The alarming trend of the normalization of strangulation during sexual intimacy is dangerous—and possibly fatal. A domestic violence expert explains why.
By Casey Gwinn, Esq.
“I convinced my girlfriend to let me choke her during sex. I told her it would be fun and better sex for both of us. And then I didn’t let go even when she asked me to. The look on her face when I was doing it was such a rush. It turned me on like never before… and who is she going to tell?”
I am honored to help lead the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention with our founder, Gael Strack. The Institute is a program of our organization, Alliance for HOPE International. We are the leading research and training organization in the world on addressing non-fatal strangulation in domestic and sexual violence.
Strangulation, often called “choking,” is external pressure to the neck that blocks blood flow, airflow, or both. It usually involves placing a hand or hands around another person’s neck but can sometimes include an arm, a leg, or even a ligature of some kind.
It takes as little as 4 pounds per square inch (psi) to block blood flow from the brain back to the heart in the jugular veins, and it takes as little as 11 psi to block oxygenated blood from getting to the brain in the carotid arteries.
Consider that it takes 20 psi to open a can of soda. The brain has no reserve tank of oxygen, so the pressure to the neck can alter a person’s state of consciousness within seconds, cause unconsciousness in as little as 7-10 seconds, cause internal injuries in just seconds, and death within 1-2 minutes.
The seriousness of strangulation
Historically, strangulation assaults in domestic and sexual violence are perpetrated by men when assaulting women.
Once a man resorts to strangulation in an abusive relationship, his partner is 750% more likely to be murdered by him later in the relationship. The large majority of women murdered every year in this country in domestic violence homicides have been strangled one or more times by their partner before he kills them.
Most women in this country murdered by partners are killed with a gun, but prior strangulation is a high-risk marker for a later homicide.
Our hashtag for the Institute is #LastWarningShot because it is not simply the ownership of guns we should be most concerned about—it is the ownership of guns by violent and abusive men who strangle their partners.
But there is an alarming new trend in the United States and around the world. Strangulation is now being normalized by children, teens, in marriages, and other intimate relationships. Recently, Cosmo Magazine even recommended “choking” as a sexy way to relieve the boredom of quarantine because of COVID-19.
Tragically, this kind of social norming of strangulation has been going on for years. Fifty Shades of Gray and other mainstream books, articles, and films about pain and pleasure, “breath play” or “rough sex” began this phenomenon years ago. Initially, it was often thought to be confined to what is called the “BDSM” Community (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism, and Masochism).
But the porn industry in this country began investing in the concept of “choking” by providing more and more content involving compression of the neck to enhance sexual pleasure.
Strangulation in mainstream culture
Strangulation is now beginning to permeate the larger mainstream porn culture. Today, there are millions of porn videos with strangulation violence available to access by any child, teen, or adult by smartphone, desktop, or laptop. Recently, our team analyzed porn websites by a Google search of “Strangulation” and “Porn.” The search yielded millions of available webpages.
We chose one website and found 26 million porn videos depicting strangulation during sex. Porn actors and actresses are now producing millions of live sex and strangulation videos on a daily basis from many countries around the world.
Underlying this surge in porn involving brief and mild pressure to extremely violent and protracted strangulation acts are a number of lies:
- Strangulation is harmless and causes no damage to the victim
- Consent is valid and women can consent to being strangled in any setting
- Strangulation is enjoyed by all parties in consensual sex acts and increases pleasure and sexual satisfaction without any psychological, emotional, or physiological impacts
The facts from our research and work should be shouted from mountain tops, plastered into social media sites, flashed in red on every dating site, and provided in writing to engaged or dating partners across this country. Let’s debunk these lies about strangulation.
Lie #1: Strangulation is harmless and causes no physical damage.
Strangulation dramatically reduces oxygenated blood either getting to the brain or toxic, deoxygenated blood leaving the brain as soon as the pressure to the neck starts. If the pressure increases to the point that no oxygenated blood is getting to brain cells, this is called “anoxia.” Once anoxia occurs in a strangulation assault, the victim loses 32,000 neurons and 230 million synapses per second.
This is permanent brain damage. Those neurons and synapses will never come back to life and never heal.
But brain damage is not the only physical damage that can occur.
There are more than 900 peer-reviewed, academic research articles on strangulation now, and they document internal injuries such as damage to tracheal rings, injuries to the vocal cords, major trauma to the thyroid, cricoid and thyroid cartilage injuries, bruising and tearing to muscles in the neck, and carotid and vertebral artery dissections in victims of non-fatal strangulation assaults.
Strangulation is harmless? That is a lie.
Lie #2: Consent is valid and women can consent to being strangled in any setting.
Courts across this country have found that you cannot consent to something that can kill you. Strangulation can kill you. No matter what type of agreement sexual partners might come to about strangulation, if the person being strangled suffers major injuries or dies, the partner putting the pressure on the neck will face criminal charges in almost every state in the country.
The BDSM community even acknowledges on their websites the risk sexual partners take when they engage in activities that may injure or kill your partner. Strangulation during sex is just like playing Russian Roulette.
Partners cannot legally consent to Russian Roulette. The loser of the game can die, and the winner gets prosecuted for reckless or negligent homicide or manslaughter.
Lie #3: Strangulation is enjoyed by all parties in consensual sex acts, and it increases pleasure and sexual satisfaction without any psychological, emotional, or physiological impacts.
Strangulation is primarily an activity enjoyed by men who are the predominant stranglers in violent assaults and in so-called “consensual sex breath play” or “consensual strangulation.”
The most troubling aspect of this is that most men have learned how to do this through consuming pornography. They have absorbed so many pornographic images of strangulation prior to actually doing it with a partner that they often need to engage in such acts to be sexually gratified.
The second most troubling aspect of this is that men are willing to risk brain injury and even death of their partner for their own sexual gratification. Many women who have experienced strangulation during sex find it terrifying and deeply uncomfortable as they struggle with the ability to breathe.
There is little doubt in our work that there are long-term psychological, emotional, and physiological impacts on relationships from the chronic power and control dynamic of men strangling their partners’ during sex. More research on this will come out in the years to come.
Assault is not sexy
Do not be deceived by the porn industry, the BDSM community, Cosmo Magazine, or men telling you that strangulation is fun and harmless. It often betrays a demeaning, “less than,” and objectifying view of women.
Let’s stop the lies and tell the truth to everyone who will listen: Strangulation risks the health and lives of women for the sexual gratification of men.