Armin B. came from a conservative family -- the father was a policeman, the brother a priest, and he himself had served in the military for 12 years. He had several unsuccessful heterosexual relationships. Yet his fantasies, which he posted to Usenet in German and English under the nickname Antrophagus, that is, man-eater (post history), involved other young men. Men he wanted to butcher, cook and eat. Jürgen's fantasy was the exact opposite -- to be killed and eaten. The fantasy became reality. Jürgen's inedible remains were found buried in Armin's garden. The police had been alerted to other, more recent posts by Armin in which he was looking for new victims. The police might have expected the posts to be fantasies or hoaxes -- they did not, and they were not.
The above link "post history" points to posts in a newsgroup called alt.sex.snuff.cannibalism. Besides the usual spam, such posts are not uncommon in the newsgroup: Some people look for others to eat, other people ask to be eaten.
There are many other such newsgroups, web forums, groups and clubs at Yahoo!, mailing lists, FTP servers, IRC channels etc. One only has to browse the huge Dark Sites directory to find very elaborate websites about various fetishes of death: murder by various means (beheading, asphyxiation, crucifixion etc.), cannibalism, women and men eaten by monsters, and so on. Mixed among these are less extreme fetishes, such as involuntary sex victims under hypnosis, asleep etc.
This, again, is only a subset of the much larger category of sexual fetishes and paraphilias. There is a huge scene called "BDSM" (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism). This scene does its best to portray itself as harmless and sometimes even as natural. A very favorable Wikipedia article explains:
In BDSM play, the top applies sensation to the bottom by spanking, slapping, pinching, stroking or scratching with fingernails, or using implements like straps, whips, paddles, canes, knives, hot wax, ice, clothespins, bamboo skewers, etc. The sensation of being bound with rope, chains, straps, cling wrap, handcuffs or other materials can also be part of the experience.
Indeed, BDSM is composed chiefly of the components immobilization and pain. In the pain category, spanking makes up a very large subgroup.
There is yet another distinction to be made between people who practice BDSM and those who merely fantasize about it.
But BDSM is hardly the only fetish. There are fetishes involving feces and urine, and fetishes towards very specific objects like shoes, undergarments and children's toys. There is a very active community of people sexually fantasizing about robots or women which are petrified as statues. And then there are men (or at least primarily men, it seems) who have fantasies about sex with dead people. And there is the amputee scene -- people who absolutely must lose one of their body parts or who want to have sex with an amputee. Like in the cannibalism case, sometimes the fantasy becomes reality, either with the help of a surgeon or without it. This appears to be related to the phenomenon of self-injury, and perhaps to the bizarre cult of trepanation.
And what about zoophiles, furries (people fantasizing about anthropomorphic animals -- a gigantic scene), pedophiles, or even homosexuals? There appears to be a distinction between these groups and the group of fetishes mentioned above. Any sexual fantasy has two components: the nature of the subject -- man, woman, child, animal, and, *cough*, anthropomorphic animal -- and the nature of the fantasy. Even a shoe fetishist doesn't like "just shoes" -- it must be shoes of a woman, a man, a child. There are, in fact, separate forums dedicated exclusively to the fantasy of eating or killing men, women, or children (!). If you browse the VCL furry art gallery archive, you will find fantasies of man-animals being killed or eaten, among more "normal" furry sex fantasies.
What the fuck is going on here?
One might wonder if there are still people who fantasize about having sex (or, even better, actually have it), and find relief in the vast pornography archives of the Internet. And one might ask the question how these often seemingly absurd fetishes have become such a large part of our culture. The answers to these questions might help us resolve the cases of non-consensual sexual deviance: rape, child abuse, or even sadistic murder and sexualized cannibalism as practiced by the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Fritz Haarmann.
In reality, the phenomenon of sexual fetishes is all but ignored by the mass media. Furries are a phenomenon that most people are probably not even aware of -- yet every day, hundreds of furry fantasies are written, images are drawn, posted and distributed. BDSM and object fetishes are sometimes the subject of ridicule in popular culture (and when Britney Spears sings "I'm a slave for you", it doesn't take much to assume solid market research behind the lyrics). But do we really know what makes us so perverted? There is certainly not much scientific inquiry into the question, and the small field of sexology is under constant siege by fundamentalists.
There is, of course, a huge difference between a man fantasizing about killing and eating another man, and the harmless furry fantasies that are so popular. And much of the furry scene is not sexual at all. But when it comes to sexual fetishes, people do not seem to have much of a choice: Some develop the most extreme ones, others fantasize about hypnosis or about robots.
Let us look for a moment at the pornography of another culture, one that preceded ours by nearly 2000 years. In the year 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted, and the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered in a thick layer of ashes and lava. Ancient archaeologists tried to dig them up, but to no avail -- only some valuables could be rescued. It was not until the 18th century that Pompeii was rediscovered -- a discovery that shocked a European society in love with antiquity. It was the discovery of a civilization that was, in many respects (including some technology), superior to the one that discovered it.
