It's just before Thanksgiving and instead of roasting turkey with my family I'm in a whitebread suburb of Los Angeles, watching a woman being prepared as the main course of a feast. First, two female chefs strip the woman naked. They pull her arms back tightly and place her face-down on an oversize platter. They spread her legs wide, exposing her bald pussy, and use thick ropes to bind her ankles and wrists together at her thighs. They pour oil and honey over the woman until she glistens. They thrust a corncob into her vagina, shove a red apple into her mouth, and maneuver the platter into a large fake oven. After a while, the chefs remove the roast from the heat and poke a gigantic meat thermometer into her ass. The needle on the dial points to well-done pork. Dinner is served!
Cannibalism has existed around the globe and throughout history, but perhaps only in the 21st century has it become an erotic lifestyle. For tribal peoples, ritual anthropophagy was a way for the living to incorporate the powers of the dead. Christians symbolically consume the flesh and blood of Jesus as a means to experience communion with their God. But in 2001, a German computer programmer named Armin Meiwes killed, butchered, and ate a man he met in an online chat room for cannibal "fetishists." Meiwes's victim gave his videotaped consent to the procedure, even requesting his own penis as a last meal. Since the arrangement was consensual, the German judge sentenced Meiwes to only eight and a half years in prison.
For every Armin Meiwes there are probably thousands of self-described cannibal fetishists who never intend to kill or be killedthey only want to consume erotic stories, photographs, and videos showing humans as meat. Muki's Kitchen (mukiskitchen.com), the commercial porn site where I saw the human suckling pig, claims to sell hundreds of its photo portfolios a month (although thousands of visitors a day download the free previews). Gurgurant, a computer programmer who has been seeking "woman-eaters" like himself since the Internet's beginning, tells me that for every person who actually buys cannibal porn, there are hundreds of others who post on dozens of cannibal chat rooms and message boards. Any estimate of cannibal numbers would have to include "femcans" (men who want to be eaten by women), queers of all colors and tastes, and those who have yet to get online. Judging from my weekend visit, erotic cannibals are ordinary bourgeois kinksters. They might view cannibal porn and have vanilla sex, they might role-play online, or they might even oil up their wives in the privacy of their bedrooms, but they would never consider acting on their fantasies in anything but a safe, sane, and consensual manner.
Since opening in 1999, Muki's Kitchen has produced 62 photo portfolios, all serving up the same goofy plotline: A woman is captured, stripped, trussed, stuffed, and "cooked." Mr. Muki, himself a woman-eater, is the Kitchen's sole photographer, set builder, and webmaster. (Mr. Muki is his professional pseudonym: He leads an unassuming life supported partially by the website and partially by his wife, a corporate executive. Anonymity was a condition to the agreement that allowed this reporter access to a misunderstood scene.) "Every cannibal has a favorite recipe," he says. The most popular is the spit roast, a woman skewered through the vagina and out the moutha visual effect achieved through the use of cardboard tubes painted to resemble metal. There's also the face-down suckling pig, the parturition-style turkey girl, and finally the old cartoon-gag cliché, the jungle cannibal stew pot. These sometimes dorky pictures are actually more about food preparation than cannibalism: There's never any carving or eating.
"The reality of cannibalism would never live up to the fantasy," says Mr. Muki, smoking a postprandial pipe in the small courtyard outside of the studio. He's 45, with a short beard, nerdy glasses, a gray mullet. "If you really were going to eat somebody you'd have to behead them. You'd have to clean them out," he explains. "You'd have to skin them because humans have sweat glandsthey're not like chickens! But sex is all about skin!" He continues, "I think boobies are just great, but there's nothing edible in a boob. It's glands and fat. So that goes! This is getting pretty unattractive." In other words, Mr. Muki likes his meat tasteful. "I want it to be presented beautifully, like a Hollywood picture."
What made the photo shoot I witnessed unusual is that the main course was not simply another porn model from L.A.she is a bona fide "meatgirl," a woman who wants to be eaten. Meghan Vaughan, a 31-year-old artist living in Cincinnati, flew to L.A. to act out her fantasy of being served on a platter. She's among the half-dozen or so women, by Gurgurant's count, who have come out online as meatgirls, and while Mr. Muki claims that as many as 15 percent of his customers are female, Meghan is the only one to pose for the cannibal public. To Muki's male customers she is a dream come true, that exceedingly rare woman who actually gets off on fulfilling the fantasy they've lived with all their lives.
Meghan enters the courtyard after her shower and lights up a cigarette. She has Bettie Pagestyle black bangs and pigtails, and she's wearing an all-black art student version of hillbilly chic. "I was chubby in high school and none of the guys wanted to look at me," she says. Neither masturbation nor sex worked for her until her twenties. She explored BDSM, but it wasn't until she saw the Muki's Kitchen website this past January that it all clicked. "Bondage, submission, gagging, humiliation, exhibitionism, objectificationit was all there!" She immediately offered to star in a Muki portfolio based on her hillbilly cannibal comic book, Little Red Roundbottom. Since her first shoot in August, Meghan has become something of a cann-fetish celebrity, and the photo shoots promote sales of her art on the CannToon website. "For me, it's all about being the centerpiece, the center of attention," she 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 Mr. and Mrs. Muki's home sex life involves simple light bondage and lots of oral sex ("Cannibals give good head!" says Mr. Muki), Meghan's meatgirl lifestyle is a more elaborate affair. She tells me that her home dungeona small room in her house where she, her partner, and friends playnow has a homemade rotisserie and an electric fireplace that crackles realistically. "When I get home, I'll ask my partner to hog-tie me the same way we did in the shoot, because it will be the hottest position for a while," she says. "When I'm trussed up like that, I like to have a lot of ass play. I even squeal like a pig!" However, Meghan never is really dead in her fantasies. "It's like being drugged yet still aware," she says. "Like when your body is paralyzed but your mind is still awake. I like to think I'm inanimate, without a conscience. There's a feeling of transcendence when I'm being transformed."
