Is Choking During Sex Considered Abuse?

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
One of the many sexy plot lines in the book Big Little Lies, now a show on HBO, involves erotic asphyxiation, or choking during sex. Jane tells Madeline about being raped by her son's father, and explains that her rapist choked her under the guise that it was "erotic asphyxiation," although the sex and choking wasn't consensual. Later, Madeline asks her husband if he would ever want to try it, and he says he's actually done it, which just makes her curiosity grow.
In the book, Jane's rapist tells her: "It's fun. You'll like it. It's a rush. Like cocaine." Any restricted blood flow to the head or control of the breath (putting a hand over someone's mouth, for example) is considered erotic asphyxiation, and many people do it to feel a "rush," says Richard Sprott, PhD, research director of The Alternative Sexuality Health Research Alliance (TASHRA). "When your body has restricted blood flow, you feel lightheaded and you also feel a bunch of adrenaline and endorphins released, so there's a rush in addition to wooziness or dizziness," he says. (Though it's important to emphasize that Jane's rapist was not employing "erotic asphyxiation" — what he did was violent rape.)
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Psychologically, some people like to choke or reduce blood flow because it's a way to "play with power," Dr. Sprott says. "The experience of either having that kind of impact or control if you're doing it, or feeling vulnerable if you're receiving it — sort of like ravaged — heightens people's physical experience," he says. But you have to be careful, because erotic asphyxiation puts a lot of stress on your body, and it's recognized as a high-risk behavior, he says. "Some people call it edge play, because it does have a higher risk than just blindfolding someone or tying their wrists together." In rare cases, choking could induce a heart attack, he says.
So, if erotic asphyxiation is dangerous, is it inherently abusive? "The difference between kink and abuse is negotiation beforehand," Dr. Sprott says. In Jane's situation, she repeatedly tells her rapist to stop choking her, so it's definitely considered an abusive action — the sex itself also wasn't consensual. "You have to be able to talk about it [erotic asphyxiation] and have some form of consent," Dr. Sprott says.
It can also be overwhelming if you are having consensual sex but haven't negotiated the terms before, he says. "You don't want to spring it on someone, because it could cause a panic attack, which is definitely not fun," he says. You and your partner should decide on a safe word and nonverbal signal (any sort of signal that tells your partner you're not enjoying it and want to stop), as well as a plan for aftercare (a discussion about what worked and what didn't) before you do anything, Dr. Sprott says.
Once you've had the talk, if you're curious about exactly how to safely go about it, Dr. Sprott says it's worth it to reach out to the organized BDSM and kink community (the networking site FetLife or The Eulenspiegel Society are great entry points), to find someone with experience who can mentor you. "You'll find a fair amount of people who say you shouldn't do it given the risk," Dr. Sprott says. But there are definitely safer, more suggestive ways to do it, like putting a hand over your partner's mouth without covering their nose, or gently pressing on their throat without applying much pressure, and only for a few seconds at a time.
Of course, if the idea of choking your partner (or vice versa) is scary, there's no reason to try it; there are tons of other ways you can make sex more invigorating — like trying massage or tantric techniques — that are edgy, but still let you and your partner breathe easily.
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