‘You know what’s sexy? Asking me’: Should we be concerned by the rise in choking during sex?

‘Porn is not sex education. But without proper sex ed in schools, it’s unfortunately become the default’ (iStock)
‘Porn is not sex education. But without proper sex ed in schools, it’s unfortunately become the default’ (iStock)

It’s impressive to me how many men have done it without checking,” 29-year-old Anna* tells me, when I ask her how she feels about choking during sex. “I distinctly remember thinking ‘I wonder what I responded to that read as consent to that?’. Was it rough kissing? Something else?” The thing is, Anna* isn’t averse to choking, at least in theory. “There’s no doubt that power and sex are related,” she says. “We can all enjoy giving up power, taking it, feeling it”. But, she stresses, “it has to be our power. You have to be choosing to play with it.”

In 2020, a national probability survey of Americans aged 18 to 60 years found that 21 per cent of women reported having been choked during sex. Twenty per cent of men reported that they had choked a partner during sex. What was striking, however, was the difference across age groups. The survey reported adults aged 18 to 29 engaging in choking at much higher rates than older adults. This apparent generational shift in sexual attitudes has been backed up a number of times, with another US survey finding that 58 per cent of female college students have been choked during sex, with a quarter having been choked by age 17.

On this side of the Atlantic, there are signs that choking could be even more commonplace. In 2020, BBC Disclosure and BBC Radio 5 live commissioned a survey of 2,049 men in the UK aged 18 to 39 to assess the prevalence of so-called “rough sex”. Seventy one per cent of the men who took part said they had slapped, choked, gagged or spat on their partner during consensual sex. So, it seems young people like it rougher than their parents did. And what’s the problem with that? Well, firstly, choking is more risky than a bit of spit – strangulation can and does kill. And secondly, it seems that if choking has been mainstreamed for young people, what still hasn’t been normalised is seeking enthusiastic, ongoing consent. Indeed, the 2020 BBC survey found that, of the men who had engaged in what the study defined as “rough sex” practices, one-third said they would not ask whether their partner would like them to do it, either before or during sex.

Anna adds that she’s observed a definite gender split when it comes to choking and consent. “The only time it’s been consensually checked with me was when I slept with women,” she says. On the other hand, in her past sexual encounters with men she has often felt like the lines between submission, control and consent became blurred. When it comes to general “roughness”, too, Anna has noticed “an absolute inability to negotiate with nuance”. Crucially, she also underlines that “breath play and rough handling are different”. Having “never practised” breath play, Anna says she’s aware she doesn’t know “the signs or limits of what’s fine”. When she has been choked without warning, then, she has told people to ease up or manually loosened their grip. For her, the whole thing should be simple. “You know what’s sexy as f***? Asking me.”

Yet even this appeal to vocal communication and enthusiastic consent may shock some who think of choking as an extreme sex act. Or even an act of aggression. A fortnight ago, journalist Marie Le Conte caused a minor Twitter storm when she declared there’s “quite a mad generational divide” when it comes to choking. “If you’re under about 35 it is basically a ‘normal’ sex act,” she suggested, “for good or ill”.

Le Conte first wrote about choking after a discussion about it at a party, where her sexual experiences didn’t seem to tally with that of the people she was with. In her book Escape, Le Conte writes that her acceptance of choking as a normal part of sex was met with horror. “It felt like two alien species meeting each other for the first time,” Le Conte wrote. “On one side, the older women discussed it as a niche BDSM act; something they had never done and would never want to do. On the other, my two friends and I explained, plainly, that we had all been choked numerous times by men our age, sometimes because we asked for it and sometimes with no warning, and that we saw it as part and parcel of sleeping with men.”

Porn is not designed to be an educational resource. It’s entertainment. So a scene that involves choking isn’t going to show the consent negotiation or safety protocols that you’d see if this were being practised in real life

Many people responded on Twitter with a similar level of shock to Le Conte’s older dinner party companions. “This is horrifying to hear, and I’m so sorry it’s been normalised,” one woman in her forties wrote, before adding: “Choking is simulated murder… This is a man being aroused by simulating killing his sex partner.” Another man, also in his forties, replied that it is “sadistic abuse and you should run a mile from any man who does this without your express permission.”

It should go without saying that non-consensual sex acts of any kind are violations. Yet, to use Anna’s words, these commenters also seem to be displaying an “inability to negotiate nuance”. Describing choking as “simulated murder” does very little to get to grips with the ways that breath play and erotic asphyxiation arouse some people on both a physiological level – as a means to intensify orgasm – and on a psychological level, as a way to play with power dynamics, trust, and control. These replies seem to be suggesting that women who are into kink are actually aiding and abetting men who want to murder them, and implying that all BDSM relationships should be regarded as “sadistic abuse”. This is concerning, not least because it denies the ambiguity Le Conte was expressing: “We didn’t love getting choked but didn’t hate it either, just as we didn’t love or hate many other things that can happen in a bedroom.”

Multiple things are being lumped together under the “choking” umbrella. Are we talking about bringing a sexual partner to the point of losing consciousness in order to intensify orgasm? Or do we mean a bit of light pressure around the neck? More importantly, are we talking about kink practices that may be risky but are consensual – like many risky behaviours people take part in – or are we talking about non-consensual acts of sexual violence? Or, perhaps, is this a nuanced and complex grey area, with some young people feeling pressure to perform sex acts they may have seen in porn, or assume their partner likes? Acts that, as Le Conte suggested, they don’t love or hate, but let happen.

