Seeking Ann. I found the video by accident last September. Her skin is pale, the frame suffused with light. The can sinks into her stomach, followed by awful, guttural, organ-squishing sounds. Yes, she wrote. 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 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 described gruesome injuries, repeated hospitalizations, permanent damage to her uterus.
A journey into the dark world of “belly torture” slaves, where the line between fantasy and reality is dangerously blurred.
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.
Skin color varied, as did breast and areola sizes.
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 ed Ann and explained that I was a writer.
To my surprise, she wrote back right away. Later that night, we chatted on Yahoo Messenger. 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.
A navel torture
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. Ann said she cried and begged her uncle not to let them take her — but it was useless.
Every day, she said, she woke up before 5 a. 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. Like her profile itself, our conversation was full of inconsistencies.
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. I asked Ann if I could talk to her owners. Then I asked if I could talk to them in Chinese. Did I do something wrong?
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 enthusiastic and eloquent, prone to peppering conversation with literary references. 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. The attraction was powerful, but also alienating. 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. 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. It was about how the punch made you reveal yourself.
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. In the early s, 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.
It was one of the reasons he decided to re from the board. 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?
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. According to Williams, all fantasy — even the violent ones — can be empowering.
If I told you about some of my deepest, darkest sexual fantasies, you might be appalled, too. 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. 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. 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.
She was an unsolved mystery, a sense of possibility. It made her endlessly compelling.
Mark introduced me to Jack Lindstrom, a year-old belly-punching fetishist who carried on an online relationship with Ann for eight years. According to Jack, the clip had been around for at least 15 years. 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 de and advertising. He considered making a trip to Thailand to rescue her. According to Jack, the fantasy is actually based on a foundation of love. 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.
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?
I wanted to do more than play detective: I wanted an extraordinary — maybe even dangerous — adventure. It was my fault. I felt surprisingly terrible, on the verge of tears. While Ann searched for connections to her unusual kink, I searched for answers to satisfy my curiosity.