Breath play is here to stay. Yes, choking seems to be in fashion, and I don’t mean the type where you need the Heimlich maneuver. Since the #MeToo movement, we’re learning just how many men seem to see choking women as a legitimate form of “sex play”, as it is often euphemistically referred to in porn as breath play.
Eric Schneiderman, New York state’s attorney general, who announced he was pursuing a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein for what he described as “despicable” behavior, was forced to resign after four women accused him of choking them, as well as other types of physical assault. Schneiderman disputed the allegations, claiming that he had only consensual sexual relations.
As more and more stories surface, thanks to the #MeToo movement, women are trying to make sense of why so many men are sexually abusive and get aroused by abusive acts such as choking. For feminists who research porn, this is no surprise. The domestication of the internet and the introduction of the smartphone made porn affordable, anonymous, and accessible, the main drivers of demand.
Pornhub, the most traveled porn site in the world, boasts in its annual “Year in Review” that it had approximately 28.5 billion visitors in 2017, which translates into about 81 million per day. Pornhub claims that “a total of 3,732 Petabytes of data was streamed in 2017, which makes for 7,101 GB per minute and 118 GB per second”. To put this in perspective, Pornhub claims that this “is enough data to fill the storage of all of the world’s iPhones currently in use.”
When you click on Pornhub.com, you’ll find at the top a tab marked “Categories”. The user has over 80 of these to choose from, some of the most popular being Milf, Teen, Stepmom, and Step Sister. What you won’t see is a category called “choking”, because this form of sexual violence is one of the most common acts across all categories. Women are choked with anything from a penis to a fist to the point of gagging, and in some cases almost passing out. The victim obviously can’t speak during these acts because she is choking, so it is typically not until the end of the scene that she says, often in a hoarse voice, how much she “loved it”. Meanwhile, she looks exhausted, upset, and – in some cases – distraught.
In mainstream media targeted to women, choking, or “breath play”, as it is often referred to, is rebranded as edgy, hot sex that somehow gives the woman power. Women’s Health Magazine recently promoted the act, suggesting it can “be an exhilarating experience for some people”. While the article does admit it could lead to death, it nonetheless provides some handy tips for those women squeamish at the thought of this “hot” sex. (Learning to relax is one recommendation!) The authors quote a sex therapist who manages to flip the power dynamics by arguing that the “turn on” is that he is prepared to do anything to have you, and the result is that “you feel you have an erotic power over him”.
Time for a reality check! Data from studies on domestic violence indicate that the women most at risk of being murdered by their partners are those who were choked. Frontline activists who work with battered women say that while the batterer calls it “choking”, it is in many cases actually strangulation. Of these women, “up to 68% will experience near-fatal strangulation by their partner”. Being strangled damages the “woman’s throat and makes breathing, swallowing, coughing and talking difficult”. When the batterer takes it a few step further, “loss of consciousness can occur within 5 to 10 minutes; death within minutes.”
Not all batterers got the idea of choking a woman from porn, but over 40 years of research shows a connection between viewing porn and violence against women. A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age.
In a study of US college men, researchers found that 83% of them reported seeing mainstream pornography; further, these men were more likely to say they would commit rape or sexual assault (if they knew they wouldn’t be caught) than men who hadn’t seen porn in the previous 12 months. Without the brave voices of the women who made the #MeToo movement possible, Eric Schneiderman would likely still be New York state’s attorney general.
It is ironic that as women are speaking out loudly and clearly, the porn industry, together with mainstream pop culture, is promoting breath play. In so many ways, choking - now euphemistically called breath play - is a perfect metaphor for how women have been silenced. Women cannot speak the truth of their lives as long as men have their hands around our necks, or their penises down our throats.
As women continue to build this movement, the research and the testimonies of women hurt by porn need to be front and center. A cultural context for understanding why men sexually abuse women, at the levels they do, ironically provides us with hope, because what has been socially constructed can always be socially deconstructed.
Once and for all, breath play is dangerous. Stay away.