Uzi Orji was hooking up with a guy for the first time when she felt his hand suddenly grip her neck.
“We weren’t really having sex yet — we were kissing,” Orji, 24, said. “I was surprised, but I didn’t really say anything because I thought I was just being sensitive or dramatic.”
The pair dated for a few weeks after the hookup, and Orji said he choked her “multiple times, on different occasions.” It’s one of three times she’s been choked by a partner without any prior conversation about the subject, she said, calling that “a little scary.”
After tweeting about her negative experiences with choking, Orji received dozens of replies echoing her perspective.
“It happens way too often,” one person said.
“The amount of men who just put their hands on my neck without asking is alarming,” another said.
The response to Orji’s tweet isn’t that shocking considering some recent research. In a 2021 survey conducted at a large public university in the US, one in three undergraduate female respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 said they were choked the last time they had sex.
The study was led by Debby Herbenick, a professor and the director of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. Also in the survey, 58% of female college students said they had been choked by a partner before — with nearly 65% of that group saying they experienced it during their first-ever sexual or kissing encounter.
“You just don’t see many people in their 40s and above saying that they’ve ever been choked during sex, or even engaged in certain kinds of rough sex that are more common among younger people today,” Herbenick told Insider.
Her research has found that choking is so prevalent among Gen Z that it’s not seen as cause for alarm, even when partners haven’t discussed it beforehand.
“Many of the young people we’ve interviewed just don’t see choking as that big of a deal,” Herbenick said.
In interviews, many Gen Zers have told her it’s become such a mainstream sexual behavior that they don’t even have conversations about it, in the same way that hookup partners don’t necessarily discuss oral or vaginal sex beforehand.
But the risks of choking are very real: It can lead to death or serious injury when done incorrectly or with too much force. For victims of domestic violence, it can be the biggest predictor of abuse turning fatal, an analysis of data collected by the Beacon of Hope Crisis Center found, as the organization’s executive director told an NBC affiliate.
“Doctors and anybody in the sex-education industry will tell you that there really is no safe breath play,” Antonia Hall, a psychologist, sex educator, and author, said. “Accidents do happen, even with consensual choking.”
Gen Z’s reputation for cautious, consent-centric sex doesn’t seem to apply to choking
Gen Z’s relationship with sex is often stereotyped as more cautious and self-aware than that of its predecessors.
Growing up during the #MeToo movement and with unprecedented access to sexual-health information on the internet, Gen Z, whose members are between 10 and 25 years old, has frequently been portrayed in the media as changing attitudes around sex to make it more progressive, consensual, and safe.
Many are delaying sex altogether. In a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 38% of high schoolers reported having sex, down from 46% in 2009 and 54% in 1991.
For outside observers, that may make it all the more shocking that nonconsensual choking is so common among this generally wary group.
“Choking can create an instantaneous physiological and psychological response in the body because, all of a sudden, somebody’s grabbing your throat,” Hall said. “That’s going to create a fight-or-flight nervous-system response.”
Often, that’s part of the appeal.
“That physiological response is what people are going for, right? That sexy, your-heart’s-racing danger,” Hall said.
In one of Herbenick’s choking studies, a participant described choking as “scary, but then kind of exciting.”
‘I guess I could have theoretically pressed charges’
Madeline Parks, 22, has been nonconsensually choked several times. One time, she said, a new partner jumped out and wrapped a towel around her neck right after she took a hot shower, which made her briefly lose consciousness. (Parks said he caught her and made sure she was OK — an incident she described as “scary for both of us.”)
Another time, a guy Parks was making out with used a chain necklace she was wearing “as a tool” to choke her, she said — something they hadn’t discussed before.
While the choking was nonconsensual, “it wasn’t traumatically so,” Parks, who remained friendly with both partners afterward, said.
Because she had previously had positive experiences with consensual choking, Parks told both men after the fact, “You got kind of lucky in this situation because I’m pretty chill about that sort of thing.”
She said: “I guess I could have theoretically pressed charges.”
Garrett Bemiller, 25, is a gay man who typically looks for hookups on the queer dating app Grindr, where it’s normal for people to state which kinks they’re into — including choking.
“So you kind of go into it making sure that you’re aligned,” he said. “But then there are also times where you’re just hooking up, and they’re like, ah, choke.”
Bemiller said that when he’d given partners post-choking feedback, he sometimes tried to do it in the form of a joke to “try not to make it awkward.”
“I tend to make it more lighthearted,” he said. “I’m like, ‘You know that it’s supposed to be a sexy thing, not a serial-killer thing?'”
According to Hall, some people might react casually or even brush off non-consensual choking out of a natural tendency to smooth things over, especially with first-time hookups.
“I think that we acquiesce,” she said. “I think that we’re worried about rocking the boat, ruining the moment.”
She likened this to other bedroom conversations many people dodge but need to have, like those around STD tests and using protection.
