These days, the benefits of sex are so well accepted that even the UK's National Health Service touts it as a positive activity. From reducing stress and strengthening your immune system to aiding in female bladder control or prostate health, sex has become a silver bullet in our culture. But for all the ways sex can positively impact our lives, it's not entirely uncommon for people to die when bumping uglies.
Studies have tied the exertion of a good fuck to a higher risk of heart attack or stroke—especially among men. The risk increases for men with erectile dysfunction issues, and perhaps even more so when infidelity is afoot. Take William Martinez, a 31-year-old cop in Lawrenceville, Georgia, who died in 2009 due to heart issues while having an extramarital threesome with a man and a woman at a motel.
Other times people die due to sex-linked overdoses or other drug-related complications. In some cases, it's legal drugs, as in the case of Sergey Tuganov, who died in 2009 at the age of 28 after he pounded some Viagra and had a 12-hour sex marathon with two women. Illegal drugs can be just as lethal, as when the 43-year-old Australian doctor Suresh Nair proffered two sex workers in 2009 with so much cocaine that they died during their tryst. Others die of honest accidents. Some of them are absurd, like the assistant manager at a San Francisco club who activated a lift under a piano he was having sex on and was crushed to death between the instrument and the ceiling in 1983. Meanwhile some accidental deaths are linked to rough sex or outright BDSM practice, like that of 59-year-old Gordon Semple, a British policeman, who died during a Grindr session in which 50-year-old Stefano Brizzi sat on his face and tightened a leash on the bound and masked officer at his request until he died in 2016.
As the infamy of such cases suggest, death during sex isn't common. That rarity is probably why we love salacious stories about it, even spurious ones. It's probably also why we often spread saucy but unsubstantiated stories about a of famous figures' sex deaths, from medieval popes to mid-20th century politicians. But death during sex is likely severely underreported. Some estimates put the annual number of health condition-linked deaths during sex alone into the thousands.
Yet for as much as we love to gossip about it, and despite its relative commonality, it's not clear to many what sort of legal repercussions you might face or what you should do if a partner does die on you mid-coitus. Sometimes when these stories are told it seems like no big deal: Matthew McConaughey's mother glossed over her husband's 1992 heart attack during sex in her autobiography I Amaze Myself like it was a mere footnote. No one was even charged in 2011 when an Ohio man choked to death on a gag in a BDSM session. In other cases, death during sex can lead to lengthy trials and hard time: A Canadian woman was charged with manslaughter when her partner died during a suspected sex act in 2007 and at least two teens were charged for strangling their partners to death during what was allegedly consensual rough sex in 2014.
Wanting to learn more about liability when a partner dies during sex, I reached out to Kristina Dolgin. She's the executive director of Red Light Legal, a group offering legal aid to sex workers, who are charged for death during sex more often than perhaps any other population in the US. Dolgin filled us in on what contexts usually trigger some kind of legal scrutiny—and on the relatively few standard steps to take to handle that eventuality.
VICE: When is someone likely to face legal scrutiny or charges if their sex partner dies?
Kristina Dolgin: I don't think anyone knows definitively. But the more the relationship looks like that which is expected traditionally—people who are married, have a nuclear family thing going on, where there isn't any kind of suspicion of extramarital sexual activity, when it's not largely known that people are engaged in BDSM—I think those cases run the lowest risk of prosecution.
A lot of it will come down to what was the actual arrangement but also what does the arrangement look like from the outside? The more taboo the behaviors are, the more risk—the more people are going to want to see them as something to be scared of [and to prosecute].
What groups of people are legally the most at risk when a partner dies on them?
You stand the most risk if it's a paid transaction… and if it's obvious some kind of criminalized activity was taking place. Even if it wasn't the cause [and someone died due to an independent heart attack due to strain or something], if [a sex session involved] drug use or heavy BDSM, there's stigma or discrimination that ends up attributing cause even if they're totally unrelated.
