It seems these days that with the prevalence of movies about serial killers as well as shows such as Criminal Minds, the public can’t get enough of profilers. This paper was written in an effort to link sexual sadism across the serial rape and serial murder spectrum; however, elements could probably be applied to the mysoped child molestor/child killer as well.

Understanding Sexual Sadism

Robert Ressler once said:

Serial killing – I think it’s at an epidemic proportion. The type of crime we’re seeing today did not really occur with any known frequency prior to the fifties. An individual taking ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-five lives is a relatively new phenomenon in the crime picture of the U.S.” (Jenkins, 1994, via Holmes & Holmes, 2009)

Whether one chooses to believe Ressler’s statement or not, the foundational truth is that serial crimes represent a grave problem which the public expects police to take seriously through the apprehension of serial offenders.

There are a variety of serial offenders, the obvious serial killer which Ressler pointed out, the serial rapist, the serial arsonist, the serial kidnapper, the serial pedophile, etc. Frequently lines are drawn between these crimes based upon elements and this is generally a logical choice; however, Holmes and Holmes (2009) pointed out that when profiling serial criminals, they can be classified into organized versus disorganized types regardless of the crime committed. In like manner I would like to propose that some forms of serial murderer such as the hedonistic serial killer and the power/control serial killer share traits with and can morph between serial rapists such as the sadistic and the anger/retaliation rapist (Holmes & Holmes, 2009).

The primary shared element we will be evaluating is the aspect of sexual sadism within these crimes and what it can tell us about a suspect, as well as evaluating what stage of his criminal career he may be in. Unfortunately a caveat must remain at the forefront: we will only be evaluating sexual sadism when it is an element of the rape or murder itself and not suspects who enjoy sexual sadism but do not include it as an element of the crime such as John Edward Robinson whom while a sexual sadist, committed most killings for personal comfort. Nor will we analyzing any missional killers as I was unable to identify any missional killers who employed significant elements of sexual sadism.

Definition of Sexual Sadism

Before we begin to discuss sexual sadism as an element of serial rapes and serial murders, we must first gain a clear definition of sadism. Merriam-Webster (2010) defines sadism as “a sexual perversion in which gratification is obtained by the infliction of physical or mental pain on others (as on a love object).” An even more interesting if not entirely morbid definition was proposed by a serial murderer who exercised sexual sadism:

The wish to inflict pain on others is not the essence of sadism. One essential impulse: to have complete mastery over another person, to make him/her a helpless object of our will, to become the absolute ruler over her, to become her God, to do as one pleases. To humiliate her, to enslave her, are means to this end, and the most important radical aim is to make her suffer, since there is no greater power over another person than that of inflicting pain on her, to force her to undergo suffering without her being able to defend herself.” (Author Unkown, via Persaud, 1993)

Theoretical Foundations

The question becomes “why do individuals wish to inflict pain and suffering on victims who are unable to defend themselves?” To answer this question one must begin by exploring the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the sadistic sexual predator.


Not to be confused with psychosis, which would be a detachment from reality, the sadistic sexual predator is fully grounded in reality (Knoll, 2006). He is, as described by Phillipe Pinel, suffering from “insanity without delirium” (via Schmalleger, 2009). Essentially the psychopath/sociopath suffers the inability to feel empathy. This inability to feel empathy leads to an inability to understand social interactions during childhood and teen years, eventually leading to an adult who finds interaction with others frustrating because he does not understand it (Holmes & Holmes, 2009, Schmalleger, 2009).

According to Hervey M. Cleckley the psychopath/sociopath is intelligent, entirely self-centered, antisocial, regularly lies, unresponsive to interpersonal relations, exercises poor judgment, has an impersonal sex life, and is unreliable with a poor ability to follow life plans (via Schmalleger, 2009). The psychopath/sociopath is an expert at masking his abnormality and can often pass through regular society; however, beneath the facade is an anxious and frustrated individual who desires some level of control over his situation.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory holds a great deal of sway amongst researchers of serial killers. Sometimes accused as a “blame the mother” approach, the truth is that attachment theory is much more substantive than that.

Attachment theory was first proposed by John Bowlby who was observing maladjusted children in post war Britain (Schmalleger, 2009). While initially Bowlby directed his theory toward secure attachments between mother and child, he also pointed out that a primary caregiver can be the permanent mother substitute, a relationship which should cause mutual satisfaction and enjoyment between caregiver and child just as the relationship between mother and child (Schmalleger, 2009).

Proper relational attachment between caregiver and child should result in what Bowlby referred to as secure attachment and is the result of the primary caregiver being reliable, available, sensitive, and lovingly responsive to the child (Schmalleger, 2009). Bowlby claimed that if such attachment was established, the child would develop into an emotionally healthy adult (Schmalleger, 2009).

On the other hand, children who do feel rejected become what Bowlby referred to as anxious-avoidant while those who experience a great deal of uncertainty become anxious-resistant (Schmalleger, 2009). Either leads to a lack of affection and empathy as an adult; furthermore, studies have shown that children who do not form bonds with a primary caregiver are more prone to violence later in life (Schmalleger, 2009).

Freudian Theory

Freudian theory can at times be complicated and difficult to fully describe as Freud’s theories interplay between several different themes; however, this does not preclude them from being utilized within the criminological assessment of sadistic sexual serial perpetrators. Were we to distill Freudian theory to it’s base elements regarding the sadistic sexual serial perpetrator we would find that much as attachment theory teaches, the root of their crimes centers around strained relations with parents (Becker, Shoshani, & Shoshani, 2009).

When a child is given mixed messages from the mother or father by treating the child as though he is an adult, it in effect causes the child to discontinue development into adulthood (Becker, Shoshani, & Shoshani, 2009). While this causes an inability to relate to others, a far lager problem is also created in that the lack of father figure causes the child to develop an “omnipotent father” within himself (Becker, Shoshani, & Shoshani, 2009). Furthermore, sexual deviance begins to appear as the child feels he does not fit into any given social construct, giving way to the creation of fantasy worlds (Becker, Shoshani, & Shoshani, 2009).

While Freudian thought has not been looked upon as favorably during the latter half of the 20th century and early part of the 21st, it has much to offer in that it gives a level of explanation for the narcissism and reliance on fantasy that is often seen with the sadistic sexual perpetrator as evidenced by the likes of Dennis Rader or Ted Bundy (Witchita Eagle, 2007).


While many characteristics exist regarding serial killers and serial rapists, a few additional aspects stand out when dealing with a sexual sadist. I propose the consideration of these additional criterion when evaluating or profiling a rape or murder where evidence of sexual sadism has been an integral element.

Progression from Fantasy

Greenall (2007), found that amongst antisocial personalities, “their offences are predatory and the culmination of a developmental process during which deviant sexual fantasy becomes criminal sexual reality during this journey.” During their interviews with sexual predators, Kordon and Tidefors (2009) found that the majority of sexual predators participating in their group therapy sessions had an extremely active fantasy life which eventually gave way to rape.

The fantasy in particular surrounds the domination of a victim. Fantasy typically progresses in level of violence perpetrated against a victim; furthermore, fantasy is reinforced and further conditioned through sexual release. Eventually the sexual predator will act on these fantasies that most likely have been reinforced and built upon for many years.

There is a good chance that the sadistic sexual predator has in the past used pornography of a bondage-domination-sadism-masochism (BDSM) nature to enhance his fantasy world. An investigator should be mindful that likely suspects would possess BDSM pornography.

Characteristics of Personal Relationships

The personal relationships of a sadistic offender most likely appear normal on the surface. The sexual sadist as a psychopath/sociopath is excellent as appearing to have a normal family and may even be able to convince his significant other that he is a caring spouse; however, it is mere acting on the part of the sadistic sexual predator, the reality is the predator does not understand the other or feel empathy toward her (Kordon & Tidefors, 2009,Schmalleger, 2009).

Interestingly it is not common while examining case studies to find evidence of deviant sexual behavior between serial offender and spouse. One can surmise that this is related to a level of anxiety in revealing sexual preferences to women the sexual predator knows, and seems to be alluded to within the context of the Kordon & Tidefors (2009) study.

Victim Selection

Sadistic sexual predators do not choose women they know as victims. The fantasies the sadistic sexual predator experience are rarely expressed or carried out on individuals he knows as expressed by one sexual sadist “I haven’t dared to ask girlfriends” or another “my fantasy includes killing a woman, but it’s perhaps not a fantasy you should act out with a girlfriend” (Kordon & Tidefors, 2009).

Victims will be strangers, even in the event that the offender is particularly organized and stalked his victim, he would prefer to know less about her personality. For example, one participant in Kordon & Tidefors (2009) expressed “I give vent to totally unknowns … it was the easiest way for me.”

I believe that in the mind of the perpetrator familiarity with a woman breeds anxiety, possibly as a learned experience from childhood; therefore, the better a perpetrator knows a woman the less inclined he is to reveal himself to her through attack.

Subclassifications via Reasons for or Existence of Murder

It is my belief based upon viewing the accounts and case studies of serial rapists and serial killers that the sadistic sexual serial perpetrator can be broken into three categories: the rapist, the reluctant killer or rapist who murders to evade detection, and the pleasure killer. It should be understood that the sexual sadist can float between the three; however, it is more common for the sexual sadist to degenerate into serial killer than to deescalate back to serial rapist, but we will observe in some of the case studies examples of notorious serial killers who deescalated or attempted to deescalate.

Of particular interest was the notion that not all sadistic sexual serial murderers intended to commit their first murder, in fact many intended to commit rape; however, due to fear of being caught they kill their victim. Take for example this statement of a serial rapist who eventually progressed to serial killer: “Fear to be revealed, somebody could appear. I hurried up the whole thing and raped her quickly. From a fear to be pointed out, I strangled her” (Kordon & Tidefors, 2009).

The individual had committed a reluctant murder or murder to cover his tracks. These types of murders typically appear somewhat odd because they throw an element of disorganization into what would otherwise be a fairly organized crime scene as will also be evident in some of the case studies.

Case Studies

These case studies were selected primarily out of convenience as they are well documented and easier to obtain reliable information on. Each is or was a sadistic sexual serial murderer who was apprehended and I believe each to illustrate the hypotheses to some degree.

John Wayne Gacy

John Wayne Gacy, also known as the killer clown, was astonishingly well liked for a serial killer. He was known to throw large barbecue parties where it was not unheard of to have over three hundred people in attendance; furthermore, he was a successful businessman and politician (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 2010).

John Wayne Gacy first caught the attention of law enforcement for several acts of rape against teenage boys. Gacy eventually moved from raping teenage boys to killing them, most frequently by strangulation via ligature while in the process of rape (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 2010).

It is reported that Gacy had a strained childhood relationship with his abusive father. Some sources claim that Gacy’s father, John Wayne Gacy Sr., was an alcoholic and became angry when intoxicated (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 2010).

While Gacy had difficulty in his marriages, this was generally due to the discovery of his bisexuality. The first for his sodomy conviction, and the second due to the discovery of Gacy’s homosexual pornography collection which (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 2010). It is not apparent that Gacy ever expressed his preference for sadistic sex with any of his willing partners.

Gacy did not always kill his victims, he let no less than two go free after raping them despite having already killed dozens of other victims (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, 2010). This leads me to believe that Gacy enjoyed sadistic rape far more than homicide and may have killed victims primarily to evade further complications with law enforcement.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader was one of the more infamous cases of serial killing due in part to the way he enjoyed sending notes to taunt the police and media outlets. Interestingly, when Rader killed his first family he had only intended to torture the mother and/or daughter when he realized they could identify him as he had failed to bring a mask. In Rader’s own words: “there I realized that, you know, I didn’t have a mask on or anything, that they could ID me, so I made a decision to go ahead and put ’em down, I guess, or strangle them” (Witchita Eagle, 2007). Rader in the process of murdering Josephine Otero found the murder itself sexually stimulating, subsequently murder became a part of his modus operandi (Witchita Eagle, 2007).

