June 05, 2009

As soon as the media released the detail that David Carradine was found hanging naked in a closet, I knew what had happened. Like masturbation itself, it is one of those sexual practices which is far, far more common than most people believe: mostly because so many of us learn sexuality in secret, and in the determined quest for childhood innocence most parents are determined to keep it so, struggling against frankness in all sexual talk, be it at school or at home.

It begins with the choking game, which children practice secretly at school and in their bedrooms. Beginning around the age of 10, this game of inducing unconsciousness in oneself or in another has become as much a part of childhood oral lore as how to play tag. It goes under many names which are also indications of the reasons for doing it: Natural High, Space Monkey, Rocket Ride, Trip to Heaven.

As with anything which cuts off oxygen supply to the brain, brain damage or death are possible outcomes. Accidental deaths as a result of the choking game seem to peak around age 13; however, deaths officially classified as suicide due to hanging or suffocation continue to rise through age 19, even in environments where guns (for boys) and pills (for girls) are much more common means of attempting suicide. Over 80% of those known to have died from the choking game were male. Over 90% of their families never knew their children were playing the "game".

In adulthood, the choking game becomes autoerotic asphyxiation, its purpose now clearly sexual. The aim is to induce erotic stimulation and finally orgasm through oxygen depletion. It is well known that oxygen deprivation does lead to a drug-like effect. Either this, or the associated masochistic bondage, may act as arousal stimuli in some people. However, oxygen deprivation in itself, without the learned association with either a hypoxic state of altered consciousness (asphyxiophilia) or bondage, has no erotic effect.

Autoerotic asphyxiation is not a modern phenomenon. The first recorded case is that of the composer Frantisek Kotzwara, in 1791. Not coincidentally, the 18th century was also when public hangings started to predominate over other forms of public execution (and would continue to do so until 1865, when public hangings were discontinued); and thus when the public started to notice that many who had been hanged also had erections. Some had even ejaculated. So common is this phenomenon that most professional hangmen would note its presence or absence in their records.

As opposed to the medieval short drop, which usually caused death by suffocation, the standard drop was much more likely to break the neck. This made death from hanging much more rapid. It is the rapidity of death which is associated with the death erection.

Technically this erection is a priapism, and has nothing to do with sexuality. The existence of a priapism tells forensic investigators that death was sudden and probably violent. It is thought that damage to the spinal cord may be linked to the effect, since spinal cord injuries are also associated with priapisms.

However, what was absorbed by the popular lore was that oxygen deprivation was clearly linked with erotic sensation.

Obviously these practices are most dangerous when done alone. Very few injuries are reported when performing even the most extreme acts of RACK edgeplay with a partner familiar with safety practices and safe words. Performed alone, the chance of something going wrong goes up exponentially. After all, the aim is to cut off oxygen to the point of inducing unconsciousness.

Too many of us never discover the existence of either the choking game or autoerotic asphyxia until it claims the life of someone dear to us. Will the media be able to convey the educational message without descending into sensationalism?

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