Uzi Orji was dealing with a man for the first time when she suddenly felt his hand grip her neck.
We weren’t really having sex yet — we were kissing,” said Orji, 24. “I was surprised, but I didn’t really say anything because I thought I was just being sensitive or dramatic.”
The couple dated for a few weeks after the relationship, and Orji said he strangled her “several times, on different occasions.” She said she was one of three times she was choked by a partner without any prior conversation about it, describing it as “a bit scary.”
After a tweet about her negative experience with choking, Orji received dozens of responses reflecting her point of view.
Someone said, “It happens a lot.”
Another said, “The number of men who put their hands on my neck without asking is alarming.”
The response to Orji’s tweet was not surprising given some recent research. In a 2021 survey conducted at a large public university in the United States, one in three university respondents aged 18 to 24 said they had choked the last time they had sex.
The study was led by Debbie Herbenick, professor and director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. Also in the survey, 58% of female college students said they had experienced suffocation by a partner before – with nearly 65% of that group saying they experienced it during their first sexual encounter or kiss.
“You don’t see a lot of people in their forties and up who say they choked during sex, or even engaged in certain types of violent sex that are more common among young people today,”
Her research found that suffocation is too prevalent among Generation Z to be seen as a cause for concern, even when partners have not discussed it beforehand.
“A lot of the young people we interviewed don’t see suffocation as a big deal,” Herbnik said.
In interviews, many Gen Zers have told her that it has become so prevalent sexual behavior that they don’t have conversations about it, in the same way that communication partners don’t discuss oral or vaginal sex beforehand.
But the dangers of suffocation are very real: it can lead to death or serious injury when done incorrectly or with excessive force. For victims of domestic violence, it could be the biggest predictor of abuse turning fatal, an analysis of data collected by the Beacon of Hope Crisis Center found, the organization’s executive director told an NBC affiliate.
“Doctors and anyone who works in sex education will tell you there is no safe breathing game,” said Antonia Hall, a psychologist, sex coach, and author. “Accidents happen even with consensual suffocation.”
Generation Z’s reputation for careful, consent-centered sex doesn’t seem to apply to suffocation
Generation Z’s relationship to sex is often portrayed as more cautious and self-aware than its predecessors.
Growing up during the #MeToo movement and with unprecedented access to sexual health information online, Gen Z, whose members are between 10 and 25 years old, is often portrayed in the media as changing attitudes about sex to make it more progressive, consensual, and safe.
Many people delay sex altogether. In a 2019 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38% of high school students reported having sex, down from 46% in 2009 and 54% in 1991.
To outside observers, this may make it all the more shocking that non-consensual asphyxia is so common among this generally cautious group.
“Suffocation can create an immediate physiological and psychological response in the body because someone suddenly grabs your throat,” Hall said. “This will create a fight-or-flight nervous system response.”
Oftentimes, that’s part of the appeal.
“That physiological response is what people seek, isn’t it? That’s exciting, the risk of your heart racing,” Hall said.
In one of Herbenik’s studies of choking, one participant described choking as “scary, but rather exciting.”
“I think I could have looked at making accusations.”
Madeline Parks, 22, was choked multiple times. On one occasion, she said, a new partner jumped up and wrapped a towel around her neck after taking a hot shower, causing her to lose consciousness briefly. (Parks said he caught her and made sure she was okay — an incident she described as “scaring for both of us.”)
Another time, there was a young man Parks was making using a chain necklace she was wearing as a “tool” to strangle her, she said—something he hadn’t discussed before.
“It wasn’t very painful,” said Parks, who remained friendly with both partners afterward, while the choking was inconsequential.
Because she had previously had positive experiences with consensual choking, Parks told the two men after the accident, “You kind of got lucky in this situation because I’m very comfortable with that kind of thing.”
“I think I could theoretically have brought charges,” she said.
Garrett Bemiller, 25, is a gay guy who usually looks for hookups on the weird dating app Grindr, where it’s only natural for people to identify their kinks — including suffocation.
“So you have to kind of go through with that and make sure you agree,” he said. “But then there are also times when you’re just hooking up, and it’s like, uh, choking.”
Bemiler said that when he gave his partners feedback after choking, he sometimes tried to do it as a joke “to try not to make it embarrassing.”
“I tend to make it more cool,” he said. I’m like, ‘You know it’s supposed to be a sexy thing, not a serial killer thing? “
According to Hall, some people may react casually or even ignore non-consensual suffocation out of a natural tendency to smooth things out, especially with first-time relationships.
“I think we’re giving in,” she said. “I think we’re worried about shaking the boat and spoiling the moment.”
I likened this to other bedroom conversations that many people elude but need, such as those about STD testing and using protection.
