I found the video by accident last September. It’s a 30-second clip: A woman lies on her back, the camera cropped to her exposed midriff. Her skin is pale, the frame suffused with light. There’s a soda can on her stomach. A man’s bulky red sneaker enters the shot and starts to press down on it. The can sinks into her stomach, followed by awful, guttural, organ-squishing sounds. In the sidebar, on the comment section, she’d responded to a user who asked if the can touched her spine. Yes, she wrote.
The sickness I felt watching the video transformed into morbid fascination after I clicked through to the woman’s profile. There were hundreds more photos and videos: bellies sucked in with ribs outlined; bellies punched by fists or sticks; belts cinched horrifyingly tight; raw, blistered skin. According to the profile, I was looking at Ann Lee, a 24-year-old torture slave living in Phuket, Thailand.
Her elaborate biography detailed the abuses she suffered: Her owners hung her upside down and used her as a punching bag, and ate meals from the concave bowl of her sucked-in stomach. Her page described gruesome injuries, repeated hospitalizations, permanent damage to her uterus. At night, she wrote, her masters “place[d] a 300 lbs bed on my belly, so I writhe in pain and cannot sleep.” Most of her photos were headless, but a few showed the face of a sweet, smiling Asian girl holding up a peace sign, with dyed auburn hair and a cozy gray cardigan.
I discovered the profile on Motherless, a “moral free” porn site where the top videos usually have titles alleging incest or non-consent. I’d seen imaginative fantasies described on other profiles, but never anything this lurid. It was so extreme that it had to be fiction. Still, a part of me wondered: Could there be some truth to her story? Was she real? Was she in danger? And if so, could she be saved?
I started digging. The more I searched, the more I uncovered. Besides Motherless, Ann was on a Russian social media site, the online kink community Fetlife, a smaller, more extreme version of Fetlife called DarkFetishNet, Facebook, and had recently started a Tumblr. Each of her profiles featured some version of the same biography, although some of the details varied. For instance, on Fetlife, she didn’t mention the hospitalizations, and instead wrote that she could treat her own internal injuries through acupuncture, yoga, and Chinese medicine. When I studied her photos closely, it became clear that they didn’t feature the same woman: Some bodies showed clearly defined ribs, while others had larger frames. Skin color varied, as did breast and areola sizes. There were piercings and tattoos in some that didn’t appear in others. I used reverse image search to trace Ann’s face pictures to an amateur Asian porn site.
The process of discovery itself was a thrill, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know who Ann really was. And so, months later, I found myself scrutinizing a picture of the mound of a vagina covered in bloody cuts, trying to decide if the injuries were Photoshopped while I waited for Ann to come online.
Earlier that day, I emailed Ann and explained that I was a writer. To my surprise, she wrote back right away. Later that night, we chatted on Yahoo Messenger. “People in the West, in civilized society won’t believe my real story, because they don’t believe this kind of things happen. But real life is different,” Ann said. It was very early in the morning where Ann said she lived, in the basement of a two-story house in the Heibei province of China (“like a modern gym, only full of dungeon torture equipment”).
Could there be some truth to her story? Was she real? Was she in danger? And if so, could she be saved?
Ann told me she was born in Russia, but both of her parents died in a car accident when she was 2 years old. She moved to Beijing under the care of her uncle, a carpenter. For a while, things were normal — she went to school and lived an ordinary life. Ann was a quiet girl. She got good grades but preferred keeping to herself.
Everything changed when her uncle married his second wife: a cruel woman who hated Ann. The wife made Ann do all the chores in the house, for both her and her five sons. Soon, the chores turned into abuse. Ann said that her nephews started to hit her, punching her in the stomach. Her uncle was poor and had lots of debt. One day, a rich couple — she a general surgeon, and he a powerful politician — came to her uncle’s house, demanding his debt. Her uncle, frightened, suggested that they take Ann for sex as payment. The couple was not interested in sex, but when they saw her nephews hitting her, they decided that they wanted to take her as a slave.
“How did you react?” I asked her. Ann said she cried and begged her uncle not to let them take her — but it was useless. Her uncle sold her to her new masters, who brought her to Heibei, where she’d been living ever since. Every day, she said, she woke up before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast for her owners, which they ate out of the bowl of her sucked-in stomach. Then they began their daily beatings: dropping a heavy ball repeatedly on her stomach, hitting her until she passed out. Occasionally, they hosted torture parties and invited their friends to rape and hurt her.
I asked her why she didn’t try to escape. “They are my Gods,” Ann wrote. “I will never betray them.”
