Choking during sex, a practice once considered a fetish for adults who favor bondage and domination, is an increasing part of some young peoples’ sex lives — and the recent death of a 19-year-old Hackensack woman shows its risks.
Michael Gaffney, 21, was charged with manslaughter in the death of Francis Garcia in November. Gaffney put his hands around Garcia’s neck during intercourse, an affidavit filed by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office said, and she lost consciousness. They’d left a group of friends to have sex in her car, the police said.
“I choked her,” Gaffney told a friend, according to the affidavit. “She wanted to be choked.”
More than one-third of women aged 18 to 24 have experienced choking during sex, according to soon-to-be-published research by Debby Herbenick, one of the nation’s leading sex researchers and a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health.
Among 14-to-18-year-old girls with sexual experience, more than one in eight has experienced choking during sex, she said. About one in 10 young adult men, too, reported that they had been choked, although women were most often the “targets” of choking.
The nationally representative survey, conducted in 2016, did not ask whether the experience was consensual or unwanted. But it found that those younger than 30 are much more likely to have experienced choking during sex than older adults — its prevalence drops significantly among 40- to 60-year-olds.
Those findings found echoes in recent interviews with some North Jersey college students. They have not been identified by name due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Even though choking should be “something that takes a lot of consent, trust, safety and communication,” one woman said, more and more of her peers consider it an “acceptable” part of a first or second sexual encounter.
The students, aged 19 to 23, described choking less as constricting or blocking the airway and more as using the hands to squeeze or apply pressure of varying intensity on the neck.
“It’s like an adventure,” said a 19-year-old man about the prospect of doing it with a partner he’d never met before. “You don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s part of the thrill of choking.” Another described it as a “baseline” normal practice — not at all exotic.
Like other “non-vanilla” sexual practices, erotic asphyxiation, as it is properly known, is often encountered first through online pornography, erotica like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and websites that fill in where less-than-edifying school-based sex education leaves off.
“This is something that’s talked about and considered on popular media, blogs and threads — on all kinds of social media now,” said Bryant Paul, a professor of media psychology who teaches a course on sex in the media at the Indiana University Media School.
“My suspicion is, and I think evidence can point to, the more mainstream, popular media is far more of a problem and impactful than pornography.”
Pressure comes from “a culture that you see on Twitter of people making fun of … other people for having ‘vanilla’ sex,” said one young woman whose Twitter use started at 14.
“That kind of makes you feel like you have to explore something else, something that isn’t just ‘missionary’ sex,” she said. “You carry that expectation with you when you’re hooking up with someone for the first time.”
Squeezing the neck to cut off the brain’s supply of air and blood initially causes lightheadedness or dizziness. When the hold is released, the rush of oxygen and endorphins can create an exhilaration and relief that intensifies orgasm. There is also a psychological dynamic of control and loss of control that some find appealing.
But if the pressure on the neck lasts too long or goes too far, the lack of oxygen can cause brain damage, heart attack — even death. And when one or both partners are intoxicated, as was alleged to be the case in Hackensack, the practice can lead to catastrophe. Judgment of risk is impaired, breathing and heart rate are slowed, and reaction time is delayed.
“When it’s too late, it’s too late,” said Melanie Davis, a sexuality educator in New Jersey, who calls such play extremely dangerous. “The person is dead.”
Unintended death from erotic asphyxiation is not new.
In a famous case from 1986, Robert Chambers, the so-called “Preppie Killer,” pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Central Park strangulation death of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during “rough sex.”
But today such deaths are becoming “frighteningly common,” said Lawrence Siegel, a clinical sexologist and certified sexuality educator in West Palm Beach, Florida.
For instance, a 27-year-old New Zealand man was convicted in November of murder in the death of a 21-year-old British backpacker. He said they met through a dating app and she asked to be choked as they had sex.
While choking has often been a complaint in domestic or intimate-partner violence, it now appears more frequently among sexual assault complaints arising from first- or second-time hook-ups, Herbenick said.
In a study she co-authored entitled “Feeling Scared During Sex,” choking was frequently mentioned by the women who felt fear.
Nearly one in four adult women (aged 18 to 60) and one in eight adolescent women (aged 14 to 18) reported experiences — including choking, rape, anal sex, and a partner ignoring their requests to stop — that caused them to feel scared or frightened. A man in the survey said he was frightened by his partner’s request to choke her, unsure how to proceed without hurting her.
Choking is considered a form of “breath play.” Other forms include autoerotic asphyxiation, in which various methods are used to interrupt the oxygen supply during masturbation, and sex with “poppers,” a type of inhalant used primarily by gay men for a mental buzz and to relax certain muscles.
Clearly, the ways young people have sex are changing.
“Before, you’d only have sex with one person and it was the person you were married [to],” said a 21-year-old college student. “But now, people are expected to have sex — a lot of it — and it must be kinky.”
More than one in four young women (18 to 24 years old) and one in five men of the same age have experienced anal sex at least once, according to a national study published in 2017, an increase over previous surveys.
Choking isn’t even the kinkiest thing to try, said a 19-year-old college student. “I can imagine a hundred things that are way more degrading, intense or extreme that aren’t uncommon in porn.”
“Going in the backdoor” or “getting to fifth base”; “facials” or ejaculation onto a partner’s face; and slapping, spanking or biting as part of sex were once regarded as largely confined to the “kink community,” or people who practiced BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism). Now, while not exactly mainstream, they are considered less taboo.
And if they are on the menu, say sex therapists, they should be in the conversation. People “don’t always know how to do it in a safe way,” said one student. “They think that’s what other people want.”
Communication and consent between partners, as well as an exit strategy — a gesture that says “Stop,” if speaking isn’t possible — are crucial. Seasoned practitioners of sex practices that can be risky know enough to have “safe words” or gestures, and to back off when necessary, said Eric M. Garrison, a clinical and forensic sexologist in Virginia.
“No one should wander aimlessly into a kink that can be life-threatening,” Garrison said. “It has to be an educated decision.”
Negotiation is needed. But for many young people, communicating about sex is still challenging.
They lack the vocabulary, the knowledge and sometimes the comfort level to say what they want to do and where the boundaries are. Some are unprepared when a partner says, “I would like to be choked.”
“Part of that communication and part of that negotiation is: How far am I willing to go?” said Siegel, the Florida sex therapist. “What am I willing to do? How do I get out of it, if I find out that this is not what I want? That, to me, is a really big missing piece.
“Many people, especially girls, have bought into the notion way too often that once they say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ they’re fully committed and there’s no way out.”
Few have the confidence of one 19-year-old, who said he’d learned “eye contact is sexy.”
It’s not a popular theme on social media, he said, but “You don’t have to be the nastiest, choke me, spit-on-me-type of person. … It doesn’t have to be about ‘spank me.’
“It can be about ‘let’s cuddle.’”
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