By: Steph Hutchinson
Disclaimer: This post is purely conversational; it is not an exhaustive list of necessary information, nor is it a replacement for medical advice. Many medical professionals and BDSM practitioners agree that breathplay is an immensely risky activity as it carries the risk of serious permanent harm or death. Intamo encourages you to heavily research, explore only with people you trust, and start light and slow.
A scalding hot take: kink becoming ultra-mainstream is a bit of a double-edged sword. I don’t mean this in the most-annoying-dude-at-the-party, “I-liked-that-band-before-you-did” kind of way, and I am truly delighted to see continued normalization of kinky activities between consenting adults. But what I and many others find concerning is the unignorable lack of concrete education and community discussion to fill in the gaps between seeing something kinky, like choking, and deciding to try it for yourself – even in researching this article, most source’s summaries could be simply put: “Choking is bad and you’re a damaged person for wanting it – never do it.”
Across the spectrums of gender and sexuality, researchers have seen “rough” sex acts, like slapping, spitting, degrading, and choking steadily become more popular. With regard to choking, Dr. Debby Herbenick, a sexual and reproductive health professor at the University of Indiana, found that among 18-29 year-olds surveyed, nearly 40% had experienced choking or being choked, leading her to conclude that the cultural perception of choking has greatly shifted. Why? “Probably porn,” she says. “We found that many people into choking remember growing up and watching porn with choking in it—and in a country where porn stands in for sex education and family conversations about sex, some young people do what they see in porn.” (Source)
Though there’s nothing wrong with consuming porn or experimenting with new sex acts, we all know that most easily-accessible porn (i.e. free porn that caters to cishet men) isn’t realistic, especially when it depicts kink. There’s no aftercare, no discussion on boundaries, nor asking for consent – understandable from an entertainment perspective, but immensely dangerous when replicated in real life. Even in a community discussion among my fellow femmes that have sex with cishet men, a common introductory experience to breathplay for all of us came in the form of some random hookup grabbing our throats with 0 warning or negotiation. As choking becomes increasingly common, there’s reasonable concern for continued “assumed consent,” and other dangerous practices.
Beyond the emotional turmoil of an unexpected choke, the truth is, breathplay is indeed a notably risky kink. Most medical experts and BDSM practitioners, professional and amateur, agree that there is no such thing as “safe” breathplay, as any form of oxygen deprivation can potentially cause loss of consciousness, seizures, brain damage, heart attacks, and, though rare, even death. I promise, this info isn’t to scare you or shame you into never trying choking – I’ll be the first to admit, I know the risks and still love being the choker and the chokee! Much like abstinence-only sex ed, I feel that telling you “just don’t do it” is no help at all – rather, I invite you to approach the topic with equal parts curiosity and caution, excitement and responsibility, pleasure and practicality.
1.LAY THE GROUNDWORK
Before we get to the fun part, you have some homework to do. As mentioned above, something like choking should never be sprung upon a partner without prior negotiation – not only because of its physical risk, but because it can leave your partner feeling unsafe or violated. So how do you ensure that choking is a 100% green-light activity? The bread-and-butter of healthy sexual adults: boundaries and communication.
If you’re a bit new to exploring kink or if this is your first time having a discussion like this with a partner, you may feel awkward or overwhelmed or vulnerable, like you don’t know what to say or what bases to cover, and that’s perfectly okay! Shift your focus away from doing everything perfectly, and redirect it to simply connecting openly and honestly with your partner, laying down a foundation of trust and understanding so that everyone will feel comfortable speaking up as they need to. Tell them what you like, what you don’t like, things you’re curious to try, and listen with compassion when they tell you their preferences.
Another valuable topic to discuss is why you want to try choking in the first place – is the consensual exchange of power what excites you, or are you more curious about the physiological sensation of giving or receiving? Your answers may not exactly match up with your partner’s, and that’s fine! As long as no boundaries are being violated, you can still play if you both still want to, albeit potentially with a bit of compromise.
Try to coordinate a conversation surrounding boundaries with your partner in advance, before sex is immediately on the table. This may help everyone approach the topic with neutrality and patience, without any pressure to compromise on a limit in the heat of the moment, or wrap up the conversation ASAP and dive right into play. Set aside some time and energy specifically for this occasion – sometimes these conversations unexpectedly become emotional for yourself or others, so it’s good to be prepared to hold adequate space for you and your partner if needed.
Finally, ensure that you also discuss aftercare needs – even with pleasure and consent, rougher sex acts can be physically or emotionally taxing, especially as those heightened endorphins begin to level out. Aftercare can look like cuddling or non-sexual touch, talking about your session and what you enjoyed the most, having a snack, watching an episode or two of a favorite show, having a shower or nap together; truly anything that would make you both feel comforted, appreciated, and supported.
2. HAVE A PRE-AGREED SAFE WORD AND SAFE-GESTURE
This goes for anything kinky! It’s paramount that both you and your partners feel prepared, safe, and encouraged to revoke consent as necessary, especially when it comes to an act like breathplay. When picking a safeword, agree on something clear, short, and easy to remember – for example, I like using the stoplight system: ‘Green’ means, “This feels great, more please,” ‘Yellow’ means “I’m enjoying myself, but this is as far as I’d like to go,” ‘Orange’ means “Ease off, I’m reaching my limit, let’s change the pressure or position, etc.,” and ‘Red’ means “I need a complete stop, let’s shift to aftercare.” If topping, be sure to verbally check-in with your partner regularly, and keep an eye out for potential dangerous side effects, like loss of consciousness, disorientation, or muscle weakness.
