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A Potentially Risky Kink? Breath Play Is Becoming More Popular

How breath play can be incorporated safely.

Key points

  • Indiana University researchers have found that erotic choking has become relatively popular with young adults.
  • Choking is usually more theatrical than hazardous, but it's potentially dangerous, even fatal.
  • The new popularity of erotic choking reflects the increased popularity of BDSM play in general.

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 the 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 on terminology: "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, some kids held their breath until they almost passed out on my elementary school playground 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 enhancing their 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. A new study should change that.

The Study

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. Key findings:

  • During my last partner's sex, I got choked. Overall, 12 percent agreed—27 percent of the women, 7 percent of the men, and 14 percent of those identified 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, those who identified as LGBT+ were substantially more likely to report involvement in choking. Why? The researchers observed that compared with straight people, sexual minorities were more into exploring the outer limits of sexuality, including choking.
  • Choking included all genders. Deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation almost always involve men. But the study showed that people of all genders participated in breath play.
  • Choking reflected 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 trusted each other were more likely to experiment with potentially risky sex.
  • Choking reflected lust. As sexual hunger increased, so did the likelihood of breath play.

Corroboration

This is the first research I know of that focused specifically on erotic choking, but 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 being choked during sex. A similar proportion of men reported choking a partner.
  • A 2020 analysis of 4,009 online porn videos showed that choking was among the top five among rough-sex moves.

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 those interested in kinky sex play 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 website. 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.

Arrange a backup safe signal in advance. Depending on the play, it may be difficult for the receiver to say the safe word. For example, the recipient might hold a rattle or other noisemaker.

  • Afterward, review the play. If necessary, re-negotiate your choking play.
  • Always err on the side caution.

References

Bridges AJ, et al. "Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update. Violence Against Women. 
2010;16(10):1065–1085. doi:10.1177/1077801210382866. 


Bridges AJ, et al. Sexual scripts and the sexual behavior of men and women who use pornography. Sex Media & Society. 2016;2(4):1–14. 


Fritz N, et al. A descriptive analysis of 
the types of targets, and relative frequency of aggression in mainstream pornography. Archives of Sexual Behavior (2020) 49:3041. doi:10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0.

Herbenick, D et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Choking/Strangulation During Sex: Findings from a Probability Survey of Undergraduate Students,” Journal of American College Health (2021) doi: 10.1080/07448481.2021.1920599

Herbenick D, et al. Pornography use and diverse sexual behaviors: Findings from a nationally representative survey of Americans ages 14 to 60. Journal of Sexual Medicine (2020) 17:623. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.01.013.

Holvoet Let al. Fifty shades of Belgian gray: the prevalence of BDSM-related fantasies and activities in the general population. Journal of Sexual Medicine (2017) 14:1152. doi:10.1016/j. jsxm.2017.07.003. 


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