Jade was scrolling through Instagram when she saw it: Nintendo’s Kirby — round, pastel pink, and docile — standing next to a whiteboard, pointing to the question “Can I please wear your hands as a necklace?” The meme was over-the-top, with soft sparkles over the suggestive text and spattered across Kirby’s blushing, squishy face (the exact meme is lost to internet history, though it looked a lot like this). But it was Kirby’s badass attitude — and the owning of his desire — that really caught Jade’s eye.
It was posted by Jade’s Instagram mutual, Ellie*, whose profile was more or less a slideshow of bratty, playful riffs on the “choke me daddy” meme. Choking memes have been around for nearly a decade, and can take on a lot of different formats, but usually references the specific act of choking during sex. Jade was into that… and, she was definitely into Ellie.
All it took was one bedazzled Kirby to make Jade finally send a DM.
In her message to Ellie, “I [told her] about really liking breath play and she immediately responded with 'choke me daddy,' flirtily and very fun," Jade says. "I asked her if she had experience with it and she said yes.”
Choking is one aspect of what kinksters call “breath play,” which describes a range of consensual erotic activities that restrict or manipulate airflow. Breath play can range from something as simple as holding your breath for pleasure, wearing a mask or gag to reduce air availability, or more dangerous activities like full air deprivation or choking someone’s throat.
Jade and Ellie bantered more about breath play and eventually made plans to meet up for dinner. “The date went great," Jade remembers. "I was playing into dominant vibes for the evening. I asked if I could pick out her meal [and] she was loving that." As things got intimate after the meal, Jade remembers Ellie enjoying neck bites and hands on her neck. But soon, the night took a turn. "I brought up actually choking her, revisiting what I thought we talked about, saying ‘do you want daddy to choke you now?’" Jade remembers. "She said 'yes daddy.'” But as she began choking Ellie, Jade noticed her partner’s eyes getting really wide, really fast. And that’s when things got strange. Jade immediately pulled back and asked if it was too much, or if adjustments were needed.
That’s when Ellie said, “Whoa, no, you actually want to choke me?”
After talking more, Ellie “admitted, essentially, that she was putting up a front," Jade remembers. "She didn't think I really wanted to choke her and thought it was more of a ‘vibe.' It kinda felt like that meme led to a miscommunication because she was reading my communication as flirty where I was trying to be explicit. In the end, she really thought I was weird for actually wanting to choke her — and that in my head, it wasn’t a joke.”
Now, three years later with many more kink classes and successful play dates under her belt, Jade has been a lot more cautious about drawing the line between internet flirting and actual negotiations around sex. “Now I sort of make a meme out of the meme," she says. "When folks I really like post those, I play into them but say, ‘is this just a meme or are you really into choking?’”
If you’ve been on the internet lately, it’s hard not to know exactly the kinds of posts Jade is referencing. Around since the mid-2010s when Obama's Twitter replies were littered with the phrase "choke me daddy," this idiosyncratic phrase has had surprising longevity. But it's really picked up traction in the last few years amongst Gen Z, with “choke me daddy” and "choke me zaddy" memes dominating TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter with tens of thousands of views. Lately, the phrase has crossed over into real life as slang between friends and sexual scripts for potential lovers. Part command, part lust, and with a good bit of edgelord mixed in, “choke me daddy” is pretty much the defining shorthand for the existential, slightly sex-hungry, pessimism that dominates much of our Covid-era cultural humor. It may seem like lighthearted internet talk at first blush, but Jade’s experience shows how the popularity of “choke me daddy” can jeopardize sexual boundaries, safety, and consent.
Often, these memes revel in the confusion Jade experienced, and actively blur the lines between nonconsensual violence and pleasure, becoming the darker, angrier evolution of “spit on me” and “step on me” memes. So why, out of all the kink acts out there, did we decide choking was the joke of the moment?
The answer, speculates Michal Daveed, a spokesperson and member of The Eulenspiegel Society, a New York-based non-profit that promotes sexual liberation and consensual BDSM, lies in its apparent accessibility and a cultural desire to “amp up” sexual encounters.
