Dead Sexy: 4 Explanations for Necrophilia
The French call orgasm le petit mort—the little death.
Whether or not we admit it, death and sex, destruction and creation, are intimately linked in the human psyche.
The French understood this, and we even have accounts of necrophilia on the battlefield in WWI France. The soldiers involved were not sadists, and had never had fantasies of necrophilia.
One story, passed down anecdotally, goes like this:
“An officer was sent out to catch necrophiles in these battlefields, because it was such a common problem. He found one young soldier he knew violently copulating with the eviscerated remains of another dead soldier. The boys looked up and, crying copious tears, made eye contact with the officer, but didn't slow his thrust. He was clearly horrified by his own actions. The officer never arrested the boy or reported the incident. Instead he told the soldier ‘not to worry about it,’ because it’s ‘something normal we don’t understand yet.’”
Whether or not the incident happened, that the story survives at all speaks to a human concern regarding the entwinement of death and sex.
According to Georges Bataille, one of the most important philosophers of the century, desire and sexuality exist only in the context of death and destruction. His book, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, is well worth a read.
This leads us to a controversial opinion:
Necrophilia is not a mental disorder.
At least, not on its own. If you’re a regular reader, this take probably doesn’t shock you. If you aren’t, welcome! Check out a deeper analysis of the kink vs. mental illness debate in my article on erotic cannibalism.
In attempt to shed some light on this subject, I’ve collected some data and personal experiences from anonymous necrophiliacs around the internet.
Interestingly, not a single one of them actually touched a dead body sexually (or at least, none of them disclosed it.) Several people had time alone with corpses they found attractive, but lacked either the nerve or inclination to realize their fantasies.
As with erotic cannibalism, there’s little data on this practice, but the data we do have suggests that among necrophiliacs, committing necrophilia is so rare that it can be safely discounted.
So if it’s not about actual sex with a corpse, what is the purpose of the fantasy? Here are some explanations I gathered.
Adult Necrophilia and Childhood Experiences of Death
Five respondents shared a similar experience of playing “morgue” with childhood friends. Whether this is a cause or result of the fetish is up for debate. For instance:
“I played forensic expert and put all the boys from the neighbourhood on a wooden table set up by construction workers from a nearby block of flats that was being built at the time. I also loved police and vigilante, but ‘forensic expert’ was by far my favourite. One mother of a boy found out and banned him from playing with me.”
A different user writes:
“When I was a youth, my friend and I played in an old shed deep in the woods. He would regularly die in some fantasy battle, and I would carry him to a table we had set up in there. Once I worked up my nerve and removed all of his clothing…”
Imaginary play involving battle and death is common and even expected among young boys. Adding a postmortem phase to the game isn’t ridiculous, especially if one of the participants has seen a morgue on TV.
Obviously, not every child who engages in this sort of play will grow up to be attracted to corpses, but right combination of timing, the nature and emotional significance of the friendship, and coinciding early experiences of sexuality could be more than enough to trigger a fetish in adulthood.
I found very little written of the typical “psychopath” experience; out of a sample of 56 stories, only one person admitted to killing animals as a child, and one other disclosed being sexually abused.
This makes sense, because the Dahmer-type necrophiliacs are incredibly scarce. The vast majority of people with this fetish seem to develop it through more traditional means, and explore it only in fantasy.
Some stories are less typical, however, and these lead to more niche fetishes.
One man describes a childhood friend with red hair and pale skin, whose veins “stood out on his chest like blue lines on a road map.” His heartbeat was slightly visible in his chest. They would play several games where the post’s author mimed stabbing his friend in the heart:
“He'd say "Don't kill me. Don't stab me in my heart,” but I always would, with the fake plastic knife. He'd finally cough a couple of times and lie still and limp against me, his head to my chest—no doubt listening to my heartbeat.”
This is the stuff fetishes are made of. This user goes on to describe his adult obsession with the human heart; specifically, with stabbing it.
Though the exact mechanisms involved in translating childhood experiences of sexuality into fetishistic interest in adults remains unknown, academic literature supports the link. Sometimes, it’s really that simple.
But not everyone has a convenient, identifiable start to their kink.
Admittedly, this forum poll isn’t the height of experimental methodology, but it gives us a vague estimate: somewhere between ⅓ and ½ of users didn’t develop a sexual interest in the dead until after puberty. So what could spark an attraction to the dead in adulthood?
Power and Control
Power issues underpin plenty of kinks: discipline, bondage, roleplay pairings…cannibalism.
What better way to control another person’s body than to become intimate with only the body? Without a “person” inside, there’s no question of who dominates the interaction.
“I can't deny that I am attracted to corpses and enjoy every detail about these fantasies: the sunken eyes, open chest cavity, rigor mortis, and overall dehumanizing aspects of decay and death.”
There’s something to be said for engaging with an unfeeling partner. For some, fantasy necrophilia assuages the guilt associated with fantasy sadism:
“I wince at the thought of inflicting pain on other sentient beings. I like my dead men ‘dead,' because I can do the power/control stuff with them without worrying about how they feel. Ditto if I am the victim—I enjoy both scenarios.”