Like her profile itself, our conversation was full of inconsistencies. Ann was eager to describe the violent tortures she’d suffered each day, but when I asked her for details about her biography, she took her time in replying. I asked her where in Russia she was born, for instance, and she told me the south. When I pressed for a city name, there was a long delay before she said St. Petersburg (which is in the west). When I asked for her feelings about being sold off as a slave or being tortured, she repeated that she had none. She made many excuses: “Sorry I don’t write very well,” or, “I don’t remember, its so old [sic].” She remained adamant about how Chinese medicine could cure her injuries, even though it was medically impossible.
We’d been talking for more than two hours, and I was getting frustrated. I’d imagined, somehow, that we would leave the fantasy behind and I would get to learn her real story, but Ann wasn’t deviating from the script on her profiles.
“There are hundreds of pictures on your Fetlife,” I said. “Are all of those yours?” Eight minutes lapsed before she answered: “Yes.”
I asked Ann if I could talk to her owners. “They don’t speak English,” she said. Then I asked if I could talk to them in Chinese.
No, she said, they wouldn’t want to talk because they were “too dominant.” And then she grew suspicious. She sent me a string of questions in rapid succession: “Why are you asking me? Did I do something wrong?”
“I think some people might find your story hard to believe,” I said.
“So?” She replied. “I don’t care if they believe or not. I know it’s real.”
“I have basically what is a failed sexuality, a movie stunt fight in the place where sex is supposed to be,” Mark told me. I couldn’t get Ann’s creator to tell me his or her real story, but there were others who would. I found Mark on Fetlife and we chatted over Skype. I caught a glimpse of the rows of bookshelves in his house and a ginger cat who briefly came into the frame. Mark was a belly-punching fetishist who had spent most of his life living a kind of dual existence: He had a happy childhood in the suburbs in Philadelphia, studied the arts and history, worked as a journalist, wrote a dictionary, got married, and had kids, all the while containing the “defect” of his fetish sexuality. Mark was enthusiastic and eloquent, prone to peppering conversation with literary references. (Whitman was “clearly one of us,” he exclaimed. “He completely fetishized the entire world and himself!”)
There was no clear beginning to Mark’s fetish, but it slowly became apparent as he grew into adolescence during the ’70s, the heyday of crop tops. He remembered seeing Playboy covers in the drugstores, the gesture of a model lifting a shirt with an exposed belly button, and how that thrilled him. He paid attention to TV shows that featured punches to the gut, like Batman and old Westerns. His fetish wasn’t associated with a particular gender, but he was interested in women, in particular the shape of the belly, the “erotic geometry […] between the breasts and the groins and the hips, the way they work all together,” which was “blindingly beautiful.”
The attraction was powerful, but also alienating. “You have this idiosyncratic thing inside you,” he said. “You feel like you’ve been dropped off on the wrong planet.” He learned quickly that he had to hide his kink — “when you’re young, the only thing you wanna do is to fit in.”
Still, he searched the outside world for places in which he recognized himself. This was a time before the internet, before Fifty Shades of Grey. There were sketches of fetish communities, sure: for shoes or feet, or spankings and corsets. But Mark’s interest wasn’t like that. To indulge in it, he had to create his own pornography. He started submitting his own stories to fetish magazines. In his earliest fantasies, he imagined him and a woman hitting each other, which later morphed into women hitting each other, or even of a woman hitting him while another woman looked on.
Mark no longer wanted to be “the mayor of pervertsville.”
And as for the punching — for Mark, it wasn’t about the violence. It was about how the punch made you reveal yourself. “You can be completely self-contained, self-controlled, in command, but if someone gets you that way, unexpectedly, it crumbles you into this helpless, pure physical self that can’t help from moaning out and gasping for breath,” he said.
He never told his first wife about his fetish — “I had no language to tell it in,” he said — but it gnawed on their marriage. They separated around the same time Mark discovered the internet. He started writing belly-punching erotica and publishing it on a now-defunct Geocities site, which drew others to him. Over the years, Mark estimated that he’d talked to perhaps a hundred people who shared some variation of his fetish, a tiny percentage of the community at large. (Surprisingly, there aren’t many recent, large-scale surveys about kink activity, but a 1990 Kinsey Institute study found that 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population engaged in sadomasochism at least occasionally.)
Mark considered the internet a “miracle” that let him meet fellow fetishists, but he also saw its dangers. In the early 2000s, Mark launched and moderated a belly-punching-fetish message board where he encountered unsavory users who took their fetish into the real world — sometimes non-consensually. “Some of the guys — they don’t know how to play safe, they’re not even looking to play safe,” Mark said. It was one of the reasons he decided to resign from the board. He no longer wanted to be “the mayor of pervertsville.”
