Control Tower

Hold It! Practice Safe Breath Play


I read that Lee has taken your constructive criticism to heart and will not be doing any more of this particular class for a general audience.

I was able to attend his classes on role-playing and punching/kicking which were educational and entertaining. Thank you for your feedback, which I hope will help prevent some from becoming complacent and venture into dangerous arenas without the proper training.
Here's the thing that really freaks me out about breath play: it probably causes cumulative brain damage. Even if a session of breath play goes "right" -- that is, it doesn't end with anybody being carted off to the hospital or the morgue -- odds are good that the "gasper's" brain is irreversibly worse for the wear. I don't care how toe-curlingly, star-seeingly awesome the orgasm is: if it kills brain cells, it's not worth the price of admission.
After reading both this article and your blog on this topic, I have one criticism. I fail to see how being trained in martial arts will teach someone to strangle someone with a plastic bag safely. Or, as safely as possible. But if they can't get the training from kink educators, and they can't get it from martial arts training, where will they get that education? Porn?
Also, a question... You state that you are not a fan breath play. Do you think that your opinion on whether or not it should be taught would be different if you WERE a fan? I have noticed that (like many things in life) people that enjoy practicing it tend to defend it, while people that don't enjoy it will be much more likely to attack it.
Where did MM say she's not a breathplay fan? Also I think plasticbagging would relate more to diving school than judo training.
On her blog she says she's not an *edgeplay* fan. Breathplay does not equal edgeplay.
PD, I think you didn't quite grasp the martial arts reference: MM stated that the closest comparison she could think of would be to "STRUCTURE" an advanced breath-play class similar to martial arts training--as in, very in depth, very controlled and in baby steps over a long period of time. No one becomes a black belt after just one class!
I guess my only dispute, Matisse, is the idea that only "Master" martial artists use choke holds in highly supervised conditions with medical personnel all around. I know that I was trained by the USMC in choking someone out and being choked out along with about 40 other recruits in about 45 minutes one afternoon in between "how to butt stroke" and "how to break someone's neck". That was, admittedly, over 20 years ago, so perhaps they have changed the program - but it definitely wouldn't qualify as "advanced" training, and if it had a high incidence of injury or death, I don't imagine it would have been a part of the curriculum.

More to the point, I have read Jay's work thoroughly, as well as the dissenting opinions, which come from people with credentials at least as impressive, if not moreso. The biggest ones come from the MMA coaches, competitors, and enthusiasts, who point out that in the entire history of the sport, no one has ever died. Ever. And in every case where someone has died in "play" there are other mitigating factors.

Personally, I don't teach breath play, even in my grappling and rough body play classes. However, there are more sides to this than just Jay's, and the "medical research" is flawed at best. I respect your decision, and Lee's, but I wish that the argument was more than just quoting Jay. The issue is broader than that.
I actually agree with you on this one. I've been helping run a college kink group for about 8 years (I now for for the college, and the students of the club have welcomed my involvement). I and most of the other members of the club have put into place some pretty strong rules about a list of things that we DON'T demo, because most students show up once or twice every now and then, and our demos tend to run short.

The list absolutely includes breathe-play, and also includes single tail, blindfolds or gags at public play events, suspension, skin breakage, any electrical play that is not a violet wand, needles(mostly because we don't have anyone with that skill set), non-consent role-play at public parties, and bare genital contact at public events.

While this list seems really restricting, it works for us, and has allowed us to make our events accessible to students, and supported by the administration: not a small feat.

Will i refuse to answer a question about one of the techniques I listed? Absolutely not: in fact I often end up talking about thinks like non-consent role play and sensation deprivation. But I don't demo them in public spaces, for the student's safety and mine.

Well said, thanks for this column. BDSM need not be dangerous and teaching dangerous things in an inherently incomplete way is asking for trouble. Sometimes things that are hot can't be done in a responsible way. It's not worth it to risk a partners safety or life just because something happens to turn you on. It's about striking a balance and we all have our own lines, but it might be a case where certain lines just ought not be something we encourage people to cross.

