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What’s Wrong With a Little Suffocation During Sex?

Millennials are popularizing kinks like facefucking and facesitting — a ‘vulnerable, open and tender’ side of BDSM far more caring than it looks in mainstream porn

Anthony, a 43-year-old straight man from Chicago, has already thought about what he’d like from his wife for his upcoming birthday. “I was thinking of asking her to sit on my face and ignore me while she reads or plays on her phone,” he tells me. “I’d ask for that as a present — to just be smothered and ignored with no regard for my breath.” While he enjoys being submissive in the bedroom, “the suffocation isn’t the main attraction, but it’s exciting.”

Anthony’s not alone in his desire for smothering oral sex. According to Pornhub Insights, “facesitting” — an oral sex position also called “kinging” or “queening,” in which a person sits on or over their partner’s face — is a common kink. It’s the 174th most popular search on the tube site — about as popular as “celebrity” and “mature” — and it’s especially beloved among millennials and in Russia, Novia Scotia and Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.

Facefucking, on the other hand — when a person thrusts their penis (usually) in and out of their partner’s mouth — and its asphyxiating cousin, deepthroating, have entire websites dedicated to their depiction, like Facial Abuse and Throat Only. While “deepthroat” is a waning search term, it still clocks in as Pornhub’s 129th most popular

Back in real life, Nessa, a 25-year-old bisexual woman living in Massachusetts, tells me, “The asphyxiation aspect [of facefucking] is what I really like the most. It makes me feel euphoric.” Meanwhile, Rob, a 48-year-old man who identifies as queer, tells me he’s into both facesitting and facefucking: “I’m switchy, so I get excited by being on both sides of the power dynamic. I’m a service sub, so doing a good job, being open and being able to take what’s being given — even if it means I gag or can’t breathe for a few seconds — is deeply satisfying.” He adds that facesitting puts him into a subspace, where he feels “vulnerable, open and tender.” 

The dominance these acts involve, as well as the potential for injury and death, has attracted controversy. In 2014, the U.K. infamously banned porn depicting facesitting (as well as strangulation and fisting) on the grounds that the act is “life-threatening,” which led to memorable facesitting protests outside of Parliament. Online, facefucking and deepthroating are common sites of concern for those who worry that violent sex is becoming normalized. “I find it depressing — very demeaning and cruel,” one member of the online forum Is It Normal? wrote of facefucking. “This surely isn’t normal outside of porn, right? Someone tell me this is just a bad porn trend and not a worse sign of the times?”

That it might be considered normal for men to engage in dominant and aggressive sexual behavior with women causes particular concern — hence the reason why facefucking, commonly associated with dominant men, is criticized more than facesitting, which is often associated with dominant women. Heterosexual male dominance “is not at all subversive,” a feminist academic based in Glasgow identified only as Sarah told Vice. “By degrading women, men are just playing a hyper-realized version of the position they actually occupy.” For its part, the Guardian has reported on the increasing portrayal of erotic asphyxiation in porn and women’s magazines and linked this to the successful deployment of the “rough sex” defense. “We’ve now found 59 U.K. women who’ve been killed by men who claim a sex game gone wrong,” reports the We Can’t Consent to This campaign. “We’ve found many more women injured in what the accused men claim was consensual sexual violence.” 

It’s hard to deny that rough sex is having a cultural moment. Fifty Shades of Grey, for better or worse, propelled BDSM into the mainstream; publications like the Guardian, Elle and the Atlantic have covered the “startling” rise of choking during sex; and I found facesitting and facefucking mentioned casually in articles on Vice, Cosmopolitan, Pitchfork’s Over/Under series and here on MEL. “I think it’s true [that violent sex is being normalized]; a lot of people in my age group are into rough sex,” Nessa says. “But as long as it’s completely consensual with effective communication, I don’t see it as a problem.” She concedes, though, that a widespread assumption that these acts are automatically on the menu could be problematic: “I can see why people would be upset by the expectations it causes.”

Feminists like Gail Dines of Culture Reframed argue that there’s already a widespread expectation among men that sex will be rough, and that porn drives this expectation. Anecdotes shared by women in the aforementioned articles tend to support her view. As many of the facefucking enthusiasts I speak to readily concede, plenty of facefucking porn does perpetuate misogyny, racism and transphobia and leaves out the communication, limit-setting, safe words, hand gestures, check-ins and aftercare that safe BDSM involves. “It seems entirely designed for the man’s pleasure, and it’s overly violent,” says Sean, a 28-year-old straight man from Massachusetts. “It feels like there’s a genuine desire of the male actor to do harm to the person they’re facefucking, whereas in my experience it comes from a space of shared trust and intimacy.”

But shitty porn aside, we should think twice before swallowing (sorry) the anti-porn arguments of advocates like Dines or pearl-clutching about individual sex acts like facefucking. The causal link between porn and violence is shaky at best, and scapegoating porn can mean that mainstream institutions, media and social norms that normalize gender-based violence are let off the hook. Anti-porn arguments can also lead to porn bans (such as the one in the U.K.) and legal interventions that interfere with personal freedom and often end up being used to punish sexual minorities. And demonizing certain sex acts and their portrayal minimizes the importance of communication and negotiation. After all, vanilla sex positions can be degrading and harmful, and BDSM can be tender, safe and caring. In fact, the BDSM community reports lower rape-supportive attitudes than those outside of the kink community

Criticism of BDSM in porn is also often heteronormative and preoccupied with men dominating women, ignoring the prevalence of these kinks in the LGBTQ community. “Making someone feel (consensually) filthy, small and humiliated is perfectly normal in gay kink dynamics,” explains Chloe, a pseudonymous Torontonian in her 30s who identifies as a “lesbian most of the time and sometimes a gay man.” “All those things are hot within a negotiated dynamic.” 

Nessa says she’s been on the receiving end of sexual violence in the past, and that she now uses consensual BDSM to help heal her trauma (in addition to therapy). “Honestly, when you have your self-esteem and sexual confidence stripped from you during something that’s non-consensual, it’s really hard to find footing in normal vanilla situations,” she explains. “I noticed I felt better the rougher sex was — it makes me feel powerful and warm to have control over a situation that was once out of my control.” 

Facefucking, facesitting and other forms of asphyxiating oral sex clearly aren’t for everyone, and no one should expect them as a matter of course. But the problem lies with anyone who expects them as a matter of course, not in the sex acts themselves — and for survivors like Nessa, the distinction couldn’t be clearer.