There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Super Tight: A Fetish for Restraint
I loved Superman comics. They were my introduction to two obsessions that continue to define me, twenty-five years later: short-short fiction and a fetish for compression garments. I discovered them both in the lurid pages of those comics the summer that everyone stopped talking to me. I was nine years old. I had plenty of time to read. I crouched next to a cardboard box of old comic books in my grandparents’ attic, tightening my belt.
The superheroes spoke in block letters jammed into grey bubbles—phrases that, taken separately, could have been a poem. Their bodies were the wrong shape, square heads and meaty thighs: the male characters had torsos with just a parabola showing where their ribs were; the females had conical breasts and tiny wasp waists. And this was also the year I stopped eating and started wearing tight clothes. Nothing was ever tight enough. My shoes were laced so that my feet turned white. Under my clothes, I wore a cinch belt and I pulled on it throughout the day, snugging myself in an inch at a time. Tighter. I loved to squeeze handfuls of myself and feel my bones underneath my skin. My body was covered in penny-sized bruises.
I didn’t connect this desire to strangle myself with anything else in my life, though of course the shadows were there. If you’d offered me any superpower I desired, my choice would have been the ability to change shape at will. Strange for a child, but then again I was strange. Then and now, strange. The difference is that people no longer tell me so, because I have learned it for myself.
These comics were from the Silver Age of Comic Books. Before Denny O’Neil, Jack Kirby. They were simple the way haiku are. Exposition was one line, at most. I filled in the narrative blanks as I tracked the block panels with a smudgy finger.
Back then, Superman was pure and marvelous. He hadn’t died or been reinvented or forced to work with other heroes yet. He was not morally complex. He was good in a way that is difficult to describe but easy to identify. (Wonder Woman, the goddess of bondage and American justice, was in the collection, too, but her motives were too altruistic to interest me.)
My favorite comic in the box was the most delicate. Its staple binding was coming loose, so I had to spread it across my lap to read it. It was an old Superboy, sun-faded. The paper was yellowing and had a rough texture—pulp, the kind of thing you’d use for a firestarter in a pinch. This issue centered not on Lois, but the lovely redhead Lana Lang. Clark Kent, hapless as ever, chose to ignore the looks she gave him, her frequently offered company and compliments. Jimmy Olsen, on the other hand, wearing a triangle of freckles on each ruddy cheek, picked up Lana’s message loud and clear. Lois Lane appeared only on the first page of this comic, just long enough to establish that Lana’s craving for Clark was destined to go unfulfilled.
In the story, Lana is bitten by a radioactive insect of some kind. She falls into a strange dream state. Her body transforms; she is sheathed in a purplish-black leather catsuit, and a coquettishly small mask covers her eyes. Her hands are gloved and, aside from her insanely bright lipstick, the only way to recognize her is her auburn hair—the same color as Jimmy’s, because the comic book was cheaply produced in six spot colors, not the luxurious palette comics have now.
Lana’s mind changes, too. The insect bite transforms her from a sweet girl with ulterior motives to a full-on vixen. Her attention is laser-focused on Superman. She craves him with a thirst that approaches the vampiric; her new powers, fueled by her obsession, enable her to hunt him in unexpected ways. She turns into a giant ant and lifts boulders like they are crumbs, sends them rolling down Wall Street. Clark zips into his costume and sets to rescuing Metropolis, but at first, Lana’s unstoppable. She throws school buses and he catches them. She attacks him with the rapier of her stinger. He evades her. She weaves a spider web between the skyscrapers and captures him, rolling him in silk. As she approaches to take the first bite, he bursts free. He’s the Man of Steel, after all; it would take more than Lana’s threads to hold him. She grows massive, mesmerizing butterfly wings and he gently shreds them. As she loses altitude, he catches her gently in his arms and lowers her to the pavement.
“What’s happening to me!” she cries. Her eyes flicker. She’s pushed her new body to the limit and exhausted herself. Superman, on the other hand, is as hardy as ever, and as they descend from the shredded web to the hot pavement, she clings to him. Her superpowers are fading, but in a final burst she produces a soft cocoon around herself. By the time Superman reaches the ground, Lana is completely encased, a mummy. Inside the cocoon, concentric lines indicate that another transformation is happening—a reverse metamorphosis. She goes from butterfly to chrysalis in a few panels, and when Superman looks down at her, he uses his super-sight to peer through the cocoon’s mysterious layers at the beautiful woman inside it, as inert as Snow White, full of potential.
After I read about Lana, I, too, built an exoskeleton around myself. I didn’t want to be human—I wanted her power. My sentences encased me, as intimate and strict as a corset. I hoped that when I emerged, I would be changed—changed into something awful and beautiful that could never, ever go back to the way she was. When I started to write my first short stories—stories that got shorter with each edit—I knew that my wish had come true.
My writing and editing have a reputation for being ferocious. Omit needless words is the injunction from Strunk & White. I came to this naturally. I have always been unsparing—of myself, and others. Sometimes, I read with a belt around my neck. Try it. Every word is precious. Try cutting every adjective. Deny yourself a part of speech and see how weak your sentence constructions are. I have trained myself, ruthless as a dominatrix. How can this be tighter? One reader told me that my paragraphs were so dense that he choked, reading them. I knew then that I had succeeded.
I have met so many writers who want to be Superman—lifting a train over their heads, saving a city with the bright promise of their words. Their writing is grand, meant for stadiums and stages. Fear not! they seem to shout, bounding into the fray. They wield beefy paragraphs. They perform astounding feats and are rewarded with applause. So brave, so strong, so bracing. So what? Less is more. I want to destroy you with one perfectly sharp sentence. I want to do more with six words than other writers do with two thousand. After all, Superboy #124 was twenty battered pages, and has left an indelible mark on me—more than any of the novels I’ve read. Even then, its brevity left me gasping.
When I write now, it is not Superman I think of, but Lana in her layers of silk. How hard and shiny her carapace. I write shorter and shorter stories and edit the air out of them. I wear a leather collar when I write, sometimes, or a latex corset that reminds me to be sparing with my words. I still prefer leather boots with heels and clothes so tight they leave seam marks like scars across me. And I like Lydia Davis—her brief, bold dabs of fiction, bright as a smear of lipstick—more than the endless scroll of Proust she translated.
Short-short fiction is not about being clever. It is about the essential parts of story. The bones. The steel rods and rings. The skin that goes white with tension. Tolerating that kind of discomfort takes practice, yes, but it is exhilarating. It is a pleasure. The closer I draw the words around me, the more I feel my power. I feel everything until I am numb. Then, I can squeeze my way into the story. It makes a shape that is tight, and smooth, and takes your breath away.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.