We are all entitled to our sexuality and I think kink is totally healthy, but we need to look in our collective mirror and consider if certain high risk behaviors are still sane or capable of being done in a way that mitigates risk. This is to a degree inherently subjective, but we need to consider the impact on more then ourselves when making choices of how we play. Our families, partners, communities and friends all have a legitimate stake in our decisions.
OK Let's take another "edgy" behaviour -- that of electrical play. It can be dangerous if the practitioner doesn't know how to use electricity safely, and watching a performance of electrical play does not make one an expert. Is it OK to use electricity above the waist -- or not? Is it OK to use 110V toys with stepdown transformers or just battery operated equipment? There is a lot of stuff to know about ( a LOT about ) before one should hook his/her "victim" up to the battery charging clamps! I agree with MM that no matter what the behaviour, a practitioner needs to be careful how it is presented in seminars or demonstrations.
Graydancer - you don't remember me, although I've met you briefly at a conference. I think you're misinterpreting: Matisse isn't saying it can't be taught, she's saying it takes time to learn it, which I agree with. I doubt the MMA people would say what they do can be learned in an hour or two. As far as your military experience, using possibly-lethal force on an enemy solider or a criminal (if you're MP) is one thing. Less emphasis on making sure you don't REALLY hurt someone there, so sure, less training needed. A different story in a sporting event - different in sex too, obviously.
LidaRose, in what universe, exactly, is the intense of breathplay Matisse is discussing *not* edgeplay?

And Matisse makes it fairly clear that's what's she's talking about on her blog: "Doing a scene like that - one where, if things go wrong, someone dies on the spot - is called edgeplay, and I admit openly it’s not my kink."

Hmmm...I have to say I'm with the gaspers on this one. I started playing with strangulation at a rather young age. I'm not talking about to the point of passing out, just the time period during which you might hold your breath under water in the pool. Waiting until that point when you try to gasp for breath but can't and then letting go. Never longer than 30 seconds. I got into this before I got into anything else kinky (other than biting). I didn't realize at the time it was dangerous whatsoever and think that having some education on it, however brief, would be beneficial even in a beginner's forum.
@ Graydancer:

I know that I was trained by the USMC in choking someone out and being choked out along with about 40 other recruits in about 45 minutes one afternoon in between "how to butt stroke" and "how to break someone's neck".

If you were learning how to choke people into unconsciousness in the same training session where you were learning how to break people's necks, I'm guessing that being absolutely certain the victim wouldn't sustain any lasting damage wasn't high on the priority list.

I honestly don't understand the people who insist that suffocation/strangulation can be done safely. Anybody with the most elementary understanding of the human brain can tell you that neurons will start dying after one to two minutes of oxygen deprivation -- and after three or four minutes, you're looking at massive, irreversible brain damage.

I think you missed the part where I mentioned that we performed the choke hold, to the point of unconsciousness, on each other. Right there. Then we got up and learned to do other things that no, we did not use on each other. This was actually one of the few NON-lethal techniques taught.

To use your own logic, if they had us doing it on each other, it must have been considered something that would not cause any lasting damage.

Incidentally, I don't know anyone who talks about doing breath play for "one to two minutes" much less three to four. That's part of my problem with this argument - people stop talking about the same thing.
@ Graydancer:

Sorry; it wasn't clear to me from your initial comment that you actually practiced those techniques on each other. Still, call me cynical, but I'm not convinced that the safety and well-being of soldiers -- especially new recruits -- is the US military's highest priority. I have a friend who broke his arm during basic training, and went six days without receiving medical treatment; until it became undeniably clear that there was something really wrong, he was basically told to "suck it up." Of course, I have no idea how representative this anecdote is, but I find it telling.

Moreover, your own experience hardly rules out the possibility of subtle and/or cumulative damage. Sure, you and your fellow trainees all got up and got right back to learning how to break people's necks, which is swell. But how many of you were minus a few functioning brain cells at the end of the whole thing? And how many of you would have sustained quantifiable cognitive impairment if you'd been choked into unconsciousness every month or so over a period of several years?

