Hickeys: the love bite and its origin


By Colton Gilson

Kailia, a 24-year-old student from Toronto, takes us back seven years to the summer after high school graduation, when she was first branded by the mark of passion.

“I was 17 and my friends and I pretty much did anything crazy,” she says, “so we decided to meet up with a guy I met on one of those teen dating sites that were popular back in the day.”

Ending up on his rooftop patio, the two started kissing and things got a little hot. Kailia told the guy “you can’t give me a hickey though, seriously,” and he kept saying “chill, I’m not. It’s cool.”

She returned home to discover an unsightly formation on her neck – it was a hickey and she was horrified. “It was actually the biggest, darkest and most disgusting hickey I’d ever seen on anyone,” she says.

The relationship between love and pain – a kiss and a hickey – can be traced back to ancient literature and donkeys having sex.

If there was ever anyone ahead of their time in concepts of sexuality, it was Havelock Ellis. Born in the mid-1800s, Ellis was a social activist, physician and psychologist whose views on the concepts of sexuality ranged from progressive to morbid.

Ellis wrote in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 3, that the love bite, commonly known as a hickey, was first noticed in the behaviour of many mammals during or before mating rituals.

It was not uncommon, Ellis stated, for the male to have the female’s neck between its teeth in order to obtain a firm grip prior to doing what they do on the Discovery Channel.

Essentially, we can thank the scientists who have spent countless hours watching donkeys have sex for providing insight into the origins of hickeys.

With that being said, the indulgence in such acts of sadism in humans is pretty normal. According to Ellis, the association between love and pain occurs among normal civilized men and women who possess well-developed sexual impulses.

Ellis points to the exertion of power as one of our most primary instincts. He says we are in line with the ancient traditions of the male to female pursuit – where males delight in domination while females find joy in submission.

This rather binary approach is obviously dated, by no fault of his own (he’s been dead since 1939), but it does have merit.

Today, although the exertion of power is more of a gender free-for-all, the primary impulse of power, as recognized by psychologists, is ultimately driven by love.

Hence the term love bites.

What better way to talk about the things we do for love than reference the sacred Kama Sutra?

In the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, we come across Chapter V – “On biting, and the means to be employed with regard to women of different countries.”

Although the latter is irrelevant, the former is quite interesting.

According to the ancient texts, all places that can be kissed are in fact all places that can be bitten, except of course the upper lip, inside of the mouth, and the eyes.

Gouging someone’s eyes out with your teeth is definitely not sexy.

A good bite and skin suckle ideally needs to be performed by excellent teeth free of defects, according to the Indian sex gods.

The next time someone tries to give you a hickey, do a thorough inspection for the following things: teeth equality, pleasing grades of brightness, proper proportions, and sharpness.

If hickeys don’t get you going, then your hickey-giver most likely has blunt, protruding teeth that are both rough and soft, large, and loosely set – how unfortunate.

Burton’s translation goes on to list the different kinds of biting.

The “hidden bite”, with a description that closely matches that of the modern day hickey, is a bite “which is shown only by the excessive redness of the skin that is bitten.”

Those who are looking for a more lasting effect would perform a modified version of the “coral and the jewel”, which is meant to be imprinted on the cheek. This is done by “bringing together the teeth and the lips… where the lip is the coral, and the teeth the jewel”, as the ancient texts describe.

The Kama Sutra gets an “A” for creativity, but how are hickeys actually formed?

Why does your neck resemble a red gradient artist’s palette after a night of heavy petting?

Toronto dermatologist Dr. Fred Weksberg

Toronto dermatologist Dr. Fred Weksberg

Toronto dermatologist Dr. Fred Weksberg has the answer.

As we sink comfortably into his leather couches he lays out a handful of almonds and munches on them between our conversation.

His voice is both soothing and informative – a perfect doctor voice.

“A hickey is a type of bruise,” he says.