Since breathplay has the potential to impact speech, it’s a good idea to have “safe-gestures” on retainer as well, factoring in options for restrained hands, multiple positions, and the receiver’s mobility needs. Examples include rapidly tapping the mattress or a certain spot on your partner’s body, snapping your fingers, knocking on the bed frame or wall, holding a scarf and dropping it when needing to stop, anything that feels comfortable and sensible to everyone involved.
3. LEARNING HOW TO CHOKE
Education and safety go hand-in-hand, so it’s important to first understand why choking can be pleasurable in the first place. For some, pleasure lies in the power exchange – experiencing a commonly aggressive act in an erotic and intimate manner, while relinquishing and obtaining control of something as vital as breath, can feel absolutely thrilling for givers and receivers alike. For others, it’s more physiological. Restricting one’s capacity to breathe reduces the amount of oxygen traveling to the brain, producing a lightheaded or dizzy feeling. When pressure is released and blood and oxygen begin flowing again, floods of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin come rushing in, leaving the receiver feeling exhilarated and sensually heightened, causing increased arousal and stronger orgasms for some.
Secondly, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the neck, chest, and the respiratory system connecting them. The neck is home to a network of delicate parts, notably the trachea, a tube-like passage for air to reach the lungs, as well as the hyoid bone, which supports the root of the tongue and is one of the most commonly fractured bones as a result of choking. Due to the risks associated with damaging these parts, it’s imperative that your hand positioning and technique is as safe as possible. Rather than pressing downward on your partner’s Adam’s apple or trachea with the fleshy part of your palm, use your fingers to squeeze the sides of their neck, hold for 3-5 seconds, then release for a few breaths. This will create the sensation of choking, but is much less likely to damage the trachea or be dangerously restrictive to your partner’s breathing. You should also use the lightest possible pressure when starting out, only incrementally increasing pressure with your partner’s consent.
Speaking of just starting out – take your time. Before diving right into a full choke, begin with kissing, gently massaging, or caressing the shoulders, chest and neck, again gradually increasing pressure as you both feel more comfortable.
Finally, be mindful of how you’re distributing your body weight when on top of your partner. It’s easy to reflexively relax your weight forward if you’re used to using your hands for stability, but that can pose a risk to your partner when your hands are now on or near their neck and chest. Try leaning your weight onto one hand that’s not touching their body, angle your body differently so that your weight is directed back to your core and legs, or have them on top and squeeze their neck from below – win-win.
4. KNOW THE RISKS, AND WHAT TO DO IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG
As mentioned before and despite its growing popularity, any form of breathplay isn’t without risks. Common short-term side effects of choking, especially when performed less safely, can include coughing, disorientation, muscle weakness, numbness, drowsiness, and lack of coordination. If you or your partner experiences a single one of these symptoms during or after being choked, try not to panic – conditions should return to normal as time passes and oxygen levels continue to rise, though medical treatment should absolutely be sought if side effects do not subside. Furthermore, a break from breathplay should be considered in order to reduce risk of repeated injury or damage.
On the other hand, it can be dangerous to experience many of these side effects at the same time, as combined, they could significantly impact the ability to verbally or physically communicate, leaving you or your partner potentially unable to remove yourselves from the scenario. If the receiving partner stops breathing or loses consciousness, immediately call emergency services and be fully transparent about what had occurred – they’re not there to judge, and it’s important that they have the full context of the scenario in order to best support you keeping your partner stable until help arrives.
5. CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO BREATHPLAY
Maybe you’re feeling some understandable nerves at the prospect of trying breathplay, or gave it a shot and found that it just wasn’t for you – that’s okay! Give yourself some kudos for embracing curiosity. The good news is, in the wide world of sex, there’s always more to discover and try.
Wearing a ball gag shares some similarities with being choked by a partner – both can warrant a consensual exchange of power, restrict the wearer’s ability to speak, and inhibit their ability to breathe through their mouth, encouraging them to breathe through their nose. Not to mention, they look super hot. If you decide to play with a ball gag, because they inhibit the ability to speak, be sure to have a pre-agreed safe-gesture in place. Ball gags, especially larger models, make it hard to swallow, which can cause saliva to accumulate in the back of the throat, posing a risk for choking. This can be mitigated by the wearer maintaining a downward-tilted head position, allowing the saliva to exit through the mouth (ball gags are super drooly, btw). Start small – wear the gag for 10-15 minutes at a time, of course stopping sooner if you need, and be aware that they might initially cause a bit of jaw discomfort if worn for too long. My personal favorite is this Restrained Grace Blush Pink gag, which features a smaller (removable!) ball with holes for extra breathability, but the Saffron gag from Sportsheets is also a beautiful, beginner-sized option at a more accessible price point.
For the saliva-adverse or those otherwise not keen on a ball gag, there are plenty of other options for providing intensity and compression without dangerously compromising one’s ability to breathe. Try placing a hand or strip of specially-designed bondage tape over the receiving partner’s mouth, ensuring that their nose isn’t obstructed (and that you have scissors at the ready, if you opt for the more bondage-y route). You can also spice up your positions – for example, while spooning, try tightly wrapping your arms across your receiving partner’s torso so that either hand is resting on the opposite shoulder, forming an X across their chest. This lovely squeeze can be equal parts cozy and constrictive, though, as always, check-in on your pressure and have a safe gesture ready.
To close, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you take nothing else away from this article: light pressure; go slow; respect boundaries; communicate, communicate, communicate. I also have to thank you for your curiosity and responsibility – finding yourself on this page means not only have you allowed yourself freedom to explore a kink, but that you’re seeking out information to possibly experiment with it as safely as you possibly can – that’s huge! Go forth and play safely. <3