I was reading a BDSM message board lately when a woman asked a question about how to find partners. She didn’t need a serious kinkster, she said, because she had what she called “a vanilla fetish.” Want to hazard a guess what her kink was? Erotic breath-control play. She liked being strangled during sex.

Oh, that’s scary. She thinks because it doesn’t require whips or black leather that what gets her off is entry-level. She couldn’t be more wrong, and it’s a mistake that may wind up costing her dearly.

Most types of BDSM aren’t life threatening. However, a few practices that come under the “fetish” umbrella can, if they go badly, result in serious injury or death. Electrical play, for example, can interfere with the action of the heart if not done properly. A botched rope-bondage suspension can lead to a nasty fall. However, with most types of what BDSM people call “edge play,” following strict rules of technique will greatly ameliorate the risk. So I follow those rules, and I do those kinds of play.

But breath play—limiting or denying someone the ability to breathe, either by suffocation or strangulation—is unquestionably the type of edge play with the highest potential for harm and the lowest controllable margin of safety. SM 101 author Jay Wiseman has done a great deal of research on breath play, and he states: “I know of no way whatsoever that either suffocation or strangulation can be done in a way that does not intrinsically put the recipient at risk of cardiac arrest… I know of no reliable way to determine when such a cardiac arrest has become imminent.” Read that again: Cutting off someone’s breathing can make them have a heart attack, and there is no way to really know if that’s just about to happen. Watching your partner closely, or telling them to signal you if they’re about to pass out, will not prevent a disaster.

Jay also notes, “If the recipient does arrest, the probability of resuscitating them, even with optimal CPR, is distinctly small.” In the U.S., there are at least 250 reported deaths each year from breath play gone wrong (according to The Medical Realities of Breath Control Play by Jay Wiseman), and I can find no statistic on any other type of kink-related fatalities that even approaches that figure. Even if you don’t have a heart attack, there are a lot of other ways to go wrong, ranging from rupturing blood vessels in someone’s eyes to cumulative brain damage.

Why would someone find it sexy to be unable to breathe? It varies. Some people acknowledge that the risk is part of the thrill. Others say that putting their lives into a partner’s hands is a sign of trust, and some feel that it’s the ultimate loss of control.

But pretty much everyone who does breath control mentions that it increases the intensity of their orgasm. That’s why some of those breath control deaths happen when guys (and a few women) strangle themselves while masturbating. They think they’ll be able to stop in time. But you can’t reliably know if you’re about to get into trouble, any more than a partner would. And passing out alone, with a noose around your neck? Well, I hope you checked the “organ donor” box on your driver’s license.

Given all these facts, I absolutely will not do breath play. I hear a certain amount of whining about that from the “But I really, really want you too, Mistress!” demographic. The Mistress says: Too bad. Dominants have limits, too, and that’s one of mine. For one thing, I don’t fancy being arrested for murder if the worst happens. I doubt I’d get much sympathy from a jury even if I convinced them it had been consensual. And I don’t want to have to live with the knowledge that I’ve killed someone, even accidentally.

I also think that I’ve got the talent and the skills to create intense experiences for people without putting them in such real and imminent danger of death. Yes, life is full of risks, and accidents can happen in other types of kinky scenes, too. But with some creativity and some experimentation, one can devise hot and satisfying ways of getting off without relying on oxygen deprivation. I’m much happier engaging in other, safer ways of taking someone’s breath away.


Kink Calendar



A workshop exploring communication, boundaries, language, proofs of love, and sexuality. Register at www.sanctuaryintime.net, 7–9:30 pm, $25.



Gear up before the LeatherSir/LeatherBoy contest. Wet Spot, men-only@wetspot.org or 270-9746 for more info, 10 pm-3 am, $15, male ID required.



Dinner and erotic entertainment. Some audience-participation. Little Red Studio, 328-4758, www.littleredstudioseattle.com, 6:30 pm, ticket prices vary, RSVP required.


Kinda like a Miss America contest—only with sexy leathermen. Timberline Spirits,1832 Yale Ave, door at 7 pm, contest at 8 pm, $10, www.northwestleathersir.com.


The New Horizons swing club welcomes new couples for Guest Night, where member couples can bring guests for only $80 per couple. Orientation required for all guests and new members, www.horizonsclub.com or newhorizon@seanet.com for info and reservations.



Explore cuddling, snuggling, and just plain touching in a clothes-on workshop. Wet Spot, cuddleparty.com or 679-1610, membership not required, 3:30–6:30 pm, $10.



Indulge in the distinctly American kink of paying to shop at the Seattle Gift Show. One-of-a-kind gift sensations available for your perusal for a mere $30 entrance fee. Don't forget your safeword. Washington State Convention & Trade Center, 9 am–6 pm, $30.