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The weekly sex advice column that started it all

Choke Hold

Joe Newton

I have a question about choking. Or should that be simulated choking? I’ve recently discovered that being pinned down by my neck is a huge turn on for me. I love the feeling of being dominated and controlled, and of feeling my partner’s strength on this part of my body. I’m much more interested in this feeling than in actual breath control or oxygen deprivation. I’ve been reading up on choking because I’m trying to make sure I can be manhandled in the way I like as safely as possible. However, all the advice about choking is about how dangerous it is. But most of the advice concentrates on the dangers of restricting oxygen (which is not what I am going for) or on damaging the windpipe by putting pressure on the front of the throat (which my partners avoid). So, my question is… how dangerous is this kind of...

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...y question is… how dangerous is this kind of simulated choking play really? Play where one person is being held down by their throat with only mild pressure? What can we do to make it as safe as possible? I’m having a hard time finding good answers, and given how wet this makes my pussy, abstaining from this activity is not an option for me. Please I Need More Expertise “Choking and other forms of breath play used to be very uncommon,” said Dr. Debby Herbenick. “But over the past decade, choking has become extremely common, especially among people under 40.” Dr. Herbenick is a professor at Indiana University School of Public Health, a prolific and widely published sex researcher, and the author of many books, including The Coregasm Workout: The Revolutionary Method for Better Sex Through Exercise. A few years ago, Dr. Herbenick’s students began asking her about choking, with some sharing harrowing stories of being choked by sex partners without their consent. There was very little data out there about choking, which was all over porn sites, and that inspired Dr. Herbenick and some colleagues to undertake the first serious and scientifically rigorous studies of sexual choking. Disturbingly, Dr. Herbenick found that a lot of people—mostly male people—were choking their partners during sex without discussing it first. Meaning, they weren’t establishing mutual interest, they weren’t obtaining unambiguously enthusiastic consent, and they weren’t discussing the inherent risks and how to minimize them. (Minimize ≠ eliminate.) Many weren’t even cognizant of the risks, which makes sense given the dearth of research on choking (and, again, why Dr. Herbenick has been researching this now-mainstream practice). “The reason that so many sites say choking is dangerous is because it is dangerous,” said Dr. Herbenick. “That’s not a scare tactic. Although rare, people do occasionally die from being choked, which is technically a form of strangulation, and people have gone to jail for accidentally injuring or killing a partner during consensual choking.” Most people who’ve experimented with choking describe the act as “consensual, wanted, and pleasurable,” according to Dr. Herbenick’s research. Which raises another concern: the false sense of security many have about it. “Because most people experiment with choking without any obvious negative repercussions, they often think they’re doing it ‘safely,’ and that may not be the case,” said Dr. Herbenick. “And because people sometimes engage in choking frequently, there may be cumulative effects on the brain—in other words, negative effects that build up over time rather than from a single incident of being choked. Cumulative incidents are difficult to notice as they’re happening. However, even mild pressure on the neck/throat is likely to reduce oxygen to the brain because it involves compressing blood vessels. The kinds of cumulative effects that may occur include greater likelihood of depression, anxiety, ringing in the ears, headaches, and memory issues, among others, though we need more research to say for sure.” So, is there a safe way to create the sensation of being choked—or pinned down by your neck—without the risk? “Some people who are into choking but who don’t want to take on these risks ask their partner to lightly press against their collarbone but not their throat,” said Dr. Herbenick. “And PINME is correct that any pressure to the front of the throat is particularly risky, given how vulnerable the windpipe is to injury. Other people decide to ask their partner to choke them anyway but only rarely, to reduce the likelihood of cumulative risk.” Obviously, consent to a sex practice as risky as choking is only meaningful if everyone involved is fully informed of the risks. Which means you, PINME, have a duty to fully inform your partner of the risks they’ll be running if they agree to choke you. “It’s not fair to put someone in the position of doing something that could accidentally hurt or kill you, and making them potentially criminally or legally responsible, without their full understanding of the risks they’re taking,” said Dr. Herbenick. “All that said, adults can consent and opt into all sorts of risky things—flogging, barebacking, sex with strangers, unprotected vaginal intercourse after forgetting a week’s worth of birth control pills, skydiving, rock climbing, and various watersports. Whatever risky activity we enjoy—whether it involves sex or not—we need to learn about potential risks, think through potential harm reduction strategies, and proceed with caution.” And what would harm reduction and/or worst-case-scenario reduction strategies look like where erotic choking