The dangerous sexual practice on the rise.

Content warning: This story contains depictions of sexual assault that can be triggering to some readers.

The charges against Sri Lankan cricketer Danushka Gunathilaka expose a cultural phenomenon that has largely been invisible despite its ubiquity.

Gunathilaka has been charged with four counts of sexual assault following his encounter with a Sydney woman, whom he reportedly met through an online dating app.

Among the allegations were reports that Gunathilaka had strangled the woman to the point that she “feared for her life.” Such descriptions may be mystifying to anyone unacquainted with contemporary sexual mores. But many young people, at least, will be unsurprised.

While you're here, watch a group of doctors talk about why strangulation during sex can lead to something dangerous. Story continues after video.

Video via The Doctors TV.

In recent years, strangulation, often colloquially referred to as ‘choking’, has become an increasingly common practice during sex. In a large US study of university students, most participants reported being strangled or strangling someone during sex.

The practice of sexual strangulation is highly gendered: it is usually enacted by men, most often on women. In the study, 64 per cent of women, 29 per cent of men and 55 per cent of transgender or non-binary respondents reported having been ‘choked’ during sex. Almost half of men had ‘choked’ a partner during sex, with a quarter reporting doing so during their most recent sexual encounter. Research into the experiences of LGBTQ people also finds significant levels of strangulation during sex, with gay men much more likely to be strangled than heterosexual men. 


The migration of strangulation into the contemporary sexual script is a concept that is repeatedly confirmed by the Australian young people I talk to in interviews about their sexual experiences.

"Choking," according to Tess, "is probably the most prevalent act that happens in sex that people don’t talk about." Ruby said it is so normal it is "almost seen as vanilla now." 

Young women, particularly, often express concerns about the mainstreaming of sexual strangulation. But many also convey an uncomfortable acceptance. As Georgie explained, "It’s been so heavily normalised in porn that we’ve just accepted it as a part of our sexual reality as young women. We’ve accepted that in sexual encounters it’ll probably happen, they probably won’t ask first." 

The absence of any communication about strangulation is a repeated theme. Young people describe how the perception that strangulation is ‘normal’, negates the need to seek consent. "No one’s going to ask for consent. It’s just become so normalised and it’s like de-normalising asking for consent," Mei explained. Georgie suggested that young men think “Okay she wants to have sex with me, therefore I can slap her, I can choke her or whatever it is.”

Some of our interviewees speak about experiences reminiscent of the allegations against Gunathilaka. "I’ve been in situations where I feel like I’m genuinely being murdered," said Anabella. Ruby’s graphic descriptions of being strangled also illuminate some disturbing dynamics. She observed that "as it goes on, the longer you’re not breathing, the more panicked you get and the less mobility you have. It can become scary. Because you are just trusting in the other person to stop, and that’s definitely not a good plan. But it’s hard to speak up." 


It is hard to speak up with someone’s hand around your throat, but there are also factors that make it difficult to stop – or say ‘no’ to – strangulation. According to Susie, "if you’re not okay with being choked", something she describes as a "standard sexual act", that "puts a lot of women in a position" where they’re
"not necessarily totally open about saying that. Because they don’t want to seem like a prude, or they don’t want to seem like they’re boring." 

Listen to Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky, on sexual strangulation. Post continues after. 

Some young women talk about feeling pressure not just to accept, but to embrace, strangulation as a sexual practice. "Women are taught that you have to like being choked. And if you like being choked that you are good in the bedroom," Ruby told us.

For the forensic medical examiner, Dr Jane Van Diemen, "the fact that strangulation is considered part of sexual practice is terrifying." With over 15 years of expertise in strangulation, she regularly provides expert evidence about strangulation to Australian courts. She is well versed in the spectrum of damage that strangulation can cause – not only at the point of strangulation, but in the hours, days, weeks, and months that follow. And the potential for cumulative effects from repeated incidents.


Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the mechanics and physiology of strangulation, Dr Van Diemen emphasised that there is "no safe way to strangle."

The charges against Gunathilaka provide an insight into how an insidious and inherently dangerous practice long recognised as a red flag for intimate partner homicide has found its way into the sexual expectations and experiences of a generation of young people.

The resounding message I have taken from our most recent series of interviews with young people and experts is that we need to talk about strangulation. Young people need to hear that it is not something you can do safely. They need support to think critically about the influences – such as porn, social media and their partners and peers – that are shaping their sexual norms. We need to make it easier for them to access information from more reputable and trustworthy sources. And we need to help them imagine and live into a sexuality that is safe, respectful, mutually pleasurable and fully consenting. It is time for us to speak up.

Maree Crabbe is Director of the Australian violence prevention initiative, It’s Time We Talked. She has worked in sexual violence prevention for over 20 years and is involved in establishing a national campaign about strangulation during sex. Register your interest at itstimewetalked.com

If you or someone you know is at risk of violence, contact: 1800 RESPECT.

Feature Image: Getty.