'We’re living through a sex misinformation crisis’ (iStock)
'We’re living through a sex misinformation crisis’ (iStock)

Rachel Thompson, author of the non-fiction book Rough: How Violence Has Found Its Way Into the Bedroom, suggests that there are “a number of things feeding into the conversation on choking right now”. She underlines that it’s important to make a distinction between “non-consensual choking, which is sexual assault, and breath play, which is a niche BDSM act, and requires rigorous safety and consent protocols”. All too often “the two are conflated”, which, Thompson suggests, waters down the sexual violence element of non-consensual choking, “and makes this violation murky and confusing for people who’ve experienced it”.

It also denies agency to people who enjoy being choked, consensually and safely. Like many young people, Sophie* was introduced to the world of BDSM and choking through porn. “I thought it was intriguing,” she says. “I like to be choked to the point of passing out, and when I tell partners this, I ask them to be very careful and I ask if they know exactly where to apply pressure on my neck.” Though, she adds that she’s found she often doesn’t have to ask her partners to do it, “because most of [her] partners already wanted to”. As someone who enjoys choking, Sophie finds the fact it has been normalised is “a good thing”, but she also suggests this means people “don’t take it as seriously as they should”. She stresses that watching porn isn’t enough to properly educate yourself on how to choke properly, and acknowledges “it’s sometimes scary to be on the receiving end of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing”.

It’s easy to point the finger at porn when talking about the rise in choking – over 10,000 videos are tagged with the word on Pornhub alone – but Thompson resists this. “Blaming porn is a tricky one because it’s not as simple as cause and effect,” she says. Young people are being fed information, and more importantly misinformation, about choking from all directions: porn, digital media, and, of course, social media. “We’re living through a sex misinformation crisis,” Thompson argues, “and when it comes to kink and BDSM, we know that TikTok is rife with kink misinformation.”

As in porn, many of the TikToks being shared present choking as “an act you can just introduce in sex without warning or prior communication”, Thompson says, even framing this as “the norm”. The real question, then, is how to counter this tide of misinformation, and support young people to learn about sexuality, safety and pleasure – to be advocates of their own desire, instead of tolerating things they don’t necessarily hate, but don’t love either.

Rather than abuse, this should be a discussion about bad sex. As Katherine Angel puts it in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, “bad sex emerges from gender norms in which women cannot be equal agents of sexual pursuit, and in which men are entitled to gratification at all costs”. She adds that it happens “because of inadequacies and inequalities in sexual literacy; in access to sex education and sexual health services”. It cannot go unnoticed that at the same time choking during sex is becoming more normalised and sex misinformation is rife, sex education and sexual health services are being attacked by right-wing government figures. Miriam Cates, a socially conservative Sheffield MP and evangelical Christian, made waves two weeks ago when she proclaimed during PMQs that schoolchildren are being exposed to “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and 72 genders”. Aside from the obvious transphobia in this statement, it has since emerged that this claim about choking came from a report Cates commissioned from the New Social Covenant Unit, a conservative campaign group that she herself co-established. It also has no basis in school education whatsoever. But, as journalist Moya Lothian-McLean put it in a recent piece for Novara Media, “who needs facts when you have furore?”

‘You aren’t “promoting BDSM” by giving young people good information – you’re preventing harm’ (iStock)
‘You aren’t “promoting BDSM” by giving young people good information – you’re preventing harm’ (iStock)

“We’re seeing a moral panic over sex education right now,” Thompson argues. “Young people aren’t being exposed to inappropriate material – most of them aren’t learning enough about sex, consent and safety.” She highlights shocking research by the Sex Education Forum that found that over a third of young people hadn’t been taught anything at all about sexual consent. “Ultimately, we know that young people aren’t getting robust sex education at school and they instead turn to porn and social media to get answers to the questions they have,” Thompson says. “Porn is not designed to be an educational resource. It’s entertainment. So a scene that involves choking isn’t going to show the consent negotiation or safety protocols that you’d see if this were being practised in real life.”

Sex educator and author Gigi Engle also stresses the need for porn literacy. “Porn is not sex education,” she says. “But without proper sex ed in schools, it’s unfortunately become the default. You can seriously risk injuring someone if you use porn as a choking tutorial. You aren’t ‘promoting BDSM’ by giving young people good information – you’re preventing harm.”

This, in the end, is what the discourse around choking boils down to. Do people want to genuinely protect young people from harm by giving them the tools to negotiate sex and consent with nuance, or do they want to clutch pearls and pretend the internet doesn’t exist? Right-wing rhetoric might inflame voters, but it won’t help the real adolescents coming of age in a world where it’s normal to see extreme porn before you’ve had your first kiss.

While Cates was stoking a culture war, MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle provided a reality check, revealing that his 15-year-old cousin had died in a tragic auto-asphyxiation accident. “If he’d been taught about risky sex acts… and how to make sure he did things safely, rather than just learning something from the internet that then led to the end of his life, he might still be around.”