I freely admit that, despite being a fairly kinky person, I have no direct experience with breath play, even as a spectator; everything I know about it, I've read on the internet. So, while I bow to your superior expertise, I'm a little surprised to hear you say that nobody attempts to do breath play in the one-to-two minute range. Really? I mean, I'm glad to hear it, but I'm also a little dubious.

Also, on the subject of dissenting opinions . . . the testimony of MMA practitioners is all well and good, but are there any medical practitioners who have weighed in on the pro-strangulation/suffocation side of the debate? If there are, I'm not aware of them.
I have to say, I think the breath play fuss is way overblown. I think that a lot of kinksters self-importantly overblow safety concerns to nose into others' business, and it causes them to be ignored by the general kinky public.

I have done brazilian jujitsu at several training schools, where people will be choked constantly, sometimes to the point of being passed out. And yes, you can start choking/being choked within 2 hours. It's not rocket science. Nope, nobody has ever died. Nope, nobody has ever been to the emergency room. That said, be aware that a blood choke can cause unconsciousness in 10 seconds and death quickly, unlike an air choke.

Yeah, man, I know I hate it when nosy neurologist-sorts tell me my brain needs oxygen. Buncha uptight killjoys.
@17 Yeah, seriously man. There's like totally nothing to this shit, right? You just have to be COOL enough to just - not breathe. That's what happened to David Carradine and Michael Hutchence, they stopped being cool, so BAM! Dead.
Echizen Kurage,

This is part of why I have problems with the whole argument. People listen to one side, and don't bother to check out another. So, to quote one of my MMA friends many discussions on the subject:

"A study published in the Dec 1991 issue of the Journal of Medical Physical Fitness entitled “Judo and choking: EEG and regional cerebral blood flow findings.” The researchers concluded “there is no evidence of permanent CNS functional changes due to judo practice and choking.” [2]In another study published in the Dec 1998 Italian Journal of Neurological Science researchers concluded “In fact, while professional boxers may show brain functional impairment in comparison to normal subjects, judoka do not.”

You can read his whole entry about the subject if you choose to register and log in to the kinky community on FetLife, via….

Note: I'm not necessarily saying that it's wrong that it "kills brain cells." I'm saying that using that as an argument is specious, because LOTS of things kill brain cells. A recent study shows that jet lag may permanently impair brain function (via Are you going to stop traveling outside your timezone?

I know where I stand in terms of breath play, and I would not presume to dictate that stance to others. I just wish people would stop with the hyperbole - like Darwin in Action. "Two people died doing breath play in ways that breath play enthusiasts say NEVER to do it! Therefore breathplay is WRONG!"

Guys, she isn't saying the techniques of martial arts or free-diving classes are what need to be taught, she's saying that breathplay classes should emulate that structure; i.e. free-diving classes don't have students trying to dive a hundred feet down on their first day, and martial arts classes don't have students breaking out the wakizashi on each other in the first week.
I'm frankly surprised to see a guy who teaches suspension bondage arguing AGAINST thorough education in breathplay. Suspension is risky if done wrong. Not usually fatal, but certainly there is risk of injury. If you think people need advanced classes in rope, why wouldn't they need them in breathplay?
Yes, advanced classes are needed. Quick demos with no preparation and no hands-on component are what is being discussed about here. You don't get to learn suspension bondage from Monk unless you're in a multi-day, intensive, small class with lots of practice and supervision.
That soldiers and martial artists are ok with being choked is great, but how much of the kinky community is in that good condition? It could be a factor in the test results- perhaps people who are in good condition can deal with less oxygen better than the the more typical moderate to chubby kinkster.
I think advocating caution is not an extreme view, and not giving people the idea that this is easy-peasy is just sensible.
@ Graydancer:

