The Troubling Trend in Teenage Sex

Debby Herbenick is one of the foremost researchers on American sexual behavior. The director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and the author of the pointedly titled book “Yes, Your Kid,” she usually shares her data, no matter how explicit, without judgment. So I was surprised by how concerned she seemed when we checked in on Zoom recently: “I haven’t often felt so strongly about getting research out there,” she told me. “But this is lifesaving.”

For the past four years, Dr. Herbenick has been tracking the rapid rise of “rough sex” among college students, particularly sexual strangulation, or what is colloquially referred to as “choking.” Nearly two-thirds of women in her most recent campus-representative survey of 5,000 students at an anonymized “major Midwestern university” 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.

As someone whose been writing for well over a decade about young people’s attitudes and early experience with sex in all its forms, I’d also begun clocking this phenomenon. I was initially startled in early 2020 when, during a post-talk Q. and A. at an independent high school, a 16-year-old girl asked, “How come boys all want to choke you?” In a different class, a 15-year-old boy wanted to know, “Why do girls all want to be choked?” They do? Not long after, a college sophomore (and longtime interview subject) contacted me after her roommate came home in tears because a hookup partner, without warning, had put both hands on her throat and squeezed.

I started to ask more and the stories piled up. Another sophomore confided that she enjoyed being choked by her boyfriend, though it was important for a partner to be “properly educated” — pressing on the sides of the neck, for example, rather than the trachea. (Note: There is no safe way to strangle someone.) A male freshman said “girls expected” to be choked and, even though he didn’t want to do it, refusing would make him seem like a “simp.” And a senior in high school was angry that her friends called her “vanilla” when she complained that her boyfriend had choked her.

Sexual strangulation, nearly always of women in heterosexual pornography, has long been a staple on free sites, those default sources of sex ed for teens. As with anything else, repeat exposure can render the once appalling appealing. It’s not uncommon for behaviors to be normalized in porn, move within a few years to mainstream media, then, in what may become a feedback loop, be adopted in the bedroom or the dorm room.

Choking, Dr. Herbenick said, seems to have made that first leap in a 2008 episode of HBO’s “Californication,” where it was still depicted as outré, then accelerated after the success of “Fifty Shades of Gray.” By 2019, when a high school girl was choked in the pilot of HBO’s “Euphoria,” it was standard fare. A young woman was choked in the opener of “The Idol” (again on HBO and also, like “Euphoria,” created by Sam Levinson; what’s with him?). Ali Wong plays the proclivity for laughs in a Netflix special, and it’s a punchline in Tina Fey’s new “Mean Girls.” The chorus of Jack Harlow’s “Lovin On Me,” which topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for six nonconsecutive weeks this winter and has been viewed over 99 million times on YouTube, starts with, “I’m vanilla baby, I’ll choke you, but I ain’t no killer, baby.” How-to articles abound on the internet, and social media algorithms feed young people (but typically not their unsuspecting parents) hundreds of #chokemedaddy memes along with memes that mock — even celebrate — the potential for hurting or killing female partners.

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