The internet allows people to “get exposed to things they might have never seen before,” Richard Sprott, developmental psychologist and executive director of the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities, told me. It can “generate a lot of new kinks or new fetishes.” For instance, if you’re already interested in the dynamics of power exchange, stumbling upon a form of it might spark a new erotic interest. “You can see new images, new ideas getting played out that represent the things that you’re really erotically attracted to.” You absorb new material and grow from it.
And creating a fictional persona online isn’t a surprising “next step” for people who want to play out their fantasies. According to Sprott, it means getting to role-play your fantasy with others, “instead of having it in all in your head … some people do it because they find it’s a part of themselves they can only express online.” In fact, having an outlet for expressing your desires can help lessen a sense of shame or repression, which in turn gives the fantasies “less power and influence on your behavior.”
Still, a small group of the population might get so lost in images and stories that they start to confuse the line between fantasy and reality. So how can we tell when fantasy is going to cross into the real world? “That’s a great question that nobody can answer,” Sprott said. Not only are there no clear answers, but research on sex and kink is often underfunded and quickly politicized (and studies on extreme kinks are even rarer).
Research on sex and kink is often underfunded and quickly politicized.
It’s difficult to say exactly what drives people to their unique sexual fantasies, DJ Williams, professor of social work and criminal justice at Idaho State University, explained. “Sometimes there are biological differences and sensory differences in certain regions of the body, complex interactions between social, psychological, and biological factors,” but the parts that make up each desire are so complex that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint. According to Williams, all fantasy — even the violent ones — can be empowering. They allow someone to resist cultural and social norms, and become a way to “explore the limits of possibility,” he said. From an evolutionary standpoint, that diversity of imagination is a good thing, especially as there’s no proven connection between sadistic fantasies and the intent to bring them into the real world. “I mentored under a dominatrix several years ago in BDSM, an extremely serious sadist who had some of these types of fantasies.”
“What’s the difference between me and a serial killer?” she’d asked him.
“The big difference is that you have empathy,” Williams replied.
If I told you about some of my deepest, darkest sexual fantasies, you might be appalled, too. I don’t write them down, and I rarely express them, although I do request lighter versions of them to partners: Put your hand around my throat, or leave bruises I’ll remember you by.
I sometimes joke that my kinks are a way to play out my internalized misogyny, but maybe it’s not about theory and more about the transgression: the memory of a thrill when I was 16 and read high fantasy novels in which a sadistic mistress tortured her handsome prisoner. “The pervert needs normality the same way that the rebel needs authority,” wrote the anonymous writer Supervert in Perversity Think Tank, a philosophical exploration of depravity. “The enemy of the pervert is not repression but liberality, sexual liberation, social tolerance […] in an environment where anything goes, nothing is perverse.” As a teen, I was entranced by the guilt and wrongness I felt as I read stories that repulsed me as much as they turned me on. Violence and sex were taboo. At 26, I still explore those inclinations, with less intensity but more curiosity. Kink has become a form of escapism, a hobby, another outlet in which I can express creativity.
It was possible that Ann’s profile was a hobby for Ann’s creator, too. I imagined that he was a man — men often created profiles using female personas because they drew more interest than male profiles. But this also meant that Ann was interacting with other men, suggesting homosexual tendencies. Or perhaps she was a woman, living out socially unacceptable fantasies. Mark had known women with such extreme fantasies, including one who wanted to be “hung by the wrists, socked in the stomach, and have ‘slut’ written on her bare belly. In reality, she was a proper nurse who had only once or twice ever dared to go bare-bellied in public, and had nearly died of embarrassment every time.” In any case, I wasn’t interested in Ann’s sexual fantasy. Why would Ann’s creator still want to talk to me?
I spent a while inventing her creator’s story in my head. It had been months since I discovered Ann’s profile, but I still had unanswered questions. She was an unsolved mystery, a sense of possibility. It made her endlessly compelling.
It turned out, I wasn’t the only one who’d become fixated on Ann. Mark introduced me to Jack Lindstrom, a 60-year-old belly-punching fetishist who carried on an online relationship with Ann for eight years. (Mark called Jack a “fellow traveler” on the road of their unusual fetish — they’ve never met in real life, but got to know each other through their writings throughout the years.) Jack eased some of my fears about Ann quickly: He remembered the soda can video that had so upset me as a “classic,” a clip in a series featuring the same model experiencing different forms of impact on her belly. According to Jack, the clip had been around for at least 15 years. The video was from a Japanese or Chinese producer — Jack couldn’t remember the producer’s name, but there were plenty of similar clips on Japanese fetish porn site Akiba, where the search term “belly punch” yields more than 350 results. (My friend who works in audio engineering confirmed that the squishing sound effects were added in post-production, though the video does feature a real woman — willing or not — withstanding some level of physical impact.)
