Teen's Death in 'Choking Game' Focuses Attention on Dangerous Practice

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

The "choking game" has been around for years, resurfacing every generation or so, traveling by word of mouth among kids looking for a thrill. Now, the death of a Frederick County teenager has added to fears that the practice, sped along by the Internet, has become more common and deadly.

William C. Bowen Jr., a computer-savvy high school student who was involved in his church and working toward his Eagle Scout badge, died of accidental asphyxiation March 14 after wrapping a terry-cloth sash around his neck, law enforcement officials confirmed last week.

Bowen, 15, appeared to have been engaged in a variant of the choking game, authorities said. That variant, known as autoerotic asphyxiation, involves masturbation while cutting off the air supply to the brain. He had devised a safety release for the ligature around his neck, but it failed to work, said Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office.

Bowen was a sophomore at Urbana High School in Frederick County, and his death has reverberated through the community.

The school sent a flier to parents listing telltale signs of the choking game, noting that even untroubled students have engaged in it, with some thinking of it as a safer way than drugs or alcohol to experiment with a mind-altering sensation. His parents, Carol and William C. Bowen, have appointed their minister to speak for them and urged other parents to be vigilant.

"The important thing this family is stressing is that they do not want to see another family go through this," said the Rev. Matt Poole of FaithPoint United Methodist Church.

There is scant research on the practice, but medical and forensic experts estimate that 250 to 1,000 young people die in the United States each year from some variant of the choking game. Many are reported as suicides. One university researcher has estimated that nearly a third of adolescent hangings could be attributed to some form of the practice.

"What's different with the game is kids are playing it alone, and it's being played with ligatures," said Julie Rosenbluth, a project director at the American Council for Drug Education in New York. "But just like drugs, they're finding out about it from other kids and from the Internet."

Also known as blackout, gasper, space monkey and suffocation roulette, the practice is most prevalent among adolescent and young adult males. References to the behavior -- and its supposed power for heightening sexual experience -- go back to the 1600s. The object is to cut off the blood supply to the brain, creating a lightheaded, giddy feeling.

Usually, the game is done in groups at parties, sports events or even in gym classes. In its most common form, young people bend over or squat down while hyperventilating, stand up and then hold their breath as someone else pushes on their chests until they lose consciousness.

Less frequently, a ligature of some sort -- a belt, necktie or rope -- is used to cut off the air supply. Rarer still, some people experiment with ligatures while they are alone, sometimes combining it with masturbation.

"It is very difficult to get at the extent of the problem because people are very reluctant, both from the medical end and the family end, to acknowledge that this practice is taking place," said R. Carl Westerfield, former dean of education at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex. "It's in the closet."

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