Over substitute sexual activity, interest, or sadistic fantasy (i.e.

Over the years, sexual homicides have
gained a tremendous amount of media attention, almost romanticizing the offense
on television shows such as Law and Order: SVU, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,
and Criminal Minds. It’s something that society seems to be both appalled, yet
fascinated by. While media attention has sparked,
sexual homicides only comprise between 1-4% of overall homicide rates in the
United States, Canada, and Britain. Criminologists are searching for
possible explanations as to what propels sexual murderers to commit these
heinous offenses, and have proposed an integrated theory that encompasses both
Social Learning theory and Routine Activities Theory.

            For a murder to be considered sexual in nature, the crime
scene must meet at least one of the following criteria: a) victim’s attire – or
lack thereof, b) exposure of the sexual parts of the victim’s body, c) sexual
positioning of the victim, d) insertion of foreign objects into the victim, e)
evidence of sexual intercourse, and f) evidence of substitute sexual activity,
interest, or sadistic fantasy (i.e. mutilation of genitalia).

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To further understand sexual homicide, Greenall
(——) has proposed four hypothetical sexual homicidal scenarios: 1) sexual
violence then homicide, 2) sexual violence
with homicide, 3) homicide then sexual violence, and 4) homicide
containing covert sexual dynamics.
Sexual violence then homicide is,
obviously, when sexual violence against the victim is then followed by
homicide. These scenarios tend to be called “rape murders/killings”. The sexual
act, not the killing, is presumed to be the offender’s primary motive – the
offender is motivated to have sex, and use force and/or violence against the
victim to obtain it.
Included in this scenario are
two classifications for rape-murder offenses: Power-Reassurance killings and
Power-Assertive killings. Power-Reassurance killings
are planned, single rape attacks followed by an unplanned overkill. These
crimes are often motivated by an idealized seduction and conquest fantasy,
focusing on acting out a fantasy and seeking verbal reassurance of sexual
adequacy. When the victim does not yield to the offender’s desires, a sense of
failure and panic rushes the offender into assault and murder, to gain control
and lessen the threat the victim posed. At first, the offender has no intent to
degrade or harm the victim. However, the failure of the rape-assault, coupled
with rejection from the victim, panics the offender into a homicidal overkill.
The offender fears revelation of failure at the sexual act, and then initiates
the homicidal attack to control the victim and maintain self-image. Power-Assertive
killings are where the rape is planned, but the murder is an unplanned response
of increasing aggression to ensure control over the victim. This is done via
forceful aggression and intimidation, and often is a direct and overpowering
assault, resulting in many antemortem rapes of the victim. The homicidal
component occurs to maintain control over the victim by an overpowering, machismo
overreaction. The offender’s goal is to demonstrate mastery by taking charge or
command by appearing to be assertive via dominating violence. The finality of
the killing ensures success of the killer’s power and control, through the
elimination of threat that had been posed by the victim, as well as ensures the
secrecy of the performed sexual acts. Once the offender has decided to commit
the act, the methods used are determined by previous experience, stress of
internal pressures, and opportunity. Often, victims are strangers who are
available by surprise on the street or through breaking and entering into the
home. The key factor in this scenario is
that the killing appears to be a primarily functional/accidental act, not
indicative of a psychosexual deviation.

violence with homicide is when the
sexual and homicidal violence form part of an unremitting act, where some have
begun as rapes committed by angry and/or sadistic men. Included in this scenario are another two classifications
for rape-murder offenses: Anger-Retaliatory killings and Anger-Excitation
killings. Anger-Retaliatory killings include a planned rape, and an
initial murder that involves overkill. This is characterized as an
anger-venting act, expressing symbolic revenge on the victim. This is often
nettled by poor relationships held previously with women, experiencing
belittlement, humiliation, and rejection. The offense is often triggered by
criticism/scolding from a woman with power over him, and the offender will
either direct the anger at the woman who criticized him, or will redirect the
anger to a substitute woman. The latter does not eliminate the direct source of
hate, and will likely lead to episodically repeated offenses to relieve
internal stresses. The offender often is vindictive, angry, and is an aggressive
misogynist who beats his victims with excess, as well as uses sex as a weapon
against the victim. Anger-Excitation killings are intended to inflict pain and
terror on the victim for sexual gratification. The prolonged torture energizes
the killer’s fantasies, and temporarily satisfies the lust for domination and
control. The luxury of the sadistic act is found in the art and process of the
killings, not necessarily in the actual death itself. In fact, the actual death
may be anticlimactic for the offender. The homicide is a prolonged, bizarre,
and ritualistic assault on the victim, usually premeditated with an advanced
plan of action. Further, these offenders can be characterized as a traditional
sex killer (the stereotypical sadistic murderer who receives sexual
gratification from committing sexual violent acts) as well as compulsive serial
killers (where the offender’s actions are a fusion between sex and aggression,
often leading to the eroticism of aggression).

