Holding someone by the throat: abusive strangulation or consensual play?

Following the allegations against Eric Schneiderman, I saw a cluster of articles a couple of weeks ago revolving around the topic of someone’s breathing by putting pressure on their throat. Some talked about this as an act of violence, others as an act of erotic play.

The articles were not always helpful – and I want to talk about this.

I’ll start with a CONTENT WARNING: this post contains stuff about sex, BDSM and sexualised violence. The links from this post have explicit content.

If phrases like “BDSM,” “s-type”, and “kink” are unfamiliar for you, you might want to check out my Dictionary page. I’ve also written separately about why I write about BDSM and why I write about 50 Shades.

For those who haven’t heard of Eric Schneiderman, he is a lawyer who helped write the legislation on strangulation or choking in domestic violence. And it turns out he has actually treated women in this manner – abusively. This is particularly discouraging for women’s rights activists given that this guy was helping campaign against Harvey Weinstein. Here is my take on four articles that seem to be have been spurred by these events.

Article 1 – Schneiderman and the danger in strangulation

An article in the NY Times a good piece of comment on the dangers of strangulation and what many abusers seek to communicate to their victims when they use it. What struck me is how it really doesn’t take much to end someone’s life, and even when it’s not life-threatening, strangulation can easily leave unseen damage.

Unsurprisingly then, the CAADA-DASH risk identification checklist used in the UK for cases of domestic abuse includes the question:

Has [name of abuser(s)] ever attempted to strangle / choke / suffocate / drown you?

The article doesn’t just lay out the physical effects of strangulation as a means of assault, it also goes into the messaging:

What strangulation effectively communicates to a victim, more clearly than words could, is that an abuser is willing to exert punitive control by preying on her most fundamental visceral needs — such as the bodily imperative to gasp for air when she cannot breathe, and the desperate urge to end the intense pain that strangulation causes.

I don’t disagree with anything this article sets out to say. However, it focusses exclusively on controlling someone else’s breathing in a non-consensual, and therefore necessarily abusive, context.

Now, I am not here to promote strangulation in a consensual context. But a consensual context would be inherently different. So, if we rule this out and say it’s a practice that has no place in consensual erotic play (or if we conclude that we’re not going to backtrack from that decision regardless of what anyone else might try to say), then let’s do so after examining the messaging and safety implications.

Article 2 – How the BDSM scene sees itself

The BBC then wrote an article from a completely different angle. It does talk about how “it was BDSM” has been tried as a defence for sexual abuse, but it also asks about how ‘real’ BDSM people navigate this arena.

What I liked about this article is how it makes it clear that for an act to be consensual, then it must be possible for consent to be withdrawn at any time and how up-front and continuous communication is essential.

The article also showed how some people liken BDSM to a contact sport:

“BDSM is to abuse what boxing is to being punched by surprise. The former is done with consent and an understanding of risks. The latter isn’t, and is assault.”

This is a comparison which I don’t think can be dismissed, but I rarely see it even acknowledged by those who are against BDSM. This is also, for example, why the BDSM community wouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea of strangulation. They’d say there are many different ways you might put your hand on your lover’s throat and very little in life is completely risk free.

All that said, what I didn’t like in this article was how it sent the message that the submissive is the one in control, “because nothing can happen without their agreement”. In a consensual context, that is true. But in a non-consensual context, that is far from true. Just because someone says they’re going to honour your consent, doesn’t mean they will. That means when you’re the submissive/bottom and you’re physically vulnerable you have no control over whether or not the dominant/top will honour your consent.

Between them, these two articles in the NY Times and the BBC seem to give a generally fair representation of the dynamics of abuse and how the BDSM scene sees itself. I think people can learn something valuable from each article – and whatever the ‘true’ answer is, I think it will have to take account of the key points in both.

The same can’t be said for this next pair of articles.

Article 3 – A promotion of BDSM without regard for safety

The first, in Women’s Health Magazine, promotes breath play and gives a token comment about how it’s dangerous, before sweeping that aside and saying how hot and exciting it can be.

This is irresponsible.

Most of the time, people are not experts. That means if you’re going to recommend a practice for the masses, you’ve got to be really clear about safety, otherwise people will fall victim to their naiveté and suffer harm. For goodness sake, this is why coffee cups have warnings saying their contents might be hot. If you’re going to put put the idea in people’s heads to do something that could kill or seriously harm others, then you can’t dispense your responsibilities with a one-liner and assume that that will put fear and caution into them.

Meanwhile, the article gives the impression that you can just look up BDSM experts who will tell you all you need to know, independently, professionally, factually, with no bias:

For those who are serious about delving into breath play, make an appointment to learn the practice under the supervision of a master or dominatrix with extensive experience. You can search for one at a BDSM social community website like fetlife.com (definitely NSFW).

