When men choke women—the shocking truth

Rihanna knows what it feels like. Brooke Mueller and Tila Tequila too. Your lover's in a rage, his hands at your throat, fingers digging in, making it hard to breathe. Maybe you lose consciousness. Rihanna, says she did.

But when a man tries to choke you, is it a crime?

That's a very good question, and one I give a New York Times Op-Ed three cheers for raising. Because the answer, in many cases, is: No. For example, choking-and by the way, that's sugar coating it; the correct word is "strangling"-is not a felony in New York unless there's evidence of physical injury. The problem is, while it takes only 10 seconds for a man to squeeze a woman's neck hard enough to make her pass out, and minutes to kill her, the San Diego's DA's office found that 62 percent of the time there are no visible signs. Thanks to what authors Dorchen Leidholdt and Jane Manning call the "choking loophole," only about half of the states in our country have laws specifically addressing non-fatal strangulation. Elsewhere, batters "often escape criminal charges and, perhaps emboldened by their impunity, choke their victims again."

What a surprise-yet another legal outrage for women. But worse, as I found out later, is how much danger this puts us in. Choking, it seems, is a hidden problem in domestic abuse. One of the leading experts on the subject, Nancy Glass, PhD, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, tells me on the phone that non-fatal strangulation in a relationship is a grisly predictor of what's to come. Her study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2008 showed that when a man chokes his partner, it increases the odds that he will kill about seven-fold. "We looked at whether attempted strangulation is a risk factor for the woman being murdered," she says. "And yes, it absolutely is."

Even if you don't die, choking can cause brain damage, cognitive impairment, and possibly raise your risk of stroke, forget the psychological trauma. There are symptoms beyond bruises (which often don't show up) like a hoarse voice or bloodshot eyes. But such telltale signs are often missed by doctors and dismissed by law enforcement. (Read a female Texas DA's account of why "proving domestic violence strangulation cases fall into an exceptionally difficult class.") The choking story fits right in with our country's continental-sized blind spot for domestic abuse that also keeps protective orders from being enforced. The unfortunate upshot is that when authorities say "no biggie," women themselves think, Oh, he just grabbed my neck. It wasn't that serious. "That's what you take away if it's oly a misdemeanor," Glass says.


1. COULD HE REALLY HURT YOU? You can get some idea by answering the 20 questions on Glass's danger assessment (just make sure you're on a safe computer where he's not tracking you.) Give yourself 1 point for every "yes" on questions 1 through 19; the higher score, the more danger you're in.

2. IF HE GRABS YOU? Sara Johnson, Director of WomenStrength, a feminist self defense program out of the Portland Police Bureau, says there are a lot of techniques to escape a choke hold, but the main thing is to use your intuition (pull his hair, kick, you may know what to do). "So many women have fought off attackers without having ever taken a self defense class," she says. But if you'd like to, they've got great info on how to pick the right program.

3. IF YOU'RE CHOKED: Even if you feel all right, call 911 or get yourself to the emergency room. It's essential to get checked out; some women collapse hours or days later.

4. GET HELP: Click here if you're in a crisis. Click here for help with an ongoing situation.

For more on dangerous love:

Blaming the victim

Explaining to the kids

A personal account