A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the story on autoerotic asphyxiation?

October 28, 1988

Dear Cecil:

I heard about a strange sexual practice the other day that I hope you can tell me more about. It seems a boy was found dead with a rope around his neck, but he hadn't purposely killed himself. Apparently he was masturbating at the time of his death and hanged himself in order to heighten the sexual sensation. The radio announcer called it an autoerotic suicide and said it is not uncommon. I've never heard of it. Can you tell me more?

Cecil replies:

Time for a walk on the weird side, kids. Autoerotic asphyxiation — "suicide" is a misnomer, since death is usually accidental — is in fact fairly common. One researcher estimates there are at least 50 deaths annually nationwide. The victims are mostly young males; evidently if you live long enough to become an old male you start getting a partner to help you, although it's quite dangerous even so.

Autoerotic asphyxiation arose out of the observation that men executed by hanging often got an erection and sometimes ejaculated. It's described in detail in de Sade's Justine and is mentioned in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Why it works is unclear. The simplest explanation is that lack of oxygen causes lightheadedness, reducing inhibitions and enhancing the sexual experience. Masochistic fantasies, castration anxiety, and other psychological factors no doubt also play a role.

The problem is that it's easy to go too far. As little as seven pounds of pressure will collapse the carotid artery, producing unconsciousness within seconds. Many victims are bondage freaks and their elaborate bindings make self-rescue difficult.

Needless to say, this is not something you should try at home. Judging from the photos — hey, it's my job — not only do you end up dead, you look real stupid when they find you. I mention this on the theory that if fear of death won't stop somebody, maybe fear of embarrassment will.

Read all about it

For those who feel they must know more about autoerotic asphyxiation, you might try to find a copy of The Breathless Orgasm: A Lovemap Biography of Asphyxophilia by John Money, Gordon Wainwright, and David Hingsburger (Prometheus Books, 1991). The first part of the book is the story of an "asphyxiophile" who lived to tell about it.

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