Young superspy Gareth Williams was found dead in his London apartment in August 2010, his nude body padlocked inside a North Face duffel bag. An inquest this week seeks to determine whether the British math wizard/code expert/counterterrorism hotshot was murdered or died of sexual misadventure. His computer revealed visits to websites about claustrophilia, a fetish for confinement in very tight spaces.
Helpless immobility is hot, yes?
It is for adherents of this extreme form of bondage, who happily climb into bags, boxes, cages, caskets, car trunks, airless latex envelopes, and skintight full-body getups complete with zippered eyes and mouths.
“Gas masks and hoods could be considered related, I think,” says Carol Queen, co-founder of San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture and author of Exhibitionism for the Shy. “I once attended a fetish party in the Hollywood Hills at which a dominatrix put her client into a full-body cast, clearly a variant of claustrophilia.”
What makes encasement so enticing?
“There’s helplessness: the neurological turn-on is probably related to proprioception, the body’s experience of itself in space,” says Queen. “And there is likely a rush from doing it because it’s extreme. It would also powerfully alter the breath, which would give a feeling like being high.”
The Seattle-based bondage-wear company Winter Fetish produces straitjackets, vinyl hobble dresses, and Spandex “sleepsacks,” sock-like skintight enclosures that zip up in back from the shins to the top of the head. Looking like sleek black caterpillars, wearers cannot separate their legs or move their arms from their sides.
“The sleepsacks have internal sleeves so that the captive cannot protect or pleasure themselves,” says Winter Fetish designer Tonya Winter. “There are also access zippers that make the captive’s most sensitive areas available, should the captor desire.”
Sleepsacks provide a feeling of helplessness, a staple of BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission, masochism). But for other sleepsackers the appeal is entirely different, Winter explains, as “the tight fit can cause some people to experience a sense of calm.”
Claustrophilia is the diametric opposite of claustrophobia. Whereas for most people the idea of being completely confined spurs fearful ideas of slavery and suffocation, for some it brings an ecstatic sense of comfort—sexual or otherwise.
This might be especially true for those who feel discomfited by human touch. To relieve anxiety among people with autism, Temple Grandin invented the “hug machine,” a V-shaped device whose users squat or lie between two vertical mattresses that are gradually brought together for an ever-tighter squeeze. Studies show that the full-body pressure hug machines exert induces deep calm in people with autism.
Getting into tight spaces from which escape is difficult or even impossible is the goal for claustrophiles. The choice of space may vary. One option 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.
“Trunk Stories,” a Yahoo group for one type of claustrophile, features pictures of smiling people curled up in car trunks, waiting eagerly to be locked inside. The “Locker Fun” group asks potential members: “Were you ever locked in a locker at school? Or did you think it fun to lock others inside lockers?...Would you like to relive those fun school locker pranks?” The “Bagged” group beckons fans of “the romance, escape artistry, or kidnap fantisy [sic] of being put into a burlap or canvas sack. Perhaps bound and gagged and spirited off to some hideaway.”
Or perhaps dying, as Williams did. Not that we know claustrophilia killed him.
“Provided this was not a clever KGB hit,” Queen muses, the spy’s death might have involved a partner who fled when things went pear-shaped, a possibility the inquest is investigating.
“It’s even possible that part of the thrill was being left by that other person and then the idea would be that they’d return to let him out. Clearly this could go wrong,” Queen says.
For safe and sane erotic encasement, “having someone to monitor you would be imperative,” she says. “As with autoerotic asphyxiation, there’s a level of altered state with this kind of play, as well as physical stress, that could leave a participant doing it alone unable to save him- or herself if necessary.”
A trustworthy partner, while “never leaving the room,” should conduct all proceedings “in great quiet so that changes in breathing would be apparent,” Queen says. “Prior discussion about how to communicate if the claustrophilic individual couldn’t speak would also be very important.”
Latex and Spandex are just the latest features of a fetish that dates back more than a thousand years, says Cary Howie, associate professor of romance studies at Cornell University and the author of Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature, which examines claustrophilic aspects of cathedral architecture, poetic diction, and the lives of hermit saints.
The element they have in common, Howie tells The Daily Beast, is “the use of spatial limits to intensify desire.”
“Imagine all the ways in which limitation produces or heightens sensation, from tight clothes to the formal constraints of certain kinds of writing, and then imagine how this works in space,” he says.
A very tight space makes you “more aware of how much space your body takes up; it makes it more difficult, I think, to forget that you have a body,” he adds. “So, among other things, claustrophilia might be a name for wanting to be reminded of the body through spatial constraints.”
Postmodern fetishism includes many “ways of using space to make the body feel itself more intensely, to feel itself as more intensely related to other bodies. There are probably also ways in which space could be used to make the body feel more isolated, more alone. That is, there are practices that shut the body down and practices that open the body up.”
Sensory deprivation, isolation, altered breathing, and fear expanding into a sense of surrender: claustrophilic kicks might be just as spiritual as they are sexual.
“There are people who love the meditative state that they can achieve from the deep pressure that tight confinement can cause,” says Winter Fetish project manager Jake Markow. “Others love the thrill of putting themselves in the trusted hands of another.”
In Williams’s case, we might never know.