Sex: It’s What’s for Dinner

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.]

Work Cited

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 [2001]. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Harper Perennial.

7 thoughts on “Sex: It’s What’s for Dinner

  1. I wonder if you’ve seen this. It was on the Daily Show a few weeks ago, and was apparently originally marketed to anthropology students. Now you can play cannibal while still living up to your vegetarian ideals. The problems with this stuff, in terms of anthropologial knowledge, are both numerous and obvious, so I’ll say no more.

  2. It was a little hard to track the quotation marks in this part, but I’d really like to know if this part is quoting some particular source or if it is instead a monologue from some peculiar recess of our very own Oneman’s mind:

    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!”

    It sounds rather Gibletsian.

  3. That would have to be some peculiar recess of my mind! No, the quote is from the article linked to under “cann-fetish”, which was the source for the whole post.

    As to how this is subversive, I am, of course, aware that we are confronted with a woman bound and gagged for the erotic/sexual gratification of (I assume) men. And this is, of course, problematic. At the same time, we have the testimony of a woman who is not only willing to be displayed in this way, but *enthusiastically* embraces her objectification. Now, I could claim “false consciousness” — she’s really being exploited and is brainwashed to think ti’s ok. Or I could say that she’s internalized the male gaze, which has a lot of merit — after all, a big part of the thrill for her comes from *being looked at*. But any woman can be looked at, under virtually any condition — think “Girls Gone Wild” — so we have to wonder what it is about this particular set of conditions that is appealing to her, as opposed to flashing her chest in a club or on the street, or having sex in public, or even “plain vanilla” S&M. In S&M in general, there is a sense that the sub — as much as, or even more than, the dom — is empowered by their submission. I admit it’s hard for me to wrap my head around — I tend to feel that S&M play is often about replaying the form and practice of domestic abuse is a context that makes it “ok” — but this is the way several people have described their experience to me. Add to that the parodic riffing on “traditional” gender roles and consumption, the ironic detachment from the images they are enacting, and I have to believe something other than mere “objectification” is going on. Interestingly, a lot of subs are people who are “in charge” in much of their day-to-day life — which is similar, now that I think of it, to the case of a lot of male cross-dressers. The sense I get is of women who live their day-to-day lives at the opposite extreme from the June Cleaver pole, pushing the “submissive woman” role from the domain of “real life” into the domain of “fantasy”. Just like you’d never *actually* offer yourself up to be killed and eaten, you’d never actually put up with the crap Betty Friedan put up with before her “mystical” (mystiqual?) awakening.

  4. The natives are obviously confused here. This is obviously a cooking fetish, not a cannibalism fetish. I blame the Food Channel.

  5. Oneman wrote: “While to outsiders (like myself, I must admit), BDSM [. . . ]seems centered around degradation and humiliation”

    “I admit it’s hard for me to wrap my head around—I tend to feel that S&M play is often about replaying the form and practice of domestic abuse is a context that makes it “ok””

    It is very hard to find unbiased research on the topic of BDSM. It seems that lately (don’t ask me to define lately) there has been a lot of research by sociologists and psychologists on BDSM and other alternative communities (lez, bi, trans, poly, etc). I know this not so much from reading the pertinent literature but through having participated in some of this research as an insider to one or more of these groups. One thing I can say is that the researcher’s bias often shows through in the very questions that they ask. Luckily, there *are* some researchers out there who are either “insiders” to the communities that they study or who are extremely sympathetic. Yet others are willing to alter their questions based on the needs of the communities that they study.

    Now, I’m not blaming “outsiders” for having trouble wrapping their heads around the lifestyles and/or realities of LGBTT2IQ, BDSM, poly, etc people. However, it can be very insulting to members of a community (and I speak as a member of one or more communities that has been studied in such a way) to be told that what they *think* they’re doing and feeling is not what is actually going on. I’m not accusing Oneman of this by the way, I’m talking about *some* researchers who do this. I’m thinking, for example, of the self-identified bisexual men who were indirectly told that they were not really bisexual because they physically reacted only to men OR women. Or studies on BDSM that gave one the option of identifying as Dom or sub with no option for a switch.

    I’m not suggesting either that only insiders should research their own but I find that this really brings home the etic/emic problem. I think that we can easily make parallels between the difficulties involved in the study of sub/counter cultures to the difficulties experienced by an ethnographer in an unfamiliar cultural setting. What seems familiar and easy to understand suddenly isn’t . . . . what would “normally” be interpreted as an act of violence or hatred can no longer be explained in the usual terms. There are suddenly more layers to everything that one had previously imagined.

    What is nifty about all this, of course, is that what may be considered by some to be subjects more viable for sociological or psychological research can increasingly be viewed through an anthropological lens by recognising that many of the difficulties involved in cross-cultural research are present in cross-SUB/COUNTER-cultural research and that participants on these sub/counter cultures adopt or grow into a worldview that may be as different from that of the mainstream society as that of a whole other society.

  6. ” . . . I find that this really brings home the etic/emic problem.”

    Indeed it does. There are some situations you’re guaranteed to misinterpret if you don’t look at how ‘insiders’ interpret them. S&M is definitely one of these. It’s the understanding the participants share of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, their expectations, and the unwritten rules that govern their behaviour, that make it S&M in the first place. If any of those were absent, or not shared by both participants, it would cease to be S&M; the same actions would be viewed by the same people as abuse. That fact alone should make it clear how important participant’s interpretations are in this area.

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