then sexual violence are cases where
the homicide is followed by a sexual activity on or with the deceased, often
classified as necrophilia. There are various forms of necrophilia, including
“necrohomicide” – committed by “homicidal necrophiles”, as they need to have
sex with the deceased to the extent that they will kill to obtain it. There are
also “opportunistic necrophiles” – individuals who become sexually aroused by
the killing and then engage in the sexual act. Here, the offender may not
usually think of engaging in a sexual act with the deceased. However, if the
opportunity arises, would. It’s possible that this scenario overlaps with
previous scenarios, namely the “Power-Reassurance and “Anger-Excitation”
killings defined above. These killers may continue to partake in sexual actions
with their victims after death, either by continuing to engage their unrequited
love, or by focusing attentions on brutalizing parts of the victim’s body
and/or inserting foreign objects.

homicide containing covert sexual
dynamics are cases where the sexual element is neither overt nor obvious. The
sexual nature of these killings is not always apparent, because conventional
evidence of the sexual crime may be absent. Consequently, the underlying sexual
dynamics of the crime may fail to be recognized. These crimes are perhaps the
most difficult to detect, and the sexual element may not be recognized until
the offender has been caught and incarcerated.

The Social
Learning Theory is one theory that can help pose as an explanation as to why
sexual homicidal acts are committed. This theory was
initially proposed by Burgess and Akers, as well as integrates Edwin
Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association and Bandura’s work on
aggression. It is comprised of four parts: differential association,
differential reinforcement/punishment, definitions, and imitation. To start,
differential association is “the direct
or indirect interaction and exposure to different attitudes and behaviors in
different social contexts”. Differential association is characterized by
three groups: primary, secondary, and reference. Primary groups are comprised
of family and peers, and tend to be the most important regarding which
differential associations have a strong influence on an individual’s behavioral
learning process. This impact often varies according to the frequency,
duration, intensity, and priority level of the different associations.
Secondary and reference groups include school systems, colleagues, media, and
the internet. These groups can be as equally as important, especially to
normative definitions in the learning process.

reinforcement/punishment is the “net
balance of social and/or nonsocial rewards and costs associated with different
behaviors”. Further, reinforcement can be either social or nonsocial.
Social reinforcement are not just direct reactions of others present, but also
involve a whole range of (in)tangible rewards that are valued in society. This
can include financial rewards, positive body expressions, and verbal approval.
Nonsocial rewards, on the other hand, are unconditioned positive and negative
effects of physiological and psychological stimuli. These rewards are
the involuntary reactions that come about when presented with certain stimuli.

the third part of the theory, are the “attitudes,
beliefs, values, and norms about certain behavior learned directly or
indirectly from specific social groups”. Lastly, imitation refers to the
mimicry of certain behavior, through the observation of others. Primary social
groups are usually the basis for imitation, as they are the one’s whom
individuals admire and with whom they have personal, intimate relationships
with. Of course, imitation could also come from secondary and reference groups,
such as mass media, which has the potential to shape either prosocial or
antisocial deviant behavior.

The Social
Learning Theory can be applied to sexual violence and other sex-related
offenses. It’s widely believed that deviant behavior
originates from initial parent-child interactions, specifically with
observations of parental aggressive behaviors and attitudes. In addition to
observations, personal experience with family violence may also lead to an
increased level of tolerance for violence, as well as an increased likelihood
to use violence as a coping mechanism later in an individual’s life. To many,
sexual violence is perceived as a learned behavior, associated with
interpersonal aggression and sexuality, resulting from social and cultural
traditions. The sexual attitudes, scripts, and other sexually deviant thoughts
that link to physical aggression and sexuality are frequently facilitated by
cultural and experimental factors. In addition, sexual aggression is frequently
learned through differential associations with primary social groups. Here,
individuals are presented with a model that supports sexually hostile behavior
– sexually aggressive behavior is considered appropriate, and thus, is
differentially reinforced. Reverence social groups (i.e. mass media) have also
been widely influential in the imitation of sexual violence. Long-term exposure
to sexually explicit pornography/mediums that include violence may lead to an
increase in aggressive behavior. More specifically, combining erotic material with
violence can desensitize an individual’s reaction to violence, as well as might
promote tendencies to rape via imitation of these sexually violent
pornographies. Violent pornographic materials often sexually objectify women,
foster male dominance in society, and provide support for sexually violent
behaviors and ideations.

