What I Learned Studying Cannibal Play, Balloon Sex, and More
Katharine Gates has spent decades documenting niche fetishes. She told us what fetishists can teach the #MeToo movement.
Photo of an inflatables fetishist by Mark McQueen. All photos from Deviant Desires by Katharine Gates, published by powerHouse Books
In 2000, the erotologist Katharine Gates published a book called Deviant Desires that chronicled, as she put it, "incredibly strange sex." Its cover depicts a leering clown, a man imposing himself on a balloon, and a figure on all fours in high heels and a horse's saddle. Inside there's even more: robots, giantesses, body inflation, and beyond.
For nearly two decades, the book has served as an anthropological compass, nudging perverts and experimenters and the merely curious toward kinks that most have never even thought possible. But sexual appetites are in a state of constant flux, so Gates recently released an updated and expanded second edition of her book with new interviews with its original subjects and an added section on cannibal play (simulated, of course).
How much could sex have possibly shifted in just 20 years? A lot—and that's in large part thanks to the internet. In 2000, internet access had only just begun to penetrate middle America; online video was clunky and social media barely existed. But today, geography is no barrier to sexual exploration, sophisticated media production tools are within easy reach, and even the most obscure fetishists can find one another online.
Additionally, attitudes around consent have taken a light-speed leap since Deviant Desires was first published. Particularly in the last year, the national conversation around sexual best practices (and violations thereof) has taken center stage. But within kink communities, consent has always been the focus. Behind the arcane sexual tastes of most kinksters lies a culture of consideration and mindfulness where communication is established long before any clothes come off. (Or before clothes are doused in baked beans, or traded for farm animal equipment.)
The second edition of Deviant Desires takes these changes into account, and is made particularly timely by the intensity of recent conversations around consent and "bad sex.” From vanilla encounters to yet-undiscovered practices, the communities documented in Deviant Desires have lessons for us all.
I talked to Gates about all of that.
VICE: Tell me about the work that you do and how you got started.
Katharine Gates: In the late 80s and early 90s, I was involved in the punk-rock zine scene, and friends with a lot of sex workers and general sort of freaks and oddballs. When I was out distributing my zines, I would go to these little zine shops, like Atomic Books in Baltimore or See Here in New York City, and they had big sections of their zine racks for kink stuff. These were magazines that some guy or girl put out devoted to their very particular obsession—with, say, women with shaved heads, or ponygirls [google it], or sploshing [a fetish that involves using food in sex].
There was a zine called the Ticker, and it was just about feet being tickled. Or there was one website just for spanking, so you would just see red butts. I also had a lot of friends who were sex workers and did some sex work myself, so we'd get clients who had very very particular requests that seemed like they were from left field—a guy who wanted to see women stripped naked and painted with the little dotted lines that outline the various cuts of meat, for example.
I would hear these stories and witness these things and really just wanted to know, first, what's going on here, why is this hot, and second, is this really totally exotic and strange, or is it something that seems exotic and strange but is actually totally comprehensible to people who don't share those interests? Is there something here we all share as humans in our erotic toolbox?
Did you find answers to those questions?
I think we're all wired to be aroused on many different levels—physiological and emotional and psychological—by things that are touchy-feely and smelly, things that involve power, that involve comfort, that involve intimacy, fear. All of these things are really part of the toolbox that we can use to intensify an erotic or sexual experience. It’s just that many of us have shut all that down because we're afraid that if we do anything that's not, like, genital stuff, then we're weird. And one of the things it made clear to me is that anything and everything can become erotic fodder.
Did any kinks you ran across in your research surprise you?
One of the stories that sparked the first book was from a friend I knew who was a dominatrix, who had a client she called the Turkey Man. Whenever he was traveling in her town, she would come to his hotel room, strip him naked, tie him up, put him in a box, and say she was cooking him. And he would just have an orgasm right then and there. I just thought, wow, this seems really unique and specific and niche, the desire to be a Thanksgiving turkey—maybe he's the only guy like this. But then if there's ten people who have the same interest no matter where they are in the world, the internet makes it possible for them to find each other. You may be the only turkey man in New York, but there may be one in England and one in Australia. There are, in fact, turkey men all over the world now, and there are now real-world communities of people who meet up to talk about what's called cannibal play. And that became a whole new chapter in the book.
What does cannibal play look like?
This is a scene where the majority of those involved want to be turned into food for other people. They want to see themselves transformed into an object, so they're being objectified, but they're also an object of intense desire, so they want to be something that other people are going to find so good that they'll want to eat it. They might want to be in a small enclosed box, because that form of containment is very exciting, or they may want to imagine themselves cooked in a pot, almost like a cartoon.
A lot of what my book is about is people who are like, Well, nobody's gonna make this porn for me, so I guess I'm just gonna have to make it myself. Many are people who became artists so they could make images that fed that erotic need that they had.
There’s a real DIY approach in this community, from the 90s zines to today.
Absolutely. And that's what gets me so excited, honestly. Because the audience for cannibal stuff is small enough that there's no huge corporate conglomerate that's going to decide that it's going to serve up cannibal porn, you know? And so people have to make it themselves. And they are making it themselves, and they're doing it ingeniously. I mean, as one of the meat girls I interviewed said, she just loves to go to fancy cooking stores like Sur La Table and think to herself, How can I use that in sex? Oh, look at that giant baster. That looks like something I can use.
Are there ways to indulge a kink that might be more dangerous than others?
Some kinks are dangerous enough that they're sort of unsafe at any speed. There are people who deeply crave the sense of being pressed really, really hard by a heavy weight, and some people crave heavier and heavier weights, so there is a kink for having your partner run you over with their car. This is not something that can be done safely.
What about risks that are more emotional or ethical?
This is a huge issue right now, obviously. We're talking about situations in which people have not listened to "no," or not listened to "please slow down," or "please stop." The issue of negotiation and communication should be at the forefront of any kind of interpersonal interaction. And I think that one of the things that has become very clear is that the BDSM community should be really held up as a kind of guide for that.
If you have a kink for doing something like, you know, mummifying somebody or being mummified, you're really gonna have to talk with the person you're playing with to describe exactly what it is you do like and don't like. All of that is built in to the ethos of BDSM. And that had to happen. It was clear that in order to make BDSM and this community work, if you're going to want to see a partner again or be able to have other partners—and this is a community where people talk to one another—you can't go violating consent. You'll never play again if you do that. And so there's a way in which that community has created a sense of responsibility and communication. There have been problems within that community, but people have spoken up and communicated and taken responsibility, and I think that's a model for everybody.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.