What Is Breath Play? Experts Explain Why The Sexual Activity Is So Dangerous

Whether you’re interested in trying erotic asphyxiation, a.k.a. breath play, as part of your BDSM lifestyle or are a total newbie to the idea, there’s a lot to unpack.

Let’s start with the basics: The term “breath play” is a reference to a consensual sexual activity that involves the restriction of oxygen in order to enhance sexual pleasure or orgasm, says Kenneth Play, a professional sex educator and co-founder of the sex-positive community, Hacienda Villa. “It’s often done through choking, but can also involve other methods, like rope bondage, collars, and more,” he explains.

While this type of sex play can certainly be incorporated into a BDSM sex practice, breath play is not limited to BDSM, says Megan Fleming, PhD, a New York-based sex therapist and marriage counselor. Like Play, Fleming emphasizes that the idea behind erotic asphyxiation is that it “incentivizes orgasm.” But, from an educational perspective, she says it’s important to put aside a conversation about the pros and turn-ons involved in breath play in order to acknowledge something bigger: the inherent risk that comes with restricting someone’s airflow. “You’re literally putting your life in someone else’s hands,” she says.

It sounds dangerous, no?

Short answer: Yes. “The brain is really not designed to go without oxygen for any significant amount of time,” Play says. “While small periods of oxygen deprivation are generally agreed on as fine, anything that leads to someone passing out (which is a form of breath play some enjoy) can arguably lead to cell damage or death.”

Breath play also puts a person more at risk for injury or death because they lack control over the implementation of asphyxiation, Play says. “In other words, if you tie a knot the wrong way and the person can’t get enough air and you can’t get it found in time, you could be in a super tricky situation,” he notes. This is an extreme example, but it does happen.

Should people avoid trying breath play all together?

Not exactly, but this is an area of sex play where “education should precede experience,” Play says, noting that opinions vary on how safe or unsafe the practice is. “However, what’s absolutely clear is that you should read up on safety protocols and medical opinions, as well as how to safely do any kind of extreme breath play before trying it.”

In Fleming’s opinion, the possibility of health risks outweighs any pull toward encouraging breath play: “If you’re constricting somebody’s airflow, you really are putting them at risk.”

But what about this intense orgasm that’s been tied to breath play? “There are many ways to increase the intensity of your orgasm,” she notes.

So, what are some safer alternatives to breath play?

If you want to reap the benefits of breath play (read: mind-blowing orgasm) without the danger, Fleming suggests trying breath *control* where one partner modifies their own breathing without the element of restriction by a partner. This can be as simple as holding your breath as you’re about to climax or by using self-controlled breathing restriction, such as 4-7-8 breathing, which involves inhaling for four breaths, holding for a count of seven, and exhaling for eight. Deep breathing exercises like these have been shown to lead to stronger, longer-lasting orgasms.

“These modifications have the elements of breath play minus the risk,” Fleming says. And if it is the feeling of risk or role play you’re seeking from breath play, she says you can have a partner put their hands around your neck to mimic choking without restricting airflow. “It’s like engaging in playing without necessarily taking on the potential health risks,” she explains.

Temperature play is also an option if you’re interested in adding power dynamics into your sexual experience. While adding a hot/cold variant to sex is a sensory experience, temperature play also allows partners to assume the positions of dominant and submissive, in that one person is in control of how the other experiences varying temperatures. Adding bondage or a blindfold to the mix can add to the dominant-submissive dynamic as well.

Interested? Temperature play can involve anything from performing oral sex after sucking on an ice cube or dripping wax on your partner’s body with a body-safe candle. (Worth noting: Fleming’s favorite candles come from Jimmy Jane “because it’s got the little spout so when the melted candle becomes a massage oil, you could literally drip it onto your partner’s back, stomach—the whole idea is hot.” Literally.)

How can I prioritize consent with this (or any) sexual activity?

If the idea of erotic asphyxiation or any type of risky sex play makes you nervous, you’re not alone.Seven percent of adult women surveyed in a 2019 study noted at least one experience where they’ve felt scared during sex because their partner unexpectedly tried to choke them, per the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. (Unwanted anal sex, being held down, and hair pulling were also among behaviors that made partners feel threatened.)

For that reason (and many others), consent is first and foremost when it comes to engaging in any sexual activity, Fleming says. In fact, she takes verbal consent one step further, encouraging partners to not only establish a safe word but also a safe gesture. “Maybe it’s like a thumbs up, thumbs down, or swiping your hand across your neck, gesturing to stop,” she suggest.

Also important? Partner attentiveness. “Make sure you’re both constantly checking in, asking ‘How’s it going? Are you okay?'” Fleming says. Communication is key whenever you’re trying a new sexual experience, especially when its inherently dangerous.

“Anything that turns you on is fantastic, and whether it’s through fantasy or role play, there are ways to approximate it and/or create the sensations that you’re looking for without risk,” she concludes.The safest thing to do: Skip the breath play, and try a less risky alternative instead.

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