Jack is a loquacious man who used to work in graphic design and advertising. He’s now retired and lives with his wife in Oregon. Early in his relationship, his wife expressed her disinterest in Jack’s fetish, so he began a double life, delving into online fantasies. When he first started chatting with Ann, who then went by the name Anushka, she claimed to be “a Japanese-born girl who, by dint of misadventure, found herself the owned sex slave of a Thai mob underboss and his wife, somewhere in that morass of libertine thought known as Thailand.” In their chats, they shared porn clips specific to their fetish, or role-played violent fantasies.
Jack didn’t believe that Anushka experienced all the abuses she described, but he did believe that she was a real person in need of a savior. He considered making a trip to Thailand to rescue her. He planned to meet Anushka while she was out running errands for her masters, then “spirit her away to a hotel where I would have the necessary papers to enable her to fly back to the States with me.” For a while, Anushka seemed enthralled with the idea — but after a few weeks, she started making excuses, feigning resignation, pointing out that her owners would likely try to kill her rescuer. “It was then that I began to allow myself the latitude to consider that I had been very skillfully conned,” Jack said, “but by someone who cared enough to prevent me from wasting my time on a wild goose chase.”
“It was then that I began to allow myself the latitude to consider that I had been very skillfully conned.”
For Jack, Anushka’s deception came as a relief. It wasn’t the first time he’d chatted with an impostor, and if she wasn’t real, he was absolved of the responsibility of rescuing her. Jack didn’t hold anything against Anushka — they shared the bond of having the same unusual fetish, and “helping the other person experience a deeper fantasy.” There was affection in their relationship, he admitted, trust in the way they opened up about their desires, a vulnerability that surpassed their violent fantasies.
“The thought of giving up your life to somebody else might be interpreted as the most extreme form of sacrifice or devotion,” said Dr. Williams. According to Jack, the fantasy is actually based on a foundation of love. It might sound far-fetched, but in a BDSM context, the idea of a torture slave willing to die for her master isn’t so different from the idea of an all-consuming love that the rest of us are searching for.
I thought about something Ann said the first time I chatted with her, before I got aggressive with my questions. It would have been 4 a.m. in China, an hour before she had to cook breakfast for her masters and go through her morning torture. “C u in a few hours,” she wrote. “Pls go to sleep.”
This surprised me, because it was sweet, and endearing. She was a torture slave, yet she was worried about my well-being! I found myself liking Ann. Despite everything, she came across strangely innocent.
In the realm of unusual kinks, both Jack and Mark mentioned a need for suspended belief, or setting aside the part of yourself that asks Is this real? for the sake of having the experience. It’s like going to the movies: You have to imagine possibilities, and live with doubts and uncertainties. I saw holes in Ann’s story quickly because I wasn’t interested in her sexual fantasy, but there was a part of me that did, at least a little, want to believe. Not because it was a pleasant idea, but because I’d overlaid my own fantasy on top of hers: Perhaps, I thought, I could save her. I wanted to do more than play detective: I wanted an extraordinary — maybe even dangerous — adventure.
The idea of a torture slave willing to die for her master isn’t so different from the idea of an all-consuming love.
Instead, I made a mistake, and the next time I checked Ann’s Fetlife profile, it was gone. It was my fault. I felt surprisingly terrible, on the verge of tears. I’d spoken to a BDSM activist earlier, hoping to ask her about kink shaming and if it might play a role in creating extreme fantasies. I told her about Ann’s profile, but our conversation turned tense: She thought I was sensationalizing BDSM and confusing actual violence with fantasy. My hunch is that she reported Ann’s profile — Fetlife’s rules don’t allow fake profiles, though it can be hard to detect unless someone reports one. The safety measure makes sense, and yet, in the months I’d spent uncovering Ann’s story, after our day of chatting, I grew fond of this fictional torture slave and fond of her creator — whoever he, or she, was.
In some ways, Ann’s creator and I were not so unlike. While Ann searched for connections to her unusual kink, I searched for answers to satisfy my curiosity. While I sought to understand her extreme fantasies, I gained a better understanding of my own. Erasing Ann’s profile felt like deleting someone’s creation, someone’s years of hard work, and perhaps, someone’s rare source of connection in the world.
Though Ann had thousands of fans across her social media networks, she told me that it was still hard to find people who shared the same interests. “99 percent of people want sex,” Ann said, but to her, pain was sex.
Before Mark learned that there were others who shared his fetish, he remembered grasping at anything out in the world that resembled his interest. It was like being a prisoner in a dank, dark cell, and seeing a shaft of sunlight through the bars. “In that diminished world,” Mark said, “any contact at all was a richness.”