The eat is on: Cannibalism and sexual cannibalism (revisited)

Recently, I was approached by Ben Biggs, the editor of the Real Crime magazine, who was running an article on the practicalities and psychology of cannibalism, with expert commentary running through it (and with me as the “expert”). The article has just been published in the May 2016 issue and I was assured that the feature would “highlight how nasty cannibalism is, not glorify it”. I responded to the questions as part of an email interview and today’s blog contains the unedited responses to the questions that I was asked.

What are the main reasons a human might eat another human being?

There are a number of possible reasons including:

Out of necessity – For instance, in 1972, a rugby team from Uruguay was in a plane crash in the Andes. Fifteen people died and the only way they prevented themselves starving to death was to eat the flesh of the deceased (which given the fact it took 72 days for them to be rescued, was one of the few viable options to prevent starvation).

As a way of controlling population size – The Aztecs were said to have eaten no less than 15,000 victims a year as – some have argued – a form of population control).

As part of a religious belief – There are some religious beliefs involving the need to eat human flesh as a way of sustaining the universe or as part of magical and ritualistic ceremonies.

As part of the grieving process – Some acts of cannibalism are where dead people’s body parts are eaten as either part of the grieving process, as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of the living, and/or as a way of imbibing the dead person’s ‘life force’ or more specific individual characteristics.

As part of tribal warfare – Cannibalistic acts were most often carried out as part of a celebration victory after battles with rival tribes.

For sexual gratification – Some individuals have claimed to get sexually aroused from eating (or thinking about eating) the flesh of others. When it comes to sexual cannibalism in humans, there are arguably different subtypes (although this is based on my own personal opinion and not on something I’ve read in a book or research paper). Most of these behaviours I have examined in previous blogs:

  • Vorarephilia is a sexual paraphilia in which individuals are sexually aroused by (i) the idea of being eaten, (ii) eating another person, and/or (iii) observing this process for sexual gratification. However, most vorarephiles’ behaviour is fantasy-based, although there have been real cases such as Armin Meiwes, the so-called ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’.
  • Erotophonophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which individuals have extreme violent fantasies and typically kill their victims during sex and/or mutilate their victims’ sexual organs (the latter of which is usually post-mortem). In some cases, the erotophonophiles will eat some of their victim’s body parts (usually post-mortem). Many lust murderers – including Jack the Ripper – are suspected of engaging in cannibalistic and/or gynophagic acts, taking away part of the female to eat later. Other examples of murderers who have eaten their victims (or parts of them) for sexual pleasure include Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, Andrei Chikatilo, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
  • Sexual necrophagy refers to the cannibalizing of a corpse for sexual pleasure. This may be associated with lust murder but Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices says that such cases usually involve “one whose death the molester did not cause. Many cases of reported necrophilia include cannibalism or other forms of sadism and it is believed that many others fantasize about doing it”.
  • Vampirism as a sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual arousal from the ingestion of blood from a living person.
  • Menophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which an individual (almost always male) derives sexual arousal from drinking the blood of menstruating females.
  • Gynophagia is a sexual fetish that involves fantasies of cooking and consumption of human females (gynophagia literally means “woman eating”). There is also a sub-type of gynophagia called pathenophagia. This is the practice of eating young girls or virgins. Several lust murderers were known to consume the flesh of young virgins, most notably Albert Fish).
  • ‘Sexual autophagy’ refers to the eating of one’s own flesh for sexual pleasure (and would be a sub-type of autosarcophagy).

A recent 2014 paper by Dr. Amy Lykins and Dr. James Cantor in the Archives of Sexual Behavior entitled ‘Vorarephilia: A case study in masochism and erotic consumption’ referred to the work of Dr Friedemann Pfafflin (a forensic psychotherapist at Ulm University, Germany): 

“Pfafflin (2008) commented on the many phrases that exist in the English language to relate sex/love and consumption, including referring to someone as ‘looking good enough to eat’, ’that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’, and describing a sexually appealing person as ‘sweet’, ‘juicy’, ‘appetizing’, or ‘tasty’. Christian religions even sanction metaphorical cannibalism through their sacrament rituals, during which participants consume bread or wafers meant to represent the ‘body of Christ’ and wine intended to represent the ‘blood of Christ’ – a show of Jesus’s love of his people and, in turn, their love for him, by sharing in his ‘blood’ and ‘flesh’. This act was intended to ‘merge as one’ the divine and the mortal”.

