I was asked earlier this week to write an article for another venue about a sexual fetish formerly unknown to me: claustrophilia, an extreme form of bondage whose adherents are aroused by total encasement in tight spaces such as boxes, bags, cages, caskets, and car trunks. During the ongoing inquest into the mysterious death of British superspy Gareth Williams, whose corpse was found padlocked inside a duffel bag in his apartment two years ago, it was proposed that Williams' might been murdered but might also have been engaging in a claustrophilia session that went haywire. Willliams was known to have been interested in this fetish.
How, you might ask yourself, could total immobility be hot?
Sex educator Carol Queen, cofounder of San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture, told me the thrill could stem from a sense of helplessness (a staple among the bondage-discipline-submission-masochism set), or from altered breathing, which gives a sense of being high. She said it could also stem from proprioception: "the body's experience of itself in space."
This last thought was confirmed by Cornell University associate professor of romance studies Cary Howie, author of Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature, which examines the fetish as it pertains to poetry, hermit saints, and more. Howie theorizes that claustrophilia is all about "the use of space to intensify desire." Small spaces from which we cannot escape make us hyperaware that we have bodies, he points out.
Seattle-based bondagewear company Winter Fetish sells “sleepsacks,” sock-like skintight Spandex enclosures that zip up in back from the shins to the top of the head. Wearers can neither separate their legs nor move their arms from their sides.
“The sleepsacks have internal sleeves so that the captive cannot protect or pleasure themselves,” Winter Fetish designer Tonya Winter told me. “There are also access zippers that make the captive’s most sensitive areas available, should the captor desire.”
Claustrophilia is the opposite of claustrophobia. Whereas for most people the idea of being completely confined spurs sheer terror, for others it brings ecstasy — sexual or otherwise.
In 1965, autism advocate Temple Grandin invented the “hug machine,” a V-shaped device whose users position themselves between two vertical mattresses that are gradually brought together for an ever-tighter squeeze. Studies show that this process induces deep calm in people with autism.
While researching and writing this article and thinking about being totally enclosed, I realized that this sensation attracted me intensely when I was a child. Not fond of human touch, I found myself constantly wanting to crawl under beds or into cupboards or closets. I remember hours spent feeling profoundly placid while curled up very tightly in my own emptied-out toybox. To this day I sometimes crawl into closets and close their doors tightly behind me. This still feels very good, although not in a sexual sense.
Another device popular among claustrophilics is the vacuum bed or "vacbed": a platform topped with a latex sheet. A user slips beneath the sheet, head and all; a pump sucks all air from between the latex and the board, shrink-wrapping the user, who breathes through a tiny hole or tube.
Tokyo-based photographer Max Hodges explored this branch of the fetish, which is especialy popular in Japan, with his series, "Vacuum Packed."
"I like the reflections and how some of the models appear commodified into shink-wrapped products," Hodges told me this week.
"I got into the bag myself a few times and can't say that I enjoy it at all. I'd like to warn anyone who ever thinks about playing with these bags that you are completely at the mercy of the person operating the vacuum, and you maybe unable to open the bag from the inside. So never do this with anyone you don't completely trust, or it would turn into a nightmare experience."
Hodges asked one of his models, Rina Yuduki, how being vacuum-packed felt for her.
"It was fun," she told him. "If asked, I'd do it again. it was much less uncomfortable than I expected. ... I felt like an embryo and that was a blast."