Erotic asphyxiation, or EA, is a sexual act that involves suffocation. You probably know that already. How to get to that point is up to the individual. Rope, hands, bags, cling-film, water—the method can be chosen to suit the desired effect. For some, this is just the thrill of being dominated with a hand on the throat, for others the sensation of oxygen being cut off from the brain heightens the intensity of an orgasm. For others, the aim is to pass out completely. The negative side effects can range from cardiac arrest to permanent brain damage. The likelihood of this happening increases when EA is done alone—"autoerotic asphyxiation."
While the above will be known to anyone who's been through more than a handful of one-night stands or porn clips, as a society we don't know how many fatalities are caused by EA and AEA. No one seems to want to talk about finding their loved ones next to open laptops in dark rooms. The police can't always tell us about it either, because often the ropes and plastic bags are swept under the carpet before they arrive by embarrassed family members. Coroner's reports are frequently inconclusive, barring us from understanding sexual suffocation as the modern-day social phenomena we suspect it is.
But while talking about EA might be difficult, and potentially dangerous if framed in the wrong way, it is also necessary. A considered, informed, and public discussion needs to happen about EA because, in the words of Dominic Davies, founder of an independent body for diverse sexualities named Pink Therapy, "scaremongering or silence doesn't help anyone."
The psychology of erotic asphyxiation is incredibly interesting and diffuse. As I talked to Jess, a businesswoman, about how she incorporates chokeholds into sex with her partner, it surfaced that the most significant sensation for her was the power dynamic it created. Jess told me that her partner's ability to read her body in the most minute sense when she is in the spasming throes of his hold has brought them closer on an emotional level: "For me it's about feeling safe with someone, I want to be with someone who can read me and what my body is doing, and who can understand that when I'm screaming, he has to stop—that I might not be able to say the safe word. It's about trust that we have."
But stories of EA also take on a much darker hue. Talking to three men who've been restricting their own oxygen supply during masturbation from as early as ten years old, they weren't aware that what they were doing could be defined as autoerotic asphyxiation, or that anyone else in the world was even doing it. A 44-year-old-man called John told me his story:
"At an early age, the idea of being strangled was exciting to me. My first experience was when I was six or seven, playing with a neighbor's son and a skipping rope. I don't really remember who instigated what next but I remember being in the garage, stood on a box and he was tying the rope around my neck tight and then on to a hook. Luckily someone came in and interrupted us or who knows how that would have ended. Being interrupted taught me to be ashamed of what we did. I guess that's the same for most people and is why it's still kept behind closed doors."
It was at that point that John realized the danger involved and tried to stop. "That didn't work out," he continues. "It was always there—seeing a strangling scene on TV or a film, seeing two lads in the playground play fighting, even putting on my tie in the morning and sliding the knot up would give me an erection. From school to my early twenties I would practice AEA alone, isolated, and thinking I was the only person alive that did this to themselves."
Just like John, a large number of teenage boys seem to discover EA for themselves, and rather than being able to involve it in their relationships in a positive way, it becomes a repressed part of their sexualities. DanielGuy, an erotic writer, told me that he came to discover EA as a coping mechanism for his fear of the dark: "I used it to try and survive. I think I must have eroticized that fear and turned it into a wish. So at night time, instead of becoming frightened of these monsters, I started to invite them in. And then, the fantasy continued evolving. At some point, I thought of a plastic bag, and the minute I did, it became crack cocaine."
In these discussions, the phrase "madman" came up a lot. In one particularly upsetting conversation, a guy called Craig told me that it was a curse he couldn't shake. He opened up our phone call by saying, "I absolutely hate myself for it. I would class it as a curse sometimes, and I often feel wracked with guilt about it." He never delved deeper into the psychological reasons as to why he was attracted to watching "peril clips" of women drowning, but it did turn out that someone in his immediate family drowned when he was young. Craig was middle-aged, and he had never spoken out loud about it to anyone before me.
It is this kind of shame, fueled by secrecy, which seems to be the most dangerous thing about EA because it forces people to practice alone and not seek out proper education. DanielGuy told me that, with hindsight, he could see that he was on a scary path as a young man. "I was doing things so dangerously that it was only a matter of time before I would be discovered dead." Craig too, without any idea of the dangers of autoerotic asphyxiation, sought out increasingly dangerous situations, telling me that as a young man, he used to "ride out to a secluded spot, put a plastic bag on [his] head, and then put [his] bike helmet on top for a bit." He pauses. "One time I couldn't loosen the strap on my bike helmet, so I was suffocating. I felt like I was just going to die, but eventually got it loose."
