I have a new Stranger column up, and I’m expecting some blowback from it, either on the Stranger page or elsewhere on the web, because I am pushing a hot button: I am suggesting that the BDSM instructors should not teach – or even demonstrate – high risk practices in short, beginner-accessible classes. So you should read that column first, because the rest of this post discusses it.
This column sprung from attending a breathplay class taught by Lee Harrington here in Seattle recently, part of which made me uneasy. Let me emphasize here that Lee showed us a lot of fun, no/low risk ways to limit or change the way someone breathes. Lee is a very engaging speaker/performer, and has a lot of good things to say about the psychology and theatre of breathplay. It was only part of the class troubled me, and that was the part with demonstrations of strangling, and the part where Lee put a plastic bag over his head and taped it around his neck.
The good part of this was how well Lee Harrington – with whom I’ve been acquainted for some years – took my criticism. He listened to my opinion thoughtfully and without defensiveness, and we had a really good dialogue about it privately. For now, he’s not teaching the class as a stand-alone offering. Handling criticism well takes grace and maturity, and Lee displayed an impressive level of both. I respect that a lot.
Breathplay is a touchy issue for BDSM people. Even the mere word breathplay is tricky. It’s a bit like the word “bondage” – it covers a very broad range of activity. Let me reiterate that I have no problem with the milder end of breathplay, either doing it or teaching it.
However, as with every kind of BDSM, there is a scale of intensity and risk in breathplay. And there are specific practices at the high end of the overall activity where the risk of harm is so high and so uncontrollable that I don’t think they should be taught to a general audience. Strangling people unconscious, or suffocating them unconscious with a plastic bag or some similar thing like plastic wrap, is very high risk. I think BDSM educators should be actively discouraging those behaviors.
And I don’t think it’s repressive, or a waste of time to do that. This is not about shaming people for their turn-ons, or preaching a just-say-no sermon. It’s no different than bondage instructors teaching people not to suspend people by just their wrists. Yes, it looks cool, you see it in the movies, and there are porn pictures of it online, but in real life, that’s likely to damage someone’s hands in a severe and/or permanent way, so he instructs people not to do that. There are other ways to tie people up that are hot and sexy and far less likely to result in physical damage.
In the same way, there are ways to play with breathing that are far less likely to result in someone being harmed. That’s what we should be teaching people to do. I have no illusions that everyone will stop doing intense strangling and suffocation. But I believe that the BDSM community can and should influence some people towards safer types of play.
For some people, the idea that they are deliberately and purposefully risking death is part of the thrill of strangling and suffocation. They feel it’s the ultimate expression of trust, although I don’t quite understand how it expresses trust when a lot of risk is beyond the conscious control of the top. 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. But obviously if you like playing with the possibility of death, then safer breathplay will not appeal to you.
Fans of strangling like to invoke martial-arts masters as examples of how choke-holds can be done safely. To them I say: if you and your partner are, in fact, both martial-arts masters who have been trained in this, then yes, you can assess your risk differently. (I say both because being schooled in how to respond to a choke-hold in a way that minimizes damage is part of why that works as well as it does.) And doing even a properly-executed chokehold while alone with a sexual partner is still a different situation than doing it in a ring surround by judges and officials, and with emergency medical help standing by. But I acknowledge that some people have superior training.
However, the vast majority of people in the world - including me - are actually not trained martial-arts masters. For us, using martial-arts masters as an example for what’s safe in breathplay is a bit like using professional racecar drivers as an example of what’s safe to do while driving I-5.
So to my mind, if you want to be educated in how to apply chokeholds, then go to martial-arts school. It will take longer than two hours, for sure, and it will involve more effort than you just showing up and sitting on a folding chair. (And way more than - sweet Jesus - reading about it and watching porn of it online.)
But guess what? Gaining true mastery of any BDSM technique takes work. If you want to do high-risk play, but you care so little for your partner’s safety that you’re not willing to spend time, effort and money to learn as much as you possibly can about how to do it, then I don’t have much respect for you as a player.
I have some other thoughts about the culture of breathplay as a part of the BDSM community – there are a few curious anomalies about it that I want to discuss with some people I know and respect who do breathplay. And I’m actually pondering a follow-up column to this one, if I can get a Seattle-area martial-arts instructor to answer some interview questions for me about learning and using chokeholds. So look for more questions and analysis about this in days to come…
EDITED: I think free-diving school would be the best way to learn about suffocation. Obviously it's slightly different being in the water versus having a bag over your head, but it's my opinion that the science of it would be similar enough to make that practice slightly less high-risk.