He seemed like such a nice boy.
Lila* had known Kit* forever. There had always been a subtle flirtation between her and the dapper, bearded 26-year-old with the wicked sense of humour. One night he walked her home from their local dive bar. They made out in her doorway, eventually tumbling into bed, where they pawed at each other like crazed teens.
And then he wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed. Choking her.
Lila’s first reaction? This can’t be happening again.
A few months earlier, Lila, a 31-year-old HR coordinator from Toronto, had gone home with an old friend, Jesse*, a stocky, bespectacled artist with a string of successful local shows under his belt. They were having desultory missionary-style sex when he suddenly started choking her. “He just put his hands around my throat without asking, which is horrifying,” she recalls. “I thought, Isn’t this something people talk about first—to make sure that the other person wants to be choked?”
Lila was shocked. “It was as though choking was part of these men’s sex routines, like this is something they did with everyone: ‘Oh, hi. I’m going to choke you now.’” The first time it happened, she decided she would go with it for a moment (“because if he’s really into it, then why not?” she says). “But then after about 10 seconds, I thought, This is not OK.” Both times she pushed their hands away, but they kept trying. She finished out the trysts, but the experience put Lila off both Jesse and Kit for good.
I heard about choking for the first time four years ago. I was newly single after six years and roaring along a tree-lined street in Victoria in a convertible with Monica*, my most sexually adventurous friend, now a 32-year-old communications director. She was telling me about a recent romp that climaxed when the man choked her so hard she passed out. “Wait, what?” I yelped. “What?” she laughed, as if I were some kind of prude. “Have you never been choked out before?” Looking back on it, I see that Monica, as usual, was an early adopter. Over the next few years, more and more friends related their choking stories to me. I turned my curiosity into a parlour game. “Do you enjoy choking during sex?” I’d ask party-goers. There would be the occasional moment of eye-rolling or outrage from a more conservative attendee (“No one really does that!”) until, finally, a few guests would confess to choker or chokee status. I didn’t escape unscathed, either. One sweltering July day, I sighed in annoyance as I slithered into a chambray oxford shirt, its collar popped to (unsuccessfully) hide the angry purple fingerprints splayed across my neck from a brief assignation with a newspaper columnist. My friend Severine*, a 27-year-old stylist, was horrified at my partner’s behaviour. A year-and-a- half later, however, the chic Severine, always on trend, asked her own boyfriend to choke her.
Choking, it seems, has become the new third base.
Hard data on the phenomenon—known as breathplay in the kink scene, or, to use the technical term, erotic asphyxiation—is sparse, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Gail Dines, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, says people frequently tell her stories about choking, including students she meets during her lecture tours. “There’s a point at which anecdotal evidence coheres into data,” she says. “It can’t be everybody’s idiosyncratic sex act. There’s no question that, yes, this is going on.”
“Younger couples are a little more open to sexual adventurousness,” says sex counsellor Ian Kerner, author of the bestselling She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman. “And things that previous generations may have considered taboo are a consensual, fun part of sexual interaction.” Choking also has pop culture in its grasp. Erotic asphyxiation has become a major TV plot point: Season three of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire featured a ruthless gangster character with a breathplay fetish, Gyp Rosetti (played by Bobby Cannavale), who repeatedly asks his conquests to pull a leather belt around his neck—hard. Cannavale won an Emmy for the role. Hyped high-fashion singer FKA Twigs’ new video for “Papi Pacify” features three minutes of her writhing about with a man’s hands manacled around her throat—and has racked up over 366,000 views in a month. Eliot Spitzer is allegedly a choker, according to reports from a high-end escort he frequented. So is Tiger Woods, as shown in some of his leaked text messages. Even Saturday Night Live is in on it—a recent sketch featured the two astronauts from Gravity panicking about running out of oxygen, with one joking to the other, “If that’s the case, why don’t we make this asphyxiation an erotic one?” On the runway, Marc by Marc Jacobs’ spring 2014 show featured models with scarves wound tightly around their necks, sometimes with their hair trapped ominously underneath: perfect for covering up sexual souvenirs—or inflicting them.
“I’ve noticed bruises on my girlfriends—miscellaneous sex bruises,” says Zahra*, a 29-year-old boutique owner. “They are definitely having rougher and rougher sex.” Twenty-eight-year-old copy editor Marin* remembers how her burly 25-year-old hockey player paramour would lock his massive hand around her throat, and she would struggle to pull it away. “He would keep trying to do it, like it was part of a game and half the fun was in me fighting back,” she tells me. “It was hard to communicate that I didn’t like it.” He wasn’t the only guy who tried to choke her; Marin still squints a little in discomfort remembering a mild-mannered TA she fooled around with in university, who surprised her during sex one night by choking her with the belt from his bathrobe.