He goes on to explain that little blood vessels under the skin are fragile, especially in thin-skinned area like the neck (a hickey magnet). If enough tissue is injured, the blood vessels will break and cause some bleeding under the skin, creating a red patch. This is called a hickey, he says.

Weksberg says the most common way to acquire a hickey is from suction, biting, and very forceful kissing.

What question does a doctor get the most from his hickey-bearing patients? How to get rid of it.

He laughs and says the only way to really get rid of a hickey is to not get it in the first place. There is no quick way to get rid of a hickey, “it’s just like a bruise and bruises will go through certain phases of fading – first red, then dark blue, gradually becoming green and yellow because that’s what happens when you get red blood cells that start to degrade,” says Weksberg.

The best thing you can do if you see a hickey forming is to immediately put something cold on it and apply pressure to encourage coagulation of the blood vessels, he says, “but most of the time what’s done is done.”

However, motivated by desperation and fear of judgment, some people succeed with hasty remedies – Kailia being one of them.

“I took a hair brush with really hard bristles and started to brush the hickey in a downward motion,” she says. “After that I decided to try a quarter. I basically stretched the skin with one hand and combed the hickey with the other as hard as I could.”

Sounds painful.

Worried about potential bruising from the procedure she slept with a bag of ice on her neck, and to her surprise, it was completely gone the next morning.

This process worked for Kailia, but how does the doctor feel about home remedies?

In his experience, different ways of spreading around the blood vessels don’t usually do much.

Skeptical of such home remedies, Weksberg says “the problem with that is that you can damage the skin even more by pressing hard and trying to flatten out the blood cells.”

He is especially doubtful of remedies that claim to work 24 hours or more after acquiring the hickey, such as popping pills to accelerate healing.

“I don’t think that taking aspirin after a number of days is really going to do much. In fact I think taking that can make it even worse because the blood vessels are still pretty fragile, so once you have a bruise and you start taking aspirin there’s a potential for the bruise to get bigger,” Weksberg says.

Love bites might be fun, but passion trumps the consideration for placement any day.

Do you think the Kama Sutra researchers stopped mid-heat to think about where to put the coral and the jewel so your boss doesn’t see it tomorrow?

Sara, the 24-year-old manager of a Toronto BCBG Max Azria store, knows all too well what happens when employees show up with love marks.

Sara - Manager of a Toronto retail store who talks about dealing with employees and their lovebites.

Sara – manager of a Toronto retail store who talks about dealing with employees and their love bites.

Sara has worked in retail for six years in five different stores, and at three of those stores she was in a managerial position.

We went through the employee handbook and came across the “Personal Appearance” section. It stated, “As a representative of BCBG Max Azria, appearance, style and personal grooming are all indicative of the company’s standards. All associates shall comply with the image and personal presentation guidelines while on company time.”

Reflecting the brand is key.

We talked about what steps a manager should take when confronted with a love bite ridden employee.

First, she says, ask what happened because you cannot assume the mark was formed in an inappropriate way. If they admit it is indeed a hickey, then you ask them to cover it up, preferably with make up or a scarf.

OK, say that they admit to it but refuse to comply, then what?

Sara says you actually can’t do much about it because hickeys in the workplace, as frowned upon as they are, kind of lay in a grey area.

“Hickeys are a grey area because it doesn’t directly say in the wardrobe guidelines that you can’t come to work with a hickey on your neck, so if you come in with one I can’t necessarily send you home on those grounds alone,” she says.

The good news is, “more often than not employees are embarrassed by it so they’ll already have it covered up and dealt with before work.”

When you get down to it, hickeys are all in good fun if you nip responsibly. The power play involved is rooted to the survival of our most primitive practices of courtship.

Like Ellis said, “if a man is convinced that he is causing real and unmitigated pain, he becomes repentant at once. If this is not the case he must either be regarded as a radically abnormal person or as carried away by passion to the point of temporary insanity.”

From the way I see it, for the most part, it’s a harmless act and if you have a radically abnormal person sucking on your neck you’re pretty much screwed from the start anyway.