It’s not unusual for a serial killer to cannibalise parts of their victims. Why is this, and what can cause that behaviour? 

I think it’s a rare behaviour, even among serial killers. As noted above, in these instances the eating (or the thought of eating) others is sexually arousing. It has also been claimed that the sexual cannibal may also release sexual frustration or pent up anger when eating human flesh. Some consider sexual cannibalism to be a form of sexual sadism and is often associated with the act of necrophilia (sex with corpses). Others have claimed that cannibals feel a sense of euphoria and/or intense sexual stimulation when consuming human flesh. All of these online accounts cite the same article by Clara Bruce (‘Chew On This: You’re What’s for Dinner’) that I have been unable to track down (so I can’t vouch for the veracity of the claims made). Bruce’s article claimed that cannibals had compared eating human flesh with having an orgasm, and that flesh eating caused an out-of-body-experience experience with effects comparable to taking the drug mescaline.

In the case of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa, he said that he might have been satisfied with consuming some, non-vital part of his victim Renee Hartevelt, such as her pubic hair, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask her for it. Does the murder and the consumption of flesh stem from the same mental disorder, or is murder just a necessary evil? 

I have not seen these claims. I have only read that his desire to eat women was to “absorb their energy”.

Do you think Issei Sagawa would have been satisfied with eating her hair?

Again, I have never read about this. He seems to have claimed that he had cannibalistic desires since his youth and that his murder of women was for this reason and no other.

Serial Killer Jeffrey Dahmer said he liked to eat mens’ biceps, because he was a ‘bicep guy’. Does the body part consumed necessarily bear a direct relation to the part of the victim’s anatomy the cannibal has a sexual preference for?

Not that I am aware of. Most people that are partialists (i.e., derive sexual arousal from particular body parts such has hands, feet, buttocks, etc.) would be unlikely to get aroused if the body part was not attached to something living.

There are rarer cases where, rather than having a fantasy of eating a sexual partner, the ‘victim’ consents to being eaten by the killer. Does this stem from the same psycho-sexual disorder that leads to a cannibal killing?

This is something entirely different and is part of vorarephilia (highlighted earlier). My understanding is that the flesh eating would only occur consensually (as in the case of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Brand).

What reason would there be for someone to eat their own body parts? 

The practice is very rare and has only been documented a number of times in the psychological and psychiatric literature (and all are individual case studies). It has sometimes been labeled as a type of pica (on the basis that the person is eating something non-nutritive) although personally I think this is misguided as it could be argued that human flesh may be nutritious (even if most people find the whole concept morally repugnant). However, there are documented cases of autosarcophagy where people have eaten their own skin as an extreme form of body modification. Some authors argue that auto-vampirism (i.e., the practice of people drinking their own blood) should also be classed as a form of autosarcophagy (although again, I think this is stretching the point a little).

The practice has certainly come to the fore in some high profile examples in the fictional literature. Arguably the most infamous example, was in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal (and also in the film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott), where Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter psychologically manipulates the paedophile Mason Verger into eating his own nose, and then gets Verger to slice off pieces of his own face off and feed them to his dog. In what many people see as an even more gruesome autosarcophagic scene, Lecter manages to feed FBI agent Paul Krendler slices of his own brain. In real life (rather than fiction), autosarcophagy is typically a lot less stomach churning but in extreme examples can still be something that makes people wince.

Depending on the definition of autosarcophagy used, the spectrum of self-cannibalism could potentially range from behaviours such as eating a bit of your own skin right through eating your own limbs. There are many reasons including for art, for the taste, for body modification, for protest (associated to mental illness), because they had taken mind-altering drugs, and for sexual pleasure. Here are four autosarcophagic examples that have been widely reported in the media but are very different in scope and the public’s reaction to them.

