Gilberto Valle: Can you be tried for having fantasies about eating your wife?

The trial of the "Cannibal Cop" forces us to ask the question: when a fantasy crime become a reality?

Gilberto Valle has never actually eaten anyone, but he'll always be known as the Cannibal Cop. On trial in New York, he stands charged with what prosecutors describe as "a heinous plot to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize a number of very real women", including his own wife, who found the incriminating evidence on their shared computer. But while the women were real, did the plot exist outside his own head? His defence is that he was merely a fantasist who never intended to go through with any of it. The case turns on whether or not he crossed an invisible line separating fantasy from reality. Outside the courtroom, though, it raises questions broader than its own lurid and disturbing facts.

There's no dispute that Valle discussed his supposed intentions in great detail and over several months with like-minded individuals he met via specialist fetish websites and chatrooms. With one, Michael Van Hise (who also faces charges), he entered into a contract to deliver a woman bound and gagged on a certain date for the sum of $5,000. But the plot was never carried out. Van Hise's wife is standing by him, incidentally. "It's disturbing, yeah," she told the New York Daily News. "But you have to accept your partner's flaws in a marriage."

Then there was Valle's British contact, "Moody Blues", with whom Valle discussed plans to kidnap and eat his college friend Kimberly. Moody Blues posed as an experienced cannibal who had previously killed and eaten two women and hoped to come over to the United States to participate in Valle's proposed crime. He offered practical advice on avoiding detection and Hannibal Lecter-style gastronomic tips (including a recipe for human haggis). He has since been revealed (and arrested) as Dale Bolinger, a 57 year old nurse from Kent, and says it was all fantasy, a case of "going online and saying stupid things and putting stupid things about, thinking that it was funny."

There's an element of black comedy about Valle's ludicrous schemes, but were they no more than harmless fantasies? It's hard to tell. Valle apparently used an official police database to track at least one of his putative victims, and may have stalked another. Moody Blues asks Valle at one point, "You WILL go through with this? I've been let down before." But these might merely be touches of verisimilitude, suspensions of disbelief designed to improve the role-playing experience.  That's the defence case. A deeper question might be whether such dark and violent fantasies can ever be truly harmless. Can blurring the line between fantasy and reality in this way produce its own dangerous dynamic - and if so, even in only a small minority of cases, does this make it appropriate or even obligatory to police thought?

There's nothing new about erotic cannibal fantasies, or fantasies involving violence and murder. Literature, folklore and myth abound in cannibal themes, often in eroticised or subliminally eroticised forms. Because it is transgressive, cannibalism is an ultimate taboo, and violating taboos is sexy, even if for most people, interest in cannibal porn never goes beyond a thrilled, horrified shudder at the antics of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

What the internet does, of course, is give an outlet for what would otherwise be entirely private fantasies. It also enables people who share highly unusual interests to forge connections. It's a truism that if a thing can be imagined, then somebody, somewhere has a sexual fetish about it - and that somebody else has already made the porn. Indeed, there's bound to be a flourishing online community of fetishists sharing tips and fantasies. That's certainly true of cannibal fantasy. The technical term is vorarephilia, apparently, though fans of the genre prefer to call it "vore". Another word often used is Dolcett, the pseudonym of a Canadian artist who specialises in stories of young women being tortured and cooked, although unlike Valle's supposed targets, the "Dolcett girl" is always presented, like Douglas Adams' cow, as willing, even eager, to be eaten. The vore community, indeed, contains both those who fantasise about eating others and those who would prefer to imagine themselves being eaten.

Much of the material found on vore sites - most of which, needless to say, figured prominently in Gilberto Valle's browsing history - is visual and explicit (though not, of course, real). It's probably best not to go there. Even by visiting some of Valle's favourite websites from the UK you may well be falling foul of s63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, a law that criminalises the possession of any pornographic image deemed to be a realistic depiction of, among other things, "an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals," which I suppose which would cover many cannibal fantasies.

Yet it would be absurd to suggest that most visitors to such sites were motivated by a wish to murder and eat actual human beings. If they were, there wouldn't merely be an internet subculture of cannibal fantasists, there would be an epidemic of cannibalism. And there isn't. In fact the cannibal fantasy may be unusually resistant to realisation, and not just for legal reasons. Genuine criminal cannibals do exist, the most famous being Jeffrey Dahmer (whose crimes were committed long before the age of the internet) but they are exceptionally rare, even by standards of serial killers in general. The only authenticated case of an internet-enabled cannibal was that of the German Armin Meiwes, who met his victim in a chatroom and invited him over to be eaten.

Without the internet, Meiwes would have found it far more difficult to locate his meal. A trickier question is whether, in the absence of an online community of cannibal fetishists, his fantasies would ever have developed along the lines they did. Valle raises analogous questions, as do superficially very different cases where the "fantasies" being discussed involve terrorism rather than anthropophagy. And this really goes to the core of the matter. Is the internet, a universe in which even the most extreme tastes find reinforcement and validation, a safety-valve or a trigger?

It may of course be both. The controversial ban on extreme pornography was introduced in the wake of a murder in which the accused's use of fetish websites (including one of those favoured by Gilberto Valle) was said to be a factor. But there's no reliable evidence that violent porn does encourage lead people to act out such fantasies in the real world, at least for the majority of viewers, any more than violent films do. For most users of such sites, who have no problem in differentiating between fiction and reality, they provide an opportunity to explore fantasies in a safe, non-judgemental environment and to connect with like-minded and consenting adults.

But that might not be true of everyone. The particular problem raised by the Valle case is how to distinguish between an elaborate fantasy scenario and a real-life criminal intent, when potentially even the accused might not be entirely sure where the truth lies, so blurred has the boundary between fantasy and reality become. Is it even safe to attempt to make such a distinction? What to one participant in an online discussion might be obvious fantasy, or just a joke, "saying stupid things thinking it was funny", might to the other be in deadly earnest. What begins as a shared fantasy might, in some circumstances, escalate into something far more sinister.

Armin Meiwes at his re-trial in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide