For a 2005 article on cannibal porn (NSFW) in the Village Voice, author Katharine Gates interviewed the proprietor of Muki's Kitchen about the limits of this fantasy. The real thing isn't sexy, "Mr. Muki" told her. "I think boobies are just great, but there's nothing edible in a boob," he said. "It's just glands and fat." He also pointed out that the real thing would involve skinning and beheading and other gross things that would be a major turn-off for most of the fetishists who visit his site.
That aversion to the real-life details of cannibalism seems to be quite common among the people who frequent cannibal-themed porn venues. The author of a letter posted to one of these sites in the late 1990s explains: "Such a messy procedure hardly conjures up an erotic image of desirable intimacy." Another says: "Confronted with real situations similar to my fantasies, I don't think I would find them erotic (and I don't plan to ever find out)."
As for the cartoon, which Gawker called "somehow the creepiest of all," that comes from a cherished collection of fetish imagery by a reclusive artist called Dolcett (NSFW), whose widely shared drawings of women being cooked or asphyxiated has made him into something like the Banksy of cannibal porn. The woman in the cartoon, Karyn, turns out to be modeled on a real person with a fantasy of being eaten. And while many of Dolcett's drawings are unquestionably disturbing, the man himself says he has no interest in violence. "The real aspects of torture and pain are not part of my fantasies even on the more heavy-handed ones," he told Karyn.
One can find probing discussions of these issues on the vore message boards, including debates on how it relates to mental illness, whether one can or should share the fantasy with people "IRL" (in real life), and the endless back-and-forth over the question of its prevalence in the general population. One user cites the recent book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which gives a list of the top 100 sexual search terms according to Dogpile. "Vore" comes in at No. 85, just ahead of "clowns," not far below "small breasts," and 16 spots away from "unicorns."
Gilberto Valle has said that he's been a fan of cannibal porn since his sophomore year of college and that his interest in bondage goes even further back to a time when he watched Cameron Diaz get tied to a coconut tree in the Jim Carrey film The Mask. Does this long-standing fascination with tying up women and eating them (perhaps in tropical milieus) mark Valle as a potential criminal? Left undisturbed, would he have ended up another Jeffrey Dahmer?
The forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Dahmer for 18 hours thinks not. In preparation for his testimony in that trial more than 20 years ago, Park Dietz got to know the serial killer pretty well, and in the end he concluded that Dahmer's sexual paraphilias—which included both cannibalism and a desire to have sex with dead bodies—could be clearly distinguished from his drive to kill. As such, he said, Dahmer did not meet the legal definition for insanity: His nutty proclivities could not be blamed for his murderous behavior. Now Dietz, who interviewed Valle for the defense, is expected to testify on his behalf, arguing that Valle showed no signs of being inclined to act out his dark role-plays, despite the ferocity of his desires.
The FBI did not have the benefit of a face-to-face psychiatric evaluation as they investigated Valle, however, so the feds were left to look for what former prosecutor and Columbia law professor Daniel Richman calls "marks in the sand" that might distinguish between real criminal plans and strange personal fantasies. "A straight-laced prosecutor is going to be ill-equipped to recognize the odd preferences in the hearts of men," says Richman, but they still have to deal with the problem of how to sort legitimate threats from Internet daydreams.
In making these sorts of decisions, prosecutors must consider the potential magnitude of the crime and balance that against the likelihood that a stated plan would ever be carried out. That calculation—which sometimes comes out looking like Pascal's Wager—can lead to both prudent prosecutions and shameful overreaches. (For examples of the latter, see some recent battles in the war on terrorism.) In Valle's case, this calculus of risk seems to have been misapplied. His plot to kidnap and cook one woman—or to cook 100, including his wife, as has now been suggested—isn't just improbable. It's downright ridiculous.
If Valle were a pedophile, and if his alleged victims were minors, the math might be different. It may well be that that the majority of pedophiles never act out their fantasies and lead law-abiding lives replete with sessions of harmless masturbation. But there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that sexual crimes against children—a uniquely vulnerable population—are committed with startling frequency.
At the other end of the spectrum are those sexual fetishes that are virtually never acted out. A few years ago, I wrote a piece on the culture of quicksand and the surprising coterie of those who find it sexually exciting. One member of that community, a chatty, middle-aged man named Duncan Edwards, explained that "watchers" like him are subdivided according to how far they like to see a woman submerged. "It's a very personal thing," he told me. Some men like to see women sink down to their waists, others like to see them covered to their armpits, and still others prefer "grim endings" in which the women disappear into a smattering of bubbles.