The problem is that choking bears serious emotional risks as well as physical ones.
“Grabbing someone’s throat is a power move,” Hall said. “If somebody’s grabbing your neck without your consent, that can feel like a traumatizing experience — it can trigger past experiences for people.”
Memes, TikTok posts, and porn often feature choking
While rough sex is nothing new in the world of porn, choking gets a lot of play on social media. In interviews with members of Gen Z who’ve been choked, many brought up the ubiquity of choking memes on platforms like TikTok and Twitter.
“It’s interesting that clients have that fantasy because they’ve picked it up from porn, and it’s become something that they feel is just desired,” Hall said. “Now it’s just the new norm.”
Among the most popular is the “choke-me-daddy” joke format, said Parks, who described it as: “This person’s really hot. Like, they could do whatever they want to you.”
“People are a lot more open and talking about what they like,” Bemiller said. “They just scroll through Twitter, quote-tweeting a hot person immediately with, ‘Yeah, choke me daddy.'”
—⭒ (@marceIiness) March 1, 2021
But porn and memes don’t necessarily teach people how to choke a partner safely, even if they’re doing it consensually.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anybody talk about the safety aspect of it on social media,” Bemiller said.
“I’ve seen, like, one tweet recently that said you’re not supposed to squeeze too hard,” Orji said. “But they didn’t really say specifically where you’re supposed to put your fingers or anything. They just said you’re not supposed to hurt the person.”
In a study Herbenick conducted with 45 young adults, she said none knew about choking safety, other than “one person who had experienced neck pain from being choked and decided to learn more about it.”
—ogug (@ogug8) September 11, 2020
Consent can be unclear or easy to misinterpret, especially in heterosexual hookups, studies indicate
When it comes to communication around choking, Parks and Orji said their male partners often took liberties after hearing them discuss it outside the bedroom.
After tweeting about choking in general — without indicating that she liked it — Orji said she was choked by one of her mutual Twitter followers the next time they saw each other. While her partner never told her it was because of the tweet, she suspected it was.
Parks said she’d told partners during various conversations that she liked being choked but added that there were times she wasn’t asked in the moment for consent.
Parks, Bemiller, and Orji were all choked solely by male partners.
“I think it goes to rape culture,” Orji said. “Like, men assume something is OK because a lot of people were talking about it.”
Herbenick said that wasn’t a coincidence. Studies have found that men can view the same sexual act differently from how a female partner does.
In one study, when describing “rough sex,” cisgender women and transgender participants were more likely “to write about consent, the importance of communication, or, frankly, somewhat more vanilla-y kinds of things,” Herbenick said.
Cisgender men wrote about “using hot wax or knife play, or things that are a little further on the spectrum of rough.”
Herbenick said that in surveys and interviews, most people described their experiences with choking as consensual. But when they’re pressed for more details, “we don’t see a lot of communication — or at least verbal communication,” she added.
“I think that even though some people really like rough sex and are having fun exploring and feel empowered, some people don’t, but because it’s become so normalized and so mainstream, some people don’t know how to opt out of that,” Herbenick said.
Bemiller said he tried to suss out partners before a hookup by combing through their social media — “Anybody who doesn’t have photos with friends or seems like a loner is probably a little sketch,” he said — and asking questions.
“There are just some people who are just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I like to be dom,’ and just leave it at that,” he said. “I tend to be more cautious when it’s very vague.”
Online conversations about choking can be positive if done right
While the internet may have popularized choking without permission, it’s also bred a culture where it’s more normal to talk openly about sexual boundaries, including after the fact.
In a 2018 Pew survey of teens ages 13 to 17 — the group that’s approaching or in its college years — 31% said social media had a mostly positive effect on people their own age, while 45% said it had neither a positive nor negative effect.
In interviews, both Herbenick and Gen Zers said the internet could be as helpful to discussions of sex and consent as it’s harmful.
Even as choking memes proliferate, “there have been some pretty involved conversations on sites like Twitter and Reddit, where people have shared their experiences and views about these practices,” Herbenick said.
Nonconsensual choking has been discussed on popular subreddits like r/sex, r/TwoXChromosomes, and r/TrueOffMyChest, with people who identify themselves as experienced BDSM practitioners encouraging those with concerns to learn more about the safety practices established in that community.
“Vanilla folks don’t tend to be as fluent in the language of consent as we kinky folks do,” the top commenter on one r/sex post said. “I would instantly and permanently end any encounter/relationship in which someone tried to choke me without asking first, because that’s a hard limit. Never apologize for your limits.”
While social media’s role in Gen Z’s sex lives is “definitely a double-edged sword,” Bemiller said, “I think it’s good to have open dialogue around things that people are trying and enjoying.”
That candor is making sex “a lot safer than it has been in a really long time,” he added. “Everybody’s sharing their experiences and creating a space where those that don’t follow consent or make people feel uncomfortable are being called out.”