Fortunately for us, the ancient Romans loved art. Frescoes of immense beauty survived, and many of them were pornographic (selection).
Too pornographic for the times. In 1819, when king Francis I of Naples visited the exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals." Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was made briefly accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and has finally been re-opened in the year 2000. Minors are not allowed entry to the once secret cabinet without a guardian or a written permission. Even in the 1960s, selected frescoes were covered with a lockable door, which was only opened to visitors who asked at the entrance.
The frescoes, statues and figurines show sexual acts, or men with extremely enlarged penises. It was not uncommon for a kitchen or living room wall to be decorated with a fresco of the naked god Priapus, a man with a donkey-size penis. And then there is Pan, perhaps an early furry, a goat-man/god who is in one astonishingly detailed sculpture depicted as having sex with a real goat. There are the penis windchimes and the brothel paintings. Homosexuality, zoophilia, pederasty (sexual relationships between men and young boys) are known to have been widely practiced.
There are no fetishes.
There is no painting depicting spanking or other forms of BDSM. There appear to be no urine or feces fantasies. There are certainly no sexual cannibalism or sexual murder fantasies. And although ancient Rome had many erotic statues, it is unlikely that there was a wide-spread petrification fetish.
One may point out that such fetishes may have been unlikely to have been depicted openly. Still, if the Romans were so shameless about pederasty and sodomy, why be hesitant when it comes to other fantasies? While the Romans seem to have known the entire spectrum of subjects of sexual desire, they apparently have not had the same spectrum of types of sexual desire.
What about other cultures? In the 19th and 20th century, anthropologists collected large volumes of data from "primitive" cultures. In some of them, we find extreme acts of sexual mutilation -- including male and female circumcision. In others, these are entirely absent. Famous is one episode from Captain Cook's voyages of discovery in the 18th century: After a man of his crew had violated one of the native women, Cook, trying to be friendly, had the man publicly whipped and the natives invited. When the first stroke of the whip went down, the reaction was unexpected: The natives were extremely shocked and the victim of the violation cried desperately. Everyone wanted the barbaric ritual to stop.
What makes some cultures so fond of violence that they institutionalize it, and what makes others regard violence as repugnant?
The Middle Ages should be the Fetish Ages
While ancient Rome was relatively "normal" sexuality-wise, what about Christian Europe? Christianity was founded on the idea of a ritual murder: the crucifixion of Christ. The symbol of this murder remains the symbol of the religion. In some of its more extreme variants, a bleeding Jesus is often depicted in astonishing detail on the cross. And as brutal as its symbolism, as brutal is its history. Whole books have been written about the extent of self-injury (flagellation and castigation) the early "Saints" were capable of. Castration and mutilation cults were common in the early Dark Ages. The often invented martyrdom of Christians was imagined in gruesome detail -- frequently depicted, for example, is the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, who is shown with his symbol, a gridiron, which he is said to have been roasted on. Although that never happened, St. Lawrence, the first "papal librarian" (who managed the books of the church -- other books were of course not allowed) is the Saint of libraries and, well, cooks.
Little needs to be written here about the various instruments of torture, many of which were invented in the Middle Ages. It is no coincidence that many BDSM fantasies play in the Middle Ages, and use medieval instruments. Flagellation and other forms of physical punishment remain popular until today -- it was often practiced ritually, both for sexual satisfaction and behavioral correction; many priests routinely spanked girls and young women after their confession. When we see nudity in medieval and later Christian art, it is almost always in the context of murder, torture, impalement, burning, punishment etc. Is it a surprise that this culture, when it finally reawakened, was shocked by the discovery of Pompeii?
The legacy of medieval antisexuality and anti-body ideology lives on until the 21st century. The late 19th century hysteria about masturbation culminated in various forms of genital mutilation, and in the modern cult of routine infant circumcision. Spanking is still used by many parents -- in spite of evidence linking it to behavioral problems and the spanking fetish. In fact, many US schools still practice corporal punishment. One spanking-fan has created a huge archive of modern and historical corporal punishment rituals. And then there are the various fetishes.
Putting the pieces together
The re-arrival of the scientific method has allowed us to study in detail the nature of sexuality, the meaning of touch and the relevance of pleasure. I have written here before about the key findings of Dr. James Prescott, built upon the earlier research by Harry Harlow and others, related to the effects of pleasure deprivation in childhood and adolescence on behavior. Prescott's team studied both the "primitive cultures" mentioned above and the actual brain physiology of primates who are raised in isolation, without physical bonding. The results are as important and enlightening as they are obvious: Cultures that physically punish their infants and deprive them of pleasure (touch, holding, breastfeeding etc.) are more violent than those who do not. When you add a culture's treatment of juvenile sexuality, you can predict with certainty whether it is violent or not -- cultures that both punish their infants and prohibit premarital sex are violent, cultures that lavish their infants with physical affection and are sexually permissive are peaceful.
