3 Very Good Reasons to Eat Your Lover
Real cannibals may be hard to come by these days, but sexual cannibalism is a surprisingly common fetish.
If you google “erotic cannibalism” (at your own risk) you’ll find niche websites such as Forbidden Feast (NSFW) which generally deal in gynophagia, a fetish for cooking and eating women. It even has its own sub-communities. The word Dolcett, derived from a popular fetish artist, refers specifically to live spit roasting in the literal sense. Yes, there are heated internet debates about the best way to cook your victim.
Gay cannibalism isn’t unheard of, but it is less common. Armin Meiwes, one of the most famous modern cannibals, went to trial for killing and eating a consenting male victim. Everyone has heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer who killed and ate young men, and then kept parts of their bodies around for company.
But why did they do it? Why would anyone do that, or even fantasize about it? Why write a book about it?
We can’t claim to explain any one person’s paraphilia, but there are some general motivations which apply to most forms of fetishism, even when the kink in question is extreme.
1. Breaking Taboos is Sexy
Though some are of the progressive opinion that any activity between two consenting adults should be legal, society as a whole frowns upon eating human flesh.
There are always exceptions: the sailors of the Mignonette were adrift for two months and ate their dying crewmate, Richard Parker. The infamous Donner party ate their own to avoid starvation. In general, starvation is a socially acceptable motivation for cannibalism.
The Fore peoples of Paupa New Guinea consume the flesh of their dead tribe members during funerary rites. Cannibalism of slain enemies has allegedly occurred as recently as WWII. Most westerners can begrudgingly accept these scenarios, but the fact remains: it’s uncool to eat your friends.
Why is cannibalism taboo?
Until the 1980s, scientists believed that animals only ate members of their own species out of desperation, due to starvation or overcrowding. Since then, we’ve discovered that the practice is much more common than originally assumed.
The praying mantis and black widow spider immediately come to mind for their practice of sexual cannibalism, but plenty of animals stand to gain an evolutionary advantage by eating their own.
Take for instance the spadefoot toad, whose tadpoles occasionally eat each other. Since the shallow puddles where they lay their eggs can quickly dry up, tadpoles are more likely to survive if they grow faster than their peers and escape the puddle as soon as possible. One way to accomplish this is by eating other tadpoles.
This is evidence against the theory that biological instinct prevents us from eating each other.
According to zoologist and academic Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: a Perfectly Natural History, westerners engaged in widespread cannibalism as recently as the renaissance.
Schutt asserts that the taboo against cannibalism really caught on as a result of imperialism. During the age of exploration, Queen Isabella of Spain declared that any locals who did not practice cannibalism could not be taken as slaves.
Naturally, many indigenous peoples were labeled cannibals, whether or not they ate each other. “If you can call someone a cannibal,” Schutt says, “you can do anything you want to them.”
Why is it erotic to break taboos?
Brett Kahr, psychotherapist and author of Who’s Been Sleeping in your Head?, found that in a nonclinical sample, many “normal” individuals had taboo fantasies. “Disturbed” individuals tended toward a simple, one-dimensional fantasy life.
Kahr analyzed over 23,000 sexual fantasies, and concluded that there is no such thing as a standard fantasy. Humans are incredibly diverse, and this extends to our sex lives, both real and imagined.
Taboo fantasies are incredibly common. Depending on the study, between ⅓ and ⅔ of women have rape fantasies. As in most aspects of psychology, we don’t have a concrete answer as to why, but we have some pretty good theories.
Kahr suggests that we must have an area of secrecy in order to maintain a sense of control over our lives. Freud, as usual, draws a straight line from our early sexual development to our adult sexual interests.
One of the more popular, evidence-based theories is that fear and arousal are closely linked. We get off on things we’re afraid of. The body's response to fear—pounding heart, quickened breath, sweaty palms—is very similar to the body's response to sexual arousal. It stands to reason that the two can be confused.
A woman who is terrified of drowning is deeply aroused by being underwater. A man with authority issues has fantasies of being assaulted by police. A woman whose parents survived a concentration camp is sexually attracted to nazis (a real example, uncited to protect her privacy.)
