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Humanizing Cannibalism and Balloon Fetishes with the Author of "Deviant Desires"

“I want to show them that weird sex isn’t just for the purpose of being weird,” says fringe subculture researcher Katharine Gates. “That [attitude] is really dehumanizing and nasty."

by Sophie Saint Thomas

by Sophie Saint Thomas

All photos from "Deviant Desires" by Katharine Gates, published by powerHouse Books. Lead photo by Ron H.

"Looners" are people who enjoy sexual gratification from the collecting, inflating, and popping of balloons. Pony play involves dressing up in fetish gear and reveling in the pleasure of harnessing the primitive power of the horse through consensual BDSM scenes. Author and anthropologist Katharine Gates studies and writes about such kink communities in a manner that does not ogle, but humanizes.

Her iconic book, Deviant Desires: A Tour of the Erotic Edge, first came out in 1999, but beloved Brooklyn publisher powerHouse revised and re-released the sex text at the tail end of 2017. The updated version includes essays on the differences between a fetish and a kink, explorations of "macrophiles" (with the chapter subhead aptly titled "Attack of the 50-Foot Fantasy"), and even a section on cannibalism. Sound intimidating or even unsafe? As Gates explains, often the most "far out" sounding fetishes and fantasies involve the highest level of consent and communication.

Here at MERRY JANE, we're interested in all sorts of culture — stigmatized, or otherwise. From our country's still-contentious relationship with cannabis, to LGBTQ+ organizations that support medical marijuana use as a means of substance abuse recovery, we want to highlight polarizing subject matter in order to encourage a more open dialogue about the stuff that divides us. Therefore, hats off to Katharine Gates, who's been giving fringe subcultures a platform to share their stories eons before the country was "woke" or even knew what a diaper stoner was. We caught up with the author to discuss her work, her reissued book, and the deviant in us all.

Photo by Mark McQueen, courtesy of powerHouse Books

MERRY JANE: How did Deviant Desires originally come about?
Katharine Gates:
I come from a punk rock DIY publishing background. In the early '90s, I had a publishing company and worked with people like Annie Sprinkle making these weirdo artist books. As we traveled around the country, manually delivering these books to these bookstores, we found that the most interesting bookstores in every city had these little magazine racks. People could put out a magazine devoted to whatever their personal obsession was.

There was Equus Eroticus magazine for pony play. There was Splosh! magazine for messy fun, and there was Hair to Stay for hairy women. I obsessively collected these, because I was fascinated by them. I also knew a lot of professional sex workers and dominatrixes, and whenever I saw them I would ask them for a story of a client who had some new scenario they wanted to do that they hadn't heard of before. So I was collecting these stories and information for a long time. At a certain point, I was friends with people who put out research books. They asked me to make a book devoted to sex stuff. They had done body modification, but they had never done one about sex. So that's how the first edition happened. It was me from the point of view of being a collector enthusiast of niche sexualities.

How has the internet changed that culture since the first edition?
None of the zines that I just mentioned still exist. All of the small bookstores that would have handled those small zines have closed. The entire publishing industry has been shaken up by Amazon and the internet together. Economically speaking, the zine world really can't continue. These passionate projects of love and obsession don't have a place in print anymore.

Today, in a post-50 Shades of Grey world, which inaccurately portrays BDSM, do you think your book can help people understand kink culture from a more informed perspective?
I certainly do. I hope. Some people are clearly going to buy the book because it's going to push their freak out buttons. Some people are looking for a freak show. And that's fine, because they'll be disappointed. What they're going to get delivered is an education.

Photo by, courtesy of powerHouse Books

How have vanilla people reacted to the book?
A lot of vanilla people don't expect kinky sexuality to be silly and fun. They don't want kinky sexuality to be anything other than the scary stuff. After the first [edition], people came up to me and asked, "Why didn't you do anything on bestiality or necrophilia?" I said, "Well, I actually have interviewed people with those interests, but I didn't want the book to become about the freakiest and the weirdest, because that's going to lessen our understanding of what's going on."

I want to show them that weird sex isn't just for the purpose of being weird. There are people who are called "freak-fuckers," or people who are like, "I want to do the freakiest thing I can." People like that are very tiresome and annoying. People in kink don't want to deal with those people. They aren't treating this with the respect and insight, which is needed. "I fucked a fat lady; now I fucked an old lady, now I'm going to fuck a dwarf." That's really dehumanizing and nasty.

Photo by Pangur, courtesy of powerHouse Books

How have authentic kink communities responded to Deviant Desires?
When the first book came out, so many of these kinks were completely unknown to the general public, and even kinky people. There are those in the BDSM community who said, "I never heard of that one." The looners certainly were pretty unknown. I mean they are probably not a big group either. Nobody ever talks to them or talks about them.

The new edition includes cannibal play, which is highly controversial. What was the reaction regarding that?
It was funny to add this because it sounds really scary and like we're talking about Jeffrey Dahmer. But we're not talking about Jeffrey Dahmer. There was no consent involved in Jeffrey Dahmer. There was no intimacy. There was no recognition of the other person as a human being. Jeffrey Dahmer is to cannibal play as rape is to loving couple sex. To assume that all loving couple sex is rape is kind of stupid.

Cannibal play is about so many other things — the desire to become the object of attention, to have someone want us so badly that they could eat us up. Or to want to become an object and have no mind and be completely engulfed by [a partner]. These are some of the elements that I think a lot of people would understand about cannibal play, even if it looks really scary. These people don't actually want to be eaten.

Right now, if we want to talk about current events, there's a recent sudden awareness in the general public of the ways in which consent violations happen to women every single day. "I didn't realize that every woman I know has had her consent violated by some shithead creep." Surprise, surprise. People in the BDSM community have been ahead of this curve for a long time, and known that consent is the "end all, be all" of human interaction.

Photo by Splosh! courtesy of powerHouse Books

For more on Katharine Gates, visit powerHouse Books' website and order your copy of the re-released edition of "Deviant Desires" here

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Sophie Saint Thomas

Sophie Saint Thomas is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Along with Merry Jane, her writing has been published in VICE, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, High Times, Nylon, Playboy, GQ, Harper's Bazaar and more. Brooklyn Magazine included her on their annual 2016 30 Under 30 Envy List. Her favorite strain of weed is Grand Daddy Purp.



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