On the evening of Wednesday, July 11, 2007, Chris Duchamp, 23, finished his electrical-engineering classes at a college in Ottawa, Ontario, and rode the bus home to his one-bedroom apartment across the river in Gatineau. Duchamp (not his real name) lived alone. Sometime around three Thursday morning, Duchamp took off his clothes. He then strung a length of boat rope through an eye hook he'd driven into the floor, looped it around his neck in a way that allowed him to control the tension, and threaded it through a second eye hook, which he'd affixed to the archway above his head. Then he took the free end in his left hand and pulled.
The next day, Duchamp, a tall, blue-eyed man whom friends affectionately described as a "smart-ass," failed to show up at the movie theater where he worked part-time.
When police discovered his body a day later, slumped over in its cat's cradle of ropes, they found something else, too: On a kitchen table, within arm's length of Duchamp, a laptop computer was flashing pornography.
"The police told me he had committed suicide," says Jean Duchamp, Chris' father (whose name has also been changed). But his son had no history of depression or mental illness. So Jean pressed the police who'd been at the scene. "I said to the officer, 'Did he have any clothes on?' He said, 'We found him hanging—it's a suicide.' I said, 'Did he have any clothes on?' He said no. I said, 'Well, it's not a suicide.'" Later, when Chris' family scoured their deceased son's computer for clues about his lifestyle, they stumbled upon something disturbing: Not only had Chris been practicing autoerotic asphyxiation (AeA) for years, his circle of friends had been doing it too. They'd even discussed it in online chat rooms. One of those posts, Jean says—left by a friend of Chris' after his death—still haunts him two years later. It read, "He wasn't supposed to do this alone."
Stories like Duchamp's have been appearing periodically in the news for years. This past June, actor David Carradine was found dead in the closet of his Bangkok hotel room, reportedly with a set of cords lashed around his neck, hands, and genitals. And 12 years before that, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence died in a Sydney hotel; he was found naked, kneeling against a door, with a belt nearby. In both cases, suicide and murder were among the initial theories. But Carradine and Hutchence weren't seeking death or pain—in fact, it's likely they were chasing pleasure. Their method—autoerotic asphyxiation—just happened to kill them. The infrequency with which we hear about such cases seems to suggest that AeA is the province of an obscure minority. But the practice may be more widespread than most of us imagine: One online fetish site for "gaspers" (a slang term for AeA enthusiasts) claims to have received 4.7 million visitors since launching in April 1992. According to an FBI estimate, between 500 and 1,000 Americans die from AeA every year—a range that's comparable to the number of homicides in New York City in 2008—and the majority of them are men. That estimate hasn't been updated since the early eighties, and some experts believe it to be conservative, because the stigma attached to the practice makes people reluctant to acknowledge AeA as the cause of death.
"It remains something people find out about only after these men are dead," says Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who's been studying and writing about the phenomenon for more than 30 years. And while it's impossible to know how many deaths from AeA are mislabeled, Dietz says, it's common for the authorities to record them as suicides rather than reveal the more risqué truth.
An act that combines choking and sex may sound like something exported straight from an S&M dungeon, but it's not. The payoff is not so much psychological as physiological. The neck is home to two vascular superhighways: the carotid artery, which carries blood to the brain, and the jugular vein, which carries it back to the heart. If you constrict these vessels, carbon dioxide builds up in your brain, creating a narcotic effect. Combining that with an orgasm may trigger a dopamine release that intensifies that euphoria—"like taking Ecstasy and having sex," says Dr. John Sims, director of the neurocritical care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Occasionally, you pass out—and if that happens while your neck is still constricted, you will die. If, however, you survive, you will likely be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the feeling. In other words, this isn't some masochistic desire to be choked. This is a far more universal longing—to feel good, despite the risks, which include not only death but also damage to the brain caused by oxygen starvation.
Two years ago, newspapers and morning shows were abuzz with talk of the "choking game"—a school-yard pastime in which kids, seeking a euphoric high, would strangle one another until they passed out. Scott Metheny, a Pennsylvania police officer, responded to the phenomenon by helping to start an anti-choking-game website called GASP and teaching police officers and coroners how to recognize cases of death by AeA.
"Basically, the choking game is the gateway drug to autoerotic," Metheny says. "People are experimenting with asphyxiation play—without the sexual element—because they're told it feels good and they feel no damage from it. They put the two together because someone tells them that the orgasm will be so extreme that a regular one's not good enough anymore."
For Jeremy Ellman (not his real name), a 47-year-old real-estate agent in Long Beach, California, it all started with a parachute. He was 13 when his dad brought one home from an army-surplus store.
"I just rolled up really tight in this thing and it accidentally slipped over my face," Ellman says. "And it was very exciting." Pretty soon, Ellman was wrapping pantyhose around his head—sometimes more than five pairs at a time—to constrict his breathing, crawling into sleeping bags backward, and getting himself off "just by wiggling around." Back then, he didn't understand why his orgasms were better. But by the time he was in his twenties, he did—and he was chasing them every day. "When I had girlfriends, we did crazy noose play. I'd have them string me up from the ceiling, and then you kick something over and dangle there trying to catch your breath." Today, Ellman says, he's just your average California dad with a secret. "If you met me, you would have no idea," he says. "I wear Tommy Bahamas, flip-flops. No tattoos, two kids—absolutely normal."
In his late twenties, Ellman had a close call. He was alone, covered "head to toe in pantyhose," tied up and gasping for air, in a pair of handcuffs with a self-release switch that failed. "My left hand would always open the right cuff," he recalls. "But somehow that little switch broke." He tried to get at the switch on the left cuff, he says, but his right hand was wrapped so tightly in pantyhose, he couldn't feel the lever. He had to rip through the hose with his fingers. Then he discovered he'd tied his arms to his chest so tightly that he couldn't get the angle he needed. "That was a crazy 30 seconds," he says. But even then, he admits, it never occurred to him that perhaps he should find a less perilous route to sexual climax. "My thoughts were not that I'm never going to do that again," Ellman says, "but that I'm going to be a lot more careful."
For some, the danger is part of the appeal—and when that psychological aspect is combined with the physical, AeA's allure becomes even more powerful. According to Dietz, who studied 132 cases of death by AeA for his 1983 book Autoerotic Fatalities, fantasy plays an insidious role. "One man had elaborate fantasies that Amazon women would string him up from trees," he says. "Lots of women with big breasts." One of the most chilling accounts came from one of Dietz's few living subjects, who was so desperate to stop that he was considering the most drastic of measures—chemical castration. "He had a strong sexual appetite and a pressure to do it all the time," Dietz says. "He was afraid he was going to end up in the morgue."
Lee Harrington, a 29-year-old "alternative-sexuality educator" who teaches a course in Phoenix on "breath and blood flow in erotic life," devotes the first 20 minutes of his class to the myriad ways that AeA can kill you. Harrington himself uses Tantric breathing and gas masks to simulate the effect of AeA. Although he doesn't encourage anyone to practice AeA, Harrington explains that the damage done to the brain is no worse than what occurs during other pursuits. "It boils down to this," he says. "How do I want to lose my brain cells in this life? Do I want to do it by doing lines? By crushing heads on the football field? Or do I want to do it in the bedroom?"
A couple of weeks before his death, Chris Duchamp returned home for a weekend visit with his family, and an eerily portentous exchange took place. Jean had recently seen an alarming news segment on television.
"It was just a very brief national-news thing on the choking game," he recalls. "And knowing my son, always looking for the ultimate high, I say, 'You're not stupid enough to do something this retarded are you?' And he goes, 'No.'
"And I believed him."