Is Sex Mostly About Power Now?

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Dr. Debby Herbenick’s latest research from the Indiana University School of Public Health shows that an astounding number of young people are engaged in choking (actually, strangling) during sex.

This has become a common activity at about the same time that it’s become popular in pornography. As every anti-porn activist will tell you, porn is filled with images of men using sex to dominate women: forcing them, gagging them during fellatio, slapping or spanking them, tying them up, gang-banging them.

It certainly isn’t hard to find depictions of aggressive or painful sex in porn (although they are, of course, consensually planned and acted). On the other hand, that stuff is still a minority of porn.

In pornography, aggression, domination, and submission constitute a common visual expression of excitement and arousal—although that’s not how it has to work in real life, which offers many forms of excitement and arousal beyond the visual. In porn, common examples include fisting, anal sex, and now choking—which are usually shown done by men to women. Not with women—to women.

These are visual depictions of arousal using the vocabulary of power. He’s so excited he chokes her; she’s so excited that she wants to experience the power of him choking her.

In porn that’s no problem, but in real life, what is the enjoyment in doing or receiving those things? For most participants, the gratification is mental, not physical. These activities typically don’t provide the pleasure or connection most people say they want from sex. So why are more and more people doing them?


For an increasing number of people, sex has become a symbolic activity rather than a literal, experiential, physically pleasurable one. This has happened not just concurrent with the development of internet porn, but of the internet in general. Today, Western people increasingly live mediated rather than literal lives. Consider:

We create TikTok videos that only provide satisfaction if other people watch them; the creation of them gives us little. We photograph our restaurant meals so that others will envy us; enjoying a delicious dinner may be secondary. We take videos of concerts and the Grand Canyon instead of focusing our attention on these spectacles.

When I was at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz last year, I saw dozens of tourists taking smiling selfies in front of the gas chambers. They were more interested in recording and representing their trip rather than experiencing it.

And now we do the same with sex—it’s often something we perform more than something we lose ourselves in. Self-consciousness has become so common, has become such a common cultural vocabulary, that we don’t entirely realize when it replaces authentic experience. And power is a central dynamic in the performance.

Too many people are trying to emulate examples of intense sex from porn or books like Fifty Shades of Grey—expecting their satisfaction to come from successfully duplicating various staged activities that symbolize arousal, rather than experiencing arousal directly.

And so rather than caress, kiss, tease, giggle, smell, and look, people are resorting to activities that they only enjoy symbolically.

* Anal sex? It’s naturally dry in there (less pleasure for both), is an unlikely way for women to climax, and is very difficult to manage for anyone with a shaky erection. Yes, lubrication will make this more comfortable, but for most heterosexual couples, anal sex isn’t about pleasure—and that’s the point.

* Choking? For the choker, the satisfaction is in demonstrating domination or passion, rather than actually enjoying something. For the person being choked, it can represent success in inflaming a partner’s desire. Or maybe it’s just a way of paying unpleasant dues for the parts of sex that the choked person does enjoy.

* Fisting (inserting a hand into a vagina or rectum)? It’s difficult, it’s scary, it’s rarely on a woman’s bucket list. What’s in it for the guy doing it, except to prove how excited he is? What’s in it for the other person, who rarely asks for it?

In such circumstances, these activities are like breaking into a liquor store to prove you have the nerve to do it, and leaving without taking cash or liquor. It provides a symbolic rush rather than an actual payoff.


What about BDSM, which most of us agree is a legitimate form of sexual expression? BDSM is erotic power play—consciously playing cooperatively with power dynamics in erotic contexts. It can be a grand form of connection and sharing.

The choking revealed in this study isn’t actually BDSM. According to the research, it usually isn’t discussed ahead of time, it results in no emotional connection or transcendence, there’s no sense of partnership, and there’s no safe-word (“let’s agree that ‘dinosaurs’ means ‘stop right now’”). It’s one person doing it to another without her permission, certainly without her enthusiasm. She’s tolerating it rather than enjoying the cooperative submission This is not BDSM.

If you ask people experienced with BDSM, they will tell you it’s primarily about trust. It’s partners using their bodies to create and share transcendent experiences. It’s not simply about pain, with people smacking away at each other. Leather whips or hot candle wax notwithstanding, nobody likes stubbing their toe or banging their funny bone. Or being smacked (or choked) without any context.

I have no quarrel with any way that consenting adults play together. But it’s sad how some people are indeed whacking away at their partner, each of them getting very little out of it, maybe thinking they’re doing BDSM. Worse, one of them may think they’re having fantastic sex, while the other one is putting up with something unpleasant. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Getting someone to submit to something they find uncomfortable or insulting—and getting no transcendence, no communication or connection, no trust—well, that’s just a shame. Why would anyone insist that someone else have that experience? If the main reason is to say “look what I got that person to do,” that’s sad. If it’s “I love expressing my anger using another person’s body,” that’s scary. It’s people like that who give BDSM a bad name.

And why would someone suddenly being choked during sex for the first time—and disliking it, getting nothing from it, simply trying to endure it—not tell their partner “don’t do that again unless I explicitly ask for it”? If it’s the familiar “I put up with it because all the other women do it,” or “that’s what all guys want,” or “I don’t want to seem like a prude,” well, there’s someone who would benefit from some new emotional skills before having sex again.

Too many people don’t seem to truly enjoy physically pleasurable sex without the clumsy power dynamics, which is a shame.


To create enjoyable sex, each of us needs Sexual Intelligence—emotional skills, communication skills, body awareness, and self-acceptance. In an age of emotional disengagement and mistrust of offline activity, too many people don’t have enough of these. Today’s incessant attention to gender identity and sexual orientation is no substitute for these four skills. What good is knowing what gender team you belong to if you can’t physically enjoy the sensations of sex, including trust and relaxation?

There are too many people hiding behind non-traditional sexual activities like choking and anal sex. When they ultimately don’t get the results they want from it, they blame their partner, or all women or all men, or they say sex is overrated, or they worry about their performance.

Mind-blowing sex is not about pushing for intensity, going faster, harder, deeper. It’s about the opposite—going slowly enough that you feel everything, looking so closely that you see everything, smelling and tasting in a deliberate fashion.

It’s not about the isolation and loneliness that come from achieving or tolerating. It’s about the opposite—feeling connected, whether to a partner, the universe, or both.

Superficially, conscious and sensory-focused sex can’t compete with the flashing lights and intermittent dings of our phones and the internet. I really do believe that one reason younger people aren’t as interested in actual partner sex as young people were 30 years ago is that real sex can’t compete with the unlimited stimulation of today’s smartphones—stimulation which comes with absolutely no effort.

Real sex takes attention—not work, but attention. Participation, if you will. Today’s young people are skeptical that that kind of sex can really be worth the effort.

And if they don’t know how to create it—they’re right.


Check out my popular video quickie–Is Watching Porn A Form of Infidelity?

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