Deadly lesson

Warning about sexual asphyxiation

A respected teacher dies while performing a dangerous sex act. How do you warn others when readers don’t want to hear it?

By Tim Krohn

Tim Krohn is managing editor of The Free Press, Mankato, MN.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 2 (May 1990), p. 4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Never before or since have five column inches on an inside page generated such fury from our readers.

The story began routinely enough. A 25-year-old man from a nearby town was found hanging from a tree in his backyard.

The Free Press (Mankato, MN) ran a short story about the death with few details, noting only that it was being investigated. Sheriff’s deputies were unusually tight-lipped about the case. In the week following the initial story, rumor fed upon speculation until several bizarre murder theories had circulated.

Interest in the death was heightened because the young man was a well-known teacher of the physically and mentally disabled. A local lecturer and volunteer, he was admired by many.

A week after a neighbor had found the nude body, the sheriff’s department and coroner released a ruling on the death: accidental, due to sexual asphyxia.

Even among our well-read news staff, few knew much about sexual asphyxiation. The practice, also called autoerotic asphyxiation, involves attempting to reach a heightened sexual orgasm by cutting off the oxygen and blood supply to the head during masturbation. Not everyone who tries it dies, but accidental death often occurs when the person loses consciousness and falls forward, being strangled by the rope or belt tied to his neck.

The question came immediately to mind: If we were somewhat shocked would our readers be at all prepared? The answer, we knew, was an unequivocal “no.”

Editors, the reporter and the publisher met to discuss the options. The rumors were too widespread to even consider letting the incident pass without

mention. Could we say the death was definitely not foul play and leave it at that? It would, of course, leave readers with the impression that it was a suicide — a normally unsettling cause of death for family and friends to accept, but in this case a less embarrassing conclusion than the true circumstances.

The argument to simply rule out foul play was buttressed by the fact that radio and television stations did not give the official cause of death in their reports immediately following the ruling.

But other reporters and editors argued that the death involved a week-long sheriff’s investigation and had gained wide public interest. A hazy article would not adequately answer all the questions.

And what about the newspaper’s role as an educator to others who may have thought about experimenting with the potentially deadly practice?

“Doc” Sanford, the savvy, progressive coroner who ruled on the death, came to the newspaper office arguing for publication of full details. “This is being done by a lot of people out there. It’s dangerous and they should know it,” he said.

After some quick studying we learned that accidental death from the practice, is indeed, no fluke. According to an FBI study an estimated 500-1,000 people die yearly in the U.S. from sexual asphyxiation. The agency describes most victims as male adolescents or young adults who are happy and well-adjusted. Besides the deaths, many people are brain damaged by the practice.

After learning of the frequency of the practice, another possibility occurred. Perhaps we could do a short story on the death coupled with a longer news-feature on the facts about sexual asphyxia: state and national statistics, an interview with Doc Sanford, etc. The problem with this option, we worried, was overplaying the story and being open to charges of sensationalizing a family’s personal tragedy.

After examining all the arguments, we went ahead with an article we hoped would fulfill our public record reporting obligations, warn others about a dangerous practice, and at the same time, not give undue attention to the story. A short, five-inch story on the bottom of page 15 gave the coroner’s ruling of the death with a brief, clinical description of sexual asphyxia.

We expected criticism. But no one was prepared for the onslaught of outrage. Telephone calls and letters to the editor continued for weeks.

From the mother: “One word — accidental — would have explained it all. [The story] didn’t serve any good purpose, but only angered and hurt people.”

From a minister: “. . . Your article, written from the very depth of the sewer, was totally uncalled for.”

Even many staff members’ families and friends thought the newspaper was far out of bounds.

A couple of years later, we still are angrily confronted about “that story.”

Would we have done the story the same way knowing the outcome?

I don’t think so. I think we would run a longer, not a shorter story. While that might seem like an invitation for even more criticism, I think it would actually have brought less.

If we had spent time talking to local doctors, counselors, ministers and perhaps even the family, we could have presented an informative, yet sensitive article. Such a story would also have given us an opportunity to talk about the good things the victim had done.

The sad affair leaves me with two firm conclusions: What we can justify as journalistically “right” doesn’t necessarily make it right for our readers.

And, who we write about is often much more important than what we write.

Had the same story been about a down-and-out jail inmate (more frequently victims of sexual asphyxia) there would have been little outrage. The problem that most readers had with our story was they couldn’t reconcile their feelings for a very caring person with the fact that he died in a fashion they couldn’t easily comprehend.

Still, I think the decision to print the cause of death was correct. A young person cannot leave the face of the earth without someone explaining it to his community. And a dangerous practice, no matter how unseemly to some, can most effectively be discussed, and perhaps, prevented by describing a local example.