I learned that hickeys were naughty from That ’70s Show. Brassy teen Donna (played by Laura Prepon) had left a sizable one on the neck of helplessly innocent Eric (Topher Grace) after the two began to date. The next morning at breakfast, Eric’s catty older sister, Laurie (Lisa Robin Kelly), can’t help herself — she has to call it out to the entire family. “This is just like a Norman Rockwell painting,” she says. “Mom is serving breakfast, Daddy is reading the newspaper, and brother Eric is trying to hide a big, purple, nasty hickey.” Eric looks bashful but can’t hide a hint of pride. Not content to leave it at that, Laurie caps it off with one more tease: “You know, Eric, hickeys lead to dirty things.”
It wasn’t just this scene. It seemed like every time hickeys were mentioned — on TV, in movies, by my friends — the hickey itself was the dirty thing. If you were a “nice” kid, not only were you not supposed to let people see that you had been so vulgar as to score one, you weren’t meant to feel proud of it. Hickeys were often a source of embarrassment, never to be acknowledged; even today, there are TikTok challenges and videos dedicated to showing people how to remove them. They were symbols of reckless young love: overtly sexual, shameless, eager. They also struck me as hungry. But, I wondered, What’s so bad about hunger? Being so aroused by someone that you wanted to sink your teeth into them and leave a memento sounded hot. It wasn’t the idea of possessiveness that appealed to me, but the romanticized idea of being so wrapped up in someone else’s body that you didn’t care about the visible consequences.
Maybe this feeling was rooted in my obsession with vampires (pre-Twilight, thank you very much), but I was curious. And by the time I finally got my first hickey — in my late teens, from a tall, dark-haired man whose name I can’t remember now but whose lips I absolutely do — I thought they were downright delicious. I’d soon find that giving them was just as pleasurable, an indulgent act of passion. In the 1987 movie Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage as unlikely lovers Loretta and Ronny, Loretta’s mom, Rose, spots one on Loretta’s neck after she’s been canoodling with Ronny, her ex-fiancé’s brother. Rose yells, “You got a love bite on your neck … What’s the matter with you? Your life’s going down the toilet! Cover up that damn thing!” Later, Rose spies one on Ronny’s neck, too. Two mouth-shaped clues, and their romance is out in the open. The odd pair were so sure they might never find true love, and now they are ravenous for each other’s bodies, time, and love. There’s nothing juvenile about that.
Hickeys have an instinctual origin and are rooted in our basic biology. The process is simple: You use your lips as a vacuum and suck to the point that blood vessels under the recipient’s skin burst, creating a bruise. This can take just a few seconds or result from a longer process (though too much pressure can injure blood vessels and, in extremely rare instances, lead to death). They go from red to a purple or brown hue as they linger, and can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks.
The word “hickey” entered the English lexicon in 1934 as a relative of “doohickey” (which denotes something that doesn’t have an official term), but the practice likely existed well before that. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, described “kissing-like behaviors” in cultures where people didn’t kiss mouth to mouth, including licking, tapping another person’s skin, pressing one’s nose over another person’s cheek, sucking, and several other ways people are intimate with others and express how they feel.
These kissing-adjacent behaviors are universal. That’s what Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of The Science of Kissing, told me, adding that they start early in life. “Our first experiences with love and security usually involve lip pressure and stimulation through behaviors that mimic kissing, like nursing or bottle feeding. These early events lay down important neural pathways in a baby’s brain that associate kissing with positive emotions,” she said. She called the lips “the body’s most exposed erogenous zone”; they purse outwardly, unlike those of other animals. “They are packed with sensitive nerve endings, so even the slightest brush sends a cascade of information to our brains, which can feel very good,” Kirshenbaum said.
