Ever get turned on by the idea of someone choking you? If you’re blushing right now, you are not alone. If done safely and with mutual enthusiastic consent, couples can spice up their sex life with breath play. Who needs vanilla when you can have pistachio cardamom?
Once relegated to the realms of dominatrixes and Christian Grey, choking has become increasingly prevalent. It’s gone mainstream — like, really mainstream. Just over a quarter of cis women, nearly a quarter of trans and non-binary people, and almost 7% of cis men reported being choked during their most recent hookup, according to a 2021 study of undergrads published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. (Similarly, almost 6% of cis women and about a quarter of cis men and trans and non-binary folks reported choking a partner the last time they had sex.)
The widespread interest in this act makes sense, as people are getting more experimental in bed. OkCupid tells Elite Daily their 2021 data showed a 17% increase in the number of profiles that mention BDSM and a 55% increase in the number of users who say they’re kinky. Disturbingly, however, choking isn’t always done consensually.
While it can be titillating, choking clearly comes with some significant risks, including death. Even a little bit of oxygen deprivation can be harmful. Choking is not something you should do without discussing it seriously with your partner ahead of time and learning how to do it safely. While other forms of kink — like spanking and bondage — can be exciting, choking can be flat-out dangerous if not practiced with safety in mind. This is true whether you’re having sex with your partner or experimenting solo.
I talked to sex therapists to get the lowdown on choking, the science behind it, how to do it, and why some people enjoy it.
What Is Erotic Asphyxiation?
Choking, aka erotic asphyxiation, edge play, or breath play, “is the act of restricting breath for pleasure,” says sex-positive educator and counselor Shanae Adams. It can be done during solo time (also known as autoerotic asphyxiation) or with a partner. However, “you risk literally causing brain damage or death if you do it incorrectly,” says Gigi Engle, feminist author, sex educator, and SKYN’s sex expert. “This is why learning how to properly choke someone in a safe and consensual way is so important before you ever try it.”
Each year, approximately 250-1000 people die from autoerotic asphyxiation, according to WebMD. And in New Jersey, a 21-year-old man was arrested for manslaughter in 2019 after his partner died during edge play. Choking during sex is no joke. It’s incredibly important to take breath play seriously.
Why Do Some People Enjoy Choking During Sex?
“Erotic asphyxiation such as choking, smothering, strangulation or face-sitting restricts the oxygen supply to your brain,” says Aliyah Moore, Ph.D. certified sex therapist. “As a result, you get dizzy and lightheaded, both of which can feel great in the heat of the moment. Then, when the chokehold is released, and you get to breathe normally again, you may feel a second, different type of rush.” This second rush is caused by the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin flooding your body, which is why your brain associates pain with pleasure.
Aside from the pleasurable physical aspects, breath play also holds an erotic allure for many people. Allowing someone to be dominant over you or vice versa invites a highly charged power play into the sexual equation. “Giving someone permission to choke you, or visa versa, allows you to take on dominant and submissive roles in bed,” says Engle. “This is something many of us long for: a release from control or the power to take it.”
“Manipulating the breath can also be a tool of mindfulness to keep the energy and focus on the activity at hand,” says Adams. “This style of play can increase connection to those engaging.”
Sounds Intriguing. How Can I Practice Choking Safely?
Before the main event:
Educating yourself is key! Moore suggests reading up on the neck, chest, and head anatomy to understand how exactly choking works. Besides the aforementioned brain damage and death, choking can also cause nausea, vomiting, laryngeal damage, vision loss, and muscle weakness. In other words, proceed with major caution. Should the worst-case scenario happen, you should be prepared to administer CPR. Take a class on how to perform CPR correctly and/or sign up for a class on safe breath play.
“Getting expert consultation is the best way to learn how to choke or strangle properly,” says Moore. “Contact your local BDSM community for tips on any choking classes or tutorials, or talk to a sexologist.” You may even want to try it on yourself first to understand what it feels like and how much pressure to apply.
Consent, consent, consent: It can’t be said enough. Don’t just surprise someone with a random choke. That’s not cool under any circumstances. You and your partner should fully understand all health risks.
Moore suggests asking your partner the following questions:
- How would they like to be choked?
- How long would they like to be choked for?
- When? During penetration, climax, or at some other point?
- How many times would they like to be choked?
Engle adds, “Perhaps you’re looking for ‘hands-only’ play, wherein a partner only uses their hands to choke you. Or maybe a collar or rope is more your thing.” Each method is employed differently, so it’s imperative to understand how they work.
Adams recommends a game of Simon Says to interested partners. “Command your partner to hold their breath until you tell them otherwise. By making it a fun game, the act can be more digestible and fun for all involved.” This is a great way for partners to understand each other’s limits.
Come up with a safe gesture. “Safe words aren’t going to cut it here. As your partner will not be able to vocalize too well, you must think of a safe gesture such as tapping out, holding up a fist, or finger-snapping.”
Lastly, Moore says, “don’t forget to talk to your doctor before engaging in breath play. People with breathing or heart problems and those with a history of anxiety, panic attacks, or sexual trauma should tread carefully.”
Do not under any circumstances press directly on the front of their neck. Not only can it cause coughing, but “it is uncomfortable, not sexy, and super dangerous,” Engle warns. “When you start using choking with a partner, gently press on either side of the esophagus and figure out the pressure that works for them.”
“Make sure that you use your whole hand to apply gentle but steady pressure. Apply gentle pressure using your fingers for no more than two to five seconds at a time,” Moore says. “Give your partner breaks of at least 20-30 seconds between chokings. As you choke them, ask them how they feel and if they would like you to increase or decrease the pressure.” And watch out for any signals that they want you to stop.
It’s essential to continually check in with your partner to make sure they feel safe and secure. They should still be able to breathe, albeit with constriction. Observe the face to make sure they are not in any sort of distress.
After you’re done, don’t forget to continue to check in with your partner. After such an intense experience, it’s important to feel safe and secure. “Snuggle, kiss, and stroke each other. Ask them how it felt, if anything should be adjusted and if they would like to continue practicing choking going forward,” Moore suggests.
“Constant check-ins, communication, and consent are the foundation for this activity,” Adams emphasizes. “Once established, this can be a tantalizing addition to your style of play.”
As long as it’s practiced safely and consensually, edge play can be erotic, fun, and a great way for couples to bond and explore their carnal desires.
Gigi Engle, feminist author, sex educator, SKYN’s sex expert
Shanae Adams, sex-positive educator and counselor
Aliyah Moore, certified sex therapist