The Secret Life of Hickeys

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Nicole White/Staff

The hickey exposed: a smear of magenta. The love bite interpreted: force upon flesh. We have left behind sleeves to wear hearts on our necks.

Coined in the early years of the 20th century, “hickey” is an Americanism of obscure origin that, unromantically phrased by science, is nothing more than a passionate bruise. Blood vessels in the epidermis rupture, and the leaking cells are dumped into the interstitial space beneath. There’s an arsenal of high-necked garments and homeopathic remedies that make hickeys a private affair: well known to victims, people suggest everything from turtlenecks to banana peels to cold spoons.

But despite this frantic Google searching for “how to hide a hickey,” somehow the blood keeps rising to the surface. We’re not alone in the animal kingdom; hamadryas baboons often bite their females’ necks before seducing them, as do fur seals and other mammals. As for the pleasure of being bitten by our lovers, it’s easily explained by the fact that while experiencing sexual arousal, painful stimuli is no longer experienced as painful. This is one of many physical responses to an intoxicating cocktail of brain chemicals produced during sex, which, all in all, means the recurrence of the hickey is no real mystery. We’re into it.

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So perhaps this Valentine’s Day, given our knowledge of hickey biology, we may instead ask: Why the taboo? Living as we do in a civil society, where parents’ and judgmental eyes roam free, we’ve accepted the existence of taboos such as these and the presumption that certain things are kept quiet. In short, the reasons to hide a hickey are well known. But will our Puritan roots color our necks with shame forever?

The hickey has surely fallen in and out of favor with the times, enduring from the industrial explosion to the suburban 1950s to the free-love hippie movement. With the hickey, we find a collision of supposed shame and secret pride, an affirmation of something both desirable and illicit. Something like a love letter, we’re left with tangible evidence of emanated heat. No wonder the hickey hangs on.

But from where I sit in the 21st century and three blocks down from frat row, I’m curious about whether the taboo is still relevant. Are we millennial college kids, notorious for unceremonious hookups and debatable morality, using hickeys as another way to boast about our wild nights out? I wondered, “Is the shame begging for concealer real, or simply social cover-up?” I went to the source to find out.

Olivia, a freshman student, has insider information: She has done the deed herself. “The worst one I ever got looked like I had been partially strangled, while living on a floor with 32 other 18-year-olds,” she said. “I got the shit taken out of me.”

Well, so it goes. But what else does a hickey mean in a social context? Beyond the “you got some” attitude of joking peers, does the social stigma surrounding this kind of hookup persist?

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“My mom used to tell me ‘I hate hickeys, they’re so trashy,’ so I had that idea from her for a long time,” she said. “But I think our generation is more open and accepting. You see health workers posting in the bathroom about condoms. Having been on the other side of things, I don’t really see what the big deal is.”

In our roots as a Puritan society, any visible (or invisible) evidence of sexual behavior was deemed highly inappropriate — just ask Hester Prynne. But the further forward in time we move, the more the code changes. While we still attach a negative morality to unscrupulous sexual behaviors such as adultery or prostitution, in many regards, it’s possible that our sexuality is becoming something we’re more comfortable with sharing — and the hickey is becoming something we’re less concerned with hiding.

“It’s kind of a trumpeting of your sexual endeavors,” Olivia agreed. And trumpet we do.

Societal movement away from taboo may be movement toward something else; as the shame fades, it may leave pride in its place. In the span of a generation, our values may have undergone an inversion, leaving hickeys as a mark of of desirability rather than a sign of sexual stigma. Perhaps they have become a celebration of life’s feast rather than a sign of moral famine.