Necrophilia, also called thanatophilia, is a sexual attraction or sexual act involving corpses. The attraction is classified as a paraphilia by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. The term was coined by the Belgian alienist Joseph Guislain, who first used it in a lecture in 1850. It derives from the Greek words νεκρός (nekros; "dead") and φιλία (philia; "love").
Rosman and Resnick (1989) reviewed information from 34 cases of necrophilia describing the individuals' motivations for their behaviors: these individuals reported the desire to possess a non-resisting and non-rejecting partner (68%), reunions with a romantic partner (21%), sexual attraction to corpses (15%), comfort or overcoming feelings of isolation (15%), or seeking self-esteem by expressing power over a homicide victim (12%).
Singular accounts of necrophilia in history are sporadic, though written records suggest the practice was present within Ancient Egypt. Herodotus writes in The Histories that, to discourage intercourse with a corpse, ancient Egyptians left deceased beautiful women to decay for "three or four days" before giving them to the embalmers. Herodotus also alluded to suggestions that Greek tyrant Periander had defiled the corpse of his wife, employing a metaphor: "Periander baked his bread in a cold oven." Acts of necrophilia are depicted on ceramics from the Moche culture, which reigned in northern Peru from the first to eighth century CE. A common theme in these artifacts is the masturbation of a male skeleton by a living woman. Hittite law from the 16th century BC through to the 13th century BC explicitly permitted sex with the dead.
Around 1850, Belgian physician Joseph Guislain coined the word nécrophiles in a lecture about mental illness, with reference to infamous contemporary necrophile François Bertrand. The term was popularized about a decade later by psychiatrist Bénédict Morel, who also discussed Bertrand. Richard von Krafft-Ebing included necrophilia in his 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis. Krafft-Ebing based his conclusions on the cases of Bertrand and Victor Ardisson, and suggested that Bertrand's necrophilia was caused by congenital feeble-mindedness and early masturbation.
In a modern example, Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer who suffered from necrophilia. In order to be aroused, he had to kill his victims before having sex with them. Dahmer stated that he only killed his victims because they wanted to leave after having sex, and would be angry with him for drugging them. British serial killer Dennis Nilsen is considered to have been a necrophiliac.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), recurrent, intense sexual interest in corpses can be diagnosed under Other Specified Paraphilic Disorder (necrophilia) when it causes marked distress or impairment in important areas of functioning. A ten-tier classification of necrophilia exists:
- Role players: People who get aroused from pretending their live partner is dead during sexual activity.
- Romantic necrophiliacs: Bereaved people who remain attached to their dead lover's body.
- Necrophilic fantasizers: People who fantasize about necrophilia, but never actually have sex with a corpse.
- Tactile necrophiliacs: People who are aroused by touching or stroking a corpse, without engaging in intercourse.
- Fetishistic necrophiliacs: People who remove objects (e.g., panties or a tampon) or body parts (e.g., a finger or genitalia) from a corpse for sexual purposes, without engaging in intercourse.
- Necromutilomaniacs: People who derive pleasure from mutilating a corpse while masturbating, without engaging in intercourse.
- Opportunistic necrophiliacs: People who normally have no interest in necrophilia, but take the opportunity when it arises.
- Regular necrophiliacs: People who preferentially have intercourse with the dead.
- Homicidal necrophiliacs: People who commit murder in order to have sex with the dead.
- Exclusive necrophiliacs: People who have an exclusive interest in sex with the dead, and cannot perform at all for living partners.
Necrophilia is often assumed to be rare, but no data for its prevalence in the general population exists. Some necrophiles only fantasize about the act, without carrying it out. In 1958, Klaf and Brown commented that, although rarely described, necrophiliac fantasies may occur more often than is generally supposed.
Rosman and Resnick (1989) reviewed 122 cases of necrophilia. The sample was divided into genuine necrophiles, who had a persistent attraction to corpses, and pseudo-necrophiles, who acted out of opportunity, sadism, or transient interest. Of the total, 92% were male and 8% were female. 57% of the genuine necrophiles had occupational access to corpses, with morgue attendant, hospital orderly, and cemetery employee being the most common jobs. The researchers theorized that either of the following situations could be antecedents to necrophilia:
- The necrophile develops poor self-esteem, perhaps due in part to a significant loss;
- (a) He/she is very fearful of rejection by women/men and he/she desires a sexual partner who is incapable of rejecting him/her; and/or
- (b) He/she is fearful of the dead, and transforms his/her fear — by means of reaction formation — into a desire.
- He/she develops an exciting fantasy of sex with a corpse, sometimes after exposure to a corpse.
The authors reported that, of their sample of genuine necrophiles:
- 68% were motivated by a desire for an unresisting and unrejecting partner;
- 21% by a want for reunion with a lost partner;
- 15% by sexual attraction to dead people;
- 15% by a desire for comfort or to overcome feelings of isolation; and
- 12% by a desire to remedy low self-esteem by expressing power over a corpse .
IQ data was limited, but not abnormally low. About half of the sample had a personality disorder, and 11% of true necrophiles were psychotic. Rosman and Resnick concluded that their data challenged the conventional view of necrophiles as generally psychotic, mentally deficient, or unable to obtain a consenting partner.
Necrophilia has been observed in mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs. In 1960, Robert Dickerman described necrophilia in ground squirrels, which he termed "Davian behavior" in reference to a limerick about a necrophiliac miner named Dave. The label is still used for necrophilia in animals. Certain species of arachnids and insects practice sexual cannibalism, in which the female cannibalizes her male mate prior to, during, or after copulation.