“Choking seems like the kind of thing anyone can do," Daveed says. "You don’t need any special equipment. It doesn’t seem to take a lot of time. It speaks to a lot of things people automatically associate with kink or rough sex, the sadomasochistic element, and the exchange of power,” says Daveed.
In this way, choking — the actual act — becomes a shortcut to posture sexual prowess, distance oneself from “boring” sex, and to “level up” the intensity of an encounter without involving genitals, which can be particularly appealing to young people and those with less sexual experience. “[Because] you don't need to use genitals, [choking] might be something seen as less scary [and can] augment other activities,” says Daveed.
Likewise, this urgency for “leveled up” encounters is related to the fear of being boring (or just plain bad) at sex, adds Jules Purnell, M.Ed, an American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists-certified sexuality educator and Title IX educator.
“There's this tendency to want to be really edgy and to push that edge for the laughs," Purnell says. “It can also, to the uncritical eye, have this effect of normalizing that everyone likes to be choked. So if I'm not doing it, maybe I'm really square. Maybe vanilla sex is not cool enough, maybe I'm not an exciting enough sex partner. It’s one of the possible consequences of people who, especially over the last few years, have come into their sexuality without having access to community because of Covid.”
In recent years, there’s been a surge in public-facing conversations about sex and the ways people engage with the erotic (and because of the pandemic, most of them take place online). Part of this is a long-overdue response to the chronic lack of sex education in the U.S. and part of it is the wide availability of porn, which is many people’s entry point to learning about sex, and often features more hardcore kink acts like choking.
It’s this widespread, laissez-faire attitude to sex and sex ed that fosters such glib meme-ification of choking. Basically, if someone already believes it's a desirable, normal shortcut to hot hookups, it’s easy to jump right in. And if it’s already a joke, it’s even easier to shrug off the seriousness of responsibility. But sex acts of any kind, regardless of whether genitals are in the mix, means taking responsibility, establishing boundaries, and getting consent, all things that are largely left out of "choke me daddy" TikToks and memes. And this has real consequences.
A 2021 survey of 4,168 undergraduate students found that one in three women respondents were choked the last time they had sex. It’s unclear how many of these encounters were consensual, but the numbers indicate that choking is becoming normalized as an everyday, run-of-the-mill sex act, even though people (often young women and nonbinary people) are being hurt. In her research, Debby Herbenick, PhD, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and director of the school's Center for Sexual Health Promotion, found that choking disproportionately affects women and queer people. And in her 2021 study “#ChokeMeDaddy: A Content Analysis of Memes Related to Choking/Strangulation During Sex,” Dr. Herbenick suggests that choking memes can become a sort of “safe place” to joke about — and even normalize — femicide and gendered violence against women.
Some memes almost made it seem like... a guy who is worried about literally choking a woman to the point of injury or death is somehow sweet or romantic or a good catch, as if this isn’t an extremely low bar.
Debby Herbenick, PhD,
Dr. Herbenick told Refinery29 that these memes flirt with violence constantly — and even tell women to be grateful when a man deigns to consider their safety, however marginally. Some men “expressed confusion over how a woman could ask to be choked consensually and yet not want to be subjected to intimate partner violence,” Dr. Herbenick says. “And some [memes] almost made it seem like — when it comes to male-female relationships — a guy who is worried about literally choking a woman to the point of injury or death is somehow sweet or romantic or a good catch, as if this isn’t an extremely low bar.”
Meanwhile, at their university, Purnell says they’ve seen a number of Title IX cases involving choking — referred to as strangulation in the world of domestic violence — and it’s not always clear cut if the harm is accidental or intentional. When choking becomes normalized, it can be hard to suss out who was eager to please and accidentally hurting others, and someone who’s intentionally committing assault. It’s complicated. And without consent and safety practices in place, intentions don’t always make a difference to the person who suddenly can’t breathe.
