As many as 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men have been choked during sex. Why, then, if choking is so common, is it so difficult to find information about how to do it? Because it’s dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that many seasoned BDSM players avoid it at all costs. Despite this (or maybe because of it?), a lot of kinksters—like us—enjoy breath play and approach it in a risk-aware way, which is what this guide is about. We’ll cover the inherent risks of choking and breath play and the best techniques to mitigate them. Note that we didn’t say eliminate them, because breath play is never going to be truly safe. That said, some types of breath play are more dangerous than others.
On that note, what this guide is not: A how-to on choking someone until they lose consciousness or autoerotic asphyxiation. We don’t engage in breath play to that degree because the risks are too high.
What Is Breath Play?
While it may seem like breath play is self-explanatory—actions that restrict someone’s breathing—it often reduces blood flow to the brain, which is what makes it risky. Breath play encompasses three main activities: choking, smothering, and strangulation.
- Choking: Strictly speaking, choking is caused by a foreign object getting stuck in the throat or windpipe, preventing someone from breathing. In non-kinky contexts, choking is most often associated with food. Choking on a cock or a dildo is probably more likely in a kink setting (and more controllable than choking on food).
- Smothering: This is similar to choking in that it involves cutting off a person’s air supply, but it’s done by suffocating or stifling (e.g., placing a hand over someone’s nose and mouth) as opposed to lodging something in their throat.
- Strangling: Usually when people say choking what they mean is strangling—constricting blood flow. This is what happens when you put pressure on someone’s carotid arteries, which run along the sides of the neck and supply 70–80 percent of blood volume to the brain. In judo, a stranglehold is referred to as a “blood choke.”
Why Is Breath Play Dangerous?
To state the obvious, people need to be able to breathe to stay alive, so restricting air flow automatically jeopardizes someone’s ability to breathe. Additionally, if you put pressure on the front of someone’s neck (which you shouldn’t do), you can run the risk of damaging their larynx or fracturing delicate cartilage in that area.
Although studies haven’t been conducted on the physiological effects of breath play in BDSM, there have been studies on the use of blood chokes in judo. Blood chokes involve putting pressure on the carotid arteries, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness lasting several seconds. The results of these studies show that not only have there been no deaths attributable to choking since judo was invented in 1882, but there’s no strong evidence that it results in long-term damage either, even if it causes brief bouts of unconsciousness.
Why, then, is there such a heavy emphasis on the dangers of choking in the BDSM community? Cutting off the blood supply to the brain by putting pressure on the neck can cause someone’s heart rate to decrease and blood vessels to expand to compensate for the momentary drop in blood pressure. This may not be an issue for some people, but it could cause a stroke or worse in someone with a history of heart problems. The studies we found on blood chokes were conducted only on men who, it’s safe to assume, were pretty physically fit. For people who don’t fit into that population—which is most of us—choking may be riskier.
Beyond the health risks of breath play, there are legal risks, especially if something goes wrong. Depending on where you live, BDSM, including choking, may legally be considered assault, regardless of whether it’s done consensually. Because of the prevalence of non-fatal strangulation in domestic violence, many states in the U.S. have laws against it regardless of whether it results in physical injury. This is all the more reason to be fully risk aware before practicing consensual breath play.
Why Do People Like Breath Play?
Given the potential risks, why do people engage in breath play at all? For some, there’s a thrill that comes with flirting with danger and playing with taboo. For others, the act of choking someone or being choked enhances trust and/or a D/s dynamic (this is the main appeal for us). And, of course, there are physiological reasons people enjoy breath play. Once the bottom starts breathing freely again, the mix of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that’s released can produce a euphoric rush.
What Are the Best Techniques to Lower Risk?
Negotiate. It should go without saying that any form of breath play should be negotiated in advance of a scene. But we’re saying it anyway given that instances of surprise, non-consensual choking are not uncommon. During the negotiation, establish a clear “safe gesture”, as traditional safewords will likely be moot due to the bottom’s constricted breathing and inability to speak. If the bottom isn’t going to be bound or pinned down in any way, they may be able to tap the top to indicate that they want the breath play to stop. If their arms and hands are restricted, they may be able to squeeze a squeaky dog toy or drop something that will make an obvious sound (keys, etc.). Whatever the method is, just make sure to discuss it in advance and that it will work logistically. The best way to do this is to practice it beforehand. For instance, if you plan to drop something on the floor to make noise, it may not if it falls on carpet instead of a bare floor. These are the kinds of details you need to work out in advance.
Avoid solo play. This post focuses on partnered breath play, but it’s worth noting that autoerotic asphyxiation and other forms of solo breath play are riskier because if something happens, no one is there to help. The same holds true for partnered breath play that involves leaving someone alone (e.g., while bound with a bag over their head, etc.). Don’t do it.
Tailor intensity of breath play to your goal. Think about what you’re trying to achieve through the use of breath play. Is it mainly to enhance a D/s dynamic? Then maybe neck grasping, as opposed to strangling, will suffice. Or you could try kissing while holding the other person’s nose. You could even put a belt or collar around someone’s neck and lightly pull on it without actually choking them.
If you’re specifically trying to reduce airflow because of the feelings that produces, then perhaps putting a hand over the bottom’s nose, mouth, or both will achieve the desired effect. After all, people hold their breath all the time without ill effects. If you’re covering someone’s nose and mouth, hold your own breath at the same time so you have a better idea of when to stop if you don’t want to wait for the person to tap out. Keep in mind, though, that some people can hold their breath far longer than others. You could also put pressure on someone’s chest to cause a feeling of constriction with relatively low risk. (For reference, it takes about 570 pounds of pressure to break all of an average size man’s ribs.)
If strangling/blood chokes check all the boxes, then only put pressure on the carotid arteries on the sides of the neck for a few seconds at a time and never use full force. It takes very little pressure to feel the effects. Always avoid putting pressure on the front of the neck where the windpipe and larynx are.
Avoid methods that obscure body language. Some people use gas masks, latex, pillows, or other devices that hinder breathing. These methods make it difficult to see someone’s facial expressions, which makes it harder to know how they’re reacting. Such devices can also be more time consuming to remove than a hand, which could be problematic.