Recent studies show a growing number of women associate sex with fear rather than healthy feelings of love, excitement, connection, or relaxation.
This is in large part due to the startling rise of strangulation during sexual encounters—with some cases even resulting in death.
It’s important to note that “choking” and “strangling” are very different things. You can choke on food, but only be strangled by a partner. Choking is an accidental internal obstruction of the airway, but strangulation is the manual external force by the hands, arms, legs, or ligature that results in restriction of oxygen intake and blood flow to the brain. Strangling is often used as a tactic of control and abuse. Sometimes people will use the word “choke” to describe what’s actually strangulation. Note that strangulation does not always result in death.
Now that we have definitions out of the way, what does strangling have to do with sex?
Strangulation, and violent sex
According to a recent study published by Debby Herbenick—professor and sex researcher at the Indiana University School of Public Health—about 25% of women in the U.S. report feeling scared during sex. Among 347 respondents, 23 described feeling scared because their partner had attempted to strangle them unexpectedly, and 13% of sexually active girls ages 14-17 reported already been strangled.
While consensual strangling can possibly happen between partners, Herbenick explains this is separate from the concerning trend seen among teens and women of all ages today.
“This was clearly choking that no one had talked about it and it got sprung on somebody,” she said. She also said that many sexual assault cases reported by students at her university involve nonconsensual strangulation.
Dan Savage—a sex columnist and collegue of Herbenick’s—said kids consume and learn such violent sexual acts from porn and come to believe that’s what their partners want, rather than learning that what they see in porn might not resemble real life.
“[Their mindsets are] ‘I don’t want to do that, but that’s what I have to do because that’s what she expects from me.’”
Strangulation-related deaths defended as scenarios of “consent”
One argument we often see is that more women are consenting to “rough sex”—although this is clearly the exception, not the norm. But even if consent was given, what about when those scenarios end in death?
According to Women’s Aid, one woman in the UK is strangled to death by her partner every two weeks—and often “sex games gone wrong” is used as a defense by their killers.
In one case, Vicky—a 25-year-old newlywed—was strangled by her husband Michale Roberts in November of 2009. Vicky’s family described Roberts as “part of the family,” and said they’d seen no warning signs, outbursts of temper, or evidence of abuse.
Roberts pleaded not guilty to Vicky’s murder, claiming they’d been having sex on the sofa with a bathrobe cord around Vicky’s neck and that she’d asked him three times to “pull tighter.” When she fell lifeless to the floor, Roberts claimed he thought she was joking.
A pathology report showed that Vicky’s injuries were in fact inflicted with excessive force. Roberts was found guilty of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 17 years.
In the decade since Vicky’s murder, similar killings have risen by 90% in the UK—with two-thirds involving strangulation.
Just one month after the trial, Michelle Stonall of Birmingham, England, was found strangled with her dog’s leash. Her killer used a similar “sex game gone wrong” defense.
Less than two months later, 25-year-old Anna Banks was found strangled by her boyfriend, Daniel Lancaster, who claimed that Banks “enjoyed being throttled during intercourse.”
More real-life cases of “sex games gone wrong”
Since December 2018, a group of women led by actuary Fiona Mackenzie have gathered true stories of the now 57 UK women and girls killed in claimed “consensual sexual violence” scenarios under the website We Can’t Consent to This.
According to Mackenzie, a growing number of juries in the UK are clearing men of murder and either convicting them of manslaughter or dropping the charges..
According to Vicky’s mother, “For the people who have to go through what we did and then walk away with a charge of manslaughter—that doesn’t put a lot of worth on a person’s life.”
Mackenzie referenced several more strangulation cases that ended in manslaughter verdicts.
Chloe Miazek, age 20, was strangled by Mark Bruce, age 32, in November 2017 after meeting him at a bus stop and going to his flat in Aberdeen, England. Bruce’s defense argued that Miazek had expressed interest in “erotic sexual asphyxiation” with previous sexual partners.