Social Learning Theory can be applied to offenses of sexual homicide. A large portion of sexual homicidal offenders were raised in
environments that were abusive in nature, and were usually victims of physical
and sexual abuses by parents and/or caregivers. An
individual who is brutally maltreated from their earliest years, where they are
subject to incessant physical and psychological abuse, will be raised to have a
severely malignant view of life. They will see the world as a detestable place,
in which all relationships are based on power, suffering, and humiliation,
rather than love and respect. These individuals will likely seek to inflict
pain and humiliation on others, not only to get revenge, but because they have
been psychologically damaged to the point where they can only feel pleasure by
inflicting pain and suffering. Obviously, not every child who has been abused
ends up being a psychopathic killer. However, nearly all psychopathic killers
have suffered from extreme maltreatment at the hands of their primary
caregivers. It has also been shown that parents
of these sexually homicidal offenders often had histories of violent behavior,
substance abuse, as well as psychiatric and sexual issues. This, of course,
contributed to the immense insecurity of the parent-child attachment. Moreover,
inappropriate aggressive sexual behavior of parents/caregivers led to
psychologically unhealthy children, who extensively witnessed and/or
experienced violence at home. In fact, most deviant sexual
definitions/attitudes of sexual murderers were originally presented by their
primary caregivers during childhood. The experience of physical and sexual
victimization during childhood strongly associates with the development of
sexual deviations and traits of psychosexual disorders, which includes deviant
and sadistic fantasy, as well as paraphilic behavior.

What is
more, most sexual murders that are premeditated are representative of acting out
the sexual murderers’ deviant fantasies. Typically, sexual murderers’ primary
motives for acting out include achieving sadistic psychological gratification/sexual
euphoria through the face of power, anger, or a combination of both. This is completed
as a necessity of degradation, domination, punishment, humiliation, torture,
and control. Additionally, this is an operant conditioning process that has positively
reinforced acting out of deviant sexual fantasies, likely to increase
behavioral habituation and lead to the escalation of repetitive sexual homicidal

The Routine
Activities Theory can also be applied as an explanation for sexual violent acts.
Cohen and Felson first proposed the theory in 1979,
suggesting that the possibility of crime occurring is influenced by the merging
in space and time of three main components in the daily routines of individuals:
a motivated and potential offender, an attractive and suitable target, and an
ineffective or absent capable guardian protecting against violation. Guardianship
is defined as any formal or informal social control mechanism, that reduces the
obtainability and availability of an attractive target. The lack of any one of
these three elements reduces the likelihood of a potential crime being committed.
The Routine Activities Theory addresses differential risks for victimization
among individuals based on their daily lifestyle. From this, two assumptions
emerged: a criminal opportunity structure is constructed from the patterns of
routine activities and lifestyles via the contact between an offender and
target, and the potential victim of a certain crime is determined by the offender’s
subjective value of the target, along with the level of capable guardianship. It
should be stressed that, contrary to media’s portrayal of crime, this is not a
random occurrence. There are explanations, at least for the offender, as to why
they chose certain victims to act on. It may be true that the victim was at the
“wrong place at the wrong time,” however, it doesn’t mean that it was a haphazard
incidence with no reasoning behind it whatsoever.

Speaking of, the victim selection process involves rational decision making. Offenders
select those who meet a set of criteria that hold some kind of special significance
to them, in addition to the lack of a capable guardian. The mere presence of
another individual who is a willing and capable protector can help the
prevention of a criminal event from occurring. The level of vulnerability for
someone to become a victim is significantly associated with an individual’s
daily routine, lifestyle, and status.