And then there are the monkeys -- monkeys reared in isolation become extremely aggressive and violent. Proper bonding (rocking, movement, touching) is essential for peaceful behavior. And humans: Prescott's colleague Robert Heath studied in detail the pleasure center of the human brain -- and found that, if he electrically stimulated it, he could entirely eliminate aggression in his patients, extreme schizophrenics suddenly started to joke and flirt with the researchers.
The research was discontinued in 1980. Heath's work was co-opted by the CIA as part of its infamous MKULTRA program. Prescott was fired under the false pretext that research on the origins of violence and on child abuse and neglect was "outside the scope of NICHD responsibilities". His findings were unwanted -- much like the results of the 1967-70 Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography that found pornography to be harmless, probably even harmless to minors. Richard Nixon responded to the results of this commission by saying: "So long as I am in the White House there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life .. I totally reject this report". Among other things, the Commission had found that sex offenders are most likely to be from sex-restrictive, ultra-conservative families.
But what about the fetishes? What about the sexual cannibalism? John Money is a sexologist infamous for his attempt to turn a boy into a girl: after a botched circumcision, the boy was surgically altered to be as much as a girl as possible, and raised in the same way -- but the boy did not want to be a girl, and severe trauma was the result. This story shows that some parts of a person's sexual identity are unalterable and genetically determined.
Money's theory of so-called "lovemaps" is interesting nevertheless. Money believes sexual desires of a person to be dependent on certain imprinting sexual memories. As a result, the less sexual experiences there are, the more likely it is that an early "sexualized" memory may have nothing to do with sexuality at all.
This is certainly not true for homosexuality, and possibly not true for pedophilia or zoophilia (of which furrydom may be a subset) either. The long-held belief that homosexuality is the result of early homosexual experiences is discredited. But what about a child who grows up in a world which treats explicit depictions of sexuality as taboo, and which thrives from non-explicit references to sexuality? If Money's theory is true, such a world would beget many different fetishes, created during memorable childhood experiences of sexual arousal that are somehow linked to the fetish in question.
The friends of petrification may have grown up in a family with a naked statue somewhere, but otherwise rather rigid morals. The urine fetishists may have experienced early sexual arousal during toilet experiences. The cannibal fetishists may have been aroused by one of the many cannibalism cartoons and jokes that have entered our culture. And so on .. Not all cases may be as obvious as that of one "snuff" artist who likes to create very elaborate Photoshop pictures of crucified women -- and who reports having grown up in a very Christian family. Or the case of "Peter", who fantasizes about sticking knives into a woman's stomach (although he says he could never hurt a woman in real life), and who reports a childhood memory of seeing a naked neighbour child with a large belly, thinking he could make the child "normal" by sticking a knife into its belly. Sometimes the imprinting memories may be long forgotten with only their effects still in place, or they may not be identified as causes.
In a culture where explicit sexuality is mostly taboo, it may not take much to create the most bizarre fetishes and paraphilias.
Quite simply put, our value system is formed in childhood and adolescence. The brain is looking for pathways that let it experience sexual pleasure. If a child has been taught that normal sexual pleasure is taboo, it might project sexuality into different contexts: Naked feet, statues, wet clothes etc. BDSM is a more "general" paraphilia as domination/submission probably offer other ways to experience pleasure without guilt: "I am the slave - I have to be punished. There's nothing I can do about it." "I am the master - my slave has to be punished - there's nothing she can do about it." Sexual mores learned in childhood
can thus be circumvented. This is perhaps the most glaringly obvious in the immobilization aspect of BDSM.
The pain/pleasure fetishes and behavior patterns such as self-injury point to a fundamental mix-up of the brain's pleasure circuitry, the exact nature of which needs yet to be understood, but which is closely linked to lack of physical pleasure, and can be certainly prevented and possibly even cured with it. Although it is intuitively true that a person who has a pleasant and fulfilled sex life and many other positive body experiences, a person who has had a happy childhood, will not slit their own arms, we are not creating an environment that supports such experiences.
The fringe subject of fetishes and paraphilias has led us to explore some of the history of mankind, and what we have seen makes some things patently clear. The self-appointed arbiters of morality, be it the mostly removed Taliban in Afghanistan, the religious fundamentalists in America or the child-abusing priests everywhere, are in reality one of the primary historical causes of immorality and sexual perversion. It is the rejection of physical touch, of sexuality and its perfectly natural display, that creates violence, aggression, hatred, and various sexual fantasies that would otherwise not exist (which sometimes culminate in cases like that of Jürgen and Armin -- consensual cannibalism -- or that of an American woman who was consensually asphyxiated). In no other century has Christianity regained as much ground as in the 20th -- it seems to thrive together with the chaos that surrounds it.
