Vol. XXVIII, No. 1
Winter 2016
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What is the risk for sexual reoffending in older sex offenders?
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Toward a developmental model of severe sexual sadism behaviors
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Students' Voice
Toward a developmental model of severe sexual sadism behaviors
Nicholas Longpré
University of Montreal

Jean-Pierre Guay
University of Montreal


Raymond A. Knight
University of Brandeis

Correspondence 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: nicholas.longpre@umontreal.ca.


            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 literature.

Sexual Sadism 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.

Although the 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 also available.

            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 (67.2%).


            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 preparation).


            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 error.


            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 Behaviors

(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).   

            The schizoid-paraphilic path. The 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 their fantasies.

            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 sadism behaviors.    


            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 sexualis. Philadelphia: Davis (original work published in 1886). 

            Longpré, N., Guay, J. P. & Knight, R. A. (Manuscript in preparation). MTC Sadism Scale: Toward a dimensional assessment of severe sexual sadism.

            Marshall, W. L., & Barbaree, H. E. (1990). An integrated theory of the etiology of sexual offending. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Ed.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender (pp. 257– 275). New York7 Plenum.

            Mokros, A., Schilling, F., Weiss, K., Nitschke, J., & Eher, R. (2014). Sadism in sexual offenders: Evidence for dimensionality. Psychological Assessment, 26(1), 138-147.

            Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (1998–2010). Mplus user's guide (6th ed.). Los Angeles:

Muthén & Muthén.

            Proulx J., Blais, E., & Beauregard E. (2007). Sadistic sexual offenders. In J. Proulx, M. Cusson, E. Beauregard, & A. Nicole (Ed.), Sexual murderers: A comparative analysis and new perspective. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons. 


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