Columns / Discourse / February 26, 2020

Pillowtalk: What does safe sex mean



Hi Pillowtalk,

I like your column but I disagree with what I think were your dangerous answers to the question on choking. A quick Google search on deaths from choking during sex came up with lots of information including an article in The Guardian that reported that a British woman dies every two weeks due to choking during sex. At least as dangerous is intentional asphyxiation with a rope or plastic bag during masturbation. A study in the US (cited in The Independent) found that there were 500-1000 deaths from autoerotic asphyxiation every year (a number that is probably an underestimate as friends or family often “clean up” the evidence to make it look like an ordinary suicide). Also if one regularly practices choking during sex or autoerotic asphyxiation, one is likely to cause brain damage. I am hoping that you could run a column about dangerous sexual practices, and how to make sure sex is affectionate and safe. “Safe sex” is not just sex that protects from unintended pregnancy or STDs, it is also sex without violence, brain damage or death.


Thank you for submitting this question. I’d like to clarify that the question you refer to was not asking advice on safe kink, but was asking relationship advice concerning kink. If I could include every tangent of an answer in 700 words, I would. Unfortunately, most of these questions are complex enough to warrant a book. I hope no one reading this column uses this as their definitive and singular sex education source. That’s certainly not my intent or my responsibility.

A quick Google search on deaths from choking during sex did recover the sources you reference. Unfortunately, in exploring these articles and their claims, I found no concrete citations to data I could properly review. The best I found was a website dedicated to reporting on femicide, which only studied women in the UK where the principle charged or prosecuted was a man. They cite that 41 women were asphyxiated or strangled in the UK in 2019 by a man. This does not specify erotic asphyxiation, though they suggest that it probably was.

I couldn’t find The Independent article citing the “500-1000 deaths” statistic, and I couldn’t find that statistic in any reputable journal. Email me if you can find a peer-reviewed, unbiased study that backs up that claim! I really would be very interested to read it. Also, brain damage occurs in the brain only after 4-6 minutes of seriously restricted oxygen flow, not just light choking. The same is true for holding your breath underwater! You can find that information with a quick Google search, too, and even a quick EBSCO search.

It’s true, BDSM and kink can often be dangerous. You should absolutely do your research before you practice BDSM! Yes, choking is especially unsafe because you can lose consciousness before you realize you need to stop, or be untied. Spanking and beating is absolutely dangerous if you do it in the wrong spot (avoid the kidneys)! But BDSM practices are many and diverse, and I don’t believe it would be right of me to try to summate safety into one article, especially considering that some of my readers seem to be taking my answers as the entire breadth of knowledge on the subject.

If there’s one thing to learn from this article, it’s to do your own research. If you’re getting seriously into BDSM, shop around for a good handbook. In the meantime, look up the dangers of whatever new practices you try. This is true with all sex acts, not just kink! Vaginal, anal, oral, 69, sex in a tree, sex with different toys. All of the above can be dangerous, and you should be informed about the safe ways to practice them.

I do disagree with the implication that sex must be affectionate to be safe, and that sex cannot be both safe and violent. I’m not here to tell anyone how to have sex, or place judgement on the emotions and actions involved in their sex. I’m here to answer questions that allow people to take care of their bodies, and to effectively communicate with and understand the needs of their partners. That includes educating people on the dangers of unsafe BDSM. It does not include telling people not to play with choking.

I addressed this in a previous column about sex while intoxicated. If all sex was sober, if all sex used condoms, if all sex was affectionate, if all sex was vanilla, if all sex was between people who know and trust each other, then sure, it would be a lot safer. People would die less. But doesn’t that sound, to you, a little like abstinence education? It’s never going to happen.

Sex is risky, always. But we’ve been using scare tactics to keep people from exploring their sexuality for too long. I’m not going to tell people not to get choked during sex, sorry. I’m also going to put a little trust in my adult readership to do some of the work themselves, just like you did. I hope you don’t begrudge me that.


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Elleri Scriver

Tags:  advice BDSM kinks safe sex sex

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