Hybristophilia was defined by the sexologist Professor John Money as a sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual arousal and pleasure from having a sexual partner who is known to have “committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.” This type of paraphilic behaviour is sometimes colloquially known as ‘Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome.’ In some cases, the person who is the focus of the sexual desire is someone who has been imprisoned. In some cases, the hybristophile may urge and coerce their partner to commit a crime.
In other cases, the hybritophile may contact someone who is already in prison that they do not know except by reputation and/or what the have read or seen in the media. For instance, it is well known that serial killers—particularly those who have received lots of media publicity—receive lots of fan mail from female admirers (some of who are likely to be genuine hybristophiles). For instance, high profile murderers and serial killers that are known to have received sexual fan mail include Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez and Ted Bundy. Compared to other paraphilic behaviours, hybristophilia is quite unusual in that it is more common in women than in men. In a 2006 book chapter review by Corey Vitello, he notes that unlike most paraphilic behaviours, hybristophilia is more common among females, and that it varies in both disposition and degree.
According to the Love Art History (LAH) website, there are two types of hybristophiles (i.e., ‘passive hybristophilia’ and ‘aggressive hybristophilia’). Passive hybristophilia comprises those individuals who have no desire to participate in criminal activity themselves but are sexually attracted to criminals (the so-called “prison groupies” or “serial killer groupies”). Although I have yet to see any empirical proof, the LAH website claims that:
“These women are usually delusional and will try to find excuses for what the criminal did. They will develop relationships with a criminal and feel that they are special—that even though their lover may have killed numerous people, he would never harm her. They usually feel that they can “change” their lover and have rescue fantasies. Passive hybristophiliacs tend to put themselves in positions to be seduced, manipulated, and lied to by the people they fall for.”
Aggressive hybristophilia comprises those individuals who actively help (typically male) criminals to commit the crime(s). Such people (usually female) will (according to the LAH website):
“Help out their lovers with their criminal agenda by luring victims, hiding bodies, covering crimes, or even committing crimes. They are attracted to their lover’s because of their violent actions and want to receive love, yet are unable to understand that their lover’s are psychopaths who are manipulating them. Both passive and aggressive hybristophiliacs tend to end up in abusive or unhealthy relationships.”
Vitello says that many female hybristophiles are the ones who are actually plan all the crimes and that they coax their partner into actually carrying out the crime in order to become sexually aroused. The reasons put forward as the motivation underlying hybristophilia are highly speculative. It could be that those who are sexually attracted to criminals—particularly those who are infamous and have a high media profile—may love and crave the attention they vicariously receive. Maybe admirers are attracted to serial killers because they view them as ‘ultra-masculine’ and/or ‘overtly male’ because of the horrific and seemingly unimaginable acts they have committed. As Vitello writes (citing from Cara Bruce’s 2002 book The Thrill of the Killer):
“Women, teens especially, have the unfortunate reputation for wanting to find a partner who fits the ‘bad boy image’. The sexy bad boy is a staple American icon. He embodies machismo, individualism and all that other ... potent ideals of the U.S. Bad boys come in differing degrees, and most women would confess to having a minor crush on at least one at the end of the spectrum…Maybe, women fall for the bad boys because they are forbidden. Perhaps it's the ultimate taboo, thus, the ultimate aphrodisiac. Consequently, those women who do not grow out of the bad-boy fixation become a hybristophile because the image is so strongly paired with sexual arousal; they need to be with a notorious partner to achieve sexual pleasure."
From an evolutionary perspective, maybe such females have some kind of unconscious biological drive that would view any children of such men as having a better chance of survival. Maybe hybristophiles have submissive traits and (as the LAH website speculates) are “narcissist enablers who are attracted to power”. Professor John Money said the behaviour may be caused by a reverse operant conditioning (a process that he says underlies all paraphilic behaviour). He says:
“[The] opponent process converts negative into positive, tragedy into triumph, and aversion into addiction. Two recreational examples of opponent process reversals are bungee jumping and riding a gravity defying roller coaster. The novice whose apprehension amounts to sheer terror at first may, after very few trials, discover that terror transmogrifies into exhilaration and ecstasy as if the brain had released a flood of its own opiate-like endorphins. Thereafter, the thrill returns with each repeat, totally replacing terror.”
Non-fiction author Sheila Isenberg interviewed many hybristophiles for her book Women Who Love Men Who Kill. Some of those interviewed knew that their relationship was morally wrong but others were described as delusional with idealized fantasies. The interviewees comprised ordinary women with ordinary jobs (teachers, nurses) although many had been in relationships where their partner was violent and/or abusive. With the male being in jail, it could be argued that the women felt safe in a way they hadn’t done before and it could perhaps be argued that in this particular situation, it was the woman that was in the position of power. Unsurprisingly, very few of the relationships could be described as normal as most of the women maintained their relationship via the writing of letters and/or seeing the killer only very occasionally.
Academically, much of this is confirmed in Vitello’s review that asserts that hybristophiles often insecure, have low self-esteem have often been victims of physical and sexual abuse. This, according to Vitello makes them more vulnerable to deviant sexual preferences and criminality. However, Vitello also points out that many women are not victims at all and simply “want to sublimate their violent tendencies by collaborating with a perpetrator of violence.” This brief overview demonstrates that this is an area that empirical research is greatly needed as much of what is known is based on anecdotal interview evidence and populist books.
Linedecker, C.L. (1993). Prison Groupies. New York: Windsor Pub Corp.
Lovearthistory (undated). The psychology of hybristophilia. Located at: http://lovearthistory.hubpages.com/hub/psyhparaphilia
Isenberg, S. (2000). Women Who Love Men Who Kill. Backprint.com
Vitello, C. (2006). Hybristophilia: The love of criminals. In Hickey, E.W. (Ed.). Sex Crimes and Paraphilia. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.