But let’s be clear: Breath play as a consensual kink act is very different from irresponsible kink play, and both are very different from abuse. Knowing this difference — and how to engage with breath play responsibly — is the key to embracing kink without feeding into stigma. “This is where the internet can be a great place and also an awful place,” says Daveed. “We should be able to talk about kink with levity and we should be able to joke about the things that are even edgy and scary and dangerous. But there's a difference between an experienced kinkster who's taking precautions, making jokes, and someone who is going to go into this blindly, making jokes. And you can't always discern the difference on the internet.”
Jade wasn’t able to tell when her date was joking about choking online or in person — until nothing about the situation was funny. Meanwhile, for Taye, 27, the memes bring a sense of urgency. When they see casual discussion of choking on social, “I feel so compelled to message these people [and say] ‘hey, I really just want you to be safe.," Taye says.
There's a reason for this. A few years ago, Taye was in a long-term relationship. When the couple hit a rough patch, their partner started getting aggressive during sex. “At one point he choked me so hard — cut[ting] my airway off — that my vision started blacking out.” Afterward, he apologized and promised never to do it again. But the next time they had sex, Taye was non-consensually choked again. “I never had sex with him again after that," Taye says. "That was pretty much the breaking point for me."
Both Jade and Taye’s experiences show how the wider “choke me daddy” discourse can become antagonistic to safe, pleasurable sex. But despite the dangers, people are still obsessed with these memes. And they’re still going to try out choking.
This is a reality we just have to face, says Emerson Karsh, a kink and sex educator based in Florida. “People are going to have sex regardless [of whether or not] they have the best resources and education available to them," she says. "It’s the same thing with choking. Therefore it is imperative we make kink education as accessible as possible." Much of this information already exists online, but it’s often tucked away on BDSM blogs or sites only well-known to those active in kink communities. But the most important thing you should know?
“In the very worst case scenario, you could kill someone,” says Purnell. The potential for serious injuries like cardiac arrest, brain damage, vocal cord damage, and loss of consciousness are also high. If you and your partners aren’t grappling with (and prepared for) this reality, you’re not ready for play. To be truly prepared for choking (or for any sex act in general), getting intimate with harm reduction is the first step. Harm reduction describes the strategies and educational tools people need to reduce the negative consequences of risky behaviors. In the BDSM community, harm reduction often looks like RACK — risk-aware, consensual kink. In a nutshell, your RACK journey must start far away from the bedroom and really far away from your “for you” page.
Purnell recommends a mixture of reputable online resources to get started: Jerk Magazine has a great 101 guide, and so does Cliterally the Best. Likewise, The Eulenspiegel Society holds monthly workshops online and in-person, and there are free explainer videos online from Dr. Lindsey Doe’s Sexplanations. As with anything, just make sure to get your information from trained professionals armed with facts.
And for those who aren’t interested in choking, you can actually set those boundaries before any erotic contact happens. You can say: 'Here's what I'm up for tonight!' before kissing even begins. You can also make a "yes, no, maybe" list with a partner before sex. Or, you can be extra clear and try a statement like: “If and when we decide to get intimate or have sex, I need you to know that choking, touching my throat, or trying to restrict my breathing is never ok with me.” If you get pushback from a lover, it’s a clear sign they aren’t a safe person to be with, as you should never feel shamed or pressured for expressing your limits and preferences. But establishing any sexual boundaries before intimacy will help ensure you and your lovers are on the same page. Communicating before sex can be especially helpful in a world where many women, trans, and queer folks have been socialized to say yes in the moment to pacify or please others. Also, know that saying no is also okay at any point in a sexual encounter. In a situation where nonconsensual choking is already happening to you, you can still say no, or push their hands away from your neck. And even if you consented initially, you can change your mind. Remember: not wanting to be choked doesn’t make you a prude or spoilsport — it’s unacceptable to be choked without previous discussion and explicit in-the-moment consent.
All this is not to say that there isn't a place for levity in sex. In fact, sex is supposed to be fun and exciting! Dirty Kirby really can be a conversation starter! But, even when kidding around, we all share a responsibility to care for one another. And that includes people on the other side of your “for you” page.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).