This essay was originally published Dec 14, 2005, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.
The connection between eating and having sex is a fairly obvious one. Many of the words we use to describe sexual desire (hunger, voracious appetite) and sex acts themselves (eating out, munching), and even various body parts (my favorite: “the split knish”) refer to food—an obvious parallel given the importance of the mouth to both eating and sex. The connection is deeper than just slang, though—Edmund Leach noted in 1964 that the way we categorize the animals we eat and the way we categorize potential sex partners are parallel as well (at least in mid-century Britain): women and animals that live in the home (sisters, dogs) are off-limits for eating and/or sex; animals and women that live outside the domestic sphere (cattle and other animals that roam more or less freely, neighbors) are potential sex and marriage partners; and the truly exotic, those living entirely outside of the familiar world altogether (emu, Africans—from a British perspective) are neither food nor sex partners. Among the Arapesh and Adelam peoples studied by Margaret Mead (1935), a man could eat neither one’s own yams and pigs nor one’s own mother and sister, while:
Other people’s mothers
Other people’s sisters
Other people’s pigs
Other people’s yams which they have piled up
You may eat (Mead: 78).
With such a thin line between eating and “eating”, it seems unsurprising that some people would seek to combine the two more explicitly. Enter the cann-fetish (some explicit langauge, probably not worksafe)—cannibal fetishism (or cannibalism fetish). While many of us are familiar with the case of Armin Meiwes, the German man convicted recently of killing and eating a partner he met and coordinated the killing with over the Internet, Meiwes represents an extreme distortion of what is becoming a significant, if small, fetish community. For the most part, cann-fetishists stop short of actually eating or hurting anyone, rather endulging in a rather elaborate pretend-feast involving trussing the “meal” (generally a willing female, who is bound and whose various orifices will be poked, prodded, and filled with various trimmings and cooking implements), coating her (or, apparently far more rarely, him) with oil, butter, honey, and other basting substances, and “cooking” her in a make-believe oven.
Given the elaborate bindings and the rich fantasy elements, it would not be too far off the mark to describe cann-fetishism as a sub-genre of BDSM (bondage/domination/sado-masochism), replacing the leather-and-chains aesthetic with a playful June Cleaver look. Central to both “mainstream” BDSM and cann-fetishism is the (voluntary) passivity and objectivization of the subject—as one enthusiast puts it, “I like to think I’m inanimate, without a conscience. There’s a feeling of transcendence when I’m being transformed.” For the subject, there’s also an element of exhibitionism, of being the center of attention. The same woman says, “It’s the same attention you give the turkey on Thanksgiving. Everybody is just obsessed with that turkey. Ooooooh, the turkey the turkey the turkey. When is the turkey going to be done? It’s so exciting!”
While to outsiders (like myself, I must admit), BDSM, including cann-fetishism, seems centered around degradation and humiliation, for its practitioners there’s something rather more complex at work. BDSM participants, both “tops” (dominant partners, “doms”) and “bottoms” (submissive partners, “subs”), get off on playing with power roles, in a way that is often strikingly subversive. The power that a “dom” enjoys over their “sub” comes with great responsibility for the emotional and erotic satisfaction of the “sub”, as well as for their physical and psychological health. Consider this piece of advice from The Beginners Guide to Dominance and Submission (the first website I cam across googling domination+submission+rules):
The Dom should not arbitrarily punish the sub on a whim. There must be a reason. To do otherwise will break down the trust and security of the sub. The Dom has to be respected by the sub. Respect is a quality that is earned by the Dom being right, and issuing swift, correct justice and reward to the sub. The Dom is not there to inflict pain and degradation on the sub, but to give the sub a goal and a direction on how to love and please him.
Participants in this kind of play are binding themselves to their partner with promises and gifts of trust, making very explicit the “rights and obligations” that anthropologists see at the root of all social relationships. The question of “who is in control” can become muddied rather quickly.
What sets cann-fetishists apart in this regard is not so much the ritual consumption of the “sub” as the rich semiotic and aesthetic stew in which their particlar brand of BDSM is marinated. Unlike the pseudo-fascistic trappings of “mainstream” BDSM, cann-fetishism (or at least the kind described in the article) draws on—and, I believe, subverts—images of domestic bliss straight out of “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show”, images laden with power relations between dominant husbands and submissive wives only a short step away from climbing onto the table and offering their own bodies up for the sustenence of their families. Which is to say, only a short step away from devolving from the height of “civilized” living to the worst stereotypes of “primitive” cannibalism. One of the cann-fetishists in the article even collects old-fashioned gag images of cannibals boiling their victim in giant stew-pots, à la this image. Although tinged with a kind of nostalgia, the parodic “Ozzie and Harriet” aesthetic represents a conscious break with and rejection of these roles, reserving them for “playtime” and transforming them into scenes of orgiastic perversion. I doubt very much June Cleaver ever used the word “assplay”.
[Thanks to Jill at Feministe for the link.]
Leach, Edmund. 1964. “Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse.” In New Directions in the Study of Language, ed. Eric Lenneberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Pp. 23 – 64.
Mead, Margaret. 1935 . Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Harper Perennial.