  • Example 1: Following a liposuction operation in 1996, the Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti held a dinner party for close friends and served up a pasta dish with meatballs made from beef and the fatty liposuction remains. The meal was claimed by Evaristti to be an artistic statement but was highly criticized as being “disgusting, publicity-seeking and immoral”.
  • Example 2: On a February 1998 episode of the Channel 4 British cookery programme TV Dinners, a mother was shown engaging in placentophagy when she cooked her own placenta (with fried garlic and shallots), made into a pate and served on foccacia bread. The programme received a lot of complaints that were upheld by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission who concluded that the act of eating placenta pate on a highly watched TV programme had  “breached convention”.
  • Example 3: In 2009, Andre Thomas, a 25-year old murderer on Texas death row (and with a history of mental problems) pulled out his eye in prison and ate it.
  • Example 4: The German man Bernd Jürgen Brande who engaged in self-cannibalism (cutting off and then eating his own cooked penis) before being killed and eaten by Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ (who also shared in the eating of Brande’s cooked penis).

Dr Friedemann Pfafflin (a forensic psychotherapist at Ulm University, Germany) and who has written about Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ asserts that “apart from acts of cannibalism arising from situations of extreme necessity…the cannibalistic deeds of individuals are always an expression of severe psychopathology”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Ahuja, N. & Lloyd, A.J. (2007). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Journal of Psychiatry, 41, 294-5.

Arens, William (1979). The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beier, K. (2008). Comment on Pfafflin’s (2008) “Good enough to eat”. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 164-165.

Beneke M. (1999). First report of nonpsychotic self-cannibalism (autophagy), tongue splitting, and scar patterns (scarification) as an extreme form of cultural body modification in a western civilization. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 20, 281-285.

Benezech, M., Bourgeois, M., Boukhabza, D. & Yesavage, J. (1981). Cannibalism and vampirism in paranoid schizophrenia. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 42(7), 290.

Beier, K. (2008). Comment on Pfafflin’s (2008) “Good enough to eat”. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 164-165.

Betts, W.C. (1964). Autocannibalism: an additional observation. American Journal of Psychiatry 121, 402-403.

Cannon, J. (2002). Fascination with cannibalism has sexual roots. Indiana Statesman, November 22. Located at:

de Moore, G.M. & Clement, M. (2006). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 937.

Gates, K. (2000). Deviant desires: Incredibly strange sex. New York: Juno Books.

Huffington Post (2009). Andre Thomas, Texas Death Row inmate, pulls out eye, eats it. TheHuffington Post, September 9. Located at:

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886). Psychopathia sexualis (C.G. Chaddock, Trans.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Lykins, A.D., & Cantor, J.M. (2014). Vorarephilia: A case study in masochism and erotic consumption. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 181-186.

Mikellides, A.P. (1950). Two cases of self-cannibalism (autosarcophagy). Cyprus Medical Journal, 3, 498-500.

Mintz, I.L. (1964). Autocannibalism: a case study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 1017.

Monasterio, E. & Prince, C. (2011). Self-cannibalism in the absence of psychosis and substance use. Australasian Psychiatry, 19, 170-172.

Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.

Pfafflin, F. (2009). Reply to Beier (2009). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 166-167.

Prins, H. (1985). Vampirism: A clinical condition. British Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 666-668.

Reuters (1997). Meatballs made from fat, anyone? May 18. Located at:

Sunay, O. & Menderes, A. (2011). Self cannibalism of fingers in an alzheimer patient. Balkan Medical Journal, 28, 214-215.

Unlimited Blog (2007). Sexual cannibalism and Nithari murders. November. Located at:

Wikipdia (2012). Cannibalism. Located at:

Wikipedia (2012). Sexual cannibalism. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on May 13, 2016, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Culture Bound Syndromes, Gender differences, Paraphilia, Psychiatry, Psychology, Sex, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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