Can Choking During Sex Ever *Really* Be Safe?
Four young people share their mishaps and bad experiences with the sexual behavior.
Choking is everywhere lately, from TV shows like The Idol to an endless stream of TikToks and “choke me daddy” memes. Though the behavior remains controversial (fan reactions to The Idol’s choking scenes ranged from turned-on to horrified), the internet discourse makes one thing clear: Choking during sex is undergoing a rapid cultural rebranding, from a taboo and frankly niche kink to an almost-expectation of “average” hookup conduct.
Of course, just because it’s popular among college-aged people doesn’t mean it’s always enjoyed. A 2022 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that 40% of undergraduate students had been choked during sex, and the median age of first being choked was 19. Cis women, trans people, and non-binary people were much more likely to be choked than cis men — and 1 in 4 undergraduate women reported being choked during their last sexual encounter. Meanwhile, a 2019 study found a quarter of women felt scared during sex, in part due to choking.
And as the behavior grows more mainstream, so does the social pressure to see it as NBD. “Young folks enter a lose-lose situation: either you're [perceived as] too much of a freak or not enough of one,” Tara Jones, a 23-year-old sex educator and founder of sex ed non-profit The Youth Sexpert Program, tells Elite Daily.
In reality, there are no foolproof ways to take part in the act. “There is no zero-risk way to engage in sexual choking and strangulation,” Debby Herbenick, professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and lead researcher on the above studies, tells Elite Daily. Still, even after experiencing mishaps and seeing the risks firsthand, some young people view choking as a positive part of their sex lives and are eager to keep exploring it.
Trigger warning: This piece contains descriptions of rough sex and sexual assault.
Without Consent, Choking Can Be Dehumanizing & Scary
Natalie* was 19 the first time they were choked and says the experience was non-consensual and unpleasant. Natalie, who lives in London, had been on a date with a 26-year-old man, and they’d come back to Natalie’s place for a one-night stand. They were kissing, and the man started choking Natalie unexpectedly. Natalie was so surprised, they didn’t have time to truly process what was happening. Instead, Natalie went along with it, “hoping it would end quickly.”
No matter how popular the practice has become, Jones says it’s something that should always be discussed beforehand. “There's always a level of risk that comes with choking, and you certainly don't want to make your partner(s) feel uncomfortable,” she says.
“It was a really strange and uncomfortable experience, primarily because it was so out of pace with what was happening. It seemed like a relatively extreme thing to jump to whilst making out,” Natalie tells Elite Daily. “It also made me feel as though I was just there for his gratification, rather than for any mutual pleasure.” Since the man was 26, Natalie hoped he’d be more mature and recognize her agency. But in hindsight, Natalie says this was a naive belief.
Previously, Natalie had been interested in choking as a kink — under the right circumstances. “It seemed like it would be an intense experience, physically and psychologically, [one] which would require trust, vulnerability, and surrender,” they say. But their experience at 19 was dehumanizing, and now, at 24, Natalie has only recently begun to revisit choking with partners and lovers. But now with their partner, Natalie explores choking from the dominant, rather than submissive, position — which has helped them understand their non-binary identity and build trust with their partner.
Despite The Risks, Some Young People Still See Choking As Positive & Affirming
For Anna, a 21-year-old woman living in the Midwest, her first experience with choking was also the first time she had sex. At the time, she was a 19-year-old freshman in college, and after talking with her then-boyfriend about sex and choking, Ana felt ready to try both.
“I was excited that someone wanted me the same way I wanted them, and I had definitely thought about choking before,” Anna tells Elite Daily. “I felt like it would give my boyfriend some kind of power over me, and that's what I liked about it.”
Anna remembers enjoying the encounter, but says it was far from perfect: “He thought he knew what he was doing, but in reality he really didn't. The idea was there, but the execution was off and kind of made me nervous.” The experience had an impact on Anna, and she realized the danger of improper choking. Even after experimenting with her then-boyfriend, Anna says it was common for subsequent partners to push down on the front of the front of her neck. “[They were] literally preventing me from getting any air at all, not to mention it hurts after a minute.”
