Teenagers are being exposed to graphic images on social media that promote life-threatening sexual acts, such as strangulation and erotic asphyxiation, prompting concerns that this is “normal” for a generation.
An investigation by this newspaper has uncovered hundreds of images of sexualised choking and strangulation on the virtual scrapbook Pinterest, the photo-sharing platform Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and the microblogging site Tumblr. All three allow children as young as 13 onto their sites.
The images, which include pictures of young women being pinned down and strangled by men, and women with gags over their mouths, are often posted under hashtags such as #daddy, #chokingkink, #breathplay and #strangle.
On Pinterest there were images of children being gripped by the throat. One picture on Tumblr showed a bed with rose petals spelling out the words “bruise my oesophagus”.
Users also post phrases that promote these acts, such as “grab me by the throat and call me yours”, “Netflix and choke me” and “I’d probably still adore you with your hands around my neck”.
Campaigners argue that Fifty Shades of Grey, the sadomasochistic romance series, has helped normalise violent sexual practices. Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic criminologist, said: “Fifty Shades opened the floodgates to this. Women felt under pressure to indulge in dangerous behaviours.”
They argue that social media are now helping to make these acts mainstream, so that young women feel they cannot refuse sexual partners who wish to strangle them during intercourse.
Fiona MacKenzie, founder of the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, said: “Social media sites normalise it, so that for young women there becomes an expectation that they may be choked or strangled.
“We hear this from women in their twenties all the time. This was once a very niche practice; now there is a push for young women to accept it as normal — to go along with it because it’s ‘sexy’.”
According to a survey by the research company Savanta ComRes last year, 38% of women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual intercourse.
Sahana Venugopal, 23, a journalism student, said that she had seen this type of explicit material on Tumblr from the age of 14. “I’d inadvertently see a lot of pornographic material because accounts would use the hashtags of other popular TV shows or media to bring followers to their porn sites,” she said.
“After my experiences with Tumblr, I felt that choking was normalised as a sexual behaviour. It’s shown as an expression of passion and it’s something that girls are kind of groomed into doing, but it’s only recently that I see that being critiqued as something criminal.”
Under their community guidelines, Instagram and Pinterest do not allow images that promote violence on their sites.
MacKenzie added: “People know this practice is promoted on porn sites — they don’t expect it to be on Instagram or Pinterest. Some of what I saw on Instagram was so graphic that I couldn’t sleep afterwards. Strangulation is also a common risk factor for future homicide.”
Some Pinterest users also advertise T-shirts, necklaces and cards on the site that promote strangulation with slogans such as “treat me like a princess and choke me”.
Some of the content — including all the Pinterest posts — was removed after it was flagged by The Sunday Times. Pinterest said it did not allow content that promotes “graphic violence or sexual fetishes”, and Facebook said it removes images that promote “sexual violence or sexual acts which could cause serious physical harm”.
Tumblr said it did allow “some content that may be sexual in nature” but not posts that promote violence.