As a career sex crimes prosecutor, one of the most concerning trends I have seen over the years is dangerous sexual activity.
Behavior designed to mix pleasure and pain might begin with conduct that is consensual but can devolve into dangerous deviance. From rape role-play to sadistic sex, abnormal intimacy can be a slippery slope that can result in serious injury.
Sex and Strangulation
One of the ways sex can be deadly is if it involves depriving a partner of air. Unfortunately, believe it or not, a significant number of couples engage in this potentially lethal practice.
Debby Herbenick et al. (2021) examined choking during sex in a study aptly named “‘It Was Scary, but Then It Was Kind of Exciting.”[i] They explain that choking or strangulation during sexual activity is apparently common among young adults, citing one study reporting that 58% of female college students reportedly had been choked during sex. Lacking a qualitative study examining women’s experiences being choked or strangled during sex outside of intimate partner violence, Herbenick et al. studied this experience during partnered sex.
They interviewed 24 undergraduate and graduate women between the ages of 18 to 33, asking how this practice began, how the women felt about it, and whether or not they engaged in safety practices. Herbenick et al. note that all of their study participants used the term “choking” to refer to using hands or ligatures to “press or squeeze the neck during sex.”
They learned that women first learned about choking through a variety of sources that included magazines, erotic stories, pornography, and social media, as well as from friends and partners. Participants described both consensual and non-consensual choking experiences. Although many of the women they interviewed said they enjoyed choking, others admitted that they did it mainly to please their partner.
One alarming revelation was that very few of the women in their sample had sought information on safety practices or ways to reduce the risk of harm.
Only some had created “safe words” or gestures to use with partners, and some relied on their partner’s perception of their consciousness or alertness to know when to stop choking.
Others believed they would instinctively know when to tell a partner to stop, even though physical reactions experienced by study participants during or after choking included difficulty swallowing or breathing, coughing, gasping for air, eyes tearing up, and changes in vision.
Herbenick et al. also found that choking was reportedly paired with other aggressive sexual behaviors. Participants experienced choking within what they described as rough sex, which included spanking, slapping, hair-pulling, and having sex in a vigorous manner. They defined rough sex as the opposite of gentle sex, which they described as intimate, while defining rough sex as passionate.
Also troubling from the standpoint of perception, participants described gentle sex as “vanilla,” while characterizing rough sex as “adventurous,” and a solution to “monotonous sex.”
Good relationships feel good. Healthy expressions of intimacy don’t leave partners coughing, gasping for air, or with blurred vision. Harmful intimate behavior is dangerous both physically and emotionally. Avoiding even starting down the road of “adventurous” deviance will allow couples to build healthy, satisfying relationships that are respectful and rewarding.