Hannah Pearson of Lincolnshire, England, age 16, was strangled by James Morton, age 24 in July of 2016. They met on the day of her death. Morton’s defense claimed that he was “[pursuing] his sexual thrill without having regard for the consequences of it.”
According to Mackenzie, “Both of those women were very young, and very drunk, killed by much older men they had met just hours before.
Defense teams are increasingly offering up this argument, maybe because rough sex has crept into the mainstream. I’ve had so many women get in touch to say they have been horrified on Tinder dates by partners who have tried strangling them during sex. If you’re dating, it’s expected of you and if you don’t go along with it, you’re boring.”
Mackenzie has yet to find an instance of a man killed by a woman in an alleged “sex game gone wrong” case.
Lawyer and professor Susan Edwards shared, “In the UK, [strangulation] is routinely minimized at every level. It’s presented as a momentary loss of control, Attempted strangulations often leave no visible injury and fatal cases too frequently end in light sentences. You hear things such as ‘lover’s tiff’. A cardiac arrest can occur within seconds during strangulation, so there’s also the defense that strangulation wasn’t the cause of death.”
Edwards further described the impact on society when a direct threat like strangulation is normalized. “It means that a woman whose partner chokes her might not report it—and if she does, it might go nowhere. It means that if a woman dies this way, judges and juries feel ‘this is how people have sex now’ and questions aren’t always asked.”
How did strangulation during sex become mainstream?
With the presumed guilt or innocence of the individuals in question aside, there’s a common theme that’s deserving of consideration: how did strangling and violence during sex become so normalized?
“Autoerotic asphyxia,” or the restriction of oxygen to the brain for the purpose of sexual arousal, isn’t necessarily new, but this dangerous practice has never been more mainstream.
In fact, sex surveys, advice forums, social media feeds, mainstream porn websites, and even sex educators promote “choking” (which is really strangulation) as a way to “spice things up” in the bedroom.
Women’s Health suggests, “If blindfolds and role play have veered into vanilla territory for you and your partner, there are still plently of sex moves…Like choking. Sure, it sounds intense, but experimenting with breath control, or scarfing (using a scarf to constrict breathing), can be an exhilarating experience for some people.”
Flare describes choking/strangling as, “Breath-play, the risque new sex practice gripping millenials.” And one sex educator on Elite Daily offered the following advice for how to “kickstart sex” with your partner, “Anyone stuck in a sex rut could read up on ‘how to choke your partner safely.’”
Gail Dines, CEO of Culture Reframed, says strangulation has been normalized in two main ways:
“For the men, it’s pornography and for the women, it’s in women’s magazines. And both of these media genres legitimize it as a form of ‘play.’ [Choking] is a number one standard act on porn sites. Women look to porn to see what men want, and they see choking.”
One of the world’s few female porn directors, Erika Lust, confirms that strangulation and choking scenes now dominate mainstream porn.
“Face slapping, choking, gagging, and spitting has become the alpha and omega of any porn scene and not within a BDSM context. These are presented as standard ways to have sex when, in fact, they are niches,” she said. “Young people will go to the internet for answers. Many people’s first exposure to sex is hardcore porn. [It teaches kids] that men should be rough and demanding, and that degradation is standard.”
Stop the demand for violent porn fantasies
Consent can’t be assumed, yet porn teaches that both men and women crave violence during sex—and that this behavior is presented as an acceptable fantasy in every circumstance.
Consider how the violent expectations porn instills in consumers for their own sexual relationships can be detrimental. The good news is, we can stop the demand for these harmful fantasies that impact individuals, relationships, and society by refusing to consume them.
The key is to educate—both on the harms of pornography and the violent attitudes and behavior it normalizes, as well as what healthy, happy, mutually fulfilling relationships really look like. Together, we can raise our voices and emphasize that consent is sexier than any violent porn fantasy.