How Do You Tell a Suicide from an Autoerotic Asphyxiation Accident?

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Oct. 10 2013 1:35 PM

How Do You Tell a Suicide from an Autoerotic Asphyxiation Accident?

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Ariel Castro

Photo by Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images

When Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro hanged himself in his cell last month, everyone assumed that he had decided to commit suicide rather than face a lifetime in prison. But a new report from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction suggests that Castro may have actually died in a bizarre autoerotic asphyxiation accident. How do you differentiate between death by suicide and death by autoerotic asphyxiation?

Autoerotic asphyxiation, for those of you unfamiliar with the practice, is an act by which one derives sexual pleasure from depriving his brain of oxygen during sexual activity. In a Slate piece from 2009, Christopher Beam offered a good explanation of how this works:

A man—the vast majority of AEAers are male—loops a belt or rope around his neck, attaches the other end to a door knob or pipe, and lowers himself into a controlled suspension. Sex or masturbation ensues. The pressure from the belt cuts off the flow of blood through the veins in his neck, causing blood to congest in the brain. Oxygen levels drop and carbon dioxide levels increase, producing lightheadedness and, for some, intensifying erotic pleasure.
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Sometimes, though, an autoerotic asphyxiator miscalculates, and he dies. In those cases, the death is often labeled a suicide, occasionally because officials and family members do not realize that autoerotic asphyxiation is a thing that people do. But there are usually context clues that can help observant, open-minded investigators tell whether the death was an active choice or a sex game gone wrong.  

A man who attempts autoerotic asphyxiation is after sexual gratification, and thus, in case of accident, his body might be found with pants and underwear lowered or removed. (Indeed, the Associated Press notes that Ariel Castro's “pants and underwear were pulled down to his ankles when he was found.”) If the male victim is clad in women’s clothing—which, for the record, Ariel Castro was not—that’s also a pretty good sign that he did not mean to die.

For a 1992 article in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Stephen J. Hucker and Ray Blanchard analyzed death scenes from 118 fatal cases of autoerotic asphyxia, then compared them against cases of suicidal asphyxia. They found that “if one classifies all cases where the corpse was nude, cross-dressed, or found with the genitals exposed or accessible as autoerotic accidents and classifies all other subjects as suicides, then one would correctly predict the coroner's verdict in all but 14 of the 235 cases with information.” Suicide victims like to die with their clothes on; in Hucker and Blanchard’s sample, suicides were never fully nude.

If a corpse’s hand is found on or near its genitals, then it might be a sign of a sexual accident. If there’s ejaculate near the body, same thing. The conspicuous presence of tissues, lubricant, bondage gear, pornography, and other masturbatory aids also offers a clue. (Hucker and Blanchard note the popularity of “self-written fantasy material or fantasy props” among autoerotic asphxyia deaths.) An autoerotic asphyxiator will sometimes put protective padding around his noose in order to avoid bruises, or some sort of “quick release device” that is intended to protect against accidental death. People with suicide on their minds never do this.

Also, since an autoerotic asphyxiator craves sexual release, not release from all the troubles of this world, he will generally not leave a suicide note. Now, plenty of suicides don’t leave notes, either. But in Hucker and Blanchard’s sample, autoerotic asphyxia victims never left an explicit suicide note, nor did they verbally communicate any suicidal intent. Finally, as my colleague Josh Voorhees already noted, the report into Ariel Castro’s sudden death found that “no evidence of serious mental illness or indications for suicide precautions were present.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 90 percent of suicide victims also struggle with depression and other mental health or substance-abuse disorders. The absence of those risk factors in a strangulation death also might serve to indicate an autoerotic asphyxiation accident.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.