Dear Dan: I’ve recently discovered that being pinned down by my neck is a huge turn on for me. I love the feeling of being dominated and controlled, and of feeling my partner’s strength on this part of my body. I’m much more interested in this feeling than in actual breath control or oxygen deprivation. I’ve been reading up on choking because I’m trying to make sure I can be manhandled in the way I like as safely as possible. However, all the advice about choking is about how dangerous it is. But most of the advice concentrates on the dangers of restricting oxygen (which is not what I am going for) or on damaging the windpipe by putting pressure on the front of the throat (which my partners avoid). So, my question is… how dangerous is this kind of simulated choking play? Play where one person is being held down by their throat with only mild pressure? What can we do to make it as safe as possible?
—Please I Need More Expertise
Dear PINME: Dr. Herbenick is a professor at Indiana University School of Public Health, a prolific and widely published sex researcher, and the author of many books, including The Coregasm Workout: The Revolutionary Method for Better Sex Through Exercise. A few years ago, Dr. Herbenick’s students began asking her about choking, with some sharing harrowing stories of being choked by sex partners without their consent. There was very little data out there about choking, which was all over porn sites, and that inspired Dr. Herbenick and some colleagues to undertake the first serious and scientifically rigorous studies of sexual choking.
Dr. Herbenick found that a lot of people—mostly male people—were choking their partners during sex without discussing it first they weren’t establishing mutual interest: they weren’t obtaining unambiguously enthusiastic consent, and they weren’t discussing the inherent risks and how to minimize them. (Minimize ≠ eliminate.) Many weren’t even cognizant of the risks.
“Although rare, people do occasionally die from being choked,” said Dr. Herbenick, “and people have gone to jail for accidentally injuring or killing a partner during consensual choking.”
Most people who’ve experimented with choking describe the act as “consensual, wanted, and pleasurable,” according to Dr. Herbenick’s research. Which raises another concern: the false sense of security many have about it.
“Because most people experiment with choking without any obvious negative repercussions, they often think they’re doing it ‘safely,’ and that may not be the case,” said Dr. Herbenick. “And because people sometimes engage in choking frequently, there may be cumulative effects on the brain—in other words, negative effects that build up over time rather than from a single incident of being choked. Even mild pressure on the neck/throat is likely to reduce oxygen to the brain because it involves compressing blood vessels. The kinds of cumulative effects that may occur include greater likelihood of depression, anxiety, ringing in the ears, headaches, and memory issues, among others, though we need more research to say for sure.”
“Some people who are into choking but who don’t want to take on these risks ask their partner to lightly press against their collarbone but not their throat,” said Dr. Herbenick. “And PINME is correct that any pressure to the front of the throat is particularly risky, given how vulnerable the windpipe is to injury. Other people decide to ask their partner to choke them anyway but only rarely, to reduce the likelihood of cumulative risk.”
Consent to a sex practice as risky as choking is only meaningful if everyone involved is fully informed of the risks. Someone who asks to be choked—when a person requests to be choked during sex—has a duty to fully inform their partner of the risks they’ll be running.
“If mild pressure is being used, make sure she can fully breathe, speak, has a safe word AND gesture—in case she does lose ability to speak—and that her desire for mild pressure—very mild pressure—is clearly understood by her partner,” said Dr. Herbenick. “Further, if PINME starts to experience visual changes, lightheadedness, dizziness, or euphoria, then that suggests she is likely experiencing lower oxygen levels and potential neurological effects.”
And that’s definitely a moment when you’ll want to use your safeword or gesture, PINME, while you still can.
You can follow Dr. Debby Herbenick on Twitter @DebbyHerbenick and find out more about her research into choking—and sexual pleasure and communication and vibrator use and more—at her website: www.debbyherbenick.com.
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