Deviant Desires: An Interview with Kink & Fetish Author Katharine Gates

Katharine Gates is a ‘gonzo anthropologist’ whose book, Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge, covers everything from overeating to eating people. Lizzi Sandell wonders if we’re ready and willing for this gleefully amoral approach to sexuality. 

Katharine Gates’ career is difficult to define, but the new edition of her book—Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge—is the product of a lifetime’s extra-curricular enthusiasm for erotic niches. First published in 2000, it is an ethnographic study of sexual subcultures, written by a self-described pervert. Gates’ approach to kinks, fetishes, and the communities that practice them is playful and refreshingly lacking in the sort of ‘SJW’-type discourse that we’ve become so well versed in (I’ve excluded a handful of quotes from our interview because they would have caused a ruckus in the wrong hands). Gates energetically resists these normative afflictions. “People have fantasies and I don’t think people should be judged for those fantasies. My project is to describe what people do, why they do it, what it means for them… I describe what is, rather than what should be.”

Gates suggests that we meet at a costume store for our interview, which seems both odd and somehow ideal. It turns out the capacious ‘Halloween Land’ on 4th Avenue is busy by 11 a.m. even on a weekday, and is manned by an array of wonderfully strange employees. We browse the walls, playing around with an $80 fox head that looks like amateur furry gear and being careful to avoid the Christmas corner. I wanted to meet the woman behind the book; it is a brilliant, whimsical, illuminating journey from foot-pumping to furries, from medical casts to cannibalism. But I also wanted to discuss with Gates how things have changed since its first edition. I suspected that, if anything, we’d become more rather than less puritanical in the last 17 years. How will Gates’ laissez-faire attitude contend with our current (often shrill) cultural climate?

Here’s the headline: Gates’ distinction between fantasy and reality is rigorously drawn. Fantasy can be imagined, described, illustrated, and/or elaborately acted-out (by consenting adults), no matter its nature. This rule extends to anything at all. Anything. Fantasy shouldn’t be sullied by identity politics; Gates recognizes the importance of representation, but “that’s not my project”. Instead, Gates presents the material in Deviant Desires without prejudice; we may interpret it ourselves. She considers negotiating sexual scenarios less a matter of ethics and more a matter of etiquette, of human decency. “I have the sickest fucking fantasies in my head,” she tells me with glee. “I mean, what goes on in my head is worse than any David Cronenberg film, and I really take a lot of joy from having that crap go on inside here, but I don’t take that crap and spread it onto anybody else. That’s my job as a human being.”

Gates has included a brand-new section in the new edition, adapted from a Village Voice piece she wrote in 2005 about Armin Meiwes and cannibal fetishism. Speaking of acting out fantasies that probably should be left “inside there”, Meiwes was convicted for killing and eating a guy he had been talking with on chat room, Cannibal Cafe; initially he was only sentenced to 8 years in prison, due to the ostensibly consensual nature of the arrangement. Consensual cannibalism? Gates began entering these online communities to investigate the moral furor that the incident caused…were the kink chat rooms to blame for the loss of an innocent life? You can imagine what Gates’ take is: Meiwes was a rogue who didn’t understand the implicit, and sometimes very much explicit (via website banners that could have been written by Gates herself: FANTASY, FANTASY, FANTASY), etiquette of the community. I’m inclined to agree with her. Still, some meatboys and meatgirls maintain that he may have been fulfilling the victim’s ultimate fantasy. “You have to watch out for those bottoms!” Gates laughs.

For her, events like this are a misrepresentation; they are totally beside the point. Untoward things happen even in ‘vanilla’ sexual sectors. She loves the cannibals she met through her research, and attended the ceremonial “eating” of a meatgirl who was lovingly basted and arranged among vegetables, to the enjoyment of everyone involved. She also knows of couples that improvise human-sized spits in their basement so they can tenderly roast each other as foreplay or rather, as a sexual act in itself. These are the type of cannibals that interest Gates. One of her own preferences, it turns out, is cannibal-adjacent: she’s a vorarephile, and would like—in theory—to be devoured by wolves.

