The Popularity of Choking Is Soaring, But is It Really Safe?
Warning: Story discussing sexual asphyxiation.
Up to 20% of men and 12% of women say they've choked a partner during sex, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine in a 2020 study, but many are engaging with a practice they have little to no education in. Women and girls have reported being choked without prior consent and it has played a role in the controversial "rough sex" defense used in several murder cases around the world, prompting a campaign called We Can't Consent To This. In the UK, choking a partner without consent may become illegal under a new domestic violence law.
Before entering my 20s, the only choking I had ever experienced was a gentle hand wrapped around my throat, then an ex introduced me to the incredible highs and terrifying lows of breath play. However, I am still determining if the kink is safe enough to continue.
Choking can demand a heavy price for its high, so is it time to put the toy back in the box and choose something a little more vanilla? We spoke to experts to help you decide.
What is choking and how does it affect us?
Choking is just one part of a larger subsection of kink known as breath play. Typically falling under the umbrella of BDSM, breath play has broken into bedrooms all over the world. It is defined as reducing or restricting your own or another person's oxygen during sex.
"During choking, your brain is being starved of vital oxygen which can induce a lucid yet semi-hallucinogenic state and may cause you to fade in and out of consciousness and may create a feeling of euphoria," Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, a general practitioner and online doctor for Prescription Doctor, tells HelloGiggles. "The high that people experience soon after is due to the release of oxygen flowing back and the body exhaling. With an exhale, there is a release of dopamine and serotonin that can lead to a nice sensation as the body tries to recover itself."
Regular and heavy pressure on the throat can cause long-term damage, making the temporary high less worthwhile. "Choking is not advised and could cause damage if done for too long, too frequently, and too hard," continues Dr. Aragona. "Not only is applying heavy pressure on someone's neck causing that person to choke, but it may also cause damage to the neck, larynx, trachea, and muscles around this area, which could leave the neck to feel sore for a number of days after the breath play or even cause future complications. If the choking is going on for a considerable amount of time, the person may experience a loss of consciousness, which could promote permanent medical consequences such as a stroke, cardiac arrest, brain injury, and even death."
Clearly death is not a frequent result of choking in sex or it would have been universally banned a long time ago, however, the physical risks should not be underestimated.
Why does choking feel good?
The high associated with choking is akin to the euphoria induced by a strong orgasm or a really good workout. When engaging in choking as part of a BDSM scenario, it can add to the excitement of subverting power dynamics.
"It creates a power exchange in the form of a dominant and submissive role, which allows the giver to experience a feeling of power and control over the receiver, who can, in turn, feel a sense of pleasure and enjoyment from not being in control," says sexologist and women's coach, Caroline D'Arcy. "The heightened intensity means it's easier to stay present."
When I experiment with breath play, the light high and sense of control enhances the fantasy and I sink into the moment and any intrusive thoughts disappear. "I find it very hypnotic," says intimacy coach, Donna Marie. "It clears your mind of garbage and helps clear out all the heaviness. I found that once you do it, you want to do it again and again. It just heightens the sensations even more."
Why has choking become dangerous?
Thanks to a rising popularity of choking in pornography and the influence of woefully misinformed books like 50 Shades of Grey, more and more uneducated people are engaging with unsafe breath play.
"Because it is becoming so popular in so many forms of media, a lot of people view it as 'light BDSM' and are automatically putting their hands on my throat," explains, Emerson Karsh, a sex and kink educator. "Recently, I was hooking up with a guy in his car after our first date, and I had to use my thumb to unhook his hand from my throat and relieve the pressure he was putting on my windpipe. I actually listed it as a hard limit for three years as I did not feel I had enough knowledge to engage in it in any capacity."
While kinksters with years of experience are careful with breath play, those lacking BDSM knowledge are diving in at the expense of safety. Before engaging in any breath play, kinksters need to be well-educated and boundaries and safe words set out.
How to safely choke someone during sex:
Though there are safer ways to engage in choking, it's impossible to eradicate all dangers. D'Arcy explains: "There is never a way to completely remove the risks of breath play and anyone doing it should be aware of that. Both giver and receiver should understand the anatomy of the neck to avoid crushed windpipes and permanent nerve damage."
If you're set on using a hand around the throat, there are clear rules you need in place, including not exerting too much pressure on the front of the neck. Dr. Aragona explains: "In terms of choking safely, you want to ensure that when choking, you do not add too much pressure, it is better to choke softly and slowly rather than applying a lot of pressure as this could damage the trachea and larynx. Try to avoid the front of the neck and apply the main pressure around the sides and back as if you apply over the throat you are further promoting damage to the throat and larynx."
The most important rule of choking is to have a clear "tap out" signal. This can be anything from a light tap on the partner's arm to a loud knock on the headboard. "Don't be afraid to tap out," adds Marie. "Our ego can take over and you think, 'I'll just go for a little more,' but it could be a bit dangerous. If you feel like you're getting to the limit, let that be the limit before your ego takes over."
The partner doing the choking also has a responsibility to monitor the receiver closely. Do not allow your passion to dominate over safety. "Pay attention to lips and fingernails going blue," says sexologist, Ness Cooper. "You don't want the neck or the head to flop while you're doing it, so it's probably best to have the person lying down flat, as opposed to using a pillow." It's best to avoid using rope or other bondage methods to choke someone because it takes far longer to remove a tie from a throat than a hand.
Alternatives to choking:
The eroticism of a hand around the throat may be sensational but there are alternative breath play methods to explore. After a particularly scary experience, I am refocusing my kink on less intense options.
To start with, you can do breath play without actually depriving someone of their ability to take in oxygen. Try experimenting with a hand over the mouth while leaving the nose airway clear or use a scarf made from a breathable material like silk as a gag, which will still allow the receiver to breathe safely.
Karsh adds: "A very positive experience I had with breath play would not actually be considered breath play, it would fall under the realm of 'fantasy chokes', where my partner was dominating me using a hand near my throat without risking injury to my windpipe of ability to breathe."
However, you choose to engage with breath play, remember that safety is always a top priority, never let a desire for pleasure knock out your sense of caution.