|Toward a developmental model of severe sexual sadism behaviors|
University of Montreal
University of Montreal
Raymond A. Knight
University of Brandeis
concerning this paper should be addressed to Nicholas Longpré, University of
Montreal, School of Criminology, PO Box 6128, Downtown Station, Montreal,
Quebec, Canada, H3C 3J7. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sexual sadism is a paraphilic
disorder that focuses on humiliation, domination and physical aggression of the
victim. The concept originates from the writings
of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, also known as the Marquis de Sade
(1740-1814). The diagnosis bears his name because of his literary works, which
are imbued with eroticism of violence and cruelty. However, it was not until the late 19th century, in
Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia
Sexualis (1886), that the term “sexual sadism” appeared in the medical
as a Dimensional Construct
Sexual sadism is conceptualized
and assessed as if sadists were different from non-sadists. However, several
studies point out that the criteria that are related to sadism are also found
among the non-delinquent population and among non-sadistic sexual offenders (Marshall & Kennedy, 2003).
In response to the weaknesses of classical approaches
to the evaluation of sexual sadism, various authors
have concluded that sadism is better conceptualized as a
dimensional structure. Recent studies, using taxometric analyses, revealed that
sadism presents a clear dimensional structure (see Mokros, Schilling, Weiss,
Nitschke & Eher, 2014).
Knight, Sims-Knight and Guay (2013) recently proposed the
idea of an agonistic continuum ranging from non-sadistic sexual coercion to
severe sadism. Sadistic assaults are regularly marked by the presence of
cruelty, torture and mutilation. However, these types of physical violence only
represent a small part of the spectrum of sexual coercion (Knight et al., 2013).
In the idea of a spectrum, coercive fantasies and behaviors will be present in
the lower end while sadistic fantasies and behaviors will be present in the
upper end of the spectrum.
Development Roots of Sexual Sadism
Because sadistic offenders represent a threat not only in terms of their
risk to assault but also in terms of the harm they will cause should they act
out their fantasies, it would be expected that the developmental antecedents of
this severe sexual disorder have been examined by several studies. Surprisingly, very few studies have examined the causal
factors of sadism and even less research has validated these theories (Proulx,
Blais & Beauregard, 2007). Theories on the etiology of sexual sadism were
mainly based on case studies, making it difficult to distinguish between key
developmental factors, anecdotal factors and sample-related factors. In fact, while we have several theoretical insights
on the developmental correlates of sexual sadism, there is actually no
empirical model explaining the etiology of this severe sexual disorder.
developmental foundations of sadism have limited empirical bases, several
studies have focused on the developmental
factors of sexual
coercion. If sexual sadism is a
dimensional construct and is part of an agonistic continuum, sexual coercion
and sexual sadism should share common developmental factors. Therefore,
these theories should also identify some of the factors that contribute to the
development of sexual sadism.
The aim of the present study is to construct a
developmental model based on theoretically relevant factors associated with
severe sexual sadism behaviors. The model will Qbe based on the current
predominant point of view that sexual sadism presents a dimensional structure and
is part of an agonistic continuum.
Participants were 518 adult male sexual offenders who
had been assessed at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for
Sexually Dangerous Persons (MTC) between 1959 and 1991. The MTC database
included responses to a series of questions based on offenders’ evaluation and
commitment periods at the MTC (e.g. clinical interview), information about his
criminal records and post-commitment information such as treatment reports were
The sample consists of rapists (N = 233), child molesters
(N = 190) and mixed offenders (N= 95). At the time of the assessments, the
offenders’ average age was 29 years (SD = 10.5). Most participants were
Caucasian (88.2%), and, at the time of their arrest, had not completed their
secondary school (61.4%), had never been married (52.5%) and were employed
The MTC Sadism Scale (MTCSS) is a
research scale composed of 16 dichotomous indicators distributed
across five dimensions which are 1) control, 2) aggression, 3) cruelty without
sexuality, 4) torture and 5) insertion of objects in bodily orifices. For more details on the creation, coding and psychometric
properties of the MTCSS, see Longpré, Guay and Knight (manuscript in
The multifactorial theory-based model used in this study
was tested using Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) analysis with the Mplus
software (version 6.12; Muthén & Muthén, 2010). SEM is a statistical
analysis used to represent, estimate and test networks of relationships between
observed variables and latent variables. Moreover, SEM analysis assesses the covariance
between exogenous and endogenous latent variables and specifies measurement
The final developmental model of sexual sadism
presents GFI indicators ranging from good to very
good, indicating that our model is well adjusted to the data (see figure I). Analyses reveal that the roots of severe sexual sadism
behaviors originate from a series of aversive experiences during childhood
marked by neglect and abuse, by family instability and by inadequate parental
figures. As mentioned by Marshall and Barbaree (1990), aversive experiences
such as abuse are central in the development of psychological vulnerabilities
involved in the origins of sexual coercion.
