It’s not even three weeks into the New Year and everyone’s talking about cannibalism, on account of a series of screenshots of Instagram DMs allegedly sent by the actor Armie Hammer to an anonymous woman claiming to have had a four-year affair with the actor. The messages, which were published on the Instagram account House of Effie, don’t show complete context, but there’s certainly a ton of horny talk about eating people and drinking blood. (If there was any fear that they were simply being misinterpreted, one message reads, simply, “I am 100% a cannibal.”) The veracity of the messages has still not been confirmed, but two of Hammer’s exes have since come out with more allegations about Hammer’s troubling behavior with romantic partners, some of which seemed to corroborate the DMs—and both women said they believed the DMs were real. (Hammer has denied sending the messages, calling them “bullshit” and “spurious.”)
That sounds terrible, you might be thinking. Or perhaps your reaction, like many people on Twitter, was to think that people are allowed to have fantasies and shouldn’t be shamed for them, no matter how weird they sound. And in fact, cannibalism—or vorarephilia (vore for short), as it’s known—is a documented fetish, with academic studies and everything, as Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of #1 NYT bestseller Untrue, demonstrated in a Twitter thread. She wrote about cases like Gilberto Valle, a New York City cop who had used the internet to share plans to abduct, rape, and eventually eat women—then escaped prison time by convincing a judge that these were only fantasies. Then there was Armin Meiwes, a German man who found a partner willing to let him cook and eat his severed penis (who Meiwes then killed anyway.)
When you hear stories like Meiwes’s, it’s easy to think that this fetish is a violent one whose participants are genuinely antisocial and out to enact their desires on unwilling parties. The reality, however, according to Dr. Victoria Hartmann, author of I Love Dead People: Inside the Minds of Death Fetishists, is that most people with a cannibalism kink are not at all interested in harming anyone.
Because vorarephilia is so uncommon, it hasn’t been extensively studied, but Dr. Hartmann says it’s related to necrophilia and other paraphilias (the less-stigmatizing term for what used to be called “deviations” or “perversions”) that involve death. “A lot of people mistake necrophilia for one thing—sex with dead bodies. In my research, I found it’s more of a blanket term that covers a lot of the different subtypes, with vorarephilia in there,” she says. “Only about half a percent [of the people I studied] had actually acted out this fetish. Most of it was within the realm of their fantasy and, if not, it was most often negotiated within a consensual BDSM setting.” One study found that many vorarephiles, as social psychologist and sex researcher Justin Lehmiller writes, “tended to report having other unusual (but related) sexual interests beyond vorarephilia, including bestiality and zoophilia, being a furry, feederism [an erotic attachment to weight gain and eating], and certain forms of dominance and submission.”
Dr. Hartmann’s research has found that most people who discovered vorarephile tendencies did so between the ages of eight to thirteen, and almost all were horrified about it. She said that many acted out and carried a lot of personal shame, and that she found that the overwhelming number of them didn’t have any actual desire to hurt anyone—which they all went out of their way to make clear. They also didn’t have a desire to act out anything with an unwilling partner.