CW: sexual assault.
“You have to press on the sides of the neck, not the windpipe,” my friend explained matter-of-factly, her hand wrapped loosely around her throat. My friends sat in a row on my school-issued twin XL mattress. I glanced at her with raised eyebrows, suppressing the urge to ask her where the hell she learned that. Soon after, I heard the same advice repeated in a TikTok, a twenty-something man demonstrating the proper choking technique with fingers stacked with rings wrapped around his own throat.
I was pleased to see discussions of safe kink practices appear on my “For You” page once I landed myself on sex-positive TikTok—though I was soon alarmed by the new #kinktok and #freaktok videos being recommended to me. Among the sex-positive kink content made by adults, teenagers sharing their violent sexual fantasies and experiences began to slip through the cracks. As an increasing openness toward sex has brought violent sexual acts closer to the mainstream, TikTok has become a source of information on violent sex for teenagers—right alongside their peers, porn, and other social media.
Discussing kink among adults is perfectly normal and healthy—such conversations work to alleviate the stigma surrounding discussions of sex and fetishes. TikTok just might not be the most suitable platform for these discussions. The most users can do to keep their sex-related videos out of minors’ sight is offer a caption like “keep scrolling if you’re under 18,” but in all likelihood, these warnings make the videos even more enticing to teenagers.
This isn’t to say that teenagers should be kept in the dark about kinky sex—but TikTok is rarely a source of credible information. TikToks about violent sex on TikTok often consist of teenagers and young adults expressing their desperation to be railed or choked, or reminiscing on an occasion when it actually happened. Coupled with all the porn and other media normalizing violent sex, these TikToks convince teenagers that violence must be involved to have good sex. They then pursue these violent sexual acts without the proper education on how to practice them safely—often under the assumption that everyone likes them. Many of the TikToks I found perpetuated this dangerous assumption. For someone with the inadequate sex education most of us are subjected to in the U.S., seeing a young woman reminisce on how hot it was when her boyfriend suddenly grabbed her by the throat for a kiss gives the impression that anyone could do the same to their partner. Why ask when you already know people enjoy it?
19-year-old Maddy Wilson posted a TikTok on February 18th, in which she describes having thought she “would be the most vanilla person when it comes to [sex],” but discovering when she became sexually active that she has a choking kink. Wilson’s video isn’t problematic in itself—but the comments section is overwhelmingly toxic, especially for teens landing on KinkTok. The majority of the comments say some variation of the same phrase: “choking is vanilla.”
Maddy begs to differ. “Saying that choking is vanilla is something I’ve only ever heard online,” she tells me. According to her friends, choking is far from vanilla because it’s a form of breath play, which can be extremely dangerous if not practiced carefully. Some viewers echoed this sentiment, attempting to drown out the harmful ideas flooding the comments. The concept of choking being appraised as vanilla, she says, means teenagers “might not take into consideration how dangerous it could actually be.” Normalizing violent sex to the point that breath play is deemed vanilla may give teens who are just becoming sexually active an inaccurate view of violent kinks. They might fail to realize that practicing kink is something they need to discuss with their partner and learn how to do safely.
What’s more, this normalization is becoming a widespread cultural phenomenon not solely confined to TikTok. I surveyed some of my Instagram followers, all 16 to 20 years old, to see how the normalization of violent sex has shaped their own experiences. They all suspected that violent sex is being normalized due to the abundance of depictions of violent sex in porn and film. One of my followers suggested kink has become more accessible thanks to the BDSM Test, an online quiz that assesses your level of interest in various BDSM archetypes. She noted that the BDSM Test “brings the topic of more violent sexual habits into more general conversations.” Another respondent mused, “It’s become ‘cool.’ It’s edgy to want to experience violent kinks—are you boring if you haven’t had violent sex?”
The snide comments under Maddy Wilson’s TikTok would likely argue yes. Some of my followers observed this toxicity on TikTok, though they found the impact of other media to be more significant. Nearly everyone recalled seeing violence in porn, most notably on PornHub: they all cited seeing choking, slapping, spanking, gagging, and restraint in countless videos, without a single example of enthusiastic consent. They felt films like Fifty Shades of Grey and 365 Days have brought violent sex to a larger audience.
This all has tangible implications, too. Some of the respondents detailed specific incidences when their partners didn’t respect their boundaries during sex. They were choked or slapped without their consent, or were coerced into giving permission for sexual acts they weren’t comfortable with. The frequency of these assaults is alarming. Consenting to having sex, after all, does not mean consenting to anything that might occur during sex—and by the same token, consent to sex isn’t consent to violence.
Somebody should tell 16-year-olds that choking isn’t vanilla before they think they can do it to anyone who agrees to sleep with them. Enjoying violent sex is far from universal, and it’s certainly not the only way to spice things up in the bedroom. If you’re interested in violent kinks, it’s essential to educate yourself before you experiment. Violent sex can be the key to great sex for some people, but it certainly isn’t the only path to sexual satisfaction. It’s your choice whether you want to break out the whip and handcuffs or light some candles and fill your bed with rose petals. Either way, I hope you have the ride of your life.
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun.