The Dangerous Appeal of Choking

In the wake of actor David Carradine’s death, possibly by erotic asphyxiation, many are wondering why anyone would want to be choked during sex. In a piece that should not be read by a minor, this writer and practitioner tells you why he persists in doing it.

06.14.09 11:25 PM ET

What was David Carradine into? Speculation about the answer to that question has been swirling ever since the Kung Fu and Kill Bill actor was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room last week. Carradine was reportedly found dead of asphyxiation, perhaps wearing fishnets and a wig, with red women’s lingerie laying nearby on the bed. It remains unclear whether he was alone or not—though people do die from autoerotic asphyxiation (choking themselves while masturbating), some have raised the question of how Carradine could have tied himself up without someone else’s help.

But whether he did it to himself or was aided by a partner, as a member of the New York kink community, I know a number of people who are into erotic choking, and I’ve experimented with it myself from time to time. I know the dangers of Carradine’s alleged fetish, but, yes, I can also testify to its dangerous pleasure.

The French call an orgasm la petite mort—the little death. If you’ve ever felt your oxygen being cut off as you’re headed toward climax, you’ll understand why.

The French call an orgasm la petite mort—the little death. If you’ve ever felt your oxygen being cut off as you’re headed toward climax, you’ll understand why. One light squeeze around the neck, timed with an increase in sexual rhythm, can make the erotic nature of an intimate encounter as frighteningly pleasurable as it is dangerous. There is a direct physiological explanation behind the increased sensation, and it has more to do with the rush of oxygen that comes after the release of the choke. When the sudden burst of air is combined with the endorphins released during sex, the result is a heightened thrill.

But the psychological effect is all the more powerful. As Oscar Wilde put it, “All men kill the thing they love.” Now of course, we don’t actually want to kill our loved ones (as much as they annoy us sometimes) but even the possibility is exhilarating. Choking is the only way that a completely unskilled person can really kill another with nothing but bare hands. And the second the hands wrap around the throat and a little pressure is given, that deadly truth hangs there between two lovers. “Breath play,” as it is known in the kink community, involves having sex—or making love, if that is the case—while depriving your lover of the most basic element needed to stay alive. It’s the absolute in deprivation play, and too much deprivation can end a life.

Every tiny ounce of pressure added has an exponential effect. And then—the release. When the flood of the oxygen returns to the starved bloodstream, an understanding—conscious or not—runs between the lovers:

The choker is giving the gasper’s breath back to them after taking it away. Something much more precious and important than just a run-of-the-mill orgasm.

Most kinksters I’ve spoken to said that they were interested in choking for years before they’d ever tried it, some of them before they were even sexually self-aware. Some of us may have played the “fainting game” when we were younger, not knowing that there was a whole world of erotic undercurrent to it.

“There’s a whole level of trust and intimacy there that’s more intense than any other sex-play I can think of,” says one "gasper" I’ve spoken with. Another young woman with whom I’ve been intimate said that she’d never been choked before, but after she requested a few gentle squeezes on her throat during sex, I was surprised to find she was hooked.

Another friend told me that although she identifies more as a dominant than a submissive, she also enjoys restraining her breath during sex. “Your body isn’t sure what it wants, less or more. And it’s all that more amazing when you can’t control it.”

Of course, whenever one plays with dangerous or potentially deadly elements in the bedroom, safety is essential. Sex and kink expert Jay Wiseman has written extensively on the topic and advises against breath-play by anyone not trained in CPR. “Oxygen is to the brain what oil is to your engine. The primary danger of suffocation play is that it is not a condition that gets worse over time; what happens is that the more the play is prolonged, the greater the odds that a cardiac arrest will occur.” Applying some of the safety techniques he recommends can take some of the danger out of the play, but engaging in asphyxiation games should always be viewed as a prohibitively risky endeavor.

The tragedy of David Carradine’s death (presuming it was breath play and not an intended suicide) shows what happens when this type of sexual activity goes wrong. One small slip, or a miscalculation with a noose, could result in a sudden strangulation, a crushed windpipe, or even a snapped neck.

The little death can become the big one which is why, despite its attraction, I have to dissuade readers from experimenting with it.

Gideon is a member of the NYC kink community.