How dangerous is auto-erotic asphyxiation? Dr. Emily Morse weighs in

Ariel Castro
Ariel Castro, left, talks with his lawyer during a break in his trial on Aug. 1.
Credit: Getty Images

Ariel Castro’s death in prison last month may not have been suicide, but the result of a taboo masturbation method gone wrong, according to reports Thursday. The convicted Cleveland kidnapper and rapist may have been practicing auto-erotic asphyxiation, a sexual fetish that involves restricting one’s air supply to intensify orgasm.

Castro admitted during his sentencing in August that he masturbated excessively. He told the court, “I was single for about five years. In that time, I continued to practice the art of masturbation … sometimes two to three hours a day nonstop.”

Just weeks after he began serving a life sentence, he was found hanged to death in his cell. At the time, his death was reported as suicide. However, an investigation by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said Castro’s pants and underwear were around his ankles. The report was passed on to the Ohio State Highway Patrol for “consideration of the possibility of auto-erotic asphyxiation.”

Auto-erotic asphyxiation has made headlines as the shocking cause of death of celebrities including David Carradine. The father of Eddie DeJesus, a 13-year-old Florida boy, recently spoke publicly about the death of his son in an effort to warn parents about the dangers of the practice.

Celebrity sex expert Dr. Emily Morse, host of “Sex with Emily” and star of Bravo’s “Miss Advised,” told Metro that auto-erotic asphyxiation isn’t a new trend, but publicized deaths may be prompting others to try it — and those who do can underestimate the danger.

How does someone come to do something like this? How do people learn about it?

It’s hard to pinpoint where people learn about auto-erotic asphyxiation, because the only information about it comes from deaths by asphyxiation. Incidences of auto-erotic asphyxiation date back way before the existence of the Internet, suggesting that people discover the practice partly on their own. Although porn might introduce ideas of sadomasochism, participants of auto-erotic asphyxiation are drawn to the practice because of their desire to experience more intense orgasmic pleasure coupled with a feeling of helplessness and self-destruction.

Many people learn about auto-erotic asphyxiation by the deaths that occur as a result. They might convince themselves that they will not make the same mistake as their auto-erotic asphyxiation predecessors. What they fail to realize is the utter lack of control asphyxiation creates.

What does someone experience when doing this? What attracts people to this kind of masturbation?

The lack of oxygen to the brain can intensify pleasure by creating a feeling of lightheadedness and exhilaration. Many people are attracted to the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability auto-erotic asphyxiation produces. The thing that makes asphyxiation so dangerous is also what attracts people to it.

Is it usually young men who practice auto-erotic asphyxiation? Are women less likely to do it?

The vast majority of auto-erotic asphyxiation participants are male. However, there are cases of women practicing autoerotic asphyxiation, and many women enjoy the submissive experience of getting choked during sex play.

It has turned fatal in several well-known cases. What are some of the risks involved?

The risks involved cannot be emphasized enough. Many people die because they make an escape too difficult to achieve. Also, death is most likely to occur when the rope is placing too much pressure on the carotid [artery] on the neck. The pressure on the carotid body slows down the heart rate, causing a person to lose consciousness. Their body goes limp and the rope tightens. Fatality from auto-erotic asphyxiation occurs mostly because of an obstruction of blood flow to the brain.

Even though asphyxiation creates a feeling of helplessness, people still hold onto a false sense of control. They don’t realize that they will lose consciousness if things go too far — and they won’t be able to discern when that moment occurs. They are more likely to die from lack of blood flow than by blocking the windpipe through asphyxiation.

Do sex experts advise against this type of masturbation? How is it recommended that people practice it more safely?

Yes. The thrill of auto-erotic asphyxiation is not worth losing your life. If you want to enjoy the exhilaration of light asphyxiation, always play with a trusted partner. Make sure that ropes or belts aren’t tied too tight (better yet, use satin ties), always establish a safeword if play gets too intense, and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol, which can impair your judgement and make your body more vulnerable to the risks of asphyxiation.

Emily Morse, Sex with Emily
Dr. Emily Morse, host of “Sex with Emily.”
Credit: Emily Morse

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