In a 2019 study titled “Feeling Scared During Sex,” sex researcher Debby Herbernick examined situations in which 2,533 people of different ages and genders in the United States felt scared during sex. Almost 24% of adult women surveyed said they had felt scared during sex at some point in their lives, compared to 12.5% of adolescent women, 10.3% of adult men, and 3.8% of adolescent men. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents and low-income respondents were also more likely to have experienced what Herbernick terms a “scary sexual experience.”
As well as asking the respondents if they felt scared during sex, Herbernick asked the respondents describe the situations in which they felt scared. Common answers were rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, fear of rape or assault, coercion, and pressure to have unprotected sex. Additionally, 23 respondents described situations in which their partners suddenly began choking them during sex. “This was clearly choking that no one had talked about it and it got sprung on somebody,” Herbernick explained during a recent panel, reported The Atlantic. She also found that this behavior was more common with younger people: 13% of sexually active girls ages 14 to 17 reported being choked without consent.
Other studies have also found that choking during sex is becoming more popular and is likely linked to porn consumption, but haven't differentiated between consensual and nonconsensual choking. But in addition to Herbernick's study, there’s no shortage of anecdotes about this — in 2016, Elle’s Rose Surnow wrote about a date unexpectedly choking her during a makeout session, and in 2017, Flare’s Briony Smith wrote that so many of her friends had experienced unexpected choking that it’s “become the new third base.” Several women in their 20s and 30s shared stories of being nonconsensually choked during sex in The Atlantic's bombshell 2018 report, "The Sex Recession." “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” one woman said. On a personal note, I’ve also had more than one partner begin choking me out of nowhere mid-sex or mid-makeout, and I've heard similar stories from many friends.
Why do so many men (because it is primarily men) choke their partners without asking? On Reddit, I found some men who wrote that choking was so expected that they thought their partners would judge them negatively, or even dump them, if they didn’t spontaneously choke them during sex. (Again, this is sudden choking, without prior discussion.) “Girls who are seeking that kind of rough sex and don’t get it in the first few sessions will move on and not often give the relationship time to move into the more kinky territory. Girls who aren’t necessarily into it though will still come back, even if they weren’t huge fans of it the first time,” wrote one man. Another wrote, “You just try it out in the moment, if she says no, then don’t carry on. It’s pretty simple.”
Some women, however, think that it isn’t so simple. I interviewed one woman in her 20s who’d posted on Reddit about re-entering the dating pool after a five-year relationship ended. She says that “multiple partners, usually casual hookups” suddenly began choking her during sex. “Porn has been normalizing a lot of non-vanilla things such as choking, anal, deep-throating, really rough and violent actions,” she adds. “I am into some of these things and it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable because it seems to be becoming expected during sex, particularly with younger dudes [in their early 20s to early 30s].”
The thing that bothers her, she says, is that these partners didn’t ask her before choking her — something that finally occurred to her when a date asked her to choke him. “I dated one man who was really into being choked. I asked him to show me videos of how he wanted it and made sure I understood how to do it safely,” she says. “This was so vastly different from my past experience of men just trying it in the middle of sex, and this was the first time I really thought about how f****ed up those experiences were.”
Sex educator Erica Smith (no relation) agrees: the lack of consent is the problem. “If someone is interested in choking their partner during sex, they need to have explicit consent and a clear plan for both doing it and stopping it, should the need arise,” she tells Refinery29. “This conversation should happen completely removed from a sexual encounter. Ask your partner if you may choke them during sex and find out details.”
Smith suggests getting as specific as possible: talk about when in the encounter choking will happen, choose sexual positions in advance, decide whether choking will be with one or both hands, and discuss boundaries for any dirty or degrading talk. “If your partner doesn't enjoy the sensation of being choked, ask them if you could simulate it — putting your hands on their throat with little to no pressure, while they react as if there is pressure,” she suggests, adding that you should also choose a safe word and nonverbal gesture, as well as make a plan for aftercare.