Hard to Swallow

The debate surrounding choking as a sexual practice

A friend recently said to me, "I love being choked during sex," and she said it as casually as I'd say I love being fucked in the ass. Choking as an erotic act seems to be more popular than ever. And I don't mean just among kinky folks, rough sex fans, and porn stars. It has made it onto the pleasure-menu of everyday couples who indulge in what they call "regular sex," which is surprising since cutting off your loved one's air supply is not just risqué—it's risky.

What's the turn on? During suffocation, the body is deprived of oxygen; it floods with endorphins, making the person feel high, and those endorphins can intensify sexual sensations and orgasms. People who practice BDSM (who know a thing or two about endorphins) use the term 'breath play' to describe the different ways one can control breath or deprive someone of oxygen (choking is only one). Some practitioners combine it with bondage or sensory deprivation; use a hood or a gas image: mask, or simply a hand over a partner's mouth and nose. Breath play scenes also have a significant psychological component; they can be a way to eroticize dominance and submission, fear, danger, or control. Among kinky players, these scenes are universally considered edge play (risky or fringe activities).

Ms. Cynthia, a 20-year community veteran, former professional dominatrix, and current BDSM educator teaches a class on breath play, which she says, can be "sexy as hell." "As a Dominant, I literally have someone's life in my hands and I control when or whether their next breath will come. It is terror play," she says. "For a submissive, it is the ultimate surrender. You turn your very life over to the care of another." Her preferred method of breath control—and the one she considers the safest—is two-person re-breathing, where "two people cover each other's mouths with their own and exchange the air between them repeatedly." She says she has never seen anyone take this too far to the point where someone passes out. In her class, she teaches that everyone should take specific precautions when they do breath play and emphasizes that those with heart conditions or sleep apnea should never do it.

Starlet Mika Tan with TightFit CEO Oren Cohen
photo: Courtesy of TightFit Productions
Starlet Mika Tan with TightFit CEO Oren Cohen

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Another well-respected BDSM educator known as Edge, who's been in the scene for about 18 years, also eroticizes the control it gives him: "Some people may play up the fear element, but not me. It's about power. I decide what someone breathes, if he breathes, when he breathes." Edge first got into breath play with a partner who liked cop roleplay: "He did the sleeper hold on me, and I was hooked." The sleeper hold is a technique used by law enforcement officers to subdue someone; you place your arm around the neck with the crook of your elbow over the middle of the neck. As you squeeze both sides of your arm, you compress the carotid arteries and jugular veins on both sides of the neck. "I don't do carotid choke holds where you could crush the trachea," says Edge.

Within BDSM communities—where people do lots of things non-kinky people think are weird and dangerous—breath play is controversial. Jay Wiseman (jaywiseman.com), author of several books on BDSM, most notably SM 101, has written many articles on the topic and is adamant about the dangers involved: "As a person with years of medical education and experience, I know of no way whatsoever that either suffocation or strangulation can be done in a way that does not intrinsically put the recipient at risk of cardiac arrest." Wiseman believes it's always unsafe because there is no way to tell when someone may go into cardiac arrest. FifthAngel (artofbdsm.com), a BDSM educator who has been a critical-care nurse for 10 years, disagrees: "When you control the breath and the person begins to struggle, and they will struggle . . . stop. Give their breathing a chance to return to 'baseline.'" He stresses the importance of knowledge and care: "A person who is well educated to watch for signs and symptoms of hypoxia [low oxygen in the blood and tissue] can perform breath play safely. When breath play is performed alone or haphazardly is when life threatening problems can arise."

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cover of *So Low*
Courtesy of TightFit Productions
All these educators agree with FifthAngel that one should never engage in breath play alone. Autoerotic asphyxiation has been the stuff of legend and accidental-death news stories, but it's about to have a coming-out party in an entirely different context: porn. "I wanted to dig deep into the vein of our collective conscious and find some element of sexuality that was happening but not widely discussed or displayed," says 29-year-old Oren Cohen, CEO of TightFit Productions (tightfithd.com), an adult company founded in 2005. TightFit will release a provocative new title on March 2: So Low, (solowxxx.com) a video of women practicing autoerotic asphyxiation.

"I was pretty disenchanted with the majority of porn being made. I wanted to prove that one girl alone could be 20 times hotter than a mechanical and formulaic sex scene involving multiple partners," says Cohen. Some adult industry insiders and fans are intrigued, but the most vocal are horrified, seeing it as fuel for anti-porn activists to illustrate what degenerates pornographers are. Cohen is not only unfazed by his critics, he believes strongly in the project's merits: "The entire dynamic of my movie would be different and far less responsible if it wasn't a solo movie. The element of control rested in the performer's hands the whole time. They were always able to play it safe."

The video includes a disclaimer which begins: "Contains scenes of extremely dangerous acts with possible permanent side-effects, up to, and including death," and ends with "Do NOT attempt any of these acts under any circumstances at any time!" Cohen believes that covers his bases: "Last time I checked unprotected sex was an extremely risky activity, too. We're in the fantasy business just like our legitimate Hollywood counterparts. In this day and age I'm surprised that superheroes are still allowed to scale buildings and fly. What if someone tried doing that?" He's also quick to point out that he only cast women who "enjoyed this behavior in their personal lives." I know three of the four stars of So Low and they indeed do it in their real lives (plus none of them strikes me as stupid, irresponsible, or whacked out on drugs). After shooting, Ariel posted this report on her blog: "I got to choke myself with my belt while I bated with a magic wand . . . it was pretty much the best day of my life. I really like working with this company. They make sure the girls have fun and get off."

Sex is risky in many ways, and many of us like to challenge the limits of our bodies. Everyone I spoke to acknowledged the inherent risk involved in breath play; the BDSM educators say that's the reason they teach people about it. But what about all the non-pervy people who don't have access to such a class? What about an inspired but naive viewer of So Low? There is enough information online—more anti than pro (see autoerotic-asphyxiation.com)—to make a person with common sense stop and think. Perhaps this video will spur more discussion among people in different circles.

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