In December 2019, 21-year-old New Jersey resident Michael Gaffney was charged with manslaughter for choking his 19-year-old girlfriend, Francis Garcia, during sex. According to the affidavit, he told a friend: “I choked her… She wanted to be choked.” Here in the UK, a 2016 case involving 16-year-old Hannah Pearson and 24-year-old James Morton resulted in Pearson’s death after Morton, as he admitted in court, “[pursued his] sexual thrill without having regard for the consequences of it”. Morton had plied Pearson with alcohol and when she was unconscious began strangling her. He was charged with manslaughter and ordered to serve 12 years in prison, with the possibility of serving only six. Both cases are chilling reminders of how an increasingly widespread intimate practice has grave dangers if taken too far and orchestrated by someone who doesn’t know when to stop – and unfortunately, they are far from unusual.
Kimberly Resnick Anderson is a Certified Sex Therapist and assistant professor of Psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Her website can be found at www.KimberlyResnickAnderson.com. She describes breath play as “any consensual restriction of one’s airway (from light pressure to full unconsciousness) to enhance sexual pleasure”. Why does she think people find it so appealing?
“To some the appeal is physical, but for others the appeal is more psychological,” she responds. “The thought of pushing boundaries and ‘cheating death’ can be quite compelling. For others it can be liberating to give up power and trust someone else with your literal life. For others, it can feel exciting to be entrusted with the power to exert control over someone else’s most basic bodily functions, such as breathing. Some people experiment with breath play strictly out of curiosity or to spice up a monotonous sexual repertoire.”
Resnick Anderson does not, however, recommend experimenting with the practice. “The risks of breath play are extreme. I cannot ethically recommend that anyone engage in breath play because it is too easy to accidentally apply too much pressure, causing permanent brain damage or death.”
The rise of extreme pornography is often cited as a reason for the increased popularity of breath play. Type “breath play” into PornHub and a range of keywords come up offering such things as “Mummification breath play”, “Bagging breath play” and even “Hanging breath play”, all of which sound to me distinctly frightening and not particularly erotic. That said, if done safely, many say breath play can deeply intensify orgasm and add extra endorphins to the sexual experience. For my own part, I have tried it once and panicked, at which my partner immediately stopped. It’s a shame Gaffney, Morton and the countless other “breath play killers” didn’t do the same.
So how does one breath play safely? For a start, solo breath play – or “autoerotic asphyxiation” – is clearly a greater risk than partnered breath play. If you really must do it, it’s best to make sure someone you trust can check in on you after a certain period of time. Embarrassing, but better than dying or causing yourself permanent brain damage. In partnered play, people usually use a safe word, but obviously this may not be possible if someone is tightening a rope around your neck or smothering you with a pillow. You can, however, agree on a gesture that indicates you want to stop – such as holding up your hand or clicking your fingers. Many experts suggest learning about how the head, neck and chest work so you can have a better idea of how to temporarily stifle the breath without causing unconsciousness or even death.
My slave is a fan
“I love breath play,” Rachel, 34, tells OutNewsGlobal. “My girlfriend isn’t particularly dominant but she loves seeing how much harder it makes me cum when I can’t breathe. For me, it’s not about fear but about altered consciousness. I trust her to stop when I give the sign and so far she always has done!” Rachel’s positive view is echoed by that of Ahmad, 28, although he does it within a sub-dom relationship, and he is the one who applies the breath control. “My slave is a real fan of me sitting on his face so he can’t breathe. Initially I was extremely against doing it but so we’re always very careful and I try not to sit there for too long.” Helen, 37, has a different opinion. “I tried this with one of my partners, using the bagging technique, and I’ve never felt so terrified in my life. We stupidly hadn’t come up with a safe signal so I came out of it a nervous wreck. Said partner is forgiven now, but it took me a while. I honestly saw my whole life flash before me.”
So is it worth it? Like all BDSM “edge play”, it’s intended to add an element of thrill and uncertainty to sex. However, unlike other edge play – such as knife play and fire play – breath play is something that crops up in mainstream sex too. It’s not unusual for someone to place their hand on your neck during sex (something I had to ask my ex to stop doing!) when caught up in the moment but even this can restrict air flow if pressure is applied hard enough. The link between sex and death isn’t new, with even exciting vanilla sex often providing a frisson of fear. Indeed, the French term for orgasms is “petit morts”, meaning “little deaths”. And it’s true that a good climax can indeed make one feel as if one has departed this earth. It’s just rather important that we remember to come back.