Less than two weeks ago, an openly gay and very popular BBC personality, Kristian Digby was found dead in his East London home. He began his career in 2001 by hosting BBC’s “That Gay Show” and had since acted as “presenter,” or host, and panelist on other British programs. He was 32, partnered for 8 years, successful, and very attractive. After finding his body, authorities removed a plastic bag and a belt from his bedroom.
Police sources told London’s Daily Mail that they believe Digby died during “a solo sex game which went tragically wrong.” Police say that there are no suggestions of suicide.
Auto-erotic asphyxiation, a dangerous sexual practice which involves depriving the body of oxygen to increase arousal and heighten climax, has claimed lives before. Last June, actor David Carradine was found dead with a rope tied to his neck, wrist and genitals. Investigators have now concluded he died trying to please himself. In all fairness, some still suspect he was murdered.
Auto-asphyxia is classified as a sub-category of sexual masochism and a sexual practice considered outside the norm. SFGN spoke with Sexologist Dr. David Fawcett of Fort Lauderdale about this condition.
“Auto-asphyxia is a phenomenon that is poorly understood, often because of the shame associated with it, both on the part of the person practicing it and the survivors, if anything goes wrong.”
Cords, ligatures, bags, and masks are applied around the neck or over the head in order to decrease oxygen. The euphoria that follows heightens orgasm. Practitioners claim it is similar to huffing “poppers,” during sexual activity. Yet, an alarming number of deaths have come from people engaging in the practice for sexual satisfaction.
It is also practiced by children old enough to know better. However for them this is not necessarily a sexual high. To them, it is most often a game or novelty. Young adults equate it with getting high.
“This kind of behavior causes curiosity, especially among young people and others who tend toward high stimulation and perceive themselves to be a bit more invincible. This is a high-risk behavior. People who die all thought they had fail-safe protective mechanisms,” added Fawcett.
Comparing it to euphoria, or a high that could lead to an addiction is fairly accurate. According to Fawcett, “brain chemistry is affected, including the dopamine reward system that increases the “addictive” nature of the behavior.”
The question is, not only “why” but “what” attracts people to this game? What is the psychological make-up of those interested in either doing this with a partner or alone?
“There are some studies that indicate that those who practice auto-asphyxia may be more isolative than others, and often have other sexual fetishes as well. Men by far (90%) experience paraphilias,” Fawcett added. “There is some data to indicate that the practice is much more widespread then one might assume.”
But there is relatively little data to understand the phenomenon, as people do not often reveal favoring the fetish to loved ones or therapists.
Even more disturbing is the untold number of people who die each year as a result of attempting to reach this type of orgasm. In cases where death is the result of auto-erotic-asphyxia, survivors don’t know whether the victim died from the fetish accidentally or if it was a suicide.
“Many cases of auto-asphyxia have been misinterpreted as suicide.” Or staged as such. Family members often “sanitize” the scenes, by removing pornography, etc. This is an odd value judgment: the perception of suicide preferred to a sexual practice,” said Fawcett.
Rhett Hutchence, brother of Michael Hutchence, of INXS who died in 1997 from auto-asphyxia had a similar problem. He told reporters 10 years later that he was going to the Supreme Court of Australia to change the cause of Michael’s demise from suicide to wrongful death. He does not want his niece, Tiger, to think her father left her intentionally via suicide.
South Florida, years ago, experienced a similar trauma, when a prominent gay producer’s body was found in the Everglades. The younger man eventually convicted of strangling him first argued to the court that the death was accidental; that the victim pleaded for a sexually erotic arousal, and he was just a ‘trick trying to accommodate his date.’