Breath play – restricting your own or your partner’s breathing for the purposes of sexual arousal or as a kinky game – has an enduring allure. The idea of giving someone control over your breath, your literal life-force, seems to hit very specific buttons for people who are into power play and kink. Some people even say that having their breath restricted makes their orgasms more intense.
Worryingly, choking during sex (one of the most common forms of breath play) has become normalized. Many women, and some men, report being choked without explicit consent. I hope I don’t need to tell you that this is never okay!
Breath play is kinky edge play in the most extreme sense of the word. One of the questions I regularly get asked as a kink educator is, “Can breath play ever be safe?”
The very short answer is no.
Breath play is one of the riskiest kink activities you can do.
People have died doing breath play. I heard a particularly harrowing story about someone who accidentally killed his partner during a breath play scene gone wrong, left a note with her body to explain, and then killed himself. This is an extreme case, yes, but it’s not isolated. People die every single year, both from autoerotic asphyxiation (doing breath play by yourself, most commonly by tightening something around the throat) and from partnered scenes. It only takes a second for something to go wrong, and the consequences can be deadly.
Breath play simply isn’t worth it. If you’re going to do it, I can’t stop you, but it is my job to make you aware of the reality of the risks you are taking.
What exactly are the risks?
Disclaimer: I am not a trained medical professional.
The biggest risk when you play around with someone’s breathing is cardiac arrest, defined as “sudden loss of blood flow resulting from the failure of the heart to pump effectively.” The survival rate from an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is less than 12%, and receiving CPR (even if it’s performed perfectly) doesn’t increase your survival chances by much.
It is almost impossible to predict when a cardiac arrest is imminent, even if you’re medically trained. This means that by the time you realize something is wrong, it’s very likely already too late.
Lack of Oxygen
In addition to the risk of cardiac arrest, depriving the body of oxygen is terrible for the brain. Evidence suggests that cumulative brain damage can occur over time. So you may do breath play for years and think everything is fine, without realizing the very real and serious damage that slowly occurs in your brain.
Other potential dangers, according to Jay Wiseman, an expert on the reality of breath play, include: “rupture of the windpipe, fracture of the larynx, damage to the blood vessels in the neck, dislodging a fatty plaque in a neck artery which then travels to the brain and causes a stroke, damage to the cervical spine, seizures, airway obstruction by the tongue. Additionally, there are documented cases in which the recipient appeared to fully recover but was found dead several hours later.”
But there must be safer ways to do it?
There is no way to be safe in breath play. There is “dangerous” and there is “slightly less dangerous.” Anyone who tells you they can do it safely is either lying or misinformed.
The somewhat less dangerous methods include ordering your partner to hold their breath without actually restricting it physically. Even this, though, can have unintentional side effects.
The most dangerous forms of breath play include wrapping something around someone’s throat (such as a belt, rope or hand,) pressing on the outside of the throat, or suffocation (placing a bag or similar over someone’s head to restrict the flow of oxygen.)
What can you do instead?
The only advice I can give you in good conscience is “Please just don’t do it.” There are so many other ways to experiment with power play: hair pulling, impact play (as long as you learn about safe areas of the body to hit), eye contact restrictions, bondage, handcuffs, and much more.
You can even play with threatening to choke someone or cut off their breathing, without ever actually doing it. Smothering (sitting on someone’s face) can be a form of breath play, but it’s totally possible to sit over someone’s face without actually cutting off their air flow. This can be a fun simulation without all the associated dangers.
BDSM inherently carries some risks. That’s why many of us define our kinky practices as RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink). We acknowledge there’s no such thing as completely safe. But all risks are not created equal, and some just aren’t worth it.