Strangling For Sexual Sport Is Exactly The Kind Of Thing We Should ‘Kink-Shame’

Published April 18, 2024

The Federalist

The sexual revolution is strangling itself. Literally.

A recent New York Times piece by Peggy Orenstein explains, “Twenty years ago, sexual asphyxiation appears to have been unusual among any demographic, let alone young people who were new to sex and iffy at communication. That’s changed radically in a short time.”

Other writers have reported on this trend, but Orenstein provides data as well as anecdotes. She cites research by Debby Herbenick, who in a recent large survey of college students found, “Nearly two-thirds of women … said a partner had choked them during sex (one-third in their most recent encounter). The rate of those women who said they were between the ages 12 and 17 the first time that happened had shot up to 40 percent from one in four.” Which is to say that most sexually active young women should expect to be sexually choked at some point.

Orenstein blames online porn, in which the sexual strangulation of women is now a “staple” that young men are emulating, sometimes encouraged by various internet guides purporting to explain how to do so safely. But as she bluntly puts it, “There is no safe way to strangle someone.” Yet she rushes to assure readers that “I’m not here to kink-shame (or anything-shame).”

Why not?

People should be ashamed of doing bad things, such as seeking sexual pleasure via strangulation. For nearly all of human history, stigma and shame were effective means of regulating sexual behavior. They were, as with all things human, flawed, but they were nonetheless regarded as essential to restraining and guiding sexual behavior.

But now the sexual revolution has triumphed, and it has no language of sexual morality beyond the bare requirement of consent. This poverty of moral imagination and vocabulary has neutered shame’s ability to restrain sexual behavior. Indeed, to the extent it is still deployed, it is to shame people for being too “vanilla” sexually — the only thing that is sexually shameful is to have sexual shame; the only thing that must be restrained is restraint.

Condemnation for Health Reasons

This has hamstrung our culture’s ability to address problems such as the sudden proliferation of sexual strangulation. And so Orenstein turns to the jargon of health and safety to condemn it, noting that “restricting blood flow to the brain, even briefly, can cause permanent injury, including stroke and cognitive impairment.” She cites research studies in which MRI scans found:

[U]ndergraduate women who have been repeatedly choked show a reduction in cortical folding in the brain compared with a never-choked control group. They also showed widespread cortical thickening, an inflammation response that is associated with elevated risk of later-onset mental illness. In completing simple memory tasks, their brains had to work far harder than the control group, recruiting from more regions to achieve the same level of accuracy. The hemispheres in the choked group’s brains, too, were badly skewed, with the right side hyperactive and the left underperforming. A similar imbalance is associated with mood disorders.

She then notes that women who have been sexually strangled were also more likely to suffer from a litany of mental health problems.

We should be glad that Orenstein has been able to criticize choking in The New York Times, that arbiter of cultural liberalism. But it should not require brain scans and mental health surveys to condemn men who choke women for sexual sport. If sexual liberalism cannot judge such deeds as evil until it sees the MRI results, then it is a farcical moral philosophy. This inadequacy is not mitigated by Orenstein’s attempt to smuggle morality back into the sexual landscape by reaching for the language of equality, observing that sexual trends involving “pain or submission, like choking, are generally more for women.” But sexual choking would be wrong even if it were distributed equally between the sexes.

These sorts of persistent inequalities reveal another failure of sexual liberalism, which is its determination to neglect the differences between the sexes — only to be horrified when they reappear in perverse, harmful ways, as in the proliferation of sexual choking. Despite its trendiness, women tend to dislike being choked, though Orenstein reports that some “were enthusiastic; they requested it. It is exciting to feel so vulnerable, a college junior explained. The power dynamic turns her on.” The meeting of masculinity and femininity is reduced to a perverse caricature of male physical dominance over the female.

Women Opt Out of Sex

Sexual liberation was supposed to abolish toxic sexual dynamics between men and women, but it has reconstituted them in new and dangerous ways. And it is not even delivering the pleasure it promised. Orenstein drily added that this “same young woman, incidentally, had never climaxed with a partner.” The end of the sexual revolution is violent, joyless sex that injures women.

This miserable consummation of sexual liberation is turning many people off sex entirely. Men’s porn habits are making them less desirable to women, and less capable of sustaining a good relationship. Given a choice between unsatisfying, perhaps brutal, sex and no sex, many young women will choose the latter. Indeed, the violence and degradation of porn, and its seepage into real-world sex, may also explain much of the surge in young women wanting to stop being women — if being a woman means being treated like what they see in porn and experience from porn-addled men, then no wonder some young women want a way out.

Orenstein’s proposed remedies, like her analysis, are crippled by her unwillingness to challenge the dogmas of the sexual revolution. For example, she would like to push for “evidence-based porn literacy curricula” and raises the possibility of imposing real age verification requirements on porn sites. The latter is a good first step that has already been implemented in several states, but teaching “porn literacy” is a terrible idea that will only further normalize porn.

Ban Porn

Instead, we ought to ban it. Porn is addictive and destructive, and obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. Yes, porn will never be eradicated, but the major purveyors could be shut down and porn pushed back to the seedy margins of society and the internet, rather than being immediately and endlessly available to every teenager.

But such bold action would require real moral judgment and resolve, and the closest Orenstein can come to moralizing is to conclude, “Young people … deserve, and desperately need, models of [sexual] interactions that are respectful, communicative, mutual and, at the very least, safe.” This half-hearted attempt at a positive vision for relations, including sexual, between men and women quickly retreats to demanding only the most basic restraint of not hurting one’s partner — and leaves each woman to try to negotiate this on her own in an unregulated sexual marketplace with partners who have no obligations toward her.

The Sexual Revolution’s Lie

In contrast to this hesitant, attenuated vision of what the union of a man and woman should be like, Christians and others who have resisted the sexual revolution can provide a much fuller understanding of how men and women can flourish together. We know that genuine and enduring well-being and happiness in this life are best secured by making and honoring commitments that prioritize long-term goods over immediate gratification. Which is to say, marriage.

The sexual revolution sold a lie. It promised freedom, companionship, and pleasure, but Americans are lonelier and having less sex than ever — and much of what they are having is just bad. If sexual liberation can’t even provide good sex, then what possible reason is there to keep pursuing it? We should instead amend our ways and vigorously promote and encourage lifelong monogamous marriage, which, among its many benefits, includes, on average, more sex and more satisfying sex.

This may shock those steeped in the ideals of sexual liberalism, which imagines human flourishing as an individualistic endeavor. But the truth is that people require deep relationships, marked by love made manifest through mutual obligation and interdependence, to thrive. And those who have understood this don’t need to see brain scans to know that strangling women for sexual pleasure is wicked and perverse.

Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.

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