It’s easy to understand why the prospect of being eaten could be terrifying. Those who have victim fantasies could be exploring a moment of extreme fear, which becomes safe when it’s eroticized.
There is little to fear when eating another person (except the kuru disease, perhaps) but the idea of being caught could be horrifying.
One anonymous cannibal wrote:
“My fantasy is complicated. It starts with cooking and eating someone (doesn’t really matter who) or being forced to do it. The important part is what happens when I’m found out. I’m publicly ridiculed, and everywhere I go people label me as a cannibal. My reputation is ruined, my life is ruined. It’s the ultimate release of control.”
This harkens back to the original purpose of the taboo: if you can call someone a cannibal, you can do whatever you want to them.
Fetishism also gives us a safe place to explore the traumatic or socially unacceptable. This is a popular (but not necessarily evidence-based) theory in regards to rape victims who enjoy play rape in the bedroom. By sexually embracing the unpleasant or unacceptable, we can reclaim our power or free ourselves from the burden of adhering to societal rules.
Which brings us to our next point...
2. Cannibalism is a Form of Control
Plenty of would-be cannibals aren’t afraid of being eaten, or eating others. If a particular fantasy doesn’t involve being caught cannibalizing someone, where does the fear come from? Another explanation is that both taking control and releasing control are cued interests, or things we find instinctually arousing.
Though it’s not frequently acknowledged, our society is built on power exchange.
Your boss has power over you, his boss has power over him, and so on. Especially in capitalist societies, we are constantly concerned with our place in the pecking order, and it can be exhausting.
If you’re insecure about your power (or lack thereof), there are two very logical responses: seizing control in your personal life, or relinquishing that control.
BDSM is so common that it’s becoming slowly destigmatized. Most understand on an instinctual level the appeal of being in power. Sexually, it can be liberating to take control of someone in an emotionally safe space, especially if you feel like you don't have much control over other aspects of your life.
It’s also easy to see how it could be a relief to temporarily opt out of the power struggle, give up, and let someone else do the thinking for you. Submission offers the opportunity to stop self-monitoring, to release our anxiety, and to exist in our bodies rather than in our minds.
Why is Cannibalism linked with power?
As the long cultural history of eating one’s enemies suggests, cannibalism is dominance.
In many societies, aggressive cannibalism originally stemmed from religious belief. The Canadian Iroquois believed that the soul resided in the body for four days after death. They would eat their enemies to prevent the soul from ascending and offering guidance to surviving members of the opposing tribe.
It’s also worth considering the intricate cultural significance of food.
Powerful tribes have plenty to eat, while weak tribes starve. Today, those with money can afford to eat whatever they want, and those without are relegated to cheap, non-nutritious food, or they go hungry.
Eating is also a ritual imbued with meaning. A meal is a time to celebrate bounty, to connect with allies, and to relax after a successful hunt. Those without the power to acquire food do not get to participate in this ritual.
Even without the religious or cultural context, entering someone else’s personal bubble is a power move. In fact, any bodily invasion can symbolize power. Consider cutting someone’s hair without their consent. The victim would likely feel violated, helpless, probably confused—couldn’t that feeling be magnified a thousand times by literally consuming the body?
Cannibal fetishists can assert their power by symbolically consuming the power of others. There is an element of sadism in some cases (itself a form of power), as in this anonymous cannibal’s fantasy:
“I am aroused by violence. I enjoy the possibility of inflicting extreme harm, and the dismemberment and murder of a human (which is often a precursor to butchering and eating the carcass in my fantasies) I find arousing in itself. However, this enjoyment pales in comparison to the actual satisfaction of consuming the flesh. The idea of tearing into the flesh of a carcass—cooked or otherwise—is incomparable to anything else.”
This quote also speaks to a potential loss of control, in shunning social norms and reverting to animal instinct.
Conversely, victims can release control and experience catharsis in the fantasy of being eaten. After all, it’s difficult to have a body. It’s hard to be a person. Wouldn’t it be nice to just...give up?
It's also worth considering cannibalism as a hedonism. Like sexuality, eating is a sensual experience. We become absorbed in the smell, taste, and texture of our food; if we're mindful, eating allows us to escape our chaotic minds and reside in our bodies for a few moments.