Many sex experts, including widely read sex columnist Dan Savage, are adamant that any form of choking is a potentially fatal act and should be verboten, even between “good, giving and game” couples.
Marin loves a little hair pulling, but she never wants to be choked. “It’s dangerous, whereas I’m not going to die from someone pulling my hair,” she says. “I’m scared that what’s a fun game one minute could be this terrible Gawker headline the next: ‘Guy Accidentally Kills Girlfriend During Choke Sex.’ It takes me completely out of the moment.”
Such deaths do occur. Granted, they usually involve couples practising more extreme breathplay (often involving elaborate set-ups or equipment), but they happen nonetheless. In 2008, a Guelph, Ont., woman was convicted of criminal negligence after she accidentally killed her husband while they were taking turns hanging each other from their barn ceiling (incredibly enough, he had previously served time for strangling someone to death during sex). Earlier this year, a Montreal firefighter was sentenced to a year in jail when his girlfriend suffocated after he chained her to the ceiling via a metal collar. (I won’t even get into the thousands of deaths that have occurred from solo choking—i.e., auto- erotic asphyxiation—including, most likely, the deaths of INXS singer Michael Hutchence and actor David Carradine.) Men accused of strangling their partners have also begun, with saddening regularity, using the defence that it happened during consensual choking. This past October, former NFL player Hugh Douglas pleaded not guilty to charges of assault for strangling his girlfriend during what he claims was consensual “rough sex.”
How It Works
Given the risks, why do it at all? When the brain is deprived of oxygen—a state known as hypoxia—it can produce a euphoric high that, people claim, enhances orgasm. Pain also releases endorphins, causing a dopamine release. According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Rutgers University research professor, “the dopamine system is linked not only to pleasure but to the testosterone system, and that’s linked to the sex drive. When people engage in their fantasies, whatever they are, it gives them a flood of excitement, energy, pleasure, motivation and focus, and can really heighten the sex drive.”
Where is everyone getting these ideas? Pornography may be part of it. Violent sex is nothing new, but having millions of websites streaming every act under the sun in all their brazen glory is. It makes sense that a generation that came of age with almost unlimited free porn has picked up at least one or two common practices from the content. I recently interviewed boy du jour Joseph Gordon-Levitt about his September directorial debut Don Jon, which examines how porn and other media have skewed society’s perceptions of sex. “People tend to have these unrealistic expectations of what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to be, what love is supposed to be or what sex is supposed to be,” he told me.
According to a 2010 American study of popular porn videos, “of the 304 scenes analyzed, 88.2 percent contained physical aggression—principally spanking, gagging and slapping—while 48.7 percent of scenes contained verbal aggression, primarily name-calling … [The primarily female] targets most often showed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression.”
What was formerly extreme is now routine. Pornland author Dines says porn has performed a “kind of cultural colonization of young people’s minds.” She travels frequently on North American and international speaking tours, and hears, increasingly, that young women are being asked to have “porn sex,” which often includes choking: “Men who are being brought up on porn are using it as their major form of sex education because there’s nothing quite as crisp, clear or succinct as that type of sex ed.” Dines says one woman shared that her boyfriend had asked to choke her after he’d seen it in a porn movie; she passed out, only to come to and find him blithely washing himself off in the bathroom.
It’s not just men who are adding choking and other violent acts to their sex wish lists. Zahra enjoys mild choking and face slapping. “I like pain and the loss of control,” she says.
Margo*, a 27-year-old Vancouver writer, regularly asks her partners to choke and dominate her, she tells me. “There have been guys I’ve had that dynamic with, and I think, Great! I’m your little whore!” she laughs. “And then they’re like, ‘No, everyone asks me to do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck! Really?’”
Like Zahra and Margo, most people arguably get off on the power play more than the hypoxic rush. Men’s uncertainty of their place in the world (including the dwindling job prospects and bleak male future outlined in Hanna Rosin’s ground- breaking Atlantic article “The End of Men” and book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women) could manifest as hardcore sexual dominance in the bedroom—a means of regaining a feeling of control. Get no respect at work? Don’t have any work? A little nerdy, maybe? Be the most aggro lay in town instead. And for many women, after a lifetime of the draining everyday rigours of strong, modern womanhood, relinquishing control is, ironically, the most subversive—and seductive—act of all. “I feel like I have to make so many decisions day to day,” says Zahra, “that it’s kind of nice just lying there and letting somebody have his way with me.”