The ever-available world of pornography of the Internet stands in sharp contrast to the sex-censorship of other media, where the display of sexual acts is considered harmful and so-called "swear-words" are beeped out. On American television, even human breasts are pixelized. Religious leaders who complain about "sexualization" of their children by Britney et al. do not realize that in reality, this is a culture of teasing, where "the real thing" is reserved for video stores, pay TV and the dark alleys of the Net (ever notice how many porn sites have a black background?).
How can we fix our culture? Here are some recommendations:
- Strict separation of church and state. Religion needs to be a choice, never an obligation. Its moral judgments are far too questionable to make them mandatory. Be wary of creationists, ten-commandment-zealots and "faith-based" services.
- Complete legalization of non-violent pornography. By ending the ridiculous and unjustifiable ban on the display of sexual acts, we make sure that children will regard sexuality as natural, and will not have imprinting childhood experiences that turn them into foot fetishists or cannibals.
- Fight spanking in homes, corporal punishment in schools and circumcision in hospitals. These are social rituals in the medieval spirit. They are unnecessary and harmful. Support breast-feeding as a healthy and natural form of mother/child bonding. Support attachment parenting. Tickle, kiss and hug your children.
- Stop "Public Display of Affection Bans" (hugging and kissing bans) in schools. Instead, encourage massages among pupils as a method of calming them down, and provide rooms dedicated to physical affection, including safe sexual acts among pupils.
- Prevent the dangerous anti-premarital-sex agenda of the religious right from succeeding. "Virginity Pledges" and anti-sex-propaganda in schools have the primary motivation to regulate adolescent sexual behavior and to extend the reach of religious fundamentalists. Virginity pledges have been shown to successfully delay first intercourse (which many parents see as an advantage) -- and they have been shown to increase the likelihood of pregnancies when they are broken. The Netherlands, which use an early-age pro-sex education approach, have an order of magnitude less teenage pregnancies than the US. Do not buy the anti-sex propaganda.
- Fight censorship on the Internet. The Net is the only space that is not limited by the immoral restrictions placed on other media. Cases that are, in reality, caused by the sexual repression dominating our culture will be blamed on the Net. Do not let the media and the moralists get away with that.
- Make sure that abortion and prostitution stay legal / become legal. Abortion ensures that only wanted children are born. It is no coincidence that there is a strong correlation between antisexuality and anti-abortionism. By the twisted logic of the antisexuals, only the unborn child can be truly sexually "innocent", and is therefore worshipped. (Note the prevalence of foetus devotionals in anti-abortion circles.) Prostitution is a legitimate form of sexual expression, and its prohibition is harmful to a culture. Banning it equates to sexual repression for those with sexual problems, and creates a dangerous black market.
- End our cultural taboos against homosexuality. Gay marriage and adoption are perfectly natural. Discriminating against homosexuality is what drives people to suppressing it -- and thereby to the development of deviant behavior. Similarly, even though we may consider fetishisms and paraphilias an artificial product of our culture, the general principle that consensual acts are OK should hold true. (Consensual killing should, however, always happen under the auspices of law enforcement, and be preceded by offers of therapy and help.)
- Combat attempts to regulate children's sexuality. Consensual sex acts among children are perfectly natural and not abusive. Similarly, sex acts among juveniles should not be treated as "statutory rape". Fight attempts to define adults as children -- age of consent laws must be reasonable and stay reasonable (e.g. 14 years as in Germany). When in doubt about consent, ask the child.
- Subscribe to Peacelist, a moderated mailing list where we discuss these and related issues. Psychologists and practitioners are present here, including Dr. Prescott. If you can code, help me build the next generation of this site, which will be a Scoop-based wiki-weblog on the subject of touch and sexuality, with the goal to reach out to millions of parents and other concerned readers. Contact me if you want to help out.
There will be many arguments that this article simplifies things. That it sees causations where only correlations exists. That it demonizes religion for no good reason. That it uses scare stories to make its case. That it is a veiled attempt to support pedophilia or Roman-style pederasty. That spanking is acceptable in some cases, if it is not "abusive". That circumcision is really a useful procedure. None of this is true -- but many who will read this article will read it from a perspective that only allows such conclusions. If you hold views that are described herein as harmful, what else are you to do? Drop them? If people dropped their views after they have been historically proven to be harmful, religious fundamentalism would be non-existent.
If you have an open mind, look at the facts. Is a culture that produces cannibals a healthy culture? Or is it a culture that will destroy, devour itself?
Erik Möller 2002. This article is in the public domain. Please link and distribute.