(Juno Baisla/EyeEm)

March 23, 2024   8 mins

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the choking craze: I’m pushing 70, am barely online and generally not paying much attention to other people’s sex stuff. But I dimly recall maybe five years ago seeing an online essay about dating sites which mentioned the prevalence of the act; the essay quoted some guy confidently broadcasting to the feminine universe the rhetorical question: “If you don’t like being choked, are you even alive?”

Since then, I have (without actively looking) casually come across a scattering of articles that mention it and/or worry about it, including a piece on this site by Kat Rosenfield, titled “The Death of Intimacy”. In the piece, Rosenfield declared that, in a dramatic shift of mores, women have “cast off the mantle of the sexual gatekeeper only to find themselves in a world where your boyfriend’s idea of first-date intimacy was to engage in a little light choking before ejaculating all over your face… oh, but consensually of course.”

“The Death of Intimacy” is of a piece with a number of articles on UnHerd, apparently written to call out the crisis state of our current erotic (or rather anti-erotic) landscape, for example: “Porn Will Destroy You” (Sarah Ditum), “How to Save Sex” (Blake Smith), and the mutually respectful conversation between Aella (OnlyFans advocate and Substack star) and Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. In this context, sexual choking appears to be another aspect of the dehumanising, porn-influenced bad direction we are headed in, and/or a dangerous rebound reaction to a neurotic obsession with sexual safety and feminist overkill. Indeed, it’s easy for me to see it that way.

I came of age during the Seventies, a time of great permissiveness that segued into the even greater permissiveness of the Eighties. It was a very male-dominated time, but playfully so, in my circles anyway; feminism could be pretty playful too. Almost anything you could think of was okay. BDSM in particular came out to party in full regalia, and all flavours of queerness — including trans-ness — were celebrated at least in some communities; the word polyamory wasn’t in use, but people lived it, albeit more quietly. Of course, much of this depended on where you lived and who you spent time with; it was great to be young and queer in San Francisco or New York but not so much in small-town Texas or Michigan. I have the impression that this is still the case.

During this period I had many friends and acquaintances who spoke frankly about their preferences and experiences and in all that time I can only recall hearing a girlfriend mention choking once: in a mild, bemused tone she remarked: “So George strangled me a little bit last night.” (Oddly I don’t remember anything more of the conversation, just the matter-of-fact quality of her statement.) Of course, just because I didn’t hear of it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; there must’ve been some couples who played with choking under the general heading of kink. And there were the occasional media stories about “strangubation” — that is, masturbation combined with self-choking, something young men seemed to do alone, and only made the news when it went fatally wrong. So: not exactly a popular pastime.

And now… it is? The aforementioned Rosenfield essay was not, despite the provocative mention, about choking but rather the datafication and commodification of sex. To illustrate her points, she featured a spreadsheet created by the (also aforementioned) Aella: this document featured “every sexual encounter” that Aella had experienced along with a myriad of details about those encounters. I had a look and found myself more interested in another of Aella’s charts: a sex guide purporting to help frustrated men achieve greater sexual success via a “data-based theory of vagina-kind”. This meant, basically, a flow chart revealing what a sample of 600 women like and don’t like in terms of positions, attitudes and acts. Or, as Aella put it: “A) how much they like the thing and B) how much they’ve encountered men doing the thing.”

The idea of such a chart made me roll my eyes (more on that later) but I perused it anyway. And, with my vague knowledge of the subject, I was surprised to learn that, along with the classics (oral, doggy style and general masculine dominance), “most women” love choking — love it! In fact, it was in the category of what Aella called the “land of the unfulfilled feminine”, meaning women want it more than men are doing it. Insert wide-eyed emoji here!

Of course, 600 isn’t a very big sample; it’s also skewed demographically. Aella described her group as “straight, biological… moderately liberal” women in their early 30s who’d had sex with at least five people. But her sample is not the only one. According to the National Library of Medicine (an official arm of the US government), fully 58% of female American college students have experienced and enjoyed (mostly) voluntary choking during sex. Some of them had been introduced to it as young as 12.

So… why? Why do so many women and girls suddenly want to do something that women of my generation would’ve considered a little too close to… murder? Because that is what it looks like to me. Dominance bordering on cruelty is for whatever reason a pretty standard feminine taste — but choking suggests murder, even if the suggestion is purely symbolic.

“Choking suggests murder, even if the suggestion is purely symbolic.”

The phenomenon is sometimes explained by the ubiquity of internet porn, but that seems only half-right, the right half being “ubiquity”. In the past, a young guy might discover erotic choking via porn but he would not assume that his middle-class 15-year-old date would’ve heard of such a thing; if he wanted to live the fantasy, he would need to approach it with a great deal of care and her possibly horrified reaction would probably not seem worth it. Now, a 15-year-old girl has likely heard of sexualised choking because she may well have been exposed to porn on the same laptop she uses to attend Zoom classes.

This cultural change is huge. But it doesn’t explain why choking is regularly showing up in porn. I could be wrong but I think porn exists to make money, not to push a cultural agenda; it doesn’t manufacture desires, it caters to them. And, according to the NLM, women and girls also learn about choking through social media, fanfiction, movies and friends.

