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How Courts Treat Consensual Cannibals

This week a German man was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for killing and eating a man who wanted to be killed and eaten—and it isn't the first time the legal system has had to deal with such a case.

On Wednesday, a court in Dresden, Germany, sentenced 56-year-old Detlev Guenzel to eight and a half years in prison for the apparently consensual murder and dismemberment of Wojciech Stempniewicz. Guenzel met Stempniewicz, a 59-year-old businessman originally from Poland but living in Hanover, on a cannibal fetishist website and arranged to rendezvous at Guenzel's bed and breakfast, the Pension Gimmlitztal in Hartmannsdorf-Reichenau, near the Czech border.

Guenzel, a father of three and a former cop who served as a handwriting expert in Dresden for three decades, has been described as a kind and courteous person. (His partner of ten years never knew about his proclivities and left him, going into hiding soon after his crime emerged.) But unbeknownst to many, he'd been exploring an interest in consensual cannibalism for some time. The two men began messaging over the fetish site in October 2013, in a thread titled "Schlachtfest," a German term for a feast after a pig's slaughter. Stempniewicz referred to himself as "Heszla-Longpig," the latter part of the handle referring to colonial explorers' euphemism for human flesh eaten by cannibalistic societies. The records clearly showed both men's intent and consent.

"The victim had been fantasizing about being killed and eaten by someone else since his youth," the Daily Mail quoted Dresden Police Chief Dieter Kroll as saying soon after the death in 2013.

They eventually met on November 4, 2013. The details of Stempniewicz's demise remain fuzzy and were contested at trial, but Guenzel clearly dismembered his corpse and buried the cubed remains in his garden, making a 50-minute home movie of the act.

During the trial, police played the video, deleted but reconstructed by the authorities, behind closed doors. It showed Guenzel, in his underwear and covered in blood, listening to pop music as he hacked at Stempniewicz's corpse, occasionally stopping to listen for a heartbeat.

Because the victim's corpse was so badly mutilated, no one could determine the cause of death, which became the trial's main point of contention. The defense tried to prove that Stempniewicz had choked himself to death in Guenzel's sex dungeon, which would mean that Guenzel had only "disturbed the dead" by hacking him up with a knife and electric saw. Guenzel was found guilty of murder in the end, but his sentence was lighter than the one the state was seeking.

All the headlines surrounding this case talk about "cannibalism," but it's arguably a better example of the odder and more modern phenomenon of vorarephilia. Vores, as people like Guenzel and Stempneiwicz are known, are people who derive satisfaction (sexual or otherwise) from the thought of eating, being eaten, or watching people or animals eat each other. A rare enough proclivity that they don't show up in the DSM, vores can still be broken down into subcategories: Some like the thought of being swallowed into a man's scrotum through his urethra, some enjoy images of women being trussed up to roast in the oven, and so on. Those who are into gory depictions of actual cannibalism are an extreme minority, and, obviously, hardly anyone actually acts on these fantasies, even if they have them.

The few accounts of self-identified vores recorded by clinicians describe them as basically normal individuals. Often they do not conceive of their desires as a wish to murder or be murdered, but an obsession with the idea of being taken in wholly by another person.

Historically, it's been difficult for vores to explore or indulge their fantasies. But as it has with so many obscure subcultures, the internet has brought vores together in a handful of forums like the infamous Cannibal Cafe (which was shut down by German authorities in 2002) and the still-active extreme fetish space Dolcett Girls. Most individuals use these websites to play around with Photoshop, find fantasy films, and exchange messages with each other, never intending to act out their desires. But a few have used these digital spaces to find each other to actualize cannibalistic tableaus in recent years.

