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AUTOEROTIC DEATH

Posted by Leeann on: Saturday 4 August 2001

AUTOEROTIC DEATH

Police officers arrived at the residence of a 40-year-old married salesman who’s body was discovered totally suspended from a floor joist in the basement. A large piece of rope ending in a hangman's noose encircled his neck. The body was dressed in a white shirt, white panties, nylons, and a pair of woman's open-toed shoes. A woman's girdle was over the victim's head and his hands were bound with a belt (Geberth; 1990). So what do you think, homicide or suicide? Neither, the man died of a phenomena called autoerotic death, or sexual asphyxia. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, between 500 and 1000 people in the United States die each year due to sexual asphyxia.


What is Autoerotic Death

Asphyxiation occurs when there is an interruption of the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange process in which cells are deprived of oxygen necessary to sustain life. As a result, anoxia, or total oxygen deprivation develops resulting in death.


During sexual asphyxia, a person induces partial oxygen deprivation, called hypoxia, through some kind of mechanical or chemical action. The most common method is neck compression by hanging or strangulation resulting in the closure of blood vessels and air passages in the neck. The second most common method is sexual suffocation accomplished by covering the mouth and nose with a plastic bag or mask, or chest compressions. This method is followed by chemical asphyxiation in which oxygen inhibition is accomplished through inhaling noxious gases, typically nitrous oxide. In theory, the state of reduced oxygen flow to the brain and increased carbon dioxide in the blood manifests a euphoric state which heightens orgasmic sensations during masturbation. The combination of oxygen deprivation, danger, and fantasy exhibits itself in heightened sexual gratification. Of major importance to sexual climax is a person's fantasies and perceptions of what that particular person considers sexually stimulating. Dr. H.L.P. Resnick, a leading authority on autoerotic death theorized "the disruption of the arterial blood supply will result in diminished oxygenation of the brain which will cause heightened sensations through diminished ego controls that will be subjectively perceived as giddiness, light-headedness and exhilaration which reinforces masturbatory sensations."(Geberth; 1990).


In order to prevent anoxia, the individual employs some type of rescue device or plan during the autoerotic activity. This is necessary because only 6.6 pounds of pressure on the carotid artery and 4.4 pounds of pressure on the jugular vein are required to produce unconsciousness. If the pressure is not revived, death will follow. Death due to sexual asphyxia occurs when either the victim miscalculates the already induced state of hypoxia coupled with the time required to achieve orgasm through masturbatory activity, the malfunction of the mechanical apparatus used to induce hypoxia, or the failure of the self rescue device. This results in a subsequent loss of consciousness followed by death due to cerebral anoxia. So, what sort of person engages in autoerotic activity and what do police expect to find at the scene of an autoerotic death which would eliminate the manner as homicide or suicide?



Who Engages in this Activity


Although anyone can engage in autoerotic activity, statistical data and case analyses resulted in the development of an autoerotic profile. As such, most individuals are white males between 13 and 40 years old; 26 being the average age. Although it is extremely rare, some females engage in and have been victims of autoerotic death. In female cases, a careful examination of the evidence at the death scene is extremely important in order not to erroneously classify the death as a sex-related homicide. An example of female autoerotic death occurred when a 35-year-old female divorcee was discovered dead by her nine-year-old daughter. The woman was found nude and lying on a small shelved space in the rear of a closet in her bedroom. She was on her stomach and an electric vibrator was between her thighs in contact with her vulva. The vibrator was operating when the victim was discovered. Attached to and compressing the nipple of her right breast was a spring-type clothespin. Around the victim's neck was a handtowel, and a nylon stocking was placed over the towel in loop fashion. The stocking was fastened to a shelf bracket above her head. The lower portion of the victim's body was supported by the shelf and her upper body rested on her arms. The clothespin was used to cause discomfort, the vibrator used in a masturbatory exercise, and the ligature to reduced oxygen flow. The victim lost consciousness and the weight of her body hanging from the nylon stocking caused her to asphyxiate (Geberth; 1990).


People who engage in autoerotic activity usually have basically moral values, display above average intelligence, are shy, come from middle class families and have respective occupations. Most are active in heterosexual relationships, and some are involved in homosexual activities. Normally there is no history of depression, suicidal tendencies or other abnormal mental conditions, except for possible narcissistic personality. Although there usually is no documented history of sexual disorders, victims frequently experiment in autosadistic acts (self humiliation), sadomasochism, transvestism and fetishism. Case in point: A male dressed in female attire with a leather discipline mask over his head was found dead. His eyes were covered with duct tape, and his mouth stuffed with foam rubber. He was wearing pantyhose and female undergarments. Several chains and binds were interconnected and wrapped around him. A copper loop of wire attached to his genitals had been connected to an electrical device with a timer which sent intermittent shocks through his penis and scrotum (Geberth; 1990). A scene analysis determined manner of death was accidental due to autoerotic activity. He practiced transvestism, evidenced by cross dressing; and auto-sadism, evidenced by the application of electricity and the discipline mask. While most individuals immersed in autoeroticism are single, some may be married and the spouse usually is not aware the victim is engaged in this dangerous autosexual behavior. Teenage boys are especially vulnerable due to sexual experimentation. They may learn about autoerotic hypoxia from pornographic magazines, literature, movies, the Internet, and by accident; however, peers constitutes the most frequent way an adolescent learns about autoeroticism.