There are any number of explanatory theories floating around, one being that, because of the increased feminisation of society, women are so hungry to feel masculine strength that they will respond to it in this physically extreme form. This makes some sense. Superior physical strength has been a lynchpin of masculine social dominance for most of human history; it was vital for the survival of families and communities. But this is no longer true for modern societies which value mental prowess far more — an area in which there is no gender disparity. (On top of that, culturally we are now pretending, or at least people who make movies and TV shows are pretending, that there is no physical disparity either: female characters are now commonly portrayed as physically equal to men to the point of beating them in fistfights!)

Even so, I think the gender-neutral privileging of intelligence is in general a positive and inevitable development, but the animal nature of masculine force remains a compelling and beautiful thing. It makes sense that both men and women might want, on some profound level, to be reminded of it in their most intimate joining.

But there are many less murder-adjacent ways to be reminded. So I wonder too about subliminal anger and despair. American society in particular is so violent and rageful, so steeped in fear that it has become part of how we experience the world in our bodies — especially women who are more physically vulnerable. In sex, as in dreams, there is an element of metaphorically processing life experience, including that which we most fear; to experience it in a way that we can control ideally with someone we trust which, at best, may alchemically transform something frightening or ugly into pleasure and connection.

In a long email conversation, the writer Lillian Fishman told me that she thinks most people who are “into choking” are into a light-pressure version of it that is mostly “representational”. She described its appeal in the following way:

“I think most light sexual kink tends to come down to wanting to feel temporarily paralysed/powerless/stuck/held down, in a non-scary way, so that the anxiety of how to act or of being the more interested party disappears (same reason I imagine that rape fantasies are so prevalent among women). And in good sexual relationships, this anxiety fundamentally retreats, without needing to be coaxed, one hopes. But I think choking is a shortcut to it. My suspicion is that most choking… is about this.”

This is something I understand: a “shortcut” to intimacy through intense experience that, while ritual, still requires trust.

But if all these reasons seem over-thought, consider this far simpler one: the eternal desire of the young to explore, to push past the acceptable or the known. The NLM survey features interviews of young women who describe their experiences of being choked in a variety of ways, some of which reveals touching sweetness:

“It feels very warm. It feels affectionate. It feels like a security. I don’t know. It’s like when you hold someone’s hand and it’s just kind of like a possessive kind of thing… Oh, like ‘I got you’ kind of like a dominance thing as well. Like if it’s being done to me, like, which is nice in the context of sex.”

For this young woman, the experience of light choking/facial ejaculation on the first date might be sublime. But only if it was done in the right way, by the right person who could give her that “I got you” feel. That might sound ridiculous. But a lot of sexual stuff sounds ridiculous if you aren’t there in the moment.

Which brings me back to my eye-roll at Aella’s instructive chart detailing the dos and don’ts of “vagina-kind”. Such instructions are nothing new, even if spreadsheets are; we have for decades seen books, columns and blogs claiming to school men on how to succeed with women. Sometimes, their advice is very sensible — Aella is sensible and witty. But this broad-spectrum counsel always leaves out the secret ingredients because those ingredients are impossible to describe in words or charts and depend almost entirely on the invisible and changeable emotional dynamic between any given two people. What can be incredibly exciting with one person might be lacklustre or actually repulsive with another; even the same words can have a very different quality depending on who is saying them, when and how.

I distinctly recall doing things in my youth that a month earlier I would’ve said I’d never do — and I only did some of those things once, with a particular person. It wasn’t even a question of liking or desiring that person more than others. It was about responding to him in a way that was unique to him and me, together. How can that be factored into a chart?

Which is exactly what makes it troubling that choking, rather than being accepted as something that some people like, has seemingly become something you’re expected to like or to do regardless; the sudden taste for it seems crowd-sourced, and that is not a mode that favours intimate nuance. This predicament is also very much reflected in the interviews conducted by the NLM. As one young woman said:

“… and so I fake moaned a lot when he was choking me ‘cause I felt like, ‘cause I’m also like a people pleaser. I like to make people feel happy. So I felt like I had to make him feel comfortable and everything like that… even though it’s just like during that time I was just like, oh this is new, it’s going to happen. Um, but also at the same time I’m just like, I don’t necessarily fully like this. I wish it was different.”

It is true that women have fake-moaned over all kinds of things, for millennia. It’s a perennial struggle for many people — men as well as women — to learn how to say no. But it seems different when it’s a girl feeling like she has to reassure someone who’s squeezing the bones of her throat. Reading those words online from a young woman I don’t know made me feel sad. If she were my daughter, it would break my heart. It would also make me angry without knowing quite where to direct my anger.

Then I remember: my mother would’ve been pretty sad and mad about some of the stuff I got up to if she had actually heard me talk about it. It’s probably impossible for mothers, for older people generally, not to sometimes feel that way about the stuff that much younger people get up to on their way past the acceptable and the known, especially “stuff” that looks or sounds violent. It’s easy to forget that, like the charts and the data, what you can see from the outside via interviews and articles does not reveal the inner workings, the private interplay that can happen even when people are being crude with each other. It’s easy to forget that what looks grotesque and awful on paper might feel exalted when you’re in the middle of it. And that each generation has to make its way through its own grotesque, awful and amazing experience.

Mary Gaitskill is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her Substack is called Out Of It.