Strangulation In Domestic Violence Is a Dire Red Flag: Here’s How To Help Victims

Strangulation is one of the most underreported crimes of domestic violence. It’s also among the most deadly. According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, domestic violence strangulation is a key predictor of future domestic violence homicide.

New Jersey recently passed a law elevating strangulation from a third to a second degree crime in the state. As Bari Weinberger wrote in her recent New Jersey Law Journal article, “Strangulation: How The ‘Rough Sex’ Defense Doesn’t Wash in DV Cases,” while this new law is an important step in the right direction, there’s more work to be done to bring justice to victims of strangulation.

Do you have a friend or loved one who you suspect may be a victims of domestic violence strangulation? Here’s how to get them the help they need. 

Symptoms of strangulation 

Strangulation may or may not leave obvious neck lesions. Lack of an outward sign contributes to some victims feeling like they won’t be believed if they go to the police.

Here’s what victims need to know: Strangulation creates many other signs and symptoms that law enforcement and domestic violence agencies are trained to recognize. 

Symptoms of strangulation include: 

  • difficulty breathing, 
  • raspy, hoarse or loss of voice, 
  • coughing, 
  • difficulty swallowing, 
  • drooling, 
  • nausea, 
  • vomiting, 
  • hallucinations, 
  • headaches, 
  • light headedness and dizziness, 
  • urination or defecation,
  • blood shot eyes, 
  • internal contusions and injuries
  • lost of consciousness. 

A victim of strangulation should seek out a medical exam that documents any of the above list, as well as other strangulation-related injuries or injuries related to other forms of domestic violence assault (i.e., bruises on other parts of the body). 

The “rough sex” defense — and how to shine the light on the truth

Among certain subgroups, strangulation and choking are increasingly viewed as acceptable forms of “safe risk” sex play. This normalization of strangulation and choking creates confusion for victims and contributes to strangulation remaining hidden and underreported. Glorification of sexual violence has also given rise to more defense claims from abusers that the strangulation was part of a consensual sex act. 

Legally, there is precedent for consensual rough sex to be used as a defense, dating back to the Robert Chambers “preppie murder” in New York City in the late 1980s. If you are old enough to recall, Robert Chambers and Jennifer Levin had been dating casually when police found Levin strangled in Central Park after the couple went for a late-night walk. At trial, Chambers argued that Levin’s death occurred accidentally during consensual rough sex. The argument convinced the prosecution to accept a plea of manslaughter rather than gamble on a murder conviction. Other defendants soon adopted the defense, often with similar results.

In cases where strangulation is part of a domestic violence case, the consensual rough sex defense may be included to reduce the severity of the charges.

How can victims overcome a wrongful defensive claim? Document, document, document. Victims should write out detailed accounts of the strangulation. Support may be needed for this emotionally heavy task; talking to a counselor who records and transcribes the account may be helpful. What victims need to know: Writing out descriptions of abusive events and actions in the relationship presents a fuller and more accurate picture to the courts. As they saying goes, lies wither in the light of the truth.

Strangulation is domestic violence 

Strangulation is a crime of physical assault, one of the 19 crimes of domestic violence recognized in New Jersey. As a second degree crime in the state, strangulation carries criminal penalties including imprisonment.  

Strangulation in domestic violence situations virtually never exists in a vacuum. There are typically other forms of abuse and violence taking place in the relationship: 

  • Other physical abuse: hitting, punching, pushing, threats of physical abuse.
  • Financial abuse: controlling and cutting off victim’s access to money (including victim’s own income); abusing victim so they are unable to work; ruining victim’s credit and/or taking out fraudulent loans and credit cards.
  • Sexual abuse: sexual assault and rape (strangulation often overlaps with sexual abuse). 
  • Emotional abuse: isolating victim from friends and family as a means of control; harassment; gaslighting victim to distort reality; calling the victim names and claiming no one will believe victim. 

It can help victims to work through each of these areas to describe and document which issues have shown up in their relationship and how. For example, victims may not understand that withholding of income is identified as financial abuse. This process may also best be accomplished with the support of a therapist, domestic violence counselor or family law attorney.  

Accessing help and protection

Manipulation and control are devastating to the human psyche and victims often have an extremely difficult time making that first step. Friends and family members can help their loved one make a safety plan for leaving their abuser and connect with domestic violence support resources. 

For victims, it’s important that you know: you can get out, you can get your children out and you can get to safety. The law is on your side. You can file for a temporary restraining order to immediately break off contact and create a wall of protection. As part of the restraining order process, you can also apply for temporary alimony and temporary child support to give you money to live. 

We have free support resources including detailed steps on how to obtain protection in domestic violence situations. Please use these helping resources to safeguard you or your loved one’s physical and emotional health.

Download a free safety plan PDF

Learn How To File For A Temporary Restraining Order (TRO)

Download our free e-book: Help for Victims of Domestic Violence in New Jersey

Emergency Help for Domestic Violence Victims: Are you being abused by a spouse or intimate/domestic partner? For immediate help, call 911 or your local emergency services. For information regarding safe house shelters and other crisis services, contact the New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 572-7233 (SAFE) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 (SAFE).