So why didn't they seek out a community to help educate and support them in their experiences? Unfortunately, the relationship between EA and the BDSM community, despite their common reliance on the psychological interplay between dominance and submission, remains pretty murky and unclear.
When talking to authorities in the BDSM and sexual health communities, some, such as Pink Therapy, claimed that the BDSM banner does cover EA, and other kinds of "RACK" or high-risk edge play such as chemsex. An online BDSM guru called Ambrosio told me that while "EA is part and parcel of BDSM, and it isn't discriminated against in the very inclusive BDSM community, it isn't practiced at open BDSM parties because not everyone is comfortable with actively condoning others practicing it in their presence."
Others, such as Susan Wright from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, vehemently told me that EA "is not BDSM—that's an act that people do that people in the BDSM community are really aware of the dangers of."
This lack of clarity between the two camps is still a big problem: "It's a shame about solo EAers," said Ambrosio, as he rung off to head back to his office, "people doing it alone aren't even part of the community." He continues: "They could find friends to do it with, and also simultaneously minimize—but not eliminate—the risks involved."
Even if someone is lucky enough to reach out and find a friend or partner there to spot for them—as in, check they're OK—the story can still often end in tragedy. These situations are made scarier by the fact that, after an EA death, there is usually no way to prove that the other person involved wasn't perpetrating the violence, and that they are not, therefore, a murderer. Shouldn't the possibility that a "spotter" might end up with serious criminal charges (aiding and abetting lethal behavior, manslaughter, or even murder) if something goes wrong be enough to put someone off?
Apparently not. The crux of this very technical, and often very heated, debate among the BDSM online community, is that however dangerous EA and AEA may be, people will always continue to do it. For some, part of EA's allure stems from its potential for fatality. Jess said that "before and after, I am very, very aware of the fact that he could kill me, but in a way, that risk is what makes it enjoyable—because you're pushing the boundaries of what you think your body can do."
The people I spoke to told me that, with experience and research, they felt completely in control of their actions. Jess said that she puts her hand on her partner's knee to tell him to stop, and DanielGuy says he can just rip the plastic bag he puts around his head before he passes out. Yet Jay Wiseman, a prominent BDSM spokesperson in America, resolutely says of EA that "you cannot reduce your odds to zero." He raises a salient point in that no one really knows they are going to pass out until they do... until they forget to put their hand on their knee or rip the plastic bag.
So, should it be banned? "We can't legislate against risk," DanielGuy told me. "I put EA in the same category as skydiving or cliff-jumping—people will die from it, but I wouldn't ban it. It is just important for people to know what the risks are before they do it." Maybe part of the reason people feel the need to condemn EA is because there is always a moral subjectivity involved in commentary on sexual "perversions"—it is unfortunately never just a purely physiological discussion, especially in the mainstream media. DanielGuy said he was once offered psychotherapy by his doctor to stop him from feeling attracted to suffocation.
Overall, the sticking point for everyone I talked to about EA seemed to be the rapid pace with which the internet is depicting the practice. With extreme porn so readily available to young people, it is obvious that legislation can't keep up with what people are finding out for themselves. Jess said, "Making a subject taboo actually makes it more interesting, especially for hormonal teenagers who are going to get it wrong. The chances are that half of these teenagers have already watched it on porn anyway. People should be educated, because if you stumble upon it, without the education, you're more likely to get it wrong." DanielGuy stated firmly that "without proper debate, young kids are going to explore this, and are explore it in their own way, privately, and we don't know anything about it."
It's hard to curb the number of people participating in EA, as long as people have bodies and dark rooms in which to play around with them. The only responsibility we have is to try to stop people dying. The best thing to do is to try to match the prevalence of porn with reliable, honest, and nonpartisan information. Even Jay Wiseman believes that more, not less, information about EA is a good thing, saying, "I have noticed that, when people are educated regarding the severity and unpredictability of the risks, fewer and fewer choose to play in this area, and those who do continue tend to play less often."
What an ethical form of EA education would look like is unclear. It's hard to imagine it being taught in schools. The only clear fact about EA is that it is officially out of the box, and you can't, and shouldn't, try to force it back in.