In 1982, a study was conducted in Illinois in which 72 medical examiners were questioned about autoerotic deaths. The results disclosed that in 1982, six deaths were classified as autoerotic. All involved white males between the ages of 15 and 51. All died of neck compression and four displayed evidence of bondage. Three showed evidence of masturbatory activity and two scenes had sexual stimulating paraphernalia present (Garza-Leal; 1991).


The Autoerotic Death Scene


Investigators and forensic psychologists eliminate homicide and suicide by a careful examination of the victim and location of death. The examination of the scene is extremely important when autoerotic behavior is suspected. Preservation of all relevant physical evidence, photographic documentation of the scene and body, and interviews of family members and friends are necessary so investigators avoid characterizing an autoerotic death as a homicide or suicide. Once again, a profile has been developed to aide in this determination. Usually, but not always, the victim is nude, sexually exposed, maybe wearing clothing of the opposite sex, or dressed in sadomasochistic clothing. Although not always the case, evidence of masturbatory activity, i.e. semen, is normally present on the victim, clothing, or ground. There may be sexually stimulating literature lying around or displayed on walls to assist in the development of the victim's fantasy. Sexual devices, such as dildos and artificial vaginas may be present. The mechanical device used to induce hypoxia normally has protective padding between the victim's neck and the ligature. This is used to prevent visible abrasions or bruises on the neck which may arouse suspicion. The suspension point is normally within the victim's reach. Routinely there is evidence of prior autoerotic activity, such as numerous ligature marks on a beam or support structure. A self rescue or quick escape device is usually present in order to prevent anoxia and death should the person fall unconscious. Mirrors and other reflective devices are sometimes used to assist in the fantasy and heighten sexual arousal. Recording equipment, such as video recorders, cameras, and tape recorders, have been used so a person can replay autoerotic activity at a later date to become sexually stimulated. It is extremely important that the victim conduct the autoerotic activity in an isolated or secluded location in order to establish the private fantasy necessary for orgasm. These locations are normally found in the residence, such as a basement or closet; however, they may be located outside. Victims has been found in secluded wooded areas where discovery is virtually nonexistent. There are documented cases involving extremely atypical autoerotic activity. Two cases in point involve the use of hydraulic machinery. In the first case, the victim engaged in repetitive self-suspension by neck using his tractor which he developed a romantic attraction with. He even went so far as giving his tractor a name. In the second case, the victim implemented positional chest compression using a hydraulic shovel. This person employed sexual bondage and cross-dressing to fulfill his fantasy. He died of asphyxiation after being pinned to the ground under the shovel. Both of these cases showed evidence of escape mechanisms, and were characterized by the lack of suicidal ideation, two essential features of autoerotic death (Dietz; 1993). Why would someone practice dangerous autosexual activity, and can psychological theories of personality explain this behavior.


Psychological Theories Regarding Autoerotic Activity


Sigmund Freud developed the psychoanalytic Theory of Personality in which psychosexual development played an integral part. According to this theory, a child passes through several stages of psychosexual development which focuses on sexual stimulation. Of significant importance to autoerotic behavior is the phallic stage, which occurs between two and six years of age. During this stage, stimulation is centered on the genital organs, and sensual pleasure is produced through masturbation. It is during this stage a child encounters what Freud termed the Oedipus Complex resulting in castration anxiety in boys and penis envy in girls. The Oedipus Complex centers on a child's sexual attraction towards the parent of the opposite sex resulting in hostility with the parent of the same sex. A child overcomes the Oedipus Complex by identifying with the same sex parent. As a result, the child will progress to the next stage of psychosexual development and eventually choose a sexual partner of the opposite sex. However, a child's sexual energies can remain focused, or fixated in the phallic stage which could result in autoerotic behavior as the primary means of achieving sexual gratification. This does not however explain why a person would add in the danger of hypoxia to achieve orgasm. A possible psychoanalytic answer could be the interplay between the id, ego, superego and instincts.


