Understanding Youths Who Commit Sexually Motivated Homicide
Studying this rare crime is important for understanding juvenile violence.
Posted October 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Sexual homicide committed by juveniles is extremely rare, with only around a dozen instances recorded annually.
- Juvenile sexual homicide offenders often have a criminal record and academic difficulty.
- These offenders are often afflicted with psychiatric disorders that influence their conduct and ability to manage their behavior.
Tony was a child born in chaos. As a youngster, he was regularly beaten by his biological father, who exited his life when he was 7, shortly after divorcing Tony’s mother. He also sustained two traumatic head injuries during childhood, resulting in loss of consciousness.
Often experiencing academic difficulties and bedwetting until age 11, Tony also frequently engaged in emotionally volatile arguments with his mother, culminating in her attempting to stab herself while distraught. In another incident, she even tried to leap from a moving vehicle after learning the extent of her son’s truancy.
For most of his childhood and adolescence, Tony was embroiled in numerous fights, shoplifting, and trespassing. He was also later suspended from school multiple times and was consequently expelled for his lack of attendance. Several years preceding his act of murder, Tony abused multiple substances and would fight with teachers and principals. One week after dropping out of school, after a spell of boredom, he visited the residence of his middle-aged female neighbor, where he sexually assaulted and murdered her before fleeing the state with a friend.
Though no universally agreed-upon definition has been established, sexual homicide generally refers to a murder that occurs along with an overt sexual assault or sexually symbolic behavior. Most murders intertwined with sexual behavior may be underpinned by various motivations, such as a desire to express sadistic urges or to cover up a preceding assault.
In their monumental publication Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, Ann Burgess, John Douglas, and Robert Ressler delineate that sexual homicides can be classified as “disorganized” or “organized.” Disorganized murderers offend against a victim on a spontaneous basis with little forethought or consideration, while their organized counterparts behave in stark contrast; they are meticulous in their attempt to plan the murder, remove evidence, and transport the body from the scene.
Sexual homicide is also a sporadic crime, accounting for less than 1 percent of murders in the United States annually. Moreover, research has demonstrated that this crime is even more unusual among juvenile offenders, with around one-dozen instances believed to occur each year.
American child and adolescent psychiatrist Wade C. Myers, MD, conducted the first and most extensive study of this demographic upon publishing his 2002 book Juvenile Sexual Homicide. Drawing from peer-reviewed research and in-depth psychological analyses of these youth offenders, Dr. Myers found that the 16 adolescents he analyzed had previously committed crimes ranging from petty theft, trespassing, and criminal mischief, up to strong-armed robbery, sexual battery, and arson. However, some variability is noted in the specific offenses between subjects; nearly all the juvenile offenders engaged in excessive fighting and drug use. In fact, 44 percent reported being under the influence of substances, usually alcohol or marijuana, during the homicide.
Dr. Myers also uncovered that the all-male sample only offended against females and usually selected a victim they were acquainted with who was also commonly an adult. Concerning the geographical aspects of the murder, the crime typically unfolded at the victim’s residence, the offender’s home, or in a wooded area. Strangely, despite being a sexually motivated crime, most boys ascribed a below-average or average score to their victims when assessing their attractiveness.
As mentioned, young people who commit sexual homicide often have academic troubles. According to a study by Dr. Myers and Dr. Roger Blashfield, 93 percent of these offenders have reported truancy, 77 percent are suspended, and more than half failed at least one grade. Though representing an astronomically narrow subset of those afflicted with mental health issues, the researchers found that nearly all of the youths surveyed met the criteria for conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is a diagnosis that encompasses a lack of regard for the law and others and antisocial personality traits.
Some youths in the sample also met the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorders. When questioned on their sexual interests, 67 percent reported sadistic fantasies pertaining to sexual violence, kidnapping, and homicide.
Concerning the unknown link between these crimes and media violence, Dr. Myers documented a case of a juvenile who had committed a sexual homicide nearly identical to the murder portrayed in the slasher movie Fear City, which he had watched shortly before. While he experienced a history of child abuse and a variation of psychiatric vulnerabilities, the neo-noir film was oriented around the fusion of sexuality with violence, in which one of the characters coldly and callously killed sex workers.
Juvenile sexual homicide offenders can also present a danger to the community upon release. In a 2009 research paper that focused on the recidivism of these offenders, researchers determined that—in addition to often being placed on early release—55 percent reignited their criminal behavior an average of four years after release. Curiously, those who recidivated scored higher on assessments for gauging psychopathy, and three even committed further homicidal acts.
In another 30-year follow-up study, which mainly focused on specific cases of juvenile sexual homicide, scholars further noted that recidivism was commonplace, and postincarceration offenses ranged from drug possession to aggravated assault. Though much research continues to be spearheaded by those specializing in criminal behavior, it is clear that juvenile sexual homicide is an extremely difficult-to-understand crime that may result from a lethal mixture of adverse childhood experiences and abnormal sexual behavior.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
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