We leave Halloween Land and move to a coffee shop over the road. Over Arnold Palmers, we continue talking about topics unfit for soft drinks and sunshine-y afternoons. From being eaten, we consider eating. Another kink in Deviant Desires is extreme feeders, feedees, and fat admirers. Extreme feeders, feedees, and fat admirers are another kink in Deviant Desires; ‘Supersize Betsy,’ the woman Gates interviewed for the previous edition, is already dead—which Gates puts down to a late-in-life diet. She paints the feedees like true riot grrls. She has the utmost admiration for them despite the obvious health risks, and despite pop culture and polite society relentlessly depicting them as victims. Betsy has been replaced in this edition by another extreme BBW, Heather Boyle:

“Heather is totally committed to the feeding process, despite knowing it will shorten her life. For me, because I am a timid, white female who wants to be liked and all that, I’m so glad that she’s out there doing that, even though it threatens me. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world of people who think it’s your moral responsibility to be healthy. She basically says, ‘Fuck everyone else! This is my fucking body. I’ll deal with it. I’ve got health insurance,’ you know? ‘Don’t tell me I’m a woman who’s not supposed to have pleasure and is not supposed to eat.’ I mean, that’s the anti-feminist shit: fear of women’s pleasure, and fear of women’s bodies… Fear of fat is a fear of women, and a fear of pleasure, and a fear of bodies.”

She is impassioned and convincing. Our already conspicuous conversation gets darker, moving on to the ‘big three’: paedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality. Although these topics aren’t recognized in the book as fetishes or kinks (furry play and adult babies notwithstanding), “non-consenting partners” are included in Gates’ infamous kink map. She stresses again to me, probably somewhat exasperated by now, the difference between fantasies of non-consent and actually sexually assaulting a person, child, or animal. “The map is about what’s there in the erotic imagination, and it really is about the erotic imagination, it’s not describing practices or condoning practices, so I felt like not having that, which really is a large part of fantasy—of FANTASY—to be taken beyond one’s limits and to be helpless, or be totally in control and go beyond someone else’s limits…I think it would be dishonest not to put it there. But it’s not ok to do it in real life.”

Still, I continued to struggle with one element in the book, a part that is comparatively less subversive than what we had already discussed. My sticking point is the photographs of Romain Slocombe, whose 1997 book City of the Broken Dolls combines his two sexual obsessions: medical fetishism and Japanese women. The admittedly beautiful (and quite sexy) photographs sit very uncomfortably with me. A Parisian man with a “fetish” for vulnerable, young Japanese women strikes me as tiresome and damaging, rather than liberating. I can’t divorce them from their social context. I admit this to Gates, who knows him personally and likes him; she assures me that Tokyo’s female population used to practically jostle for a chance to be photographed in a cast by Slocombe. She believes that “erotic art is sacrosanct,” and clearly has great admiration for the attention to detail that goes into fetishes scenes like these. Slocombe’s images are often tinged with an authentic green hospital light.

Above image by Romain Slocombe. Same for main image.

Gates sees Slocombe’s work in a totally different context. She tells me about Hurt-Comfort, the sub-genre of slash fiction in which sexual encounters between fictional characters are preceded by some sort of injury or illness; the caretaking is what initiates the action. Arguably, when looking at images like Slocombe’s, we feel a perverse mix of concern for the victim (of fictitious accident or injury) which, when intermingled with the blatant eroticism of the photos, only heightens the emotional impact of the fantasy. Gates views people like him—people with unique, obscure, very specific fetishes—as underappreciated artists: “When a person pulls together an erotic scenario, every prop, every angle, and all of the little details are part of this collage, and they bring more meaning and more emotional content into the story. Many of these people could have been Stanley Kubrick, because of their visual sense and their ability to create a scene and a drama that has intense meaning—it’s just that they would only make one movie their entire lives.”

This wealth of imagination and appetite for detail serves as a fascinating thread throughout Deviant Desires. Amongst other things, it is a collection of stories about intensely passionate people. Like Guy Masterleigh, who organizes feudal-themed BDSM events in rural Wales with like-minded enthusiasts, or looner (balloon enthusiast) Buster Steve, or “crush freak” filmmaker Jeff Vilencia (some people crush live rodents or birds underfoot to satisfy the kink; Vilencia draws the line at fetal mice). I admit to Gates that the way she described foot-pumping made it seem sexy to me; I had never considered feet before, let alone manically pumping a clutch pedal in white sneakers or black Oxford wingtips. The various details of the scene—Ford Fiesta, busy nurse, painted toenails, whatever—are collaged together in the manner of Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur. We all gather information from various sources, imbue it with meaning, and piece it back together in ways that feel compelling to us. Some people just do this more meticulously, in order to get off.

Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge by Katharine Gates will be released by powerHouse Books in December.

Lizzi Sandell is a writer and editor who lives between London and New York.



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