. And I definitely get why a parent would cringe to see one on their child. In college, though, knowing way too much about your peers at all times is just reality. Communal bathrooms, publicly crying to your mom on the phone, breaking up with your boyfriend in the middle of Campus Center dining hall… Basically, if I can hear my neighbors fucking through the thin Terrace 8 walls, glimpsing a hickey the next day is really no trip. But when we step outside the bubble of college, it makes sense that some people might view hickeys as scandalous. Especially parents who grew up in a time when people were less open about their sex lives.
Generational gaps aside, I think I understand a piece of my mom’s concern. Some hickeys are more innocent than others, or perhaps I should say, some are more intentional than others. There’s the light, smattered type that usually occur due to a genuine attempt at pleasuring a partner. And then there are the dark purple, golf ball sized type that are placed, almost certainly, to make heads turn. I believe this is also referred to as a “claiming” hickey. I’m not trying to say that everyone sporting a dark hickey has just had an unpleasant experience. If you’re into that, there is nothing inherently wrong about it. However, I do think it’s a good idea, in any situation, to be aware of the intent behind your actions. Before you leave a dark hickey, make sure your partner is comfortable both receiving it and dealing with it after the fact. If you’re a person who enjoys receiving hickeys, keep in mind that while few people will bat an eye in a progressive college atmosphere, that reaction will not be the case everywhere you go. Sexuality can be complex and confusing, so it’s important that we all take the time to consider the significance of our own desires, as well as the impact they can have when we interact with others.