The id is entirely within the unconscious part of the human psyche and operates on the pleasure principle in which it strives to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. It accomplishes this through two processes, reflex actions which are autonomic reactions, and the primary process in which the id produces tension reducing images. It is possible a person's autoerotic fantasies are products of the id's primary process. The ego enters the picture because the mere image or fantasy may not in itself be able to produce an orgasm. The ego, which functions on the conscious level of the psyche, operates through the reality principle and provides the necessary action to achieve orgasm by masturbation.


The superego evolves out of parental values and societal standards. It attempts to hinder inappropriate id impulses, and facilitates the ego in focusing on morality. Although sexual attitudes are changing, parents and society have conveyed masturbatory activity coupled with diverse sexual fantasies as negative sexual behavior. As such, the individual practices this type of sexual activity in private. So, how does sexual hypoxia fit into the picture? One possible hypothesis centers on the action of Freud's two instincts, life and death. The life instinct incorporates sexual drive and pleasure, and the death instinct incorporates destructive behavior. Its possible the sexual drive of the life instinct may merge with the danger of self destruction in the death instinct causing a person's sexual fantasy to be focused on the danger of hypoxia to achieve sexual gratification.


Behaviorists and social learning theorists would disagree with the psychoanalysts and instead theorize autoerotic activity is a learned behavior either through social learning, modeling, or conditioning. The individual is exposed to autoerotic practices by reading about them, observing pictures in magazines, watching the activity on video, movies, or the Internet, or through human interaction. Under B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, a reinforcing factor is associated with or following a response. For example, a dog rolls over and is rewarded with a treat. The response of rolling over is reinforced with the treat. Thus, the dog will likely repeat this behavior as long as reinforcement is present. In regards to autoerotic activity, the response of sexually induced hypoxia coupled with masturbation is reinforced with enhanced orgasms. As such, the individual will repeat this behavior as long as increased sexual gratification remains a reinforcing factor. As stated earlier, dangerous autoerotic activity is learned through various external factors, such as peers, literature, sexual experimentation, and pornography, which adds credibility to learned behavior as the basis for this type of activity.


Conclusion


The crime scene, victim profile, autopsy, and sexual history become the avenues by which criminal investigators, forensic pathologists and criminal psychologists accurately determine whether or not a victim's death was homicide, suicide, or accidental (autoerotic). Whether autoerotic behavior is learned or instinctual, it is inherently dangerous and has resulted in numerous accidental deaths by misadventure. Fortunately, the medical and mental health professions have successfully treated dangerous autoeroticism which antiandrogenic drugs which reduce the intensity of a person's sex drive. As far as prevention goes, education would seem to be the key; however, this could also provide the fuel for a sexually maladaptive person to experiment with induced hypoxia to heighten sexual stimulation. This was evidenced when a 16-year-old boy's mother showed him an article about autoerotic deaths in a newspaper so he would be aware of the dangers. Two weeks later he was found dead, the victim of an autoerotic fatality (Geberth; 1990).



REFERENCES

1. Carson, Robert C., and James N. Butcher. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. 9th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.


2. Dietz, P.E., and R.L. O'Halloran. "Autoerotic Fatalities With Power Hydraulics." Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume 38. Mar 93: 359-364.

3. Fisher, Barry A.J. Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation. 4th ed. New York: Elsevier, 1987.

4. Garza-Leal, J.A., and F.J. Landron. "Autoerotic Asphyxial Death Initially Misinterpreted as Suicide." Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume 36. Nov 91: 1753-1759.

5. Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation. 2nd ed. New York: Elsevier, 1990.

6. Geberth, Vernon J. "Sexual Asphyxia: The Phenomenon of Autoerotic Fatalities." Law and Order Volume 37. Aug 89: 79-85.

7. Hall, Calvin S., and Gardner Lindzey. Introduction to Theories of Personality. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1985.

8. Hazelwood R.R., and P.E. Dietz. "Atypical Autoerotic Fatalities." Medicine and Law Volume 1. 1982: 307-319.

9. Masters, William H., and Virginia E. Johnson. Human Sexuality. 3rd ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1988.

10. O'Hara, Charles E., and Gregory L. O'Hara. Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation. 5th ed. Springfield, Il: Thomas, 1980.

11. Phares, Jerry E. Clinical Psychology. 4th ed. Pacific Grove, Ca: Brooks/Cole, 1992.

12. Reinisch June M. The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex. New York: St. Martin, 1990.

13. Rubin, Zick, and Elton B. McNeil. Psychology: Being Human. 4th ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

14. Shook, L.L. "Investigation of Sexual Misadventure Deaths." Critical Issues in Criminal Investigations. 1984: 63-73.

END NOTE: Autoerotic Death was a term paper written in 1993 by Robert, an undergraduate psychology student. Robert currently has a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and is pursuing a Master of Science degree in Psychology.





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