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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?

Armin Meiwes at his re-trial in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

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.