Routine Activities
Theory can also be applied to sex-related offenses. Annual
victimization studies have indicated that 1 in 20 college students report at
least one incident of forced sexual acts. Further, those students who live on
campus are at a higher risk of victimization, through frequent and close propinquity
to potential offenders, as well as the absence of effective, capable guardianships.
In addition, one’s perceived suitability as a target is likely to be enhanced
through regular public alcohol/substance consumption. College students consuming
alcohol and drugs are more likely to be perceived by offenders as vulnerable
targets, with a reduced capability of resistance, due to a reduced state of

More specifically,
the Routine Activities Theory can be applied in sexual homicide cases, as a way to explain why certain victims are selected, as well
as why certain offenders will select certain victims at certain places and
times.  In many sexual homicides, sexual
fantasies play a critical role in motivation of the offender. Sexual fantasies
of sexual murderers often involve repetitive acts of sexual violence, serving
as the alleviation of sexual frustration. Fulfillment is done via highly
planned sexual killings, once their original inhibitions against acting out
their fantasies no longer exist. Once these fantasies lose their “arousing”
value, it’s typical for offenders to become progressively motivated to perform
in a more violent way. Acting out is likely due to the discovery of an outlet
for humiliation, rage, and suffering, and is also likely to occur after a prolonged
period of emotional withdrawal into a fantasy world, that resulted in social seclusion
and emotional isolation. These mental images
of mayhem form the basis of sexual murderers’ favorite fantasies. Instead of
trying to get the heinous thoughts out of their mind, they’ll cultivate and wallow
in them. The mere sight of an attractive and suitable target can arouse
sadistic thoughts of abduction and sexual torture that could last days, weeks,
or even months. When these fantasies have reached a point where the offender
can’t bear to hold them in, the offender will go out and attempt to act them
out – as an overpowering urge to make their gruesome and monstrous ideations into
fact. Sexual murderers have a weak hold on reality, and will eventually cross
the threshold that separates imagination from reality, carrying out the atrocious
thoughts that they have been wallowing in for so long.

will not occur if there isn’t a suitable target for the now-motivated offender.
Sexual offenders often begin their search for victims who satisfy a “goodness
of fit” with their fantasies. They often create mental maps of the place they
are in when they spot a potential target, as well as engaging in stalking behavior.
Sexual murderers are continuously evaluating potential targets’ vulnerability
and accessibility as they go through their daily routines for an opportunity to
attack a victim in the absence of deterrence. Children and the elderly appear
to be the most vulnerable, due to the lessened physical strength against
offender. Children are likely to become victims in places where they gather, such
as playgrounds, schools, and places to shop. The offenders will wait for an
opportunity to abduct when immediate guardianship is weak or reduced. For example,
when parents or teachers walk away and leave children alone for only a short
period of time. On the other hand, both the elderly and children can also be
seen as the least vulnerable targets.
Because of the nature of their ages and lifestyles, the elderly and children
are less likely to be exposed to potential offenders during the night, because
they are less likely to leave their homes alone. Motivated sexual murderers,
once they’ve selected and successfully apprehended their victim, will usually
then behave in paraphilic manners in order to fulfill their desired sexual gratification.

The authors
propose an explanation for why using solely one theory to explain sexual homicide
has its limitations. While the Routine Activities Theory
captures the dynamics of the offending process and focuses on the situational
opportunity generated from relationships of different social groups, it’s not
able to address the problems surrounding sexual homicide at the micro level.
There’s no explanation provided in attempt to explain how an individual becomes motivated to commit a sexual murder.
Similarly, the Social Learning Theory is able to predict the type of learning
environment that may be related to committing crimes. It also can explain how
an individual might be more likely to commit a sexual homicide over others. The
limitation of the Social Learning Theory is that it’s unable to predict under which circumstances offenders will
(or will not) offend.

of these two criminological theories can then explain the offending process, by
focusing not only on the offender’s characteristics, but the situational components.
Offenders are likely to develop as a result of long-term exposure to sexually
aggressive behaviors and attitudes, especially from primary social groups. These
offenders will differentially associate with influential persons who are sexually
violent, which can influence the ideations of these sexual murderers. There is direct
behavioral imitation of these primary caregivers, as well as characters in
sadistic pornographies. These offenders become positively reinforced, and
eventually motivated to act out their perverted and sadistic fantasies. Sexual
homicide is likely to occur when a motivated sexual murderer is unable to ‘hold
in’ their fantasies, and perceives a suitable target in the absence of a
capable guardian over the course of their daily routine. 


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