Lips may be among the most sensitive parts of our bodies, but we often give hickeys on different erogenous zones, like the neck, chest, or inner thigh. When a mouth explores these areas, it’s like a lightning bolt of sensation, and the effects aren’t limited to just one area. During an especially heated kiss, a person’s cheeks flush, their pulse quickens, their breathing can become irregular, and their pupils dilate, which may explain why so many of us close our eyes during the act, Kirshenbaum said. Kissing also promotes oxytocin, aka the “love hormone,” which works to maintain a special connection between two people by generating a feeling of positivity associated with the other person. It also causes a rise in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for craving and desire. Serotonin, which also spikes during kissing, can lead to obsessive thoughts about a partner. “It’s interesting to consider how such hormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for many of the ‘symptoms’ we associate with falling in love,” Kirshenbaum said.
But lust, rather than love, is really the primary connotation of a hickey. There’s something thrilling about the obvious thirstiness; above all, a hickey is visible. It is, in a sense, a way of marking territory, which can feel silly when you’re no longer a teenager. Sometimes, though, it can feel like a sweet reminder of pleasure. Many of us have sex and talk about it openly, and yet we’re often keen to hide every bit of evidence that it ever happened. That seems to be largely because of enduring taboos around sex, which in some quarters is still considered predominantly a baby-making process and a private act.
Sarah Siddiqui, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, said that there are a range of reasons someone might give a hickey. “Adults absolutely give hickeys, and sometimes it’s to tap into that feeling of being young again,” they said. “Many will do it when they’re just starting to see someone, so it can be a marker of the excitement associated with a new relationship.” When we see adults with hickeys, we assume they want us to see them, like that time Kendall Jenner and Anwar Hadid stepped out with what seemed like morning-after hickeys, leaving social media speculating that they were an item.
Sabrina Boxer, a 23-year-old New York–based digital media planner, is one advocate. “I love hickeys as a sign that whoever you’re with is into connecting with your body and spirit and leaving their mark on you,” she told me. “For me, it’s sexy that someone wants a physical representation of their presence and your time shared together. Besides feeling good in the heat of the moment, that extra level of physical touch and connection only increases the sense of intimacy and passion for me.” Nico Jones, a 28-year-old musician in Dallas, said the appeal was primal in nature. “Hickeys are like marking territory. They represent an intimate thing that happened and make me feel like a caveman,” he said. “The adrenaline and dopamine rush from that alone is enough to get me going.”
It’s easy to get carried away, but consent and communication are still important. I once had a partner leave a string of hickeys around my throat without checking whether that was OK, and I ended up taking a sick day to hide them. “This is something to negotiate,” Siddiqui said. “The harder and longer you suck on someone’s skin, the darker and more long-lasting it is. It’s also important to check in about how much pressure you're applying, how much you involve your teeth, and for how long you maintain contact with their skin. Not everyone can tolerate that sensation for long periods of time or at a high intensity, so periodically stop and ask while also ensuring you’re fostering an atmosphere where your partner feels empowered to tell you to stop.”
According to sex and relationships therapist Tynan Rhea, as we get older, hickeys become more of a deliberate choice. “In adulthood, the decision to give or receive a hickey becomes significantly more conscious,” they said. “I think, as we get to know our own and others’ bodies better, we have a better sense of how to do what without leaving a mark if we want to, or how to leave a mark when we want to. I’ve known many kinky people who really enjoy being marked up by impact play, including biting and hickeys, and people who love leaving marks. There can be a really fun and playful power-play element to the experience. Also, depending on where the bruises are, they may be a way to publicly show off kinky play without anyone actually knowing what the bruises are from — quite possibly a really gentle, sneaky-fun expression of sexuality in public spaces without feeling too exposed.”
Hickeys aren’t always about ownership or exhibitionism. Ultimately, they should be the result of fun and pleasure. As someone on Reddit said, “I love them. It feels really good for me to get them and I love the way they look … They’re incredibly hot to me and a wonderful reminder.” If that means, as Rose warned Loretta, that our lives are going down the toilet? So be it. At least it felt good getting there. ●
Correction: Sarah Siddiqui uses they/them pronouns. An earlier version of this story used incorrect pronouns for them.