Though the internet offers techniques to make choking “safer,” Herbenick has found that many of those resources spread a great deal of misinformation. “I suspect more of us need to interrogate what we mean by ‘safe’ or ‘safer’ and to be more precise when we talk with one another about it,” she says. “Do we mean ‘zero-risk’? Do we mean ‘unlikely to die’?” Choking can cause lost consciousness, bruising, throat and vocal damage, and in extreme cases, brain damage, heart attack, and death — and this harm is possible even if someone swears they know what they’re doing.
In her current sex life, Anna enjoys choking. But even when feeling confident in her partners, there have been close calls. A previous boyfriend choked her non-consensually, and other partners have come close to hurting her. “They didn't quite know what they were doing.”
However, knowing that certain risks are part of her sex life, Anna says the act has benefited her. “[Choking] changed how I look at sex,” she says. “I grew up scared of letting someone else in, physically and emotionally, and I think choking has been a way for me to give some of that trust over to another person.”
For River*, a 26-year-old from Louisiana, choking has been an opportunity for exploration and comfort. River was 20, a junior in college, the first time they explored choking. River was with their first serious girlfriend, Lily, and says the experience was a “silly flop in a neutral, mutually supportive, sweet way.” The relationship was T4T (meaning trans for trans), and to River, that felt magical, and the sex always safe and supportive.
Since then, choking has become an entry point for satisfying sex for River as someone with chronic pain and who is also on the asexual spectrum. “Choking has always fallen into a safe zone of being easy and low-effort for my body to provide or receive,” River tells Elite Daily.
Since their relationship with Lily, River has dated a few more partners who asked to be choked. They recently began exploring being choked with a new partner, which they say was “very hot [and] very well-executed.” They hadn’t talked about it beforehand, but they checked in about it during sex, and it felt safe and consensual for River. “I think this recent encounter affirmed for me that experience and skill around choking is a must for me to want to be choked, just as it was a must for me to grow that competency before I felt good about choking other people,” they say. Overall, choking has been an opportunity for them to explore pleasure. “I support sexual choking as part of my sex life.”
For those who find choking pleasurable and are willing to take on the risk, there are harm reduction methods that can help. Herbenick advises verbal communication before, during, and after choking (and any type of rough sex), as well as refraining from choking while using alcohol or substances, discussing medical and trauma history, agreeing on safe words and nonverbal gestures ahead of time, and keeping the light on during sex (so you can see how someone is doing and reacting). Realistically, if you skip these steps, it’s probably a sign to skip choking altogether.
For SA Survivors, Seeing Rough Sex (Let Alone Experiencing It) Can Be Triggering
Though some young people have chosen to keep exploring the behavior despite the risks, for others, their encounters were distressing and hard to move on from. Syd* was a 19-year-old sophomore when she was sexually assaulted, and the experience culminated in choking so severe she lost consciousness. Syd felt she was going to die, and it took time to fully understand the assault and its impact on her life.
“Initially a lot of it was trying to figure out what had happened and then putting the right words to [the experience],” Syd tells Elite Daily. “It took over a year and mostly through understanding [things like], ‘What were those traumatic triggers? How do I stay alive? How do I finish school?’” Syd developed a number of triggers, including depictions of strangulation in media and TV, anxiety around breathing, and physical touch to her neck and shoulders.
“For a long time I was in a fear state around those things, and as I've gotten older, I've learned how to integrate those events into my personhood [and] in my life in a way that's more empowering,” says Syd.
Now 26, Syd has continued with therapy and has a supportive partner and friends who understand her triggers. Syd says choking’s entrance into the mainstream and internet circles can be traumatizing for some people. “For others, it can be a lifeline in their experiences and their ownership of their bodies,” she says. But until people acknowledge both of those things — and recognize the nuances inherent in rough sex acts like choking — Syd believes it will be difficult to reconcile the behavior’s popularity within the broader context of sexual violence.
*Name has been changed.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org.