Charlotte, a 20-year-old university student, has been non-consensually choked every single time she has had sex.
The first time it happened she was 19, during her first ever sexual experience. “We were just kissing,” she says, “and he puts his hand around my neck and sort of pulls back and watches.” The worst part? It was completely unlike him. “He was a lovely boy, really sweet, really caring,” Charlotte says. “Everything else was very gentle, but then at the same time he would choke me.”
Then it happened again, and again, and again. It’s happened so many times that Charlotte has become convinced it’s just something that “slips in” to sex these days. “It’s got to the point where you just see it as part of sex, really, but it shouldn’t be,” she says. One of the most memorable experiences was a drunken one-night stand where she was non-consensually choked to the point she couldn’t breathe and had to “tap out” by touching the boy’s arm to communicate that it was too much. “For two minutes after I was recovering my breath.”
Experiences like Charlotte’s are becoming increasingly common. One UK study found that a third of women under the age of 40 had experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex. Recently, BBC Disclosure and BBC 5Live commissioned a survey of 2,049 UK men aged 18 to 39 to assess how so-called "rough sex" was being navigated, 71% of the men who took part said they had slapped, choked, gagged or spat on their partner during consensual sex.
Choking during sex (consensual and non-consensual) is particularly prevalent among young people, with another survey from 2021 showing that 58 per cent of female US college students had experienced it.
This issue became a hot topic again this month, sparking the government into probing how sex education is taught in schools today
And it starts horrifically young — one study found that 13 percent of sexually active girls ages 14 to 17 had already been choked.
This issue became a hot topic again this month, sparking the government into probing how sex education is taught in schools today. Conservative MP Miriam Cates claimed that pupils are being given "graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders" and being subjected to relationships and sex education classes that are "age inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate".
Others feel, though, there’s an urgent need to address the issue at a young age, even if that means talking about the idea of ‘degredation’ outside of a sexual context. Susie McDonald, who runs the independent organisation Tender, which works to prevent domestic and sexual violence in the lives of young people, says she has known of children as young as ten make references to sexual choking. “A year six class were undertaking a healthy relationship project, which is a two day program,” she explains, “we’re talking about the nuts and bolts of a healthy friendship — what do we like, what do we not like? A couple of kids talk about choking, so the workshop leader says ‘Well, any kind of physical violence isn’t acceptable in a friendship,’ and one of the boys said, ‘Well, what if she liked it?’”
The culprit for non-consensual choking’s astronomic rise? Porn is a huge driving force. Nowadays, it’s likely that a young person’s first encounter with sex will be via the medium of pornography: the British Board of Film Classification found that kids as young as seven are watching it and 50 per cent of children will definitely have seen porn by age 13. This year, a study of 14-18 year olds found that one in ten teens feel “addicted” to porn by this age. In 2021, sexual health specialist Dr Kate Howells made the headlines after she warned that porn consumption was changing the way children view sex. “We are seeing more young people think that sex needs to be violent," she said, "It’s often exaggerated and unrealistic and it could have a massive detrimental effect on young people if it isn’t addressed."
The culprit for non-consensual choking’s astronomic rise? Porn is a huge driving force
Choking is alarmingly commonplace in porn. Analysis of two major porn providers (Pornhub and Xvideos) recently found that 45 per cent of Pornhub scenes and 35 per cent of scenes on Xvideos included at least one act of physical aggression (such as choking). Women were the target of the aggression in 97 per cent of the scenes and their response to aggression was either “neutral or positive” and “rarely negative.”
But it wasn’t always this way — Sara Jay is a pornstar who has been working in the industry since 2001, has starred in hundreds of videos and worked with nearly every major porn provider out there. “I did it to explore my sexuality in a safe way,” she says on her early porn career, “and I knew I definitely didn’t mind being on camera.” Nowadays Sara is living in Miami and running her own adult production company, and after 22 years in the business she knows better than anyone else how porn tastes have changed.
“When I initially started, the first couple years, it was probably a little bit more mild,” she says, “but then very quickly once the internet got the ball rolling it started to escalate [...] You could feed everybody’s preferences.” Sara pinpoints this new phase of increased “degradation” as having taken off around the mid 2000s - right around the time that porn on the internet switched from pay-per-view porn sites to the user generated tube sites that we know today. Porn became the cheapest and most accessible it had ever been, and demand skyrocketed.
As supply rose to meet demand and all tastes were catered for, people became desensitised. Studies have shown that porn addiction develops much like drug addiction: once you watch it regularly, you don’t get as much dopamine as you initially did, so you search out more and more videos to get that hit. And, if psychologically predisposed, you seek out more aggressive videos too, for the added excitement. The problem is that, at a young age, and without proper education, people don’t know that they shouldn’t blindly copy what they see on screen.
This act is permeating popular culture, too. See Gen Z favourite Euphoria: in the very first episode a male character attempts to choke a female character (Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney), she stops him and he apologises for assuming she would want that. This careful portrayal on-screen, however, can’t be said for the rest of the series, though. Cassie is later choked again, also non-consensually, by male lead Nate Jacobs, who whispers degrading comments to her while he holds her throat. At the time of writing, the clip of that scene alone has over 437,000 views on YouTube, with one of the top comments reading “Why do I find this attractive tho.”
Journalist and author Rachel Thompson has been looking into this phenomenon for years, as part of research for her book Rough, which covers “grey area” sex. During her research, Rachel interviewed over 50 women and non-binary people about their sexual experiences. She recounts one case study who went home with a Bumble date, who unexpectedly choked her during sex. “One quote springs to mind: ‘I didn’t have the breath to tell him to stop.’”
It’s this danger zone that gets lost in its increasingly casual use. Choking, at its core, is strangulation — blocking the airway and potentially cutting off oxygen to someone’s brain. The risks during sex include everything from loss of consciousness and brain damage to rare but real cases, death.
So, the big question is: how do we find our way out of this hole? As always, the answer appears to be education. McDonald says addressing topics like choking in schools is quite the opposite of MP Miriam Cates’ claims: “[It’s] about us not bringing up these issues but responding to children and young people’s questions when they raise them. We’re always very clear about what’s safe and discuss it in an age appropriate language.” She says the important thing is “not to ‘shut down’ young people’s questions, but to emphasise the importance of consent, respecting boundaries and safety in all aspects of relationships.” In other words, this is not about teaching children about choking but, rather, being aware of those that seem to already know about it, making sure they do not hurt others.
Sadiq Khan agrees. The Mayor of London recently injected £1 million of funds into London schools to help them provide “anti-sexism classes”, in partnership with Tender. Teaching children to understand the impact of sexist and misogynistic behaviour, educating them on healthy relationships and how to identify and call out misogyny.
When announcing this new funding, Khan said it was about teaching a new generation of men about “becoming allies,” as well as “building positive and healthy relationships with the women and girls they see and interact with every day.”
With this framework, education may be able to put up a fight against porn for the first time in a long, long time.