Others enjoy their fantasies without guilt, but that doesn’t preclude introspection:
“I never felt guilt or shame because I am a necro. I do however feel a little depressed from time to time because I can understand why people like Jeffrey Dahmer do what they do. I can understand the appeal of having absolute control over a body without having to worry about the other person's wants and needs. It is a bit scary to feel like I can relate to someone who did something so heinous—I take solace in the fact that unlike Dahmer, I dont have the killing instinct. I’ve played with five victims and never once did I feel the urge to kill, even when they were playing a corpse and they were at their most vulnerable.”
Does understanding Dahmer’s urges make someone more likely to commit murder? Actually, the opposite may be true:
“You see, that's the difference between us and guys like Dahmer. We have the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel what they feel. Dahmer didn't have such emotions; he was a diagnosed psychopath and that makes him dangerous whether he's a necrophiliac or not.”
For a nuanced (and beautifully illustrated) take on the intricacies of sex, death, and the body as a fetish object, check out the book Anatomical Venus.
Fear of Death
Experimental evidence suggests that anxiety is linked with sexual arousal.
The body’s physical responses to both fear and sexual arousal are similar, leading to a well-studied phenomenon called misattribution of arousal, in which one response is mistaken for the other.
And many of our anonymous necrophiliacs were terrified of death:
“I must admit, death scares me shitless. Everything is destroyed in this universe, from humans to stars, and eventually everything we know and see in the observable universe will come to an end.”
Some drew the link between fear and fetishism explicitly:
“I'm scared to death of death. That's another reason I think I'm necro. I see all these deaths and imagine my own. I gasp at the moment of it. I fear the pain too and wish it be quick, but mostly fear the thought of not existing. It freaks me out but it's so hot.”
Still others have personal experience with death and loss:
“As an abstraction, death is just a transition from one form of existence to another, but for those left behind it is a form of living hell. My first lover died in my arms after he hit a tree in a skiing accident. The doctors said he died instantly. But I still held him and tried to kiss life back into him. I lost my second lover in an automobile accident. Can one ever find love again?”
In some cases, fetishising corpses could be a way of owning that experience, in the same way that some sexual assault victims enjoy consensual rape roleplay. The sexuality brings an element of power and control to a concept which otherwise makes us feel helpless.
Additionally, necrophilia can be a way of preserving life after death, at least symbolically. Especially for those who love their corpses—sexual activity can be intensely humanizing, in the right circumstances. By involving a corpse in one’s fantasies, the cadaver can become a participant.
In these ways, necrophilia can be a reaction to our natural fear of death.
Fear of Intimacy or Judgement
Have you ever worried that you’re bad at sex, or that your partner doesn’t actually like you? Maybe you’ve struggled to find a partner in the first place.
Even without the power element, necrophilia offers an escape from the complexities of human sexual interaction. In a society which writes elaborate, unspoken rules about courting and sexuality—and neglects to offer an instruction manual—the prospect of sex with a sentient partner can be intimidating, or might even seem unattainable.
A corpse can’t judge your sexual ability. It can’t say no, nor can it suffer the psychological trauma of sexual assault.
“I’ve experience my fair share of rejection. I was a very isolated as a child, and even if I weren’t a necro, I think I’d still be different from from my peers. But I’ve made friends in the necro community. The fantasy itself comforts me, because it reduces that anxiety I feel around living people. I’ve even had my first sexual experience with a necro friend. It wasn’t perfect, but when he was playing dead, I really got into the fantasy. Hell, I didn’t feel judged even when he wasn’t playing dead. That acceptance was something I’d never really felt before.”
Yes, the internet’s ability to “bubble” people can lead to online hate groups and extreme bipartisanism, but it also offers support for harmless individuals who just need somewhere to talk, without being judged or diagnosed.
The necrophilia communities I visited didn’t seem particularly radical—I was surprised to find that members of necro forums didn’t encourage others to indulge their fantasies. There were no discussions about how to become a mortician, and members generally supported each other in finding safe outlets for their desires.
If the majority of necrophiliacs never ‘desecrate’ a corpse, why the intense social stigma? Users offered a few possible explanations. Here’s a brief summary:
We’re hardwired to avoid the dead, in order to avoid disease. Anyone who has sex with the dead is therefore seen as ‘unclean.’
Our cultural and religious history considers cadavers sacred
Humans are unable to dissociate a body from its inhabitant
Only murderous necrophiliacs appear in popular culture
Images or discussion of death are uncommon in modern society, increasing the taboo
These are valid reasons, but in the end, a corpse can’t experience pain or trauma. If the necrophiliac is comfortable with their kink, who actually suffers? It could be argued that when someone has sex with a deceased partner, the only victims—the only people who suffer—are any third parties who find out about it.
This is all well and good, but necrophiliacs are rare. We have plenty of more pressing social issues to worry about, so why bother attempting to understand people who want to have sex with cadavers?
Consider this post by a necro forum member:
“I've lived my life believing I'm seriously screwed up, but I've never really understood my condition and the norms that are supposedly relevant to it. The necrophile is stereotyped as a predacious, mentally ill sicko, whose intent is to murder and perform sex on their victims. But necros are just people, and many of us go above and beyond to exhibit moral behavior, maybe to ‘make up’ for our fantasies. We're often people lacking confidence or enveloped in insecurities, but that doesn’t make us murderers.”
Most necrophiliacs are intensely troubled.
If we don’t step outside our comfort zones and embrace empathy, perhaps that make us a little less like them…but a little more like Dahmer.
Ezra Blake’s debut novel, Claustrophilia, gets inside the mind of a benign necrophiliac, and explores what happens when he’s forced to live out his fantasies.