People in general, when being faced with murder charges, have to go through a lot of hurdles. Our legal system is set up to be adversarial. And if you are a part of a population that is very criminalized and demonized on a moral level, that battle to be vindicated of a harsh crime is just that much harder.
What should people keep in mind if a partner dies due to an overdose?
In California we have good Samaritan laws specifically… intended to encourage people to seek emergency medical care for overdose victims. This protects the person who experiences the overdose and the person who seeks medical treatment… from charges of being under the influence or in possession of a controlled substance or paraphernalia.
But this law does not protect against anything else. If it's someone engaged in sex work who wants to call 911 because their client is overdosing, they are still exposed to prostitution charges. You, in those scenarios, are at the whim of what prosecutors or other law enforcement will want to do with you. There's a lot of subjectivity. Law enforcement has great discretionary powers. They can choose to arrest somebody or not in any given scenario.
Not to say that people shouldn't be [calling 911], but there's that risk that then gets weighed against the risk of losing a life.
You are at the whim of what prosecutors or other law enforcement officials will want to do with you. There's a lot of subjectivity.
What about when your partner(s) die due to accidents, especially linked to rough sex, complicated positions, or more extreme and potentially dangerous BDSM practices?
In California, like in a lot of different states, you can't really legally consent to what would be called battery or torture. Not every instance of being hit or whipped is going to be arrestable because cops don't generally see what's going on in the bedroom. But when prosecutors and law enforcement are actually looking in the bedroom and saying, "Oh, that's BDSM activity that we can loosely attribute to being the cause of death of somebody," that particular activity—hitting, whipping, choking, breath play, blood play—is [seen as] inherently dangerous, even though 99 percent of the time nothing happens as a result. But there is this blanket precedent in California and in other states that this is inherently bad, that this is inherently dangerous, so it's really easy for courts and prosecutors to attribute cause to that particular activity.
So your average couple might face some legal action if one of them dies during something like rough sex. What else can trigger scrutiny when someone dies in a vanilla context?
Whether there is somebody who wants to pursue an investigation. If there is a family member who might be getting a larger inheritance, if the partner were to be pushed out of a will or as the beneficiary of insurance if liability of death could be put on them, those things are factors, too.
How can you minimize your risk of liability, whether in a transactional relationship or not?
Make sure that you're in a situation where there isn't risk of death, if you can avoid it.
Obviously, we're all striving for that. We don't want our partners to die. But the peril is higher for those in the sex industry. For some sex workers, [avoiding risk is] easier than for others.
Some good practices are to have CPR training—especially if you're doing BDSM practices—or carrying NARCAN on you in the event of an opiate overdose. Because you never know who's going to walk through the door. All people use all types of drugs. And if you can, ask people about medical conditions so you can gauge the level of risk you want to take on. Maybe if somebody has heart issues, try doing something that's going to put less strain on them.
These would be good practices for people who are not in the sex industry, too. But I don't know that other people negotiate sex the same way. People tend to not talk about sex before they do it.
Couldn't knowing about someone's potential causes of death open you to more liability? I'd think that'd be especially difficult to absolve yourself of in a longer-term relationship.
Absolutely. That would have an impact in court, because knowledge that this person has had medical issues as a result of BDSM activity or whatever [in the past] could affect you.
You've mentioned who is the most at risk of legal action if their partner dies. But in the moment that someone dies, before you know anything about how you'll be treated and regardless of who you are, traditional couple or sex worker, what should you do?
If there are things that are traceable to you, you absolutely should not destroy evidence. [If you call or are contacted by the cops], don't consent to searches. Ask for a lawyer. Sate that you want to invoke your right to remain silent.
And if responders immediately or later on charge you with something, what should you do?
In some of these cases, there really isn't a whole lot that sex workers can do when faced with these charges, whether it's involuntary manslaughter or straight up murder charges.
But do fight these charges. Find resources to help you do so, whether that is finding a group or gathering family and friends to support you. In the end, 95 percent of cases are plead—they don't go to trial. But precedent for these types of things can change if more people are able to go to court and challenge [them]. So don't just, if you can, take the charges that you're immediately faced with.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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