The problem is that suffocation involves serious psychological risks as well as physical risks.
“Holding someone’s throat is a powerful move,” Hall said. “If someone grabs your neck without your consent, it can feel like a traumatic experience — it can bring up people’s past experiences.”
Memes, TikTok posts, and por* often feature suffocation
While violent sex is nothing new in the world of por*, suffocation plays out a lot on social media. In interviews with choking Gen Z members, many sparked the ubiquitous spread of choking memes on platforms like TikTok and Twitter.
“It’s so interesting that clients have this fantasy because they picked it up from por*, and it just became something they feel desirable,” Hall said. “Now it is just a new standard.”
Among the more popular, Parks said, is the “choke me daddy” banter, which she described as: “This guy’s really sexy. Like, they can do whatever they want to you.”
“People are more open and talk about what they like,” Bemiller said. “They just scrolled through Twitter, and they instantly tweeted a sexy guy saying, ‘Yeah, my dad choked me.
But por*ography and memes don’t necessarily teach people how to safely strangle a partner, even if they do it consensually.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone talk about the safety aspect of social media,” Bemiller said.
“I saw, for example, a tweet recently that said you’re not supposed to push too hard,” Orji said. “But they didn’t say specifically where you’re supposed to put your fingers or anything. They just said it’s not supposed to hurt the person.”
In a study Herbenick conducted with 45 young adults, she said no one knew anything about safety from choking, except for “one person who experienced neck pain from choking and decided to find out more about it.”
Studies show that consent can be unclear or easy to misinterpret, especially in heterosexual relationships
When it comes to communicating about suffocation, Parks and Orji said their male partners often took the liberty after hearing them discuss it outside the bedroom.
After tweeting about choking in general — without indicating that she likes it — Orji said she was choked on by one of her mutual Twitter followers the next time they saw each other. While her partner didn’t tell her it was because of the tweet, she suspected it.
Parks said she has told her partners during various conversations that she likes to suffocate but added that there have been times at the moment when she is not asked to consent.
Parks, Beamler, and Orji were suffocated by only male partners.
“I think it’s about rape culture,” Orji said. “Like, guys are assuming something is OK because a lot of people have been talking about it.”
It was no accident, Herbenick said. Studies have found that men can view the same sexual act differently than a partner does.
In one study, when describing “rough sex,” gender compatible women and transgender participants were more likely to “write about consent, the importance of communication, or frankly, some kind of vanilla stuff,” Herbenik said.
Gender-matched men wrote about “using hot wax or playing with knives, or things that are a little further from the coarse spectrum.”
Herbenick said that in surveys and interviews, most people described their experiences with choking as consensual. When pressed for more details, she added, “we don’t see a lot of communication – or at least verbal communication.”
“I think that while some people really like violent sex and enjoy exploration and feel empowered, some people don’t, but because it becomes so natural and so general, some people don’t know how to opt out of it,” Herbenick said.
Bemiler said he tried to turn partners away before entering a relationship by combing through their social media — “anyone who doesn’t have pictures with their friends or looks like they’re aloof is probably a little graphic,” he said — and asking questions.
“There are some people out there who are just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I always like to be, and leave it at that,’ he said.”
Online conversations about throttling can be positive if done right
While the internet may have spread suffocation without permission, it has also created a culture in which it is normal to talk openly about sexual boundaries, including post-truth.
In a 2018 Pew survey of 13-17-year-olds — the group nearing or in their college years — 31% said social media had a mostly positive effect on people their age, while 45% said it was not. It has a positive or negative effect.
In interviews, Herbenick and Gen Zers have said that the Internet can be as helpful in discussions about sex and consent as it is harmful.
Even as the suffocating memes went viral, Herbenick said, “there were some pretty relevant conversations on sites like Twitter and Reddit, with people sharing their experiences and their views on these practices.”
Non-sensory choking is discussed on popular subreddits like r/sex, r/TwoXChromosomes, and r/TrueOffMyChest, with people who identify themselves as experienced BDSM practitioners encouraging those with concerns to learn more about the safety practices in place in this community.
“Vanilla people tend not to master the language of consent the way we weirdos do,” said a senior commenter on one of the r/sex posts. “I will immediately and permanently end any encounter/relationship in which someone has attempted to strangle me without asking first, because that is a hard limit. Never apologize for your boundaries.”
While the role of social media in Gen Z’s sexuality is “definitely a double-edged sword,” Bemiller said, “I think it’s good to have an open dialogue about the things that people try to enjoy.”
This frankness, he added, makes sex “safer than it has been for a really long time.” “Everyone shares their experiences and creates a space where those who don’t follow approval or make people feel uncomfortable are called upon.”