Last week on Savage Lovecast (the weekly podcast for the syndicated sex advice column Savage Love), host Dan Savage mentioned that many callers requested that he address the recent death of actor David Carradine. For the ill-informed, Thai police discovered Carradine’s body in a hotel room with a rope tied around his neck, wrist, and genitals. These details suggest that Carradine engaged in a practice known as erotic asphyxiation (EA for short). Savage, generally an ardent supporter of kink and a defender of bondage practices, cited an article from Slate.com as demonstrating the practice to be inherently dangerous. While Savage decried the press’s conflation of EA with bondage, he stated that EA cannot be performed safely and should be avoided.
I checked out the Slate article, and indeed, it makes a compelling case. It brings up a slew of cases in which supposed suicides may actually have resulted from EA. It was speculated that a “suicide” in my own hometown was the result of unintentional strangulation during masturbation. More rare, it seems, are publicized cases of EA with a partner unintentionally killing a lover by strangulation. The Slate article mentions the case of composer Frantisek Kotzwara, who died after hiring a prostitute to assist him with EA (she was tried for his murder, but ultimately acquitted). I’m sure that similar cases exist, but few have been discussed in relation to Carradine’s death and discussions of this fetish, and at least one film should be brought into this discussion about this sexual practice.
Specifically, the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses depicts a famous incident of death by EA. In the mid-1930s,Sada Abe, a former prostitute, takes up with a hotel owner named Kichizo Ishida. The two become sexually obsessed with one another to the point where Ishida leaves his wife and family so that they can be full-time lovers. As the film progresses, so does the violent nature of their sex together, with Ishida requesting that Abe strangle him during love-making. This leads to Ishida’s accidental death at Abe’s hands. In a final obsessive act, Abe castrates Ishida’s corpse and writes “Sada Kichi the two of us forever” in blood on his chest.
The film, which was written and directed by Nagisa Oshima, inflamed controversy with its explicit depictions of sex and violence. Indeed, the film’s rare combination of eroticism, violence, and aesthetic sophistication render it both gorgeous and disturbing with the relationship at the center of the film simultaneously romantic and psychotic, as becomes evident in the screen capture below:
While the film concludes the story with the castration, the actual Sada Abe’s life continued to be just as fascinating after Ishida’s death. Once authorities discovered Ishida’s body, the story become nationally known and a manhunt ensued. While she ultimately spent five years in prison for her crimes, she became a folk hero of sorts. Her story even influenced an art movement in Japan called Ero Guro Nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), which according to Wikipedia, “puts its focus on eroticism, sexual corruption and decadence.” Below is an example, taken from a blog called Cabinet of Wonders:
Sada Abe’s story and In the Realm of the Senses should remind us that pleasure and pain can be nearly indistinguishable. For David Carradine and other practitioners of EA, a flirtation with death only heightens sexual experiences in spite of the risks. While I certainly agree with Dan Savage that the dangerous reality of EA must be acknowledged, I see a film like In the Realm of the Senses, and these acts become metaphors for all romantic relationships, which in spite of mutual love necessarily contain moments of agony.
(Author’s note – While I took great care in this article to paraphrase all information obtained from other sources, I want to acknowledge that much of the information about Sada Abe and Ero Guro was obtained through the linked Wikipedia pages, rather than based upon personal expertise.)