The Criminal Sexual Sadist

By Robert R. Hazelwood, M.S.
Special Agent
National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime
FBI Academy
Quantico, Virginia


Park Elliott Dietz, M.D.,
Forensic Psychiatrist Newport Beach, California
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
and Biobehavioral Sciences
University of California at Los Angeles


Janet Warren, D.S.W.
Assistant Professor
Institute of Law Psychiatry and Public Policy
of Virginia Charlottesville, Virginia

This Article Originally Appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,
February 1992.

Any investigator who has taken a statement from a tortured victim or who
has worked the crime scene of a sexually sadistic homicide will never forget
the experience. Human cruelty reveals itself in many kinds of offenses, but
seldom more starkly than in the crimes of sexual sadists.

This article describes the more commonly encountered actions of sexual sadists
and differentiates sexual sadism from other cruel acts. It also describes
the common characteristics of sexually sadistic crimes and offers investigators
suggestions that they should follow when confronted with the crimes of the
sexually sadistic offender.

What Is Sexual Sadism?

Sexual sadism is a persistent pattern of becoming sexually excited in response
to another’s suffering. Granted, sexual excitement can occur at odd times
even in normal people. But to the sexually sadistic offender, it is the suffering
of the victim that is sexually arousing.

The writings of two sexual sadists graphically convey their desires. One
writes: “…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.
The pleasure in the complete domination over another person is the very essence
of the sadistic drive.”

Of his sexually sadistic activities with a victim he killed, another offender

“…she was writhering [sic] in pain and I loved it. I was now combining
my sexual high of rape and my power high of fear to make a total sum that
is now beyond explaining…I was alive for the sole purpose of causing pain
and receiving sexual gratification…I was relishing the pain just as much
as the sex….”

Each offender’s account confirms that it is the suffering of the victim,
not the infliction of physical or psychological pain, that is sexually arousing.
In fact, one of these men resuscitated his victim from unconsciousness so
that he could continue to savor her suffering. Inflicting pain is a means
to create suffering and to elicit the desired responses of obedience, submission,
humiliation, fear, and terror.

Physical And Psychological Suffering

Specific findings uncovered during an investigation determine if the crime
committed involves sexual sadism. The critical issues are whether the victim
suffered, whether the suffering was intentionally elicited, and whether the
suffering sexually aroused the offender. This is why neither sexual nor cruel
acts committed on an unconscious or dead victim is necessarily evidence of
sexual sadism; such a victim cannot experience suffering. For this reason,
postmortem injuries alone do not indicate sexual sadism.

Rapists cause their victims to suffer, but only sexual sadists intentionally
inflict that suffering, whether physical or psychological, to enhance their
own arousal. Neither the severity of an offender’s cruelty nor the extent
of a victim’s suffering is evidence of sexual sadism. Acts of extreme cruelty
or those that cause great suffering are often performed for nonsexual purposes,
even during sexual assaults.

Sexually Sadistic Behavior

The behavior of sexual sadists, like that of other sexual deviants, extends
along a wide spectrum. Sexual sadists can be law-abiding citizens who fantasize
but do not act or who fulfill these fantasies with freely consenting partners.
Only when sexual sadists commit crimes do their fantasies become relevant
to law enforcement.

Sadistic Fantasy

All sexual acts and sexual crimes begin with fantasy. However, in contrast
with normal sexual fantasies, those of the sexual sadist center on domination,
control, humiliation, pain, injury, and violence, or a combination of these
themes, as a means to elicit suffering. As the fantasies of the sexual sadist
vary, so does the degree of violence.