Kees Moeliker made one observation while he was sitting in his office at the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, when he heard the distinctive thud of a bird hitting the glass facade of the building. Upon inspection, he discovered a drake (male) mallard lying dead outside the building. Next to the downed bird there was a second drake mallard standing close by. As Moeliker observed the couple, the living drake pecked at the corpse of the dead one for a few minutes then mounted the corpse and began copulating with it. The act of necrophilia lasted for about 75 minutes, in which time, according to Moeliker, the living drake took two short breaks before resuming with copulating behavior. Moeliker surmised that at the time of the collision with the window the two mallards were engaged in a common pattern in duck behavior called "attempted rape flight". "When one died the other one just went for it and didn't get any negative feedback — well, didn't get any feedback," according to Moeliker. Necrophilia had previously only been reported in heterosexual mallard pairs.
In a short paper known as "Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin", George Murray Levick described mating with dead females in the Cape Adare rookery, the largest group of Adélie penguins, in 1911 and 1912. This is nowadays ascribed to lack of experience of young penguins. A gentoo penguin was observed attempting to have intercourse with a dead penguin in 1921.
A male New Zealand sea lion was once observed attempting to copulate with a dead female New Zealand fur seal in the wild. The sea lion nudged the seal repeatedly, then mounted her and made several pelvic thrusts. Approximately ten minutes later, the sea lion became disturbed by the researcher's presence, dragged the corpse of the seal into the water and swam away while holding it. A male sea otter was observed holding a female sea otter underwater until she drowned, and then repeatedly copulating with her carcass. Several months later, the same sea otter was again observed copulating with the carcass of a different female. Copulation with a dead female pilot whale by a captive male pilot whale has been observed, and possible sexual behavior between two male humpback whales, one dead, has also been reported.
In 1983, a male rock dove was observed copulating with the corpse of a dove that had shortly before had its head crushed by a car. In 2001, a researcher laid out sand martin corpses to attract flocks of other sand martins. In each of six trials, 1-5 individuals from flocks of 50-500 were observed attempting to copulate with the dead sand martins. This occurred one to two months after the breeding season; since copulation outside the breeding season is uncommon among birds, the researcher speculated that the lack of resistance by the corpses stimulated the behavior. Charles Brown observed at least ten cliff swallows attempt to copulate with a road-killed cliff swallow in the space of 15 minutes. He commented, "This isn't the first time I've seen cliff swallows do this; the bright orange rump sticking up seems to be all the stimulus these birds need." Necrophilia has also been reported in the European swallow, grey-backed sparrow-lark, Stark's lark, and the snow goose. A Norwegian television report showed a male hybrid between a black grouse and western capercaillie kill a male black grouse before attempting to copulate with it.
Necrophilia has been documented in various lizard species, including the giant ameiva, the Leopard Lizard, and Holbrookia maculata. There are two reports of necrophilic behavior in the sleepy lizard (Tiliqua rugosa). In one, the partner of a male lizard got caught in fencing wire and died. The male continued to display courtship behavior towards his partner two days after her death. This lizard's necrophilia was believed to stem from its strong monogamous bond. In one study of black and white tegu lizards, two different males were observed attempting to court and copulate with a single female corpse on two consecutive days. On the first day, the corpse was freshly dead, but by the second day it was bloating and emitting a strong putrefying odor. The researcher attributed the behavior to sex pheromones still acting on the carcass.
Male garter snakes often copulate with dead females. One case has been reported in the Bothrops jararaca snake with a dead South American rattlesnake. A male prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) was once seen attempting to mate with a decapitated female. Male crayfish sometimes copulate with dead crayfish of either sex, and in one observation even with a dead crayfish of a different species.
In frogs, it has been observed in the foothill yellow-legged frog, the yellow fire-bellied toad, the common frog, the Oregon spotted frog, Dendropsophus columbianus, and Rhinella jimi. The film Cane Toads: An Unnatural History shows a male toad copulating with a female toad that had been run over by a car. It goes on to do this for eight hours. Necrophilic amplexus in frogs may occur because males will mount any pliable object the size of an adult female. If the mounted object is a live frog not appropriate for mating, it will vibrate its body or vocalize a call to be released. Dead frogs cannot do this, so they may be held for hours. The Amazonian frog species Rhinella proboscidea sometimes practices what has been termed "functional necrophilia". Males grasp the corpse of a dead female and squeeze it until oocytes are ejected, and then fertilize them.
Under Section 150 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961, it is an offence for there to be "misconduct in respect to human remains." Subsection (b) elaborates that this applies if someone "improperly or indecently interferes with or offers indignity to any dead human body or human remains, whether buried or not." This statute is therefore applicable to sex with corpses and carries a potential two-year prison sentence, although it should be noted that there is no case law as yet that would apply the aforementioned statute.
Section 267 of the Indian Penal Code entitled "Trespassing on burial places, etc", states as follows:
Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby,
commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart from the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse, or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies,shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
Although sex with a corpse is not explicitly mentioned, a person who has sex with a corpse may be convicted under the above section. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could also be invoked.
Section 14 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 prohibits the commission of a sexual act with a corpse. Until codified by the act it was a common law offence.
Sexual penetration with a corpse was made illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This is defined as depictions of "sexual interference with a human corpse" as well as actual scenes (see also extreme pornography). As of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, it is also illegal to possess explicit and realistic depictions of sexual interference with a human corpse, electronic or otherwise.
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- Incidents of necrophilia
- Necrophilia in popular culture
- Vulnerability and care theory of love
- Death during consensual sex
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