Let's Talk About Choking During Sex
If the thought of someone's hand on your neck — or vice versa — turns you on, then welcome. Choking during sex isn't a new kink. It isn't something outlandish that nobody's ever thought of. But it has become extremely popular (or at least entered the public discussion) in part because of a December 2019 incident with a New Jersey nineteen-year-old who accidentally died while doing it with a play partner.
Unlike other kinks such as rope bondage and foot play, choking comes with serious risks. Doing so strips someone of their oxygen, and with that comes huge responsibility. The best way to practice choking during sex, if you choose to practice it at all, is to understand the risks and do everything you can to educate yourself on how you can incorporate it safely.
Here, sex therapists share all the info you need on how to practice choking during sex in a safe way — because safe sex is informed sex. Let's get into the nitty-gritty of where the fascination lies with choking during sex as well as some key points to remember before giving it a go.
What Is Erotic Asphyxiation?
Choking is a type of erotic asphyxiation (EA) or breath play that can be done during solo or partnered sex (when done solo, it's technically called autoerotic asphyxiation). "Breath play involves cutting off the air supply for you, your partner, or both of you during sexual activity," says clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D. It's literally an intentional restriction of oxygen to the brain for sexual pleasure.
Choking during sex is one of many forms of breath play. Other forms include nose-pinching, mouth-covering, and breath-holding. Breath play (in all its forms) falls under the umbrella of edge play — any sexual activity that has the potential to cause serious harm.
Why Do People Like Choking During Sex?
"Breath play can result in a heightened sense of arousal," says certified sex therapist and relationship expert, Ashley Grinonneau-Denton, Ph.D. What gets someone to that state of arousal varies as there are a few levels of choking to consider.
The Physiological Aspect
"During choking, your brain is literally robbed of oxygen," says Kimberly Resnick Anderson, certified sex therapist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "This can induce a lucid yet semi-hallucinogenic state." The lack of oxygen reaching the brain causes an experience her patients liken to fading in and out of consciousness and tend to enjoy, she says.
Then, "once oxygen flow returns, the body exhales, literally," says Grinonneau-Denton. "This exhale is coupled with a release of dopamine and serotonin [two neurotransmitters] that can often lead to an exhilarating sensation as the body works to recover to its previous oxygenated state." (Note: Both are also behind your exercise high.) The brain takes the pain from a sexual context and translates that back to the body as pleasure. Because, actually, pain and pleasure activate similar parts of the brain associated with triggering dopamine.
The Psychological Aspect
There's also the power-play component. "Such a risky form of sex play requires so much trust from the submissive partner to the dominant," says Grinonneau-Denton. The ability to be in control of or give control to your partner can be liberating. It can also showcase immense vulnerability. (Related: Guide to BDSM for Beginners)
Why someone might be into choking could be any of these factors or a combination of them. "It's important to remember that everyone participates in it for different reasons and appeals," says Overstreet. From the physical body sensations to flirting with death, the reason why someone enjoys choking during sex is personal, just like any sexual interest.
Is Choking During Sex Ever Safe?
"Erotic breath play can be extremely dangerous, period," says Grinonneau-Denton. "Safety and consent are always important. And when it comes to restricting oxygen, something we all need to survive and continue to live, the stakes certainly don't become lower."
There's no way to skirt around the dangers involved in the practice of choking. So it's imperative that you know what you're getting yourself into before attempting it.
Note: Identifying and understanding the risks of sexual activity doesn't equate to shaming someone for expressing their sexual interests. If choking during sex is something you're interested in exploring, by all means, do it — but do it safely.
How to Incorporate Choking In Your Sex Life
Speaking of exploring the practice of choking safely, here are some practical ways to go about that.
Step 1: Know your anatomy.
"Although the neck wasn't designed to be flimsy, too much pressure can create serious damage if you aren't educated in regards to what you're doing in a physiological sense," says Grinonneau-Denton. Educating yourself about the anatomy of the neck can help you learn which grips are the safest and how to apply pressure.
There are some pretty important parts of the body that either pass through the neck or are directly in the neck, including the spinal cord, vocal cords, part of the esophagus, jugular veins that drain blood from the face, neck, and brain, and carotid arteries that supply blood to the head and neck.
No matter if you're using your hands, ties, or other restraints, it's better to engage in breath play as an informed individual. In this case, informed about the anatomy of the neck. "Avoid direct pressure to the trachea [the windpipe] and apply pressure to the sides of the neck instead," says Anderson. (Related: The Best Sex Toys If You're Interested In Trying BDSM)
Anderson suggests connecting with an expert in the BDSM community on a platform such as Fetlife. Someone who's familiar with the practice and is able (and willing) to show you how to apply pressure with less risk.
Step 2: Consent before, during, and after.
"Don't even think about breath play without consent from all parties," says Overstreet. Consent needs to be on your mind the entire time; once is not enough. This includes asking before you engage in a form of breath play like choking, as well as checking in during the scene to see how both of you are feeling.
Everyone involved has a say about what's going down. Don't assume that because there was consent at the beginning or the first time that there will be consent throughout a scene or every time. (Here's exactly what consent entails and how to ask for it properly — before and during a sexual experience.)
Step 3: Communicate boundaries.
"Ensure you're able to speak up, clearly communicate, and actively listen," says Overstreet. You need to feel comfortable enough with your partner to create and express your boundaries, including verbal and nonverbal cues. And they need to feel comfortable creating and expressing the same with you. Everyone needs to be on the same wavelength before engaging in a form of breath play like choking.
"Have not just a safe word, but also a 'safe motion' such as making a peace sign with a hand or stomping/kicking a foot four times," says Anderson. When you restrict someone's breathing, nonverbal cues (safe motions) can come in handy.
Talking with and listening to your partner keeps you present. You can gain a better understanding of your likes and dislikes, their likes and dislikes, and create an all-around safer scene.
Step 4: Keep a clear mind.
You want to be as present (and sober) as possible to ensure the experience is as safe and pleasurable as possible. Also, consent under the influence isn't really consenting. "Chemicals can impair judgment, decrease dexterity and acuity, and cause sleepiness or blackouts — making injury or death more likely," says Anderson. If you want to practice choking during sex, leave alcohol and drugs out of the equation, for your safety and for your partner's.