Guenzel's case was not the first successful meet-up of willing chef and entrée to make headlines—not even the first in Germany. Back in 2001, a computer technician Armin Meiwes killed and ate a man who apparently wanted to be eaten. Meiwes became a famous case study for psychologists interested in vorarephilia, and he had no problem candidly describing his impulses as arising between ages of eight and 12. An intense sense of loneliness and abandonment led him to start thinking about eating his school friends, a compulsion nurtured by horror films and watching his neighbors slaughter farm animals. Although often described as a user of Cannibal Café, Meiwes actually used a private gay cannibals forum to post about 60 advertisements in search of a willing young man to be eaten while designing a windowless slaughter room equipped with a cage, meathooks, and other accouterments in his farmhouse.

Eventually, he found Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes, an engineer who was really into the prospect, and started exchanging extremely sensual and sickening messages with him.

"Warm blood flows... I don't have any chance to escape my slaughter at the last moment," Brandes wrote in one message. "It's a real turn-on, the feeling of being at your mercy, being in your possession. Having to give up my flesh."

"It'll be awesome, anyway," replied Meiwes, "your tasty body on show like that."

Meiwes described his slaughter of Brandes in graphic detail, and took a two-hour video of the whole affair. Both men worked together to amputate Brandes's penis, found it too tough to eat, fried it in his own fat and spices, but still deemed it inedible. Then Brandes, who'd taken 20 sleeping pills and drunk half a bottle of schnapps after openly consenting to his murder, allowed himself to slowly bleed to death in a warm bath while Meiwes waited, before finally stabbing him in the throat. Miewes whispered to the corpse in the video as he carved it into 66 pounds of flesh, which he froze and then ate over the course of ten months before his capture. An Austrian college student doing research found one of his advertisements seeking a new victim, and turned him over to police, who found 15 pounds of Brandes remaining in the murder's freezer.

At his trial, psychiatrists determined that neither Meiwes nor Brandes were, so far as they could tell, mentally ill. Meiwes also tried to draw a line between murder and cannibalism, stating that he didn't really want to kill Brandes, but did want to eat him, suggesting that the experience was a merging of souls that allowed him to take on some of Brandes's characteristics and skills, like speaking better English. In the end, in 2004, the courts gave him eight and a half years in prison, but public outrage led to the trial being reopened. In 2006, he got life in prison instead. Meiwes now claims that he regrets his actions, has become a vegetarian, and speaks out about vorarephilia in order to dissuade others from acting out their fantasies and desires the way he did.

More common are cases of consensual cannibalism gone awry. In 2011, an unnamed Swiss man figured out that the Slovak man he had been discussing fantasies with was serious about acting on his impulses and turned their meet-up into a police sting, resulting in the wannabe eater's death in a gun battle. Last year, Dale Bolinger, a nurse in England, had tried to meet up with an underage girl he met on the Dark Fetish Network to eat her, claiming that he'd eaten other young women before, resulting in an FBI tip-off against him.

Perhaps the most interesting vore-related case was that of the 28-year-old New York police officer Gilberto Valle in 2013. He never acted on his fantasies but was charged with conspiracy to kidnap and assault women after a list of people he'd like to eat and vivid fantasies about their brutalization, rape, and dismemberment were uncovered. Debates raged around whether Valle was actually a threat , or whether he was just harmlessly subverting dark but inherent impulses into fantasy in a way that wouldn't escalate.

Another, more controversial, issue surrounds IRL cannibalism: Where do we draw the lines of consent between grown humans, and can they extend to behavior that is not only harmful, but deadly?

"Consenting adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to," Perro Loco, a pseudonymous moderator on vore fetishist forums, told the Awl in 2011, "up to and including killing each other. If they don't consent to it, then it's murder and not good."

But to the vast majority of us, if someone wants to be killed and eaten or to do the killing and eating means there's something disturbed about those individuals. And if they're mentally unstable, can they consent to anything? Such a naked, erotic desire for death is so disturbing that it doesn't seem possible for it to be treated like ordinary desire. And we're no closer to working out our collective legal, moral, and psychological confusion after Guenzel's relatively light sentence, which may well inspire further outrage.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.