Space invaders: A brief overview of claustrophilia
A couple of months ago, the print and broadcast media were full of reports about the inquest of Gareth Williams, the British spy who was found dead in his rented London flat, naked, and padlocked inside a North Face duffel bag in August 2010. However, some of the reports concentrated on whether the fact he was found dead in a small bag, was an indication that he was a claustrophile. The inquest heard that he had an interest in bondage websites, but this was only a very small part of his internet browsing history. The coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, declared his death as “unnatural”.
According to Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, claustrophilia is a paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and arousal from being confined in small places. The online Urban Dictionary defines claustrophlia slightly differently as individuals deriving sexual gratification from sexual intercourse in tight spaces. There are other sources that use the word ‘claustrophilia’ simply to mean “a love of small spaces” without any sexual element attached to it. For instance, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov was a self-confessed claustrophile. Citing from Asimov’s autobiography (I, Asimov: A Memoir), Asimov’s Wikipedia entry noted that:
“He enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. In the first volume of his autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within which he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains while reading”.
In the wake of the Gareth Williams story, Anneli Rufus was asked to write an article on claustrophilia for both Psychology Today and The Daily Beast. Rufus’ article in Psychology Today (‘Turned on by tight spaces’) described claustrophilia as “an extreme form of bondage whose adherents are aroused by total encasement in tight spaces such as boxes, bags, cages, caskets, and car trunks”. The press started to speculate whether Williams’ death was a claustrophilic sexual misadventure that went wrong (and according to Rufus’ article, there was some evidence that Williams was “interested in this fetish”). Rufus’ first asked Carol Queen (a sex educator from San Francisco, US) speculated that the sexual thrill in claustrophilia “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”. Alternatively, she said it could be associated with proprioception (“the body’s experience of itself in space”).
Rufus then interviewed Cornell University’s Professor Cary Howie (whose book 2009 book – Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature – I first came across over a year ago). As a literary academic, Professor Howie examined the fetishistic elements of claustrophilia in relation prose and poetry. Professor Howie told Rufus that the motivation for claustrophilia concerned “the use of space to intensify desire [and] small spaces from which we cannot escape make us hyperaware that we have bodies”. I’m not convinced that this would explain sexual desire in claustrophiles but given he’s written a book about this (and I haven’t) I’m not really in a position to criticize.
For the article in The Daily Beast (“Did claustrophilia kill U.K. spy Gareth Williams?”), Rufus used slightly different quotes from the same interview with Carol Queen.
“Gas masks and hoods could be considered related, I think. 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…There’s helplessness: the neurological turn-on is probably related to proprioception, the body’s experience of itself in space…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…It’s even possible that part of the thrill [is] 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. Having someone to monitor you would be imperative. 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. Prior discussion about how to communicate if the claustrophilic individual couldn’t speak would also be very important”.
Rufus also contacted the American [bondage-wear company Winter Fetish (WF) based in Seattle who make and sell 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”). Those who buy sleepsacks use them to facilitate feelings of helplessness – one of the bedrocks of BDSM (i.e., bondage, discipline, submission, sado/masochism). Tonya Winter, one of the WF designers told Rufus that:
“The sleepsacks have internal sleeves so that the captive cannot protect or pleasure themselves. There are also access zippers that make the captive’s most sensitive areas available, should the captor desire. [Also] the tight fit can cause some people to experience a sense of calm”.
Rufus claims that the type of closed space preferred by claustrophiles varies from person to person but that getting into enclosed from which it may be impossible to escape is the primary goal. Rufus also writes about an online forum for claustrophiles called ‘Trunk Stories’ (TS). Rufus made the following observations in relation to the TS website:
“[The TS forum] 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 fantasy of being put into a burlap or canvas sack. Perhaps bound and gagged and spirited off to some hideaway’”.
Another closely related paraphilia to claustrophilia would appear to be taphephilia, Dr. Aggrawal defines taphephilia as deriving sexual pleasure and arousal from being buried alive. I have to say that when I first read about this paraphilia I had major doubts about it’s existence until I came across groups such as the Six Feet Under Club and the Buried Stories website. As the home pages of these sites assert:
- Extract 1: “Buried or burial whilst still alive is a nightmare to some but a joy or fetish to others. The desire to be boxed, bagged and buried is a great turn on for many. The feeling of utter helplessness as the sounds of the first shovel of dirt hits the top of their coffin. The fantasy may also involve being placed in a casket, bodybag, or other enclosure before being buried either on the beach, in dirt or even in quicksand. Encased or entombed, enclosed or just bagged. ‘Buried Stories’ contains stories of people being buried, sunk in quicksand or encased within an enclosure. Some may have acted out their desires whilst others have written about their fantasy to share with you”
- Extract 2: “Even though a sexual nature is one of the few things most humans share in common, our social convention is to push all trace of it out of the public sphere. The ‘Six Feet Under Club’ offers attendees a unique opportunity to experience the warping of public and private intimate space. At [the Monochrom] conference, couples can volunteer to be buried together in a casket beneath the ground. The space they occupy will be extremely private and intimate. The coffin is a reminder of the social norm of exclusive pair bonding ‘till death do us part’”.
Apart from Professor Howie’s book, I know of no academic that has written or examined either claustrophilia or taphephilia. Furthermore, despite the many academic merits of Howie’s research, I wouldn’t describe it as in any way empirical (particularly as most of the source material is from English, French and Italian readings from the thirteenth and fourteenth century). Interesting but hardly contemporary.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Howie, C. (2009). Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature (New Middle Ages).Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Littlejohn, R. (2012). So that’s why they’re called the Funny People. Daily Mail, May 3. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2139141/Gareth-Williams-death-claustrophilia-So-thats-theyre-called-Funny-People.html#ixzz1xraBYdXY
Rufus, A. (2012). Did claustrophilia kill U.K. spy Gareth Williams? The Daily Beast, April 30. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/30/did-claustrophilia-kill-u-k-spy-gareth-williams.html
Rufus, A. (2012). Turned on by tight spaces. Psychology Today, May 2. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stuck/201205/turned-tight-spaces
Wikipedia (2012). Isaac Asimov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov