I was 10 when I first discovered that choking during sex was a thing. During an unsupervised internet sesh, I stumbled my way onto a list of celebrity deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation, AKA strangling yourself while masturbating, and I was bewildered.
“Do adults really enjoy this?” I wondered at the time.
Now, nearly two decades later, I still wonder but the answer is not as simple as it may seem. Especially now that series like The Idol, which raked in just shy of one million viewers at its premiere, presents choking like it’s erotic and sexy without any of discussion of the needed nuances at all.
Choking, or more accurately, strangulation, is the act of squeezing the sides of the neck to restrict blood flow to the brain, which results in a lack of oxygen, an increase in carbon dioxide, and ultimately a lightheaded feeling that some find erotic. For others, the erotic element simply lies in the power dynamic created during the act. Though it was once reserved for hardcore kinksters experimenting with breath play, choking is now everywhere.
Just look at the many scenes in The Idol, or the copious amount of memes with a “Choke Me Daddy” sentiment. It even has its own entry on Know Your Meme.
These days choking has become so normalised that many young people consider it a routine part of a sexual encounter. In fact, a 2021 probability survey from the US found that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 24 were choked during their last sexual interaction. Interestingly, international surveys have also found that younger generations are engaging in choking at significantly higher rates than previous generations. One British poll found that 54 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 had been choked during sex, compared to just 23 per cent of women aged 35 to 39.
We all know that porn is a huge factor. There are more than 10,000 videos sitting under the “choking” tag on Pornhub and in these videos, consent and boundaries aren’t often clear. But porn is just a piece of the problematic puzzle.
What’s far more concerning is the glamorisation of choking within the media and pop culture. Most recently in The Idol.
If you haven’t seen the show here’s a quick run-down: Lily-Rose Depp is a young female pop star dealing with the death of her abusive mother when she gets swept up in the cult of Tedros, played by Abel Tesfaye (formerly known as The Weeknd). While there is some plot in between the many graphic sex scenes it mostly just feels like you’re watching creator Sam Levinson’s wet dreams.
But the most alarming thing about these glamorised choking sex scenes is the lack of consent, communication, boundaries, safe words, or aftercare (read: the fundamentals of BDSM).
As any BDSM practitioner will tell you, safe, sane, and consensual play are the building blocks of any scene. Yet when intense BDSM is represented without those key elements, like it is consistently throughout The Idol, it’s no wonder young people think that choking is an ordinary run-of-the-mill sex act.
Now, this isn’t about kink-shaming. I don’t have an issue with choking in and of itself.
The problem I have is that choking has entered the mainstream without including a nuanced conversation surrounding the dangers, leaving many without the ability to make an informed decision about whether or not they really want a hand around their throat.
No matter how you slice it, choking is a dangerous practice. Any amount of pressure applied to the neck could cause brain injury, delayed stroke, memory loss, or even death. But it’s naïve to think that people aren’t going to do what they want to get their rocks off. Especially when the physical and psychological arousal elements are all so well documented.
But when Depp’s character doesn’t flinch or ask questions as Tesfaye silently ties a robe over her head and secures it around her throat, but rather writhes around in pleasure. Or, frighteningly, when she sings the lyrics “force me and choke me until I pass out”, it sends the message to impressionable audiences that this isn’t something that’s dangerous, but exciting.
Most often women are on the receiving end of choking. Yet another US study from 2021 found that many college-aged women didn’t actually enjoy being choked but would go along with it to please their partner.
It’s undeniably gut-wrenching. Young women are literally having their lives put in someone else’s hands without their consent, maybe even because their partner saw their favourite musician do it on TV.
Exploring and discovering new kinks with another person is healthy and fun, and something I think should be encouraged in relationships no matter how young or old you may be. But before anything is ever acted on during sex, an open and nuanced conversation needs to occur.
Consent needs to be freely and enthusiastically given, not simply because the act turns on a partner. Young women deserve the chance to determine for themselves whether or not choking is genuinely arousing for them long before they are choked during sex.
If it isn’t for you, then NBD. Not wanting to be choked during sex doesn’t make you “vanilla” or boring, in fact, I think knowing what you do and don’t like during sex and communicating it is the hottest thing of all.
(Image Source: Instagram / The Idol @theidol)
Zoe Snell is a freelance writer living in Perth with her cat Chub. She is currently completing her Masters in Sexology. You can find her on Instagram.