Voices: No woman should have to put up with choking during sex

Men think women want to be choked during sex (Getty )
Men think women want to be choked during sex (Getty )

“If I do anything you don’t like, tell me”, he said before proceeding to squeeze his hand around my throat so tight I couldn’t breathe, let alone explain this was not something I liked. I’d been on a few dates with this man, but this was the first time we’d slept together. It’s not the first time something like this has happened – nor do I suspect it will be the last.

Men think women want to be choked during sex. At least, the ones that me and my friends have been with seem to. And very often, it happens without us asking; the onus is on us to say we’re uncomfortable with something that’s already happening. Not only during sex, either, but before anyone has even touched the other’s body. “We made out but he was a bit chokey,” as one friend described a recent encounter to me. “It felt weirdly aggressive and violent.”

Of course, some women enjoy it; I know plenty who say they do, and I know some men who like it being done to them, too. Choking has been normalised across pop culture. It features in HBO’s hit drama Euphoria, as well as in one of comedian and actor Ali Wong’s most famous sets. And in his hit track, “Lovin on Me”, Jack Harlow refers to choking as a “vanilla” sex act, singing: “I’ll choke you but I ain’t no killer baby.” The consensus, then, is that choking is No Big Deal.

But this is concerning. Because unlike other sexual kinks, choking – or sexual strangulation as it’s termed – is potentially very dangerous, both from a physiological and psychological point of view. According to a new study carried out by Dr Debby Herbenick, a sexual and reproductive health researcher, the act can cause damage to the brain when done repeatedly over time.

Published in the journal Brain and Behavior, the study looked at two groups of 41 women and found that those who had been choked four times in the previous 30 days period exhibited signs of increased cortical thickness in various brain regions, including those involved in face recognition, visual processing and memory.

Other research has shown that restricting blood flow to the brain by way of strangulation can cause tissue death, deprive it of oxygen, and lead to someone passing out in as little as 10 seconds. And yet, this practice is rife – Dr Herbenick found that out of 5,000 college students, nearly two-thirds of women said a partner had choked them during sex. Meanwhile, according to a new BBC report, boys as young as 14 have been found asking their teachers how to choke girls during sex.

Psychologically, the concerns are obvious: men deriving pleasure from enacting violence against women, women deriving pleasure from violence being enacted upon them, men choking women without consent, women feeling unable to protest: all of these are symptoms of a deeply dysfunctional sexual culture – one with a broken attitude to power dynamics between men and women.

It would be easy to place all the blame on porn, as opposed to a society that has long neglected sex education, underfunded sexual health services, and minimised the severity of violence against women. But the issue runs deeper than that.

In all honesty, I neither love nor hate choking. I’m indifferent, so long as the hands around my neck aren’t constricting my ability to breathe. It’s not something I’ve ever particularly enjoyed but it’s definitely something I’ve tolerated to please a partner – one who didn’t ask if I wanted it in the first place. I wonder how many women who say they enjoy it would admit to the same.

Don’t get me wrong, danger can be sexy, and I understand that everyone has their individual predilections. I’m just not sure so many of us should be tapping into it by potentially giving someone else brain damage. And as for the consent issue, well, if someone does want to put their hands around your neck, I don’t think it’s too much for them to ask first.