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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Chanel Contos

Sexual choking is now so common that many young people don’t think it even requires consent. That’s a problem

Woman with male hand around her neck against black background
‘Ideally choking would involve conversations and research that allow people to take a calculated risk, but instead it has become mainstream to the point where it is too often assumed that consent is not necessary.’ Photograph: Himani Baisla/Getty Images/EyeEm

When I was 19 I was at a birthday event. We were playing a drinking game and one of the questions was “what’s the kinkiest thing you like to do during sex?”. My friend, who was 17, replied: “It’s not really that kinky, but I guess choking”.

The conversation carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had just been said. I remember feeling self-conscious about my sexuality, wondering if I was a “prude”, if the consensus was that choking was “not really that kinky”.

Choking during partnered sex is a form of sexual asphyxiation. Although it’s colloquially called “choking”, it’s actually a form of strangulation, as it is performed by pressing or squeezing the neck (medically, choking means an internal blockage of air passages). The pressure around the neck cuts off the flow of blood, resulting in blood congestion in the brain. The effect is lightheadedness due to the drop in oxygen levels and increase in carbon dioxide. For some this intensifies erotic pleasure.

This all sounds quite extreme when you spell it out like this, but in the moment all that is needed is a hand around the neck during an intimate moment. Other than the deprivation of oxygen to the brain, many women have told me that the gesture is erotic in itself, as it instantly adds an overt power dynamic into a sexual act.

In human sexuality, kinkiness is the use of non-conventional sexual practices, concepts or fantasies. Choking in sex is a kink. Yet it has somehow made its way under the mainstream umbrella of things that many young people assume are OK to do without consent – often the first time you’re sexually involved with them.

Experts have warned that there is no safe way to engage in this act. Humans take risks all the time. The concern does not lie with this kink, where ideally it would involve conversations and research that allow people to take a calculated risk, but instead with the fact that it has become mainstream to the point where it is too often assumed that consent is not necessary, and that it seems a standard part of sexual activity in young people.

Sexual choking has become increasingly prevalent in mixed-sex pornography and young men’s sexual behaviour. A national probability survey in the US found that 21% of women reported having been choked during sex, and 20% of men reported that they have choked a partner during sex. In this study, adults ages 18 to 29 reported engaging in choking at higher rates than older adults, which suggests a cohort effect and exhibits the population shift in sexual behaviour.

Another US study found that 58% of female college students have been choked during sex, further suggesting that this “kink” is becoming increasingly common in younger age demographics. This study found that while many women enjoyed choking, others did it largely to please their sexual partner. This is the real kicker. The problem here is not only that women are being choked during sex without giving consent, but that a lot of the time they are “consenting” not because they derive their own sexual pleasure from it, but because they think it turns the guy on.

Separating true consent from the desire to give your male partner sexual satisfaction is difficult.

But I suggest that a good place to start is to equip young girls and women, who have grown up in an era where pornography has shaped every inch of their sexual landscape, with the capabilities to decide if it is an act they truly want to engage in.

Once I was kissing someone (quite casually I might add) and he put his hand around my neck and started to choke me. I moved his hand away from me and said “why are you doing that?” and he said “I dunno, I thought you’d like it”. When I told him I didn’t, he seemed genuinely surprised.

It made me sad to think about the amount of girls who would have just “gone along with it” in that moment – including myself a few years ago. I would have known myself well enough to know that being choked wasn’t something that sexually turned me on, however I don’t know if I would have been able to distinguish between enjoying a sexual encounter because the man I was with was enjoying it, or because I truly enjoyed it myself.

I worry about how many women are yet to make this distinction, and implore you to consider where the true source of your consent lies, because if it is with the desire to satisfy men who want to strangle you, it may be wrongly placed.

• Chanel Contos is the Founder of Teach Us Consent, and the director of The Australia Institute’s Centre for Sex and Gender Equality. She is on the BBC’s list of 100 influential and inspiring women of 2022 and her book on consent will be published by Pan MacMillan in 2023

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