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The dangers of breath play


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The actor David Carradine, who rose to fame as Grasshopper in the 1970's television show Kung Fu, was found hanging naked in a closet in a Thai hotel room yesterday with a curtain cord around his neck and genitals. The police in Thailand, where he was making a movie called Stretch, originally believed it to be a suicide. But the investigation quickly ruled out suicide and concluded that Carradine died of auto-erotic sex that went bad.

Erotic asphyxiation, also referred to as "scarfing" or "breath control," refers to intentionally cutting off oxygen to the brain for sexual arousal. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as hanging, suffocation with a plastic bag, self strangulation, or breathing solvents. There have also been a number of more sophisticated devices that have been created to achieve the same effect, such as modified gas masks. Estimates are that between 500 and 1,000 deaths per year in the United States are due to autoerotic asphyxia. This is likely to be a very conservative estimate as many cases aren't reported or are mislabeled as suicides.

While the vast majority of deaths by hanging or suffocation have been adults, more and more children and teens are participating in purposeful asphyxiation. The fainting game, also commonly known as the choking or the pass out game, is a loose term for intentional deprivation of oxygen to the brain for a period of time to induce either a partial or complete loss of consciousness. This is usually done in one of two ways: strangulation and self-induced hypocapnia.

Hypocapnia is the practice of hyperventilation (intentional fast overbreathing), until symptoms of tingling, light-headedness or dizziness are felt, followed by a breath-hold. This is usually enough to cause a blackout, but many kids try to enhance the effect by increasing the air pressure their lungs by holding the breath "hard," that is trying to force exhalation while holding their breath. One study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that at least 82 youths between the age of 6 and 19 have died since 1995 as a result of the game.

As I See It…

While I totally get that part of human nature is seek intense and novel experiences, this is one that I encourage people to avoid. The problem is that unlike substances like marijuana or alcohol which typically have to be used intensely for an extended period of time before they cause significant long-term damage, asphyxia can, and often does, permanently damage the central nervous system within seconds.

The tragic thing about the people who have died from "breath play"—adults and kids alike—is that they didn't intend to kill themselves. In fact, they have usually devised some sort of fail-safe mechanism to stop the asphyxiation once they have either climaxed or lost consciousness. But the fail-safe often fails and tragic consequences follow. The deceased are often found by family members or friends who were completely unaware of their activities and suddenly come home to find dad hanging naked in the garage or in a closet.

Jay Wiseman, the author of S&M 101: A Realistic Introduction who is regarded as an authority on erotic asphyxiation in the S&M community says that "It's always life-threatening to a greater or lesser degree." Most people don't realize that there are certain points on the neck that when pressed, cause a sudden unconsciousness and the person is then completely unable to protect themselves from strangulation.

Please do not try this at home! If you care for your friends and you believe that someone you know is experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation or the fainting game, encourage them to talk with a counselor or sex therapist who can explain how dangerous this really is and to suggest safer methods of experiencing great sex.

For more info: The Medical Realities of Breath Control Play


  • Prof Murphy 5 years ago

    This was how Michael Hutchens, the lead singer of the band INXS, died as well. What a shame. Especially since there are SO many ways to engage in erotic edgeplay safely, and so many organizations who offer safety workshops and talks about being safe, sane and consensual in this sort of play.

  • Natalie 5 years ago

    Thank you for this article! Everyone's been talking about it, but no one seems to really know about the details behind autoerotic asphyxiation. People mainly seem to wonder HOW a person could do that, and end the conversation in the "for shame" looks... It gets old.