Even though individual photos in the Muki's Kitchen portfolios can come across as scary, cruel, or demeaning, the models are obviously alive and even happy. "I want my customers not to feel like freaks to have these fantasies," Mr. Muki says, "and humor is what keeps it feeling fun and sane." Too much humor, though, breaks the tension . . .and arousal is all about keeping up the tension. To help both male and female customers feel comfortable, Mr. Muki also pretends that the Kitchen is a mom-and-pop operation, although Mrs. Muki's only real task is to keep an eye on the tone of the website. Mr. Muki's own fantasies might occasionally involve beheading and dismemberment, but that will never get into the images. Instead, he gets the necessary jolt from props that inspire visceral, vicarious responses. "For me, the money shot is the close-up of the thermometer in the butt with the needle registering on 'pork.' "
That evening the Mukis, Meghan, and I drive to Bahooka, a historic tiki-themed restaurant in Rosemead, a neighborhood in eastern Los Angeles, to meet a few more cannibals: Gurgurant, a collector of jungle cannibal gag cartoons and lifelong fan of the stew-pot girl fantasy; Canntoon, an ambitious twentysomething promoting his own cannibal website; and Andy, a TV producer so terrified of being identified that he avoided me completely. Most of these people have never met each other in person before, and it takes several rounds of Zombies to bring the conversation around to their favorite topic. They laugh about the anti-meat ads produced by PETAphotos of naked female models shrink-wrapped into huge supermarket meat trays. Gurgurant asks, "Do they know how much those turn us on?"
My dining companionsall incredibly ordinaryshare a preference for the gentler side of cannibalism. "Some cannibals complain that Muki's is too 'Muki-esque,' " Mr. Muki says. "They mean this fluffy, soft, fantasy cannibalism without any of the messy stuff, the blood and the guts. So be it!" Muki's may be losing business to websites like Necrobabes and Rue Morgue, which emphasize death and torture rather than Muki's sex and aesthetics. (It's a belief in the porn world that the way to avoid prosecution is to choose between sex and violenceMuki's chose sex, the others chose violence.) Unlike Muki's, these sites have no penetration and no "pink," and the cinema vérité style suggests documentary rather than fantasy. The main difference between Necrobabes and a slasher flick is that the movies have better effects. While Mr. Muki makes only what he himself wants to see, Necrobabes does market research and produces what will sell. When I tell Mr. Muki that Peter Cohen, co-owner of necrobabes.com, necrobabes.org, and 10 other fetish sites, claims to have 6,000 members, half of whom return month after month to pay $40, he is dumbfounded. Violence sells better than sex.
Clearly, both Muki's and Necrobabes are trying to present an image they feel will bring the most customers; Muki's wants everything to seem safe, while the others play up the freakish and the extreme. It comes as no surprise then that while other sites tease that "it's more real than you think," the Mukis insist that rumors of genuine cannibalism are invoked to ramp up sexually desirable anxiety. Gurgurant argues that almost every person who claims to want to go through with it is just a poseur. "When you troll these boards there will always be somebody who will say, 'I'm looking to do this for real,' " he says. "Most of the community just ignores them." They're enjoying the pretense, butlike the men Meiwes let go in earlier encountersthey run when the butcher knife comes out.
The Meiwes case forced play canni-bals to reconsider their assumptions. "We all wondered, 'Gee, was he one of the ones we just ignored?' " says Gurgurant. Now, any post on Muki's message boards not clearly using the language of fantasy is deleted. Mr. Muki condemns Meiwes: "I think Meiwes got off too lightly. The very fact that his victim consented to being killed is proof that he was not mentally capable of consenting to anything!" Meghan is more empathetic: "If that's what they want to do with their bodies and with their lives, why shouldn't they?" Nevertheless, she would never think of offering herself up as an actual meal. "Then I wouldn't be able to do it over again, would I?"
Perhaps what is most shocking of all is that my new acquaintances' erotic inspiration does not come from slasher filmsas one might expect in a culture where sex is routinely paired with vio-lencebut rather from the consumer trappings of domestic bliss. For Meghan, Williams-Sonoma catalogs can inspire masturbatory fantasies of being skewered on the latest Cuisinart rotisserie. She looks to Bed Bath & Beyond, and Bobby Flay's Boy Meets Grill on the Food Network, for sex play ideas. She says, "Someday I'd like to be photographed for Better Homes and Gardens as this beautiful spread on a festive holiday table."
Katharine Gates is the author of Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex (Juno Books).
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