Thanks for the links. (Conveniently enough, I already had a FetLife account.) However, I remain unconvinced, for a couple of reasons:

Rodriguez et al. performed cranial blood-flow measurements and EEGs on ten judo practitioners. Ten. As statistically significant sample sizes go, that's kind of borderline. (Yes, I understand the difficulty of performing in-depth neurological assessments on a large number of subjects, but the fact remains: a study of ten judoka is not exactly comprehensive.) One finds a rather less sanguine assessment of the neurological effects of choking other studies, such as "Judo as a possible cause of anoxic brain damage" (Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness Vol. 19, No. 6 [Dec 31 1991], 627-8) and "Spectral analysis of electroencephalography changes after choking in judo" (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Vol. 30, No. 19 [Sept 30 1998], 1356-62). (Granted, both of these studies were based on very small samples, and the latter only looks at short term effects. There doesn't seem to be an overabundance of research on the subject.)

Now, you may think that I am unfairly shifting the burden of proof, but I think in this case, the burden of proof really does rest with the defenders of breath play. “Cerebral oxygen deprivation = bad” is a pretty well-established medical principle. Even Rodriguez et al. acknowledge that most doctors would advise against activities -- including being on the receiving end of a judo chokehold -- that induce “repeated, sudden, and brief brain dysfunction”: “The majority of physicians, especially neurologists and neurosurgeons, are prone to believe that agonistic activities which imply repeated brain injuries of any type should be forbidden.”

As for your statement that “LOTS of things kill brain cells” . . . sadly, this is entirely true, but as an argument in favor of breath play, it is also entirely unconvincing. People justify any number of vices by reasoning that “LOTS of things” are bad for them, so they might as well just give up and do whatever. I have known at least three heavy smokers who liked to point out that “everything causes cancer.” This kind of hedonistic nihilism is no substitute for an actual risk/benefit analysis.

I freely admit that the short- and long-term dangers associated with breath play are no higher than those associated with many recreational activities and other lifestyle choices. However, the risks are nonetheless real, and in my opinion, they outweigh the benefits by a wide margin. Granted, breath play is very much Not My Kink; if it were, I might judge it somewhat more generously. But I definitely have had fantasies that I have refrained from acting on, because the potential consequences outweighed the potential gratification – and I think that even if breath play were my kink, I would choose to abstain for safety reasons.

Regarding your response to Darwin in Action . . . First, it seems to me that your paraphrase of his/her comment is -- dare I say it -- hyperbolic. Nowhere does s/he make the blanket assertion that “breath play is WRONG!”; s/he simply pokes fun at IwinIwin's statement that breath play is “not rocket science” and safety concerns about it are “overblown.” (Franky, I think this comment deserves all the mockery it gets.)

Second, and more importantly, you are committing a basic logical fallacy when you dismiss the examples of Carradine and Hutchence as irrelevant to the discussion of “real” breath play. If Carradine and Hutchence (and the estimated 500 – 1,000 Americans who die every year from erotic/autoerotic asphyxiation) were not “breath play enthusiasts,” then what, pray tell, were they? Simply claiming that everyone who dies of erotic/autoerotic asphyxiation was “doing it wrong,” and therefore does not count, is a cheap rhetorical trick. I could just as easily argue that there has never been a genuine incidence of automotive fatality, because all known automotive fatalities have involved an element of human error. To err is human, however, and any honest risk analysis must take the possibility of error into account.
@23 Monk doesn't teach suspension bondage - Max does. And you're right - the key word here is "advanced".
Another brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner here, to echo what Graydancer and 17 said. Mata Leao, the rear naked choke, is a *basic* technique. They teach it to you in class 1. The precautions are very simple -- you let the guy go as soon as he taps or passes out. Usually, he will choose to tap, but passing out happens, too. "Seeing stars" from a choke happens almost every other class (or maybe that's just me :-)).

Anyway, the RNC is considered the safest submission there is. As to brain cells... first, what Graydancer said, and second: does one time of "seeing stars" kill more brain cells than a tequila shot? Just wondering.

