‘The Idol’, a new series released by HBO earlier this month, was a hotly anticipated show due to the major names heading up the call sheet: Lily Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye (the Weeknd) are just two of the well-known actors starring in the show. The series depicts Jocelyn (Depp), a popstar struggling with her mental health and the loss of her mother, trying to navigate her way through a cut throat music industry. Interspersed within the narrative are scenes of strangulation. For example, in episode one we watch Jocelyn strangle herself while she masturbates. Later in the same episode Tedros (Tesfaye) wraps a garment over Depp’s head and ties the belt around her neck as a noose, before slitting a small hole so that she can “sing”. All of this is portrayed as a moment of sexual tension and a demonstration of Tedros’ dangerousness.
As a charity that aims to help society understand and tackle strangulation, both fatal and non-fatal, we at IFAS would agree that such an act is dangerous. Research has shown that the risks associated with strangulation include loss of consciousness, cardiac arrest, stroke, miscarriage, speech disorders, seizures, paralysis and death. In fact, the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics reported that 14% of female homicide victims in England & Wales were killed via strangulation or suffocation. Many of these deaths are in the context of intimate partner violence.
Given these risks, it is perhaps surprising how prevalent this form of violence against women is on our screens. In recent months, the global streaming platform Netflix released ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Obsession’ which both contained strangulation during sex scenes presented as part of a love story. Beyond fiction, the BBC have broadcast the Steeltown murders in the forms of a documentary and drama about the strangulation and murder of three young girls. This is emblematic of a popular general trend of true crime shows that typically depict violence against women and girls.
The popularity of these types of TV shows raises important questions about the normalisation of violence against women and girls, including strangulation, particularly during sex. What becomes apparent is that this violence has drifted out of fiction and into the lives of real people. Research shows that one third of women under 40 have experienced unwanted strangulation, slapping, gagging or spitting during sex. Statistics from a sexual assault referral centre in Manchester found that 19% of those attending, where the alleged assailant was a partner or ex-partner, had experienced strangulation as part of a sexual assault.
At IFAS we acknowledge that strangulation can occur as part of a sexual relationship. However, crucial to this is the concept of consent, which requires a person is informed and also had the ability to withdraw their consent. To note, by informed we mean that the person understands what they are consenting to and any associated risks.
What is missing from the depiction of these strangulation sex scenes is the reality of the risks, such as the risk of losing consciousness and self-defecation (pooing oneself). It is important that the consenting person retains the capacity to consent, yet if the blood flow to the brain is reduced through strangulation, that capacity can be impeded. Further, if a person loses consciousness – which can occur in under 7 seconds – they no longer have the ability to withdraw consent.
The normalisation of strangulation not only has an effect on adults but also on children. In recent years, children have died via the ‘choking’ game and ‘tap out’ game – both methods of strangulation. In addition, strangulation is prevalent in social media via the glorification of these games and via porn. It is still unknown how this will impact children psychologically, sexually and physically in the long term.
It is impossible for us to control what is portrayed in the media but we would urge broadcasters and those creating content to ensure viewers are not subjected to the promotion of strangulation with no way of understanding the risks. The glorification of strangulation on screen and particularly during sex is reckless when presented without vital information on the risks or at the very least links to where people can access this information. At IFAS we would urge broadcasters to inform themselves about the relevant risks and the onward impact that such content has on wider society.