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How Your Partner Really Wants You to Play With Their Hair in Bed

What do you do with your hands when you’re getting oral sex? For 50 years, the world’s been seeking an answer

It sounds a little like a Seinfeld bit, but what do you do with your hands when you’re getting oral sex? Pin them to your sides? Tightly wrap them together over your head, all Christ-like? Flail everywhere like an octopus?

Or do you do what seemingly everyone who doesn’t know what to do with them does: play with the hair of the person who is going down on you.

Of course, “play with” means different things for different people. There’s the classic porn image of a guy lifting a woman’s hair into a makeshift ponytail and using his grip to cue her how exactly he likes it. But there’s also “good girl” hair stroking in the form of a caress and “bad girl” hair stroking in the form of a pull. Not to mention, “girls” aren’t the only ones getting their hair pulled, and guys aren’t the only ones doing the pulling — women and queer couples tug on each another’s hair too.

One thing is more or less clear, though — it’s a fairly new conundrum. Brian Watson, an archivist at the Kinsey Institute Library, where some of the most influential publications in sexual history are stored, cites the earliest (and most germane) examples from 1970s erotic literature. (FWIW: Watson says there’s at least one mural from the Roman Empire depicting a woman with her hand on a man’s hair while riding him cowgirl, which would seem to affirm the idea that hair play is often about navigating your way to orgasm.) Particularly, in Emmanuelle, the bestselling 1967 French book in which a woman manifests a new sexual fantasy chapter by chapter, the narrator speaks to Emmanuelle’s curiosity about why her new lover Bee is touching her hair while she sucks on her nipples.

“Without ceasing to direct the shower with a sure hand, Emmanuelle leaned forward and took one of Bee’s little nipples in her mouth,” writes author Emmanuelle Arsan. “She felt a hand touch her hair. Was it to push her away? Was it to draw her closer?” (Bee is a slender redhead whom Emmanuelle — the character, not the author — runs into on the streets of Bangkok, if you want the full picture.)

In The Sex Family, a pornographic novel by Martin Neil from 1970, a brother-sister fantasy becomes an all-hands-on-deck family orgy, with some oral-sex-inspired hair-pulling mixed in for good measure:

“But then he felt her fingers twitching over his ears, pushing away one moment, and then the next twining through his hair, pulling him tight to her cavern of desire as her lips pressed hard and tight to his mouth. Under his hungry lips he felt her shudder again and again, heard her sigh and gap several times before the pressure against him released and he was able to pull free from her demands.”

As for more modern times (i.e., today), Bree Mills, the chief creative officer at Adult Time and an award-winning porn director, laughs when I ask her if tugging on hair during blow jobs (and pussy eating) is a porn prerequisite. “What’s really important to me is that the actors I’m working with maintain the characters that they’re playing throughout the sex. That can have a big impact on the type of sexual encounter they’re portraying, and the dynamic between them both verbally and through body language.”

“So I never outright say, ‘Okay, in this BJ sequence, you’re going to grab the girl’s hair while she’s giving you a blow job,” Mills continues. “It’s much more, ‘Okay, guys, here’s who you are as characters. How would those characters have sex together?’ Then I brainstorm creatively with the actors on how they could bring those characters to life within a sex scene.”

That said: “I’ve seen some really hot instances in lesbian sex sequences where there’s a lot of it, and there’s a lot of guys who grab or play with a woman’s hair while getting head. I see that all the time. I think people touch their lover’s hair during oral sex because it feels good. They’re manipulating the person’s head to focus on the areas that feel good. This always turns out great in porn because it creates a very genuine reaction.”

And when it isn’t on the menu, it’s more a matter of practicality than anything else. “Some female performers who have hair extensions will indicate that they don’t want any hair-pulling or grabbing,” Mills explains. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I just got extensions, so please don’t pull.’”

Adult actress and MEL sex columnist Tasha Reign is one such performer. “I wear hair extensions, so most of my partners avoid this at work,” she says. “My boyfriend touches my hair, though. He knows how to do so without messing them up. There’s something really intimate about hair play. I love the sensation of my partner running his fingers through my hair.”

She adds, “A lot of people assume there’s a gender thing to pulling on hair during oral — that it’s something men do more than women — but I don’t agree. I always hold on to my boyfriend’s hair while he’s doing down on me. I like it, especially because he has long, luscious hair that I love to touch. From my perspective, the only gender element to this is that men lose their hair way earlier than women, so I guess we can’t grab on to their hair for as long as they can our hair.”

It also edges into kink/BDSM territory. In fact, Courtney Padjen, a sex therapist in the Midwest, considers hair play during oral one of the most common ways for people to experiment with a dominant/submissive power dynamic. “I’d classify hair-pulling during sex and sexual activities as kinky,” she says. “Though it may not be as intense as some kinky activities can be, it has the potential to be.”

“Another thing to consider is that hair-pulling activities can be practiced independently from having sex or engaging in sexual activities and still be an enjoyable experience,” Padjen continues. “Like hair bondage, in which an individual’s hair is bound to limit the mobility of their head.”

Pia, a single woman in her late 20s in San Francisco, might not necessarily be into hair bondage, but she certainly views the silky black locks that hang past her waist as the locus of her erotic power. Case in point: She says she “hands guys the reigns” by suggesting they hold her hair while she blows them, but by providing that instruction, she becomes the more dominant figure in the hookup. (She also often wraps it around her scantily-clad body while taking sexy photos for her online dating profiles.)

“My fun little trick is when I’m about to suck their cock, I twirl my hair around in my hand as if to pull it up in a ponytail,” Pia explains. “Then I look up at them and say, ‘Can you hold my hair?’ I love it because I don’t have to worry about my hair creeping. Guys seem to love it because of the way it makes the blow job more fun — and literally hands on. They really enjoy the ride, that’s for sure. Surprisingly, too, most of the time it’s a hold instead of a pull.”

Other hair-pulling tips (while during a blow job or more generally), per sex and relationships educator Anne Hodder: “It’s best to start by grabbing a handful of hair close to the scalp or base of the neck in order to stimulate the sensitive nerves in the scalp and gently tighten your grip. (Avoid pulling hair from the ends; this tends to be more painful.) The pain/pleasure sensation releases endorphins in the brain, which gives a temporary sense of well-being and pleasure. If your partner’s hair is longer, you can play with ponytails or buns. If it’s shorter, you can run your fingers through it close to the scalp and gently pull it through your fingers. And people with close-cut hair or no hair at all can enjoy firm pressure or light stroking against the scalp. Massaging circles feel nice too.”

Nina Hartley’s porn career spans more than three decades, but the most common search result for “Nina Hartley hair pulling” is another kind of sexy scene — a video of her calling upon a young Kate McKinnon to help her demonstrate how to properly pull hair. In it, Hartley suggests using a flat hand and making a fist at the top of the hair near the root.

Over the phone, she tells me that while hair-pulling may seem ubiquitous in porn, like everything else, it first requires consent. “Always check,” she says. “Nothing gets someone’s attention like having their head in your hands and you then pulling them around by the hair. So no surprises.”

It definitely works for her, though: “I absolutely love having my hair pulled, and I do like hair-pulling with a willing partner or holding their head while they perform cunnilingus on me. It feels good to hold their head still and grind into it. I also like the dominance and control energy of someone holding my head and quote-unquote ‘making me’ do them.”

After all, she adds, “If you get someone by the hair, you have control over them. There’s a reason military men have short hair and no beards.”