3. Eating Is Intimacy
In her book Divine Hunger, anthropology professor Peggy Reeves Sanday argues that cannibalism is only common in cultures which view the body as the vessel of the soul.
Tribes which consume the dead see themselves as absorbing their power. When the dead are their own, eating them is also a way of assigning meaning to random events, and thus taking control back from the universe.
The ritual of eating is bonding, celebration, power, and closeness. Food is fundamental; we die without it. So is closeness. Babies who aren’t touched will literally stop growing.
And humans are lonely.
Not just when we’re alone. We’re lonely in a metaphysical sense, in that we can only ever experience our own internal world. We can share our thoughts through art or speech or written word, but we can never truly be inside another person’s mind, nor can others visit ours.
Most people don’t think about this often, or at all, but it can be incredibly distressing for those who do. There’s a pressing, almost compulsive need to be close to others. If we aren’t, how do we even know we exist?
Intimacy brings with it a fear of inevitable loss, and cannibalism is a symbolic antidote to this very real anxiety.
If the body is the vessel of the soul, then by consuming part of the body, can we absorb part of the soul? Can we keep our lovers close to us even when they’re absent?
Taken to its extreme, killing and consuming your lover is the ultimate method of preventing loss. You control when the loss occurs, and symbolically, it needn’t occur at all, because they’ve become incorporated into your very cells.
Of course, this doesn’t literally work.
Most (but not all) cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven to ten years. Neurons don’t, but it’s debatable whether any part of your beloved would actually become brain tissue. If they did, you wouldn’t know it.
Is Sexual Cannibalism a Psychological Disorder?
This is an often-googled phrase. I assume that some people searching for the answer to this question are simply curious, while others are concerned that they themselves might be mentally ill, or even evil. For the latter, the results are less than reassuring:
At its simplest level, human sexual cannibalism is usually considered a psychosexual disorder and involves individuals’ sexualizing the consumption of another human being’s flesh. Most criminologists and psychologists claim such people are sociopaths (characterized by impulsivity, selfishness, and lack of remorse). ~The Independent
Not a particularly balanced viewpoint, but understandable in an article specifically discussing sex crimes.
But what about those who fantasize about cannibalism but never violate another person's rights in order to fulfill the fantasy? Are they disordered?
It's a complicated question.
A psychological disorder is not the same thing as an unusual pattern of thought or behavior, and many psychologists question how useful the idea of a 'disorder' really is. There is a general consensus that psychiatric illness is not a thing that exists in the world, the way a chair or a dog exists. It's something more like love: intangible, subjective, varying from person to person.
Psychiatry has a long and ugly history of using diagnosis as a tool of oppression. Full disclosure: I work and study in a mental health field, and I still believe that to view diagnosis as a purely noble endeavor is naive and even dangerous.
This is an article in itself, but for now, consider the disease model of homosexuality, which is used to justify conversion therapy even today. Or drapetomania, a "diagnosis" given in the late 1800s to slaves who wanted to escape their masters (clearly, they must be insane.)
In part to (hopefully) prevent this institutional discrimination, today's criteria for a disorder are stringent. According to the DSM-5, a few of these long-winded criteria include:
The syndrome must be associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.
It must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one.
Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.
It's an imperfect system, but it's a lot better than what we had fifty years ago.
It also sheds some light on our question. Contrary to the Independent quote (which is, again, disheartening but forgivable in context), having a cannibalism fetish does not make you a sociopath.
Fetishes are not psychological disorders unless they cause you intense distress, interfere with you daily functioning, or put you at significantly increased risk of death, injury, or arrest. Arousal at the thought of eating someone or being eaten is unusual, yes, but it's not a disorder.
Of the pool of individuals interested in this kink, so few will actually commit sexual cannibalism that, statistically, they can be ignored. Not to mention, if you literally eat your lover, you’re likely to be disappointed.
But in fantasy, symbolism is all that matters. And there are some very good, symbolic reasons to be interested in this unusual fetish. If I missed one, please let me know in the comments!
If you’re morbidly (or even sexually) fascinated by erotic cannibalism or other extreme and taboo kinks, you might enjoy my new novel, Claustrophilia.