was concerned? “If mild pressure is being used, PINME needs to make sure she can fully breathe, speak, has a safe word AND gesture—in case she does lose ability to speak—and that her desire for mild pressure—very mild pressure—is clearly understood by her partner,” said Dr. Herbenick. “Further, if PINME starts to experience visual changes, lightheadedness, dizziness, or euphoria, then that suggests she is likely experiencing lower oxygen levels and potential neurological effects.” And that’s definitely a moment when you’ll want to use your safeword or gesture, PINME, while you still can. You can follow Dr. Debby Herbenick on Twitter @DebbyHerbenick and find out more about her research into choking—and sexual pleasure and communication and vibrator use and more—at her website: www.debbyherbenick.com. I’m a 23-year-old gay boy and my best friend is a straight girl my same age. She likes to say we share everything about our love lives but since I didn’t come out until I was 20 and then COVID hit, I never had much to share. I started dating a guy a month ago who is into D/s and power exchange, which I’ve been obsessed with literally all my post-pubescent life. I told my best friend everything and she seemed supportive and asked questions. A day later she says my boyfriend is dangerous, controlling, and violent, and that I have to break up with him. I like being ordered around and I like being spanked, so it’s all consensual and not even that extreme, but she says only an abusive asshole would get off on treating a romantic partner like this. I also made what turned out to be the huge mistake of telling her I wear a buttplug when he orders me to, which sometimes includes when I’m at the gym or work, and she says we’re involving other people in our kinks without their consent. We met up tonight with other friends and she asked if there was “something in your butt right now” in front of everyone. I didn’t answer, which she took as a yes, and she screamed “OMG THERE IS!” I feel like she’s a hypocrite because she dated throughout the pandemic and she’s into choking, both of which seem much more dangerous than anything I’m doing. I feel like I’m being put in a position where I have to choose between a lovely man I’ve known for a month and my best friend of four years! Right now she’s blowing up my phone with demands that I apologize for embarrassing her tonight! Help?!? Pretty Upset Now: Is She Homophobic? Lots of older gay men had best friends like yours back in the bad old days. Girls who said they loved their gay best friends so much and so totally didn’t have a problem with the whole gay thing… who so suddenly had a problem once their gay best friends became sexually active. It’s less common these days than it was decades ago, PUNISH, since today gay boys tend to become sexually active around the same time as their straight peers. But I still hear stories like yours: the straight best friend who wants to tell you about her adventures but doesn’t want you to have your own; the straight best friend who thinks having a gay best friend makes them more interesting, but who feels threatened when their gay best friend starts having interesting experiences that aren’t for or about them. Anyway, PUNISH, I’m sorry your best friend turned out to be the kind of girl who sees her gay best friend as a sidekick and sounding board and not as a person with wants, needs, and desires of his own. You’re going to call your best friend on her bullshit and stand your ground: she’s in the wrong. She owes you an apology, not the other way around; if she can’t see that, you’ll have to end the friendship. If it comes to that, PUNISH, don’t think of it as choosing a new boyfriend over your best friend. You’re choosing this new romantic relationship and future friendships with people who see you as a complete person—a complete person who enjoys being plugged and spanked—over an existing friendship with a controlling person who sees you as a cute accessory, PUNISH, and not much else. P.S. If she wants a best friend she can castrate, tell her to get a dog. P.P.S. Unless you’re asking people at work or the gym to put that plug in for you, PUNISH, or you’re pulling down your pants and showing it off, you’re not involving other people in your kink. P.P.P.S. She’s shouting things you shared in confidence—that you’re sometimes plugged­—in front of other friends! She’s the one involving other people in your kink without their consent! And without yours! And she would have you believe it’s your boyfriend who’s the asshole you need to get away from?!? Gay and Bi Men: Health officials are urging us not to attend sex parties, orgies, or circuit parties right now, and to forgo—for the moment—anonymous sex partners. It’s not because they hate gay sex, it’s because monkeypox is spreading fast among gay and bi men. The kind of sustained skin-to-skin contact gay and bi men have during sex and/or on dance floors is driving this health emergency, and it’s spreading fastest among men who have multiple partners. This disease is incredibly unpleasant, and no one wants to see it become endemic in gay and bi communities—meaning, we don’t want the risk of getting painful lesions all over our asses, dicks, and faces to become a risk we run every single time we hookup with a new sex partner for the rest of our lives. It won’t kill us to dial it down for a bit, which many of us already have, and rest assured: the dick will still be there after the men already infected get better and once everyone gets vaccinated. questions@savagelove.net Listen to Dan on the Savage Lovecast. Follow Dan on Twitter @FakeDanSavage. Columns, podcasts, books, merch and more at savage.love.