No, it doesn’t work like that.

In fact, Fetlife’s terms of use prohibit “criminal accusations against another member in a public forum.” It’s why you get articles like How Kink’s Largest Social-Networking Site Fails Its Users and why some bloggers (who are on Fetlife) will even write about Why Fetlife is Not Good At Stopping Abusers.

Whereas I believe there are honest, risk-aware and conscientious sex practitioners out there, there’s also a whole heap of crooks and abusers. Also, whereas similar might be said for used car salesmen, there’s a lot more information and awareness in the public domain for how to spot a dodgy deal than there is for spotting a dodgy proposition. What’s more, it’s a lot easier to get recourse from a dodgy dealership than there is from an abuser in a forum where abusers can’t be called out publicly.

So again, this article is irresponsible to give the impression that finding an informed voice is straightforward.

Article 4 – An ill-informed rant against BDSM

Meanwhile, another article I read is an anti-BDSM rant in the Guardian. It fails to acknowledge the difference between consent and non-consent, and seems to base its argument almost exclusively on mainstream hard-core porn. It doesn’t in any way acknowledge how BDSM might be like a contact sport. It also doesn’t recognise that promoters of BDSM say it’s for mutual enjoyment. Instead, the porn this article described, in which women are choked, sounds like porn where the women are very much not enjoying it.

Whereas the Women’s Health Magazine was irresponsible, this one is reactionary and deeply unhelpful.

Yes, there are complaints to be made against abusive BDSM behaviours and abuse in the BDSM scene. But if we want to engage on the topic of BDSM and abuse, then we need to get our facts straight and not describe BDSM-ers as people who have switched off their brains and advocate for abuse. That means we have to start with people within the scene who have been trying to have debates and discussion on this topic – such as Jenny Trout, the Other Normal, and Thomas Millar.

This article is not doing that. And it shows.

Concluding thoughts

In the BDSM scene, there are different philosophies when it comes to safety and consent. One of them is RACK: risk-aware consensual kink. I think it has its flaws (discussion for another post) but as a BDSM sex blogger points out, very little in life is risk-free. RACK therefore focuses people on being risk aware so that they don’t delude themselves about what they’re doing and take responsibility for it.

But make no mistake, controlling someone else’s breathing – or indeed restricting the flow of blood to the brain by putting pressure on the carotid artery – is very risky. Even if you’re clued up on human physiology (and most people aren’t), you won’t necessarily know the quirks of someone else’s body or the impact your actions might have on them. And if someone’s life, or ease of breathing, or ability to speak is at stake, then is that something you really want to risk for the sake of a few minutes of fun? And if you do develop a strategy of reducing the risk, how are you going to get assurance that it will actually work? Because improvement by trial and error is not really an option here.

In the spare room where I live, there are two large bookcases that face each other. The best place in that room for someone to sleep as a guest is between them, on a mattress on the floor. Now, neither bookcase is secured to the wall. It’s extremely unlikely that either bookcase would topple; with the books arranged as they are, I think they’re weighted in a way that would prevent that. But I don’t know. I have no data. And what if something happened that I hadn’t anticipated?

The thought of killing a guest while they slept in our home doesn’t bear thinking about. I remember the chill running down my spine when I first seriously contemplated it. So even though I hate DIY, my husband and I agreed that until someone competent fixed the bookcases for us, we wouldn’t let guests sleep there.

In a similar way, if BDSM is to be truly risk-aware, it needs to be done with that reverence in the back of the mind; there needs to be knowledge that getting some things even just a little bit wrong will suddenly stop it from being a game.

As for ‘breath play’, I don’t know if a safety mechanism can exist for putting pressure on a person’s throat so as to restrict their breathing. Maybe someone will be able to answer that. Maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, there are many other ways my neck can contribute to my husband’s and my enjoyment of sex together.

And I’m happy to be content with them.


This post has been edited a little since its original posting.

I’ve said it before, but it’s important, so I will repeat it: whereas some BDSM-ers may gently hand-hold an inexperienced newbie to find their own path in the safest way possible, they aren’t all like that. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that there are exploitative people who will actively prey upon the inexperience and naiveté of new-joiners. You can find the evidence for both of these on my blog; one is about what S-types REALLY need to know and the other sub frenzy – they are written by BDSM-ers warning against BDSM predators.

Also, a while back I compared Christian Grey’s behaviours in Fifty Shades of Grey with a rant about abuse seen within the BDSM scene: part one is here, part two is here and part three here. Though the original rant I was comparing to had been anonymised, the tenor of behaviours spoken against are consistent with other known examples, like Liam Murphy aka “The Wolf” who was accused of rape and sexual assault in 2016. (You can read more about about him on Huffington Post, but CONTENT WARNING for descriptions of assault, and a bondage computer-generated picture at the top of the post. Link here.)

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