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Once considered something exclusive to the kink or BDSM communities, breath play is making its way into mainstream conversations about sex. We read about choking and breath swapping in erotic novels and see it depicted in all sorts of media, on the internet, and in movies and on TV. All of that exposure is great for normalizing fetishes, but because breath control can be dangerous if not practiced correctly, too much exposure without proper education can be problematic.
As with so many other things, the solution is pretty simple: education. Providing people with comprehensive sex education that includes a discussion of pleasure, kink, and consent can help ensure that everyone explores safely.
If you’re curious about breath play, or have tried it and enjoyed it, you probably have some questions about methods and safety. Since education is the key to safe exploration, we’ve put together this guide to the types of breath play, and some tips for playing safe solo or with a partner.
Breath play involves restricting the intake of oxygen in order to increase arousal. People commonly think of choking when they think of breath play, but that isn't the only form. Some people are into a mild amount of breath swapping (we’ll get to that soon), and others are into more extreme forms using devices to restrict breathing.
Breath play, or erotic asphyxiation, was discovered by accident in the 17th century when male hanging victims developed erections. Doctors noticed this phenomenon and began using asphyxiation as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.
Since there are prescription medications to treat erectile dysfunction these days, asphyxiation is no longer the go-to treatment (thankfully). People enjoy breath play today for a number of reasons: because of the power dynamics involved, because it feels taboo, or just to try something new alone or with a partner.
Lack of oxygen can produce a euphoric state. Combining euphoria from endorphins and adrenaline with the oxytocin released during orgasm feels more intense. Like any kink or fetish, breath play can be something a person requires for arousal, or just something they like to try out once in a while.
People who enjoy breath play say they:
Find the feeling of power erotic
Feel more trusting of their partner
Think wanting to try something new is sexy
Find pleasure in risk-taking
Enjoy the intensified orgasm
The rush of endorphins and adrenaline you experience from breath play is your body's natural reaction to a threat to survival. In the heat of the moment, you may mistake these hormones for a sexy rush, but you must understand you're triggering a flight or fight response in your body.
Since breath play involves the restriction of oxygen, it can be dangerous. Restricting oxygen and blood flow to the brain can cause abnormal heartbeats, brain damage, or even cardiac arrest. Our necks are full of blood vessels, nerves, and many other vital organs. If a person's airway is constricted, it could cause permanent damage to their larynx, carotid arteries, or other neck structures.
Sometimes the risks of cardiac arrest or brain damage from restricted oxygen cause sexual health experts to warn against trying breath play, but that doesn't seem to stop people. Perhaps it's better to educate people on how to play safely and minimize risks.
Every kink exists on a continuum. For example, some people are interested in restraints like a necktie around their wrists, while others want to be in chains suspended from a warehouse ceiling. The same is true for breath play. Some people enjoy mild forms such as breath swapping, and others crave a more dangerous version involving covering the face with plastic.
Before we can discuss safe breath play, we need to have an understanding of the different types. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of the types of breath play people enjoy:
Breath swapping: This is a low-risk way to explore breath play. With your lips locked together, Partner A breathes in through their nose and exhales into Partner B's mouth. Partner B exhales through their nose. It's like holding your breath with a partner attached.
Neck holding: Another low-risk form of breath play involves Partner A holding a hand against Partner B's neck but not putting pressure on any area. Neck holding isn't technically breath play since there's no restriction of oxygen. However, it's a safe way to enjoy kinky sex and the power play so many people enjoy. It’s also a great way to stimulate the erogenous zones around the neck.
Breath-holding: A step up from neck holding or breath swapping. Breath-holding involves holding your breath during sexual activity to experience the lightheadedness that people say intensifies arousal. You can control your breath independently or have a partner direct you to involve a power dynamic.
Nose-pinching: To add a physical element to breath holding, some people hold their nose closed or have a partner hold their nose closed to prevent breathing for brief periods.
Kinging or Queenings: A way to intensify the power dynamic in your playtime is to smother your partner's face with your genitals. Vulva owners can rub back and forth across their partner’s face during oral sex to limit breathing. Penis owners can combine oral sex with nose pinching for a similar effect.
Choking: Some people enjoy being choked during sex. Choking involves direct pressure on the trachea or around the neck from a partner's hand, collar, or rope. Choking is dangerous both because of the oxygen restriction and the pressure against the sensitive structures of your neck.
Gas masks or hoods: Some people in the kink community involve gas masks or hoods made of latex or plastic to restrict breathing. If you're using one of these devices, be sure to choose one that has an opening to allow in some air.
Chest compression (corseting): Compressing someone's chest to restrict breathing can give a similar feel to choking without involving the sensitive structures of the neck. However, your chest is not resistant to damage either so, like any type of breath play, education is vital.
Breath play is inherently dangerous because you're restricting your body's access to oxygen. Depending on the type of play you engage in, it may also limit blood flow to certain areas of your body, including your brain.
If breath play interests you, it's a good idea to seek a sex therapist to help you learn about proper techniques and safety. Some BDSM clubs and sex toy stores offer classes as well.
When engaging in breath play it’s important to start slow and come up for air whenever you need to. Perhaps you begin by holding your breath during masturbation for brief periods to explore the sensation of lightheadedness while staying in control of your own breathing.
If you enjoy that, you can involve your partner(s) in breath swapping, or a light hand on your airway. Make sure your partner is someone you trust. You and your partner can establish signals and ways to communicate if someone’s airway is restricted and talking isn’t possible. For example, double tapping your partner’s arm could mean all activity stops and you have a conversation before continuing.
If you’re the partner restricting someone’s breathing it’s vital that you check in regularly, release your hold and ask if they’d like to continue. As with any sexual activity, informed, enthusiastic consent is essential. Consent is an ongoing conversation before, during, and after sex.
If you’re exploring gas masks or compression devices it’s a good idea to use them outside of sexual activity first to ensure you and your partner know how to use any release valves, or remove it quickly. During sexual activity you’ll want to remove it periodically to check in as well.
Appropriate education about anatomy such as structures in the neck that require special care or can’t handle compression is essential if you are engaging in choking or constriction. You’ll also need practice paying attention to how you feel at various levels of oxygen deprivation so you know when to signal your partner to stop.
Sexual health experts also caution that even with precautions you may experience unpleasant side effects from breath play like:
Loss of coordination
If your partner has trouble breathing or chest pains, it's important to call emergency services right away.
If you'd like to explore how breath play can enhance your sex life, it can be helpful to explore during masturbation. We don't recommend restricting your breathing while flying solo because of the dangers of suffocation or choking. However, breathing exercises that help you tune into your body's rhythm and focus on pleasurable sensations are a great, safe way to explore breath play.
On Dipsea, we have several audio sessions with Eva Kaczor, a psychologist and breathwork expert, to guide you through self-touch sessions that help you connect your breath with pleasure. Listen to Calming Touch to relax into your solo sesh, or Energizing Touch to experience a different way to enhance your masturbation routine with breathing exercises.