Dennis Rader was always quite organized in his victim selection and stalking methods; however, his crime scenes nearly always devolved into disorganization (Holmes & Holmes, 2009, Witchita Eagle, 2007). During his trial when asked about whether or not he had planned to victimize the Otero family he stated that:

To some degree, yes. After I got in the house I lost control. It was, you know, in the back of my mind, I had some ideas of what I was going to do. I basically panicked that first day.” (Witchita Eagle, 2007)

His two attempts at disposing of victims at a secondary site were by his own admission entirely chaotic and represented some degree of failure on his part (Witchita Eagle, 2007).

Rader was found to be in possession of a great deal of self made pornography which included himself in drag (Donaldson-Evans, 2005). His tendencies toward triolism an obvious element of a very active fantasy life; however, he also had photographs and clippings from magazines and newspapers alongside journals of his fantasies (Donaldson-Evans, 2005).

While many had speculated that Rader knew his victims on a personal level, during his confession when asked if he knew the victims of his murders he stated that “no, that was part of what… I guess what you call my fantasy,” an obvious preference to know his victims less personally than as objects (Witchita Eagle, 2007).

Overall, aside from a few complaints of Rader abusing the power he held in his job as compliance officer, Rader was well liked (Schmalleger, 2009). He was even voted into a leadership role within the Lutheran congregation he attended (Schmalleger, 2009). Furthermore, Rader’s wife and children were completely unaware of any sexual deviance, his wife was shocked and filed for an immediate emergency divorce once Rader was apprehended (LA Times, 2005).

Jeffrey Dahmer

When Tracy Edwards was asked why he had gone with Jeffrey Dahmer to Dahmer’s home, he responded that Dahmer “seemed so normal” (Schmalleger, 2009). While no reports have surfaced of Dahmer having significant others, it is obvious that he was, as most psychopaths, quite adept at obscuring his lack of empathy to those around him (Chin, 1991).

For the most part, Dahmer’s family life was relatively normal; however, Dahmer experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor during early childhood (Chin, 1991). He experienced further trauma when his parents divorced in 1978 and subsequently committed his first murder (Chin, 1991).

It is unclear that Dahmer intended to murder his first victim as he utilized an available item, a barbell, as a weapon (Chin, 1991). He also claimed that he killed his first victim because the victim wanted to leave but Dahmer did not wish to allow him to leave (Bardsley, 2010). According to Dahmer he had consensual sex with his first victim prior to killing him (Bardsley, 2010). It should be noted that Dahmer had already been fantasizing heavily about necrophilia which undoubtedly aided him in his capacity to murder (Bardsley, 2010).

Social situations made Dahmer extremely anxious and as a child did not want to attend school (Bardsley, 2010). As an adult Dahmer continued to feel isolated and alone and often turned to alcohol (Bardsley, 2010).

Conclusion and Implications

Understanding the sexual sadist allows us to make inferences of a crime scene and victim. First the selection of the victim is almost always not known on a personal level, while some such as Gacy were comfortable victimizing acquaintances on some occasions, the majority of victims will be as distant as possible on a personal level.

Next since we know the sadist is a fantasizer and therefore a planner, we can gather by forensic details whether or not he is in the process of escalation. If the sadist progresses to murder, then the first kill will likely be due to a loss of control and deviation of plan for the sexual sadist. As such a clue such as an improvised weapon being used signals that this is likely the first murder and subsequent murders will follow. Generally, the higher the level of disorganization at the scene, the higher the probability the sexual sadist has just progressed into killing.

Fortunately, the reliance on fantasy means that the perpetrator has likely caught the attention of law enforcement in the past via rape, sodomy, pedophilia, or indecent exposure and may be on record.

While not comprehensive, and in need of further study with larger groups of sadistic serial offenders, with these additional insights in mind, the prospective profiler should have a higher probability of creating an accurate profile of the sexual sadist in cases of rape or murder.


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