Neck constriction, “choking” and death

The Guardian published a piece on sexual choking. It’s here

I’ve some reservations with it. For example it doesn’t distinguish clearly between two different phenomena: 

1. A lot of porn at the moment, particularly but not only bdsm porn, features choking, where one partner puts their hand on the other partner’s neck and constricts their breathing, and some people are imitating what they see; and 

2. Some husbands have murdered their wives, and their defence lawyer has argued that the murder was a “consensual kink session that accidentally went wrong”, as a defence. 

It’s unfortunate not to make that distinction, because in the second kind of case kink was not involved. In fact the defence lawyer and the mainstream media have worked together to blame an old-fashioned murder on alternative sexuality. 

I have some other problems, like the citing of anti-sexual minority and pro-censorship activist Gail Dines as an “expert” and as a “feminist”, when she is not in the habit of taking contrary evidence into account, and she is significantly opposed to the right of women to make sexual choices of which she disapproves. There are also questions about her relationship with the anti-abortion rights wing of the Christian Right. 


Anyway, I’m still pleased that the issue has come up. 

First, a personal statement. As a Dom, I simply don’t do choking. I’ve been a nurse (a psych nurse, but you get some basic medical training), and I know all the systems that run through the neck are delicate enough without people fucking with them deliberately.

I do know that it can be done safely. If it couldn’t, then the floors of all the bdsm porn studios would be littered with corpses. And they’re not.

Also, I know many submissives want to try it.

But personally, if someone wants to be choked, I’ll ruthlessly shove their face into a pillow, and check on them after, say, thirty seconds. No, seriously.

The neck grip strikes me as too risky to be fun.

The Guardian article talks about two, possibly three deaths. One was clearly a murder, while the other is perhaps more ambiguous. I know that in my native New Zealand there used to be about 6 deaths every year from erotic strangulation, though almost all of those were auto-asphyxiation, with no one else present. 

We simply have no way of telling:

  1. How many deaths are claimed to be because of “choking”, or erotic strangulation during sexual play; and
  2. Of those, how many were actually murders, in which the “sexual play” claim was simply a ruse to cover up a murder in which kink was not involved;
  3. And how many were genuine tragic accidents by people imitating a practice seen in erotica or talking about in magazines, who discovered in the most tragic way that when you constrict the neck, death can come too easily and too quickly. 

Now, I don’t think porn changes people’s character or degrades their general behaviour. But what it can do is mislead. If choking is shown as pleasurable to the person being choked, and as requiring no great level of skill or preparation, then a conscientious and well-meaning lover may decide to try it out.

That is, to claim the practice is only misogynist is to simplify human sexual behaviour. What it actually is, is more dangerous than many people realise.

By “dangerous” I mean you can reduce risk, with guidance and practice, but not eliminate it.

Within bdsm, we need more education. People who want to be doms, and want to do the things in sex that doms will do need certain information. For example: 

1 There are some submissives who do, in fact, enjoy careful choking play. However there are many others for whom it is a hard limit. That means they don’t want it, and to try it will break their trust in the dom who tries to include it into sexual play without consent. My guess, based on anecdote and not data, is that submissives who dislike and fear choking are more common than those who like it.

2 Therefore, it should only ever be done with prior discussion and consent. 

At the moment, bdsm porn is not doing well at communicating those ideas. Choking is fashionable. Porn has fashions, like the sudden appearance a few years ago of butt hooks. (About which I’m much more enthusiastic.)

Porn makers often behave ethically. An example is promoting condom use. Another example is how quickly the porn industry dropped star James Deen after credible complaints of sexual coercion were made against him. Similar moves in “mainstream” media have taken years, or even decades.  

The porn industry doesn’t bear most of the responsibility for the “fashionability” of choking. Cultures are influenced in many complicated ways. But it would be a big help if they stopped promoting it and presenting it as a safe activity that can casually be sprung on the partner, thereby enhancing their pleasure. 

There are safer options for forcing a partner to lose control of their breathing for a while, if that’s something they want: pillows, obviously, and even a big bowl of water. 

It’s probably time for choking, strangulations and choke holds to quietly fade out of porn, whether bdsm or mainstream. 

24 thoughts on “Neck constriction, “choking” and death

  1. Great post, I often have uneasy thoughts about choking and did plenty of research beforehand. Personally I think the hand being placed on a vulnerable part of the body, such as the neck, has enough of an effect. But I can see the view of wanting it more.

    • Yes, I’m not talking about holding the throat. It’s pressing or constricting, to achieve breath control of the held person that I think is problematic.

      And what worries me about video depiction is that it looks like choking, and the only effect is that the woman gets more turned on. (I see more het, male dominant porn than any other kind, so it’s a woman being choked.

      Still, I think it’s a particularly het, male dom-female sub issue, because of the disparity in strength.

      Two guys or two women, if the one being choked doesn’t like what’s happening, they can usually make the dom shift their hand, reasonably easily. But in het sex, the male partner is usually bigger, heavier, stronger.

      I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to be held by the neck, or to be choked, only that we need to get the message out to doms that it’s neither safe nor easy, nor universally popular with all submissives. And to porn-makers that their presentation of choking as normal and easy is irresponsible.

  2. An excellent piece, JM. Although I like a one-handed grip on my throat, I don’t like to feel I’m choking. I know that there are some who are really into being choked, though. To each their own.

  3. I’ll do a one-handed grip on the throat of a woman who asks me nicely. But I won’t squeeze that hand.

    And if she wants breath play I’d rather shove her head into a pillow so she spends 30 seconds at a time being unable to breath, while she’s also being fucked, or whacked.

    And I am definitely not talking about policing desires. Just about education, and more responsible porn.

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  7. I believe those men did not murder their wives. I believe it was a consensual act that tragically went wrong. Unfortunately, the only person who could confirm this is dead; therefore, the husband’s testimony holds credence. Everyone knows the risks involved in BDSM and that there are some activities that have a greater level of danger. Kink is about pushing boundaries, expanding one’s limits, taking risks that reap fantastic sexual experiences. The intense pleasure of subspace and domspace far outway these mishaps.

    • I think it’s a case-by-case basis. If there’s a history of consensual bdsm – and it should be easy enough to provide texts, emails, photos, etc, in this day and age, when that’s the case – then the the guy is innocent of murder, though quite possibly guilty of manslaughter.

      Because if you knowingly do something that can kill your partner, and it does kill her, then you’re a little too careless with life, and criminal sanctions are still reasonable. There are crimes other than murder.

      I’ve had a lot of experience of helping submissive women find their way into subspace, cause I’m a lucky man. But I’ve never once interrupted her breathing by constricting her throat.

      I set a pretty high value on life, especially the lives of my sexual partners. And if someone kills their partner in the name of pushing boundaries, expanding limits and taking risks, my sympathy is for the dead person, not the man who killed her. Which brings me back to manslaughter as a charge that should at least be considered in any such incident.

      In other cases, including one of those cited in the Guardian article that sparked my piece, where there was a history of non-consensual domestic violence, and threats, it looks a lot more like murder than kink. (I say that because my opinion is irrelevant; I’m not on a jury, and I haven’t heard all the evidence.)

      I’m not saying people should never do breath play involving a tightened hand on the throat. I’m saying that porn should stop promoting it as risk-free, and likely to please most submissive women. Because both of those things are untrue. I’m also saying that anyone who wants to engage in that play should have a lot of knowledge about the very real risks, and serious safety training.

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