Bravo! Those defending a dangerous practice always excuse the casualties by saying that they don't count for some reason. In this case, because the victims were doing it wrong. But that's exactly the point! Uneducated people out there are more likely to do it wrong. And that's why it shouldn't be taught in a beginner class where attendees may not understand the dangers of this practice, and how to avoid them.

A chokehold may be a basic MA technique. But as MM says, even a basic martial arts class isn't just sitting on a chair listening to someone talk about it for an hour or two and then you go home and do it alone. I think people do get to pick their risks, because yeah, everything has a downside. But don't jump right in the deep end if you've never been swimming before. That's common sense.
I attended the class in question, and remember looking around the room, recognizing just about everyone in attendance, and thinking that I was quite likely the least 'edgy' person in the room.

I think in practice, the class was composed of people who did have some background in understanding risk, and were paying attention to the cautions and warnings presented. At the same time, that attendance was by the luck of who wanted to attend, and I can see MM's point about how there can be higher risk presenting the information to someone without the background.

The question is, how do you spread the information that was covered in the class that does help in figuring out safer and more powerful play that involves breath? Do you dial down the far edge of where you go? Do you limit the class to people with some documented background?

I give Lee a lot of respect for being willing to think about the criticism, and the risks and framing of the class.
Just when I think Matisse has finally written something I completely agree with, she fucks it up by comparing breath play to suspension. Suspension by the wrists CAN be done safely, and I do it all the time. WITH PROPER SUSPENSION CUFFS, of course. And the usual precautions of checking for numbness, things turning purple. Compared to all the truly risky things Matisse does such as putting holes in people, burning them with hot irons, and sticking stuff in guy's cocks, properly done suspension is about a 4 on the danger scale. It is true that it's NEVER safe to hang someone by the wrists with rope, but she should have made that distinction. No one without pre-existing shoulder or wrist conditions is going to be permanently damaged by being strung up (in proper cuffs) for five minutes or so (most will break before even 5 minutes are up, but that's why it's called TORTURE!)
Cumulative brain damage is bad, a non-avoidable danger of sudden cardiac arrest is worse.…
Oy. I'm sympathetic to anyone who cares about safety. But anyone who ignores the 100 plus years of safe strangulation in judo, plus the essentially perfect safety seen in mma and bjj as well, just isn't entering this discussion honestly. There aren't even urban legends of people dying from chokes in bjj class (or bjj'ers dying or mistakenly killing others OUT of class for that matter).

It's as safe, if not safer, as a wide range of "normal" athletic or sexual activities people undertake without obsessing over the possibility that by some freak occurrence they could die. So, fine. Perhaps the ideal thing to do isn't to teach chokes that are literally bjj school day one techniques to random people at kink conventions and then let them loose. Whether it's really important or not, it's fair to say that the fact that grapplers typically first learn chokes while surrounded by more experienced people who might spot problems is a confounding variable. So instead of teaching one off classes, let's just send people to their local bjj school for a few months, then stop obsessing if they want to throw some chokes into their play.

Also, Jay Wiseman isn't actually an authority in this area. He's not a doctor, he's not a practicing lawyer (for whatever that would be worth), he's not a skilled martial artist, and he's definitely not interested in arriving at the truth. He's got a cushy set up cashing in on his kink cred to look like an authority on whatever topic he chooses, and he won't let a little thing like truth pry him off that perch.
Could you point us to any resources to better equip us if we're interested in more intense breath play? Great article.. Thanks!
There is no safe BDSM. Everything we do poses risk and virtually no kink doesn't have a remote risk of death if it's not handled safely. Most BDSM has long term effects. You can't take a beating 3 nights a week without long term serious damage to your skin and joints if not your skeletal structure. We are all taking educated risks and mortgaging our health for immediate gratification, even those of us who aren't kinky do it. I'm not advocating everyone engage in breath play but instead I'm suggesting that you not pretend that there is some great divide between gaspers and other kinky folk.