Life's a Gasp: The Importance of Responsible Breath Play
I've taught a lot of people intense BDSM techniques—how to use whips, needles, and electricity, how to cut with blades, and how to brand with red-hot metal. So when I attended Lee Harrington's Take My Breath Away class recently, I was curious about how he would teach the most controversial activity in BDSM: breath control.
Regardless of one's views on erotic breath play, it's a fact that if you cut off oxygen or blood flow to the brain for too long, people die. So if you sell tickets to a breath-play class—one advertised to the general public, with no previous training required—you have a responsibility to teach attendees all the important information about how to avoid that. Harrington gave some good demonstrations of no-/low-risk breath play: verbally commanding your partner when to breathe, using tantric breathing techniques, rebreathing while kissing, wearing gas masks, or placing a hand over someone's mouth.
But I was disturbed that Harrington also taught us techniques for strangling and plastic-bag suffocation. These are not beginner-friendly activities, to say the least. There's no way to do strangling or suffocation that's completely safe, and there's no surefire way to know if it's about to go fatally wrong—until it does. Especially for solo practitioners, the risk is enormous.
I've heard breath-play aficionados—who call themselves gaspers—say, "People are going to do strangling/suffocation anyway—we might as well teach it." That's utterly fallacious reasoning. Yes, people do risky things. But the goal of BDSM education is teaching safer techniques—or at least thoroughly educating people in risk assessment. An instructor shrugging and saying "It's dangerous—you have to choose your priorities" is inadequate in a beginner-accessible class. It's also inappropriate to say, with a mischievous smile, "I'm going to do a really hot demonstration, but I'm not telling you to do this—it's stupid and dangerous." If it's beyond our skill level, or it's a bad idea, then don't demonstrate it to us.
Some gaspers respond to such cautions by saying: "It would take too long to cover all the medical data in depth." Precisely my point: No-/low-risk breath-play techniques can be taught quickly to a general audience. But strangling and suffocation cannot, and they should not be taught in a brief, stand-alone class.
I don't know how you'd structure an advanced breath-play class—the closest comparison I can think of is martial-arts school or free-diving classes. But I know if you can't teach a topic properly, then you shouldn't teach it, period. It's irresponsible for an individual—particularly one with no formal training—to take a group of also-untrained people, give them a two-hour talk that's long on entertainment and short on science, and let them think they've been educated in how to safely strangle/suffocate their partners or themselves. This isn't like teaching spanking; the stakes are too high to let charm and humor substitute for hard information. To do so is setting the stage for tragedy.