I remember a girl in school whose boyfriend always had hickeys. We called her Hoover, and I looked upon her with a certain measure of awe and curiosity. She claimed that he had sensitive skin and that she “didn’t mean to do it,” but her embarrassment always carried with it a touch of pride and amusement. Technically, since it was an admission of just how far they were going on a regular basis, she, being a modest, sweet girl, would have been expected more embarrassed than she was. But I think she liked it in the manner that dogs like being able to smell only their urine on the trees surrounding their property. Hickeys in your teens are a symbol of ownership and are in some ways a public display of where you are in your relationship.
Hickeys in your twenties, I found out the hard way, are not a matter of pride. Sometime in my mid-twenties, I went back to my hometown to attend a wedding. After taking a handsome groomsman home from the wedding (to my parents’ house no less!), I spent the rest of the next day grinning coyly to myself over my conquest. That was until I realized that the tank top I had been sporting all day had left the giant hickey said groomsman had bestowed upon me, to speak for itself. And speak it did: to my new landlord, (who, I’m not kidding, also just happened to be in the wedding party) and to my co-workers who finally questioned my choice of turtlenecks in blistering summer temperatures. On the bright side, I didn’t see my parents before scurrying back to the city the next morning.
Hickeys on the neck are very junior high, but hickeys below the neck can be kind of sexy. (Tired of the constant tormenting he suffered, the above girl’s boyfriend gave her a big fat one on the forehead in an attempt to forestall her hoovering—facial hickeys, not cool!) In a sense, in the war of the sexes, hickeys and other markings are like war wounds. They are reminders of the passion that surrounded them. A hickey on your stomach, or on your thigh is like a snapshot of that moment, and it can mean that we can relive that moment every time we see it.
Hickeys can also be territorial well into adulthood. If you are worried that your partner is being unfaithful, a well-placed hickey is tantamount to leaving a deposit for the other guy to find. A hickey establishes territory in that it establishes where one has been. I know of a guy who was busted for cheating by his girlfriend when he dropped his shorts and exposed the work of another girl with a big hickey on the tip of his penis. You don’t get much more damning than that.
Hickeys may be high school, but there are many who move on up the marking ladder as they grow older. There was a girl who lived in my dorm who was notorious for shredding guys’ backs in the heat of the moment. And in the heat of the moment, when the adrenaline is pumping, it might not seem like a bad idea for either party. When the adrenaline wears off, however, it takes a man with a fairly high threshold for pain, or an affinity for it, to still appreciate the claw marks left over.
There are a lot of people, and not just the hardcore sadists and masochists, who like to mix a little pain with their passion. Pain’s parallels to intense passion can come from many places: an obsession in our visual culture with mixing violence and sex probably has an impact; but so too do the intense feelings that both bring to the surface.
Intense ecstasy parallels pain in some ways. Humans have their limits for both, a point when the senses are simply too overloaded to process anymore. And when your are moving towards climax, your adrenaline is so high, and your attention so diverted, that something that would normally cause simply pain is mixed in with the experience of being in your body at that moment.
Men aren’t as hearty as women when it comes to the dangers of sex. And I am not talking about extraordinary events like unplanned pregnancies or STDs. I am talking about the run of the mill bashing that women take as a by-product of passion. There is the obvious: bruises on our heads from repeated banging on the wall, on the headboard, on the floor. These are not wounds we appreciate, but we see them as preoccupational hazards (when we are preoccupied with other parts of our bodies, that is). There is the classic male move wherein he shoves our knees up by our ears. For the flexible, this is a great way to tighten around your lover; for the not-so-flexible, this is a great way to pull a muscle in your groin or buttocks.
There are some wounds that we wear like badges, however. Ones that we slyly tell our best friends about. A carpet burn on the spine can make for the innuendo of a raucous night of passion. Carpet burn on our faces, however, is just degrading and will lead to a suspension of rear-entry privileges quicker than almost anything else. A little burn on our wrists from some bondage play might get a naughty mention, as might light bruises from a nibble. A bite mark that drew blood will definitely get a mention, but more likely, it will be to figure out what level of penance you should perform. Blood sports are specialties that should be discussed and agreed upon before one partner (male or female) goes ahead and springs it on her lover.
Marking your lover can mean many things, some contradictory. They are sensual reminders, or they can be rude awakenings. They can express the height of passion or the wall of a boundary, hit. They can indicate lovers lost together, or simply one lost in his or her own pleasure. They are certainly residual acts, meant to mark where we have been, and perhaps push the boundary of how far we intend to go.