Chad*, a 28-year-old English teacher, says he frequently chokes new partners the first time they have sex, and finds dirty talk and hair pulling are now considered a bit vanilla.
“Women are more assertive when it comes to what they want in bed,” he says. “And what some of them want is a man who will take control; the embodiment of that has graduated from spanking and hair pulling to choking and slapping. Spitting and hard gagging seem to be the next, more extreme step.”
But what if the man isn’t into it? A year ago, my friend Jack Dylan, 28, then a graphic designer at FLARE, was seeing a woman he really liked; she broke it off with him because he refused to dominate her during sex. “Everything in my upbringing had taught me that this was not the way women wanted to be treated,” he says. But he has since added choking and rougher stuff to his sex repertoire, feeling pressure to meet the rising demand. “That saying that men want a princess in public and a whore in the bedroom cuts both ways,” says Jack. “Many modern women want a prince in public and a misogynistic sexual predator in the bedroom.” This equation of masculinity and serious sexual aggression is represented perfectly by Robin Thicke’s monster hit “Blurred Lines”: Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you/He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.
Generation Y gets bored—fast. My fellow millennials exist in a bacchanalian Brave New World where casual sex is as accessible as Chinese takeout, for those who want it. We can satiate our most outré urges instantly with apps like Tinder (which, as of last spring, had logged 4.5 billion “hot or not” ratings and offered up 50 million matches) and OkCupid (which almost immediately added Tinder-like swiping to its Locals feature after its competitor exploded in popularity), and we’re always looking for a new high to intensify our encounters.
“If you’ve been brought up on a steady diet of porn sex, with the hardcore anal, the choking, the spitting,” Dines says, “real sex with another human being becomes very boring very quickly.” Unfortunately, millennials are also less likely to care whether their partners are even into it. According to Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and a San Diego State University psychology professor, “66 percent more Generation Me college students—versus boomers of the previous generation—are problematically high in narcissistic traits, and three times as many have experienced narcissistic personality disorder.” Narcissists are focused on themselves, Twinge tells me, lack empathy and find it difficult to take someone else’s perspective. “They are more likely to be interested in physical domination during sex and to disregard how it affects their partner.” It certainly explains all those guys’ hands creeping back around my female friends’ necks even after they protested, as well as the ladies who dumped my male friends for refusing to choke them.
Men who like it, women who don’t, men who don’t like it but do it anyway for the women who do—sometimes it seems as if the Gordian knot of kink is tangling faster than it can unravel.
As PC and Pollyannaish as it sounds, actual consent and checking in as you go along seem the most reasonable answer, as well as committing to speaking up if you’re not into something (and gracefully taking no for an answer—asphyxiation is the last thing we need on our long checklist of peer pressures).“It’s such a tricky thing, because if those parameters aren’t met, then it goes from excellent to ugly and genuinely demeaning really quickly,” Margo says.
Kerner argues that getting explicit consent is especially important for extreme acts: “The more off-the-beaten-path or the kinkier you want to get, the more responsibility you have to explicitly state that.” He suggests saying something like, “Do you mind if I share a fantasy with you that really turns me on? I find it sexy and erotic, and it involves me choking you.” And have the conversation anywhere but in bed—at brunch, walking down the street, in the car—and in a safe space, where the person has time to think about it, ask questions and consent or not. “That way, the other person knows what’s coming. They may not know when it’s coming, but they’ve given their permission,” Fisher says.
Unfortunately, talking about risks in the bedroom often feels more dangerous than taking them. Plus, part of the mystery and appeal of sex is that it is a different form of communication. There aren’t a lot of people downloading scenes of intimate, open, respectful conversation. Whatever benefits such dialogue may bring, an instant dopamine hit isn’t one of them.
I’d argue, however, that even if the correct etiquette for throttling your partner hasn’t kept up with the spectacular speed of sexual evolution, it’s still a glorious time to be alive and in lust. Deep-rooted desires of domination are no longer taboo, and such liberation is a privilege and a pleasure.
Yet a certain nostalgia flickers at the periphery of all this. You wonder, for a moment, if a simple connection between humans has been discarded in favour of lunging for the carotid at first flush, squeezing and squeezing, grasping at meaning but finding yourself empty-handed.
Such behaviour is like the act of choking itself—just past the point of primal ecstasy, darkness yawns.
*Name has been changed at the subject’s request.