Figure I. Developmental Model of Severe Sexual Sadism
(click the image to view larger)
This tumultuous childhood leads to the
development of early conduct problems in
our model, which is consistent with what is reported in the literature.
Aversive experiences during childhood facilitate the development of antisocial attitudes, leading the individual to focus on his needs and interests (Marshall &
Barbaree, 1990). Finally,
in our model, three paths emerged during adolescence which would ultimately
lead to severe sexual sadism behaviors.
The antisocial path. In
the first path found in our analysis, problems at high school lead to substance
abuse and delinquency in adulthood, which ultimately lead to sadistic behaviors.
One could believe that this path is related to sadism
via a lack of inhibition, probably caused by a high level of intoxication
during the assault, a general disrespect of others' limits and a tendency to
rely on aggression. Furthermore, their tendencies to disinhibition
probably contribute to maintain their sexual drives and sexual behaviors in circumstances
in which the victim noncompliance would normally be sufficient to inhibit such
behaviors (Knight & Guay, 2015).
second path found in our analysis, the schizoid- paraphilic path, emerged during adulthood
and is not directly related to adolescence. One
could believe that this path is related to severe sadism behaviors via an
interpersonal dissatisfaction, a desire to have control and a rich inner world
with deviant and coercive fantasies. In other words, on one side they are
isolated, unsatisfied and experience their sexuality in their inner world, and,
on the other side they are fed by a deep anger and an aggressiveness that fuels
The narcissistic-meanness path. In the third path found
in our analysis, serious conduct problems during adolescence lead to narcissism
at adulthood, which leads to severe sadistic behaviors. One could believe that this path is related to sadism
via a pleasure to be cruel with others, a tendency to exploit others and a
habit to rely on violence to achieve
goals. Offenders following this path take pleasure in others' suffering,
they willingly set up situations where they can physically exploit others and
are clearly excited by feelings of power and domination.
In summary, our results indicate that severe sexual
sadism behaviors take roots during a tumultuous childhood that influence the
rest of the psychosocial development. Furthermore, the causes of severe sadism
behaviors follow a similar path to other categories of sexual offending in terms
of aversive developmental antecedents. These results suggest that
our knowledge on sexual coercion can be useful to understand how sexual sadism behaviors
take roots. For many years, study of sadism was
generally conducted on a very specific subgroup of sexual offenders, the so-called sadistic offenders.
Our results indicate that a group of sexual offenders that adequately cover the
agonistic continuum should be sufficient to understand the causes of sexual
sadism behaviors. Moreover,
assessments and clinical interventions should also be reoriented in some ways. The
moment when sexuality and violence are melted together is crucial to understand
and should be a primarily focus in both research and clinical interventions.
This study represents only one
set of results that should be replicated on different types of sexual sadism
scale and different samples. Future research should now focus on longitudinal
research protocols to understand how exactly these developmental events
influence the development of severe sexual
Knight, R. A., & Guay, J.-P.
(2015, Forthcoming). The role of psychopathy in sexual coercion against women:
An update and expansion. In C. J. Patrick (Ed.), Handbook of psychopathy, vol II. New York: The Guilford Press.
Knight, R. A., Sims-Knight, J.,
& Guay, J. P. (2013). Is a separate diagnostic category defensible for
paraphilic coercion? Journal of Criminal
Justice, 41, 90-99.
*Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1998). Psychopathia
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Longpré, N., Guay, J. P. &
Knight, R. A. (Manuscript in preparation). MTC Sadism Scale: Toward a
dimensional assessment of severe sexual sadism.
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