Untangling sexual homicide
In this post, I argue that the classification system commonly used to determine if a murder is sexual in nature has led to a muddled view of what sexual homicide (and a sexual homicide offender) is. In the past few years, there have been numerous studies published on the topic of sexual homicide. Compared to other forms of sexual offending, sexual homicide is rare. Nevertheless, it does happen. Therefore, some clinicians will have to assess and treat sexual homicide offenders. Given this, and the severity of the crime, sexual homicide is an important topic of study. A big problem that sexual homicide researchers face, however, is the apparent difficulty in defining sexual homicide.
Early scholars argued that sexual homicide offenders were sexually aroused by killing, leading to the idea of the ‘lust murderer’. FBI researchers then broadened the definition, arguing that sexual homicide “involves a sexual element (activity) as the basis for the sequence of the acts leading to death”. This definition is closely associated with the FBI’s crime-scene classification of sexual homicide. According to Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988), a homicide can be considered as sexual if any one of the following are present: (a) the victim is found totally/partially naked; (b) the genitals are exposed; (c) the body is found in a sexually explicit position; (d) an object has been inserted into a body cavity; (e) there is evidence of sexual contact; (f) there is evidence of substitutive sexual activity (e.g., ejaculation at the crime scene), or of sadistic sexual fantasies (e.g., genital mutilation). At present, however, the only agreement is that there is no agreed definition (Kerr, Beech, & Murphy, 2013).
A big problem that sexual homicide researchers face is the apparent difficulty in defining sexual homicide.
Nevertheless, most contemporary researchers use Ressler et al.’s (1988) classification to identify sexual homicide offenders. I argue that Ressler et al.’s definition is too inclusive, leading to certain offenses being grouped under the rubric of ‘sexual homicide’ when they may not be. This is likely to affect and impede the development of valid assessment tools and effective treatment for sexual homicide offenders.
All types of sexual offending have a clear distinguishing feature or differentia; (e.g., non-consensual sex is integral to rape). In my view, for sexual homicide to be regarded as a distinct type of sexual offense, an association between sexual activity and murder is integral. This can be in the form of: (1) deriving sexual pleasure from the act of killing (or after killing in the case of necrophilic behavior); or (2) when sexual acts (during and/or after the murder) form part of the homicidal assault (e.g., to maximise suffering or degradation). Thus, murder that is not integrally linked to the sexual act/s would not be regarded as sexual homicide. This would include sexual offenders who kill their victim “to avoid detection by making sure that the victim was not around to subsequently identify them” (Beech, Fisher, & Ward, 2005, p.1381). It would also exclude those who kill during consensual sex due to an angry outburst (e.g., in response to ridicule or rejection), as well as accidental killing during consensual sex or a sadistic rape.
Ressler et al.’s definition is too inclusive, leading to certain offenses being grouped under the rubric of ‘sexual homicide’ when they may not be.
However, at least 5 of the 6 criteria in Ressler et al.’s classification would result in all of the above being categorized as a sexual homicide (e.g., “there is evidence of sexual contact”). Therefore, studies using Ressler et al.’s classification could be including a variety of different offender types in their sexual homicide samples, which will adversely affect how we understand sexual homicide as a distinct phenomenon.
Recently, Stefanska, Carter, Higgs, Bishopp, and Beech identified three types of non-serial sexual homicide offender; deviance-driven, sexually-driven, and grievance-driven (see also this NOMS report). For the deviance-driven group, the murder was deemed sexually arousing for the offender and, thus, formed an integral part of the offense (which aligns with my proposed view of sexual homicide). However, the sexually-driven offenders had significantly more prior rape or attempted rape offenses and primarily committed non-sexually motivated murders.This matches Beech et al. (2005), who identified a sexually-driven group whose homicides were linked to avoiding detection or silencing the victim during a sexual assault.
The sexually-driven offenders had significantly more prior rape or attempted rape offenses and primarily committed non-sexually motivated murders.
I argue that this group (in both studies) are rapists who murder their victims for non-sexual reasons; not sexual homicide offenders. This is also proposed by Stefanska et al. For the grievance-driven group, Stefanska et al. found that the murders occurred during consensual sex in response to something that a victim said or did (e.g., an argument, ridicule, rejection). Here, the ‘sexual element’ is the situational context – consensual sex. Arguably, these offenders are violent/angry individuals who murdered during a sexual situation; not sexual homicide offenders.
Beauregard and Proulx (2007) identified 3 types of sexual murderers of men, one of which they termed ‘the nonsexual predator’. For this group, the murder typically occurred in the context of a robbery or burglary. Sexual contact was used as a means to manipulate the victim, while the murder was either accidental or aided in the commission of the robbery/burglary (e.g., overcoming the victim’s resistance). Arguably, this is a violent, acquisitive offender who kills his victim; not a sexual homicide offender. There are only a handful of studies on sexual murderers of children. No studies (to my knowledge) have examined different types.
However, from their data, Beauregard et al. (2007) argue that sexual murderers of children are a homogenous group, driven by sadistic sexual fantasies. This is somewhat congruent with Firestone and colleagues (2000). They found that, compared to non-homicidal child abusers and non-offenders, homicidal child abusers exhibited greater interest in coercive sex, sadistic sex, and nonsexual assault of children. However, in these studies, it was not stated whether any of the murders functioned as a means of avoiding detection. If there were, it would muddy the empirical waters as these individuals would be classed as child abusers who kill their victims for non-sexual reasons; not sexual homicide offenders.
My conceptualization of ‘homicides with a sexual element’ in the figure above shows that sexual homicide offenders should be classified as being distinct from sexual offenders (i.e., child abusers, rapists) who kill for non-sexual or accidental reasons, and from violent, homicidal individuals who kill in a sexual situation (e.g., due to rejection/ridicule during consensual sex). Of course, in practice, delineating sexual homicides from other homicides with a sexual element is a difficult task. Perhaps Ressler et al.’s classification can be used in the first instance, followed by an effort to differentiate these different offender groups (using findings from the existing literature). This would enable a comparison between what I refer to as sexual homicide offenders and the other two groups.
Sexual homicide offenders should be classified as being distinct from sexual offenders who kill for non-sexual or accidental reasons, and from violent, homicidal individuals who kill in a sexual situation.
The research in this area has been of a high calibre and has contributed a great deal to our understanding of sexual homicide. I propose that with a clearer definition of what is meant by sexual homicide, the current confusions and conflations will be smoothened out. This will allow for a better understanding of the behaviors and psychological factors associated with sexual homicide offenders, which will hopefully lead to more valid assessment tools and treatment strategies being developed. I hope this post will get researchers, clinicians, and our readers thinking critically about this fascinating area.
Bartels, R. (2015, December 6). Untangling sexual homicide [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-cy.
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