“Breath play,” near-strangulation, is moving toward the sexual mainstream
Lack of oxygen (hypoxia) that approaches—but avoids—fatal strangulation can produce temporary euphoria. Recently, Indiana University researchers discovered that a sexual version of this, “breath play,” is becoming increasingly popular among young adults. During their most recent partner sex experience, one-quarter of university students surveyed said choking was part of their sex play—either being choked or squeezing a neck.
Choking can be incorporated into sex safely. But if you’re interested, proceed with caution.
Breathless Pleasure? Or Peril?
Note: Strangulation and choking are different. The former involves airway constriction produced by external pressure—nooses, garroting, or hands-on necks. The latter involves internal airway blockage typically by food. Breath play should be called feigned strangulation. But the popular term is choking.
During the 1950s, on my elementary school playground, some kids held their breath until they almost passed out, and claimed it got them high.
For decades, this same idea has been applied to self-sexing. Some people, overwhelmingly solo men, have used nooses and near-self-hanging to induce hypoxia in hopes of better orgasms. Men who play this way are not suicidal. They have no death wish and take care to arrange self-rescue plans. But sometimes plans fail, and they die of “autoerotic asphyxiation.” Each year some 1,000 Americans lose their lives this way—including, as I learned decades after the fact, my eighth-grade social studies teacher.
Some pornography shows erotic breath play. It almost always involves men’s hands-on women’s necks.
The research is scant, but some lovers have engaged in consensual near-strangulation. Occasionally, a few people on the receiving end have died. Their lovers have faced homicide charges.
Until recently, most sexologists considered breath play far out on the erotic fringe. The new study should change that.
The researchers offered gift cards to recruit 4,177 sexually active Indiana University undergraduates—2,025 men, 2,081 women, 61 transgender or non-binary. They completed a survey focused on their most recent partner sex experience.
• During my last partner sex, I got choked. Overall, 12 percent agreed—27 percent of the women, 7 percent of the men, and 14 percent of those identifying as transgender or non-binary.
• I choked my partner. Yes: 11 percent—1 percent of the women, 20 percent of the men, and 18 percent of the transgender and non-binary group.
• We choked each other. Overall, 5 percent agreed—5 percent of the women and men, and 8 percent of the gender nonconforming.
• LGBT+ folks engaged in more breath play. Compared with the heterosexual participants, the LGBT+ folks were substantially more likely to report involvement in choking. Why? The researchers observe that compared with straight people, sexual minorities are more into exploring the limits of their sexuality, including choking.
• Choking includes all genders. Deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation almost always involve men. But the study shows that people of all genders participate in breath play.
• Choking reflects mutual trust. The survey asked participants to describe their relationship, from casual to committed. As partners’ mutual commitment increased, so did the likelihood of breath play. Lovers who trust each other are more likely to experiment with potentially risky sex.
• Choking reflected lust. The survey asked how much the participants wanted their most recent sex. As sexual hunger increased, so did the likelihood of breath play.
This is the first research to focus specifically on erotic choking, but some previous studies have touched on it and reported similar findings:
• A study that analyzed 275 top-selling porn videos from 2004 and 2005 showed that 28 percent included choking.
• A 2016 survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults aged 18 to 60 showed that one-fifth of women reported having been choked during sex. A similar proportion of men reported choking a partner.
• And a 2020 analysis of 4,009 online porn videos showed that among rough-sex moves, choking was one of the top five.
The BDSM Connection
The rise of sexual breath play reflects the increasing popularity of bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM) in general. The origins of BDSM are lost to history, but some ancient art depicts it. During the 1700s, some European brothels specialized in flagellation—sex workers flogging male patrons. Since then, BDSM has become a sexual subculture, widespread though often covert.
During much of the 20th century, most people considered BDSM a fringe practice that involved only a tiny minority of Americans. But since World War II, BDSM clubs and private kink groups have quietly thrived in every U.S. metropolitan area and many rural locales. The Internet’s arrival in the mid-1990s allowed kinksters to find each other easily, and they did—in droves. I searched “BDSM.” More than 850 million web pages. If you think few people near you play that way, search “BDSM” and your location. You might be surprised.
In 2011, the BDSM romance trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, debuted on an obscure Australian web site. In just 11 years, the book version has sold 160 million copies, making it the best-selling work of fiction of all time, now with a popular movie franchise as well.
In 2015, Indiana University researchers surveyed a representative 2,021 U.S. adults. Many had experimented with various elements of BDSM: flogging (13 percent), restraint (20 percent), dominant-submissive obedience (22 percent), and spanking (30 percent).
Erotic choking is simply another element of BDSM. It’s no surprise that as BDSM has become more mainstream, so has choking.
Interested in Breath Play?
Most erotic choking is more theatrical than hazardous. It’s light, brief, and comes nowhere near strangulation. However, the neck is delicate and the airway can be constricted fairly easily. Some people inadvertently apply more pressure than planned—especially when drunk. If you’re interested in breath play:
• Stay sober or minimize alcohol.
• Negotiate the proceedings in advance. Consider a written contract.
• Agree on a safe word the recipient can use to signal discomfort. If the
safe word gets uttered, the choker pledges to stop immediately.
• Depending on the play, it may be difficult for the person on the receiving end to say the safe word. Arrange a back-up safe signal in advance. For example, the recipient might hold a rattle or other noise maker.
• Afterwards, review the play. If necessary, negotiate adjustments.
• Always err on the side caution.