You could call it the Fifty Shades of Grey effect, or you could put it down to an increase in BDSM porn (and also in gratuitously violent pornography), but there is no doubt that the phenomenon of choking during sex has become far more commonplace over the past few years and far more widely discussed.
From advice columns and sex sites to heartfelt opinion pieces, choking during sex is one of those things that has dominated news agendas when it comes to stories of intimate activity. And this isn’t just because we have seen the practice make popular cultural appearances; it is also because of several high-profile crimes where killers claimed that they accidentally strangled their victims (pretty much always female) during sex games gone wrong. While this defence is no longer allowed in UK law, it remains the case that choking during sex is a polarising activity. Some people think it can be ok when ‘done right’ (more on that later); others, particularly groups like We Can’t Consent to This take the view that it is always unacceptable.
We also live in a society where over a third of women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted choking, gagging, slapping or spitting during sex.
For many people, the issue is more complex, and even if they acknowledge that choking is unacceptable, it won’t change the fact that they feel they enjoy either being choked or choking someone else during consensual sex.
So, I want to delve into this a little further and explore the complexities of the issues at hand.
What exactly does choking during sex constitute?
This is actually something that I want to express confusion about. Is choking during sex limited to instances which can put a person at risk, or is it characterised by any instance in which one partner’s hands are placed around another partner’s neck, no matter how lightly?
From reading several sites, I’m inclined to believe the latter. It’s often difficult to draw a line between the placement of hands on the neck and where that placement turns into physical pressure. Most advocacy groups condemn any sort of choking, regardless of where on the spectrum it might lie, largely because it has the capacity to turn into something dangerous very quickly.
Yet men’s and women’s advice columns depart significantly from this narrative. I’m not going to link to them, but there are very easily available articles on the internet from Men’s Health and Women’s Health telling men how to choke their partner ‘safely’ and telling women why choking can be a really pleasurable experience.
The difference in the tone/narrative of both articles is interesting. In the Men’s Health article, the underlying assumption is that men will want to choke their partners. In the Women’s Health one the article seems to be written to persuade women that choking is sexy. This comparison is very telling: there is an assumption that choking is something men will want, and something women ought to want to please men. This is undoubtedly something to be concerned about, and some of the statements made in particularly the Women’s Health article are really concerning – particularly the ones which suggest that choking should be a turn-on because it shows that your partner is ‘prepared to do anything to have you’. A man being prepared to do ‘anything’ to ‘have’ the woman he wants is not and should not be presented as a turn-on. That sort of language glamourises all manner of criminal and misogynistic activity.
However, I know that there will be women reading this who feel conflicted, especially younger women. Choking (particularly when it constitutes a hand around the neck with little or no pressure) is a very common practice during sex, and many women (and men) will assert that they enjoy being on the receiving end.
I don’t think it’s right for us to pretend that choking is unequivocally something women don’t want in sexual scenarios. Women have been repeatedly exposed to cultural phenomena which presents choking during sex as a turn-on, just as men have. Women have been repeatedly exposed to the idea that such a practice is something to be enjoyed. We cannot escape this exposure, and so we should avoid shaming women who feel that choking is something they enjoy. This creates fewer safe spaces for women to feel comfortable with speaking out about what has happened to them, and prevents women from feeling that this is something they can talk about openly.
Even if we accept that some women do genuinely like choking during sex, we have to question where this preference comes from
Preferences and tastes don’t come from nowhere. People do like stuff that is harmful for them, even if they know it is harmful. The narrative on choking isn’t so clear cut, and there’s a lot of confusing information out there. If people are interested in it as a sexual practice, we need to be accepting of the fact that this phenomenon, at least for the time being, is here to stay. We need to examine the attitudes around it and the factors that lead to it.
Some researchers conclude that a rise in choking during sex is linked not only to an increase in violent porn (and this influences attitudes around what sex should be like heavily), but also to the way that young people are more and more frequently exposed to porn as they grow up.
We also must accept that the reason why people are so influenced by porn is due to failings in our education system. Our failure for so many years to talk about sexual consent and responsible sexual behaviour has meant that young-people have been exposed to narratives of violence and non-consent as ‘sexy’ without anything to counter them.
Tackling choking during sex as a phenomenon might need to be indirect. We might need to examine our whole system of sex education (hopefully the new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum of 2020 can do that). But we need to be understanding that behaviour change takes time and does not always happen in the way we expect. Achieving better attitudes towards consent is really what we need. And that will start only with a holistic approach to how we talk about sex and relationships.
So should we be concerned?
The short answer is yes, but I don’t think we should allow our concern to let us deny the realities of many people’s experiences and thoughts.
The rough sex defence was rightly outlawed last year – but outside of legal parameters and when it comes to intimate (and mostly consensual) relationships, we need to consider how we can approach conversations about these in a nuanced way that tackles the wider issues at hand.