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
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

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