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Dangerous Lust

A new book documents just how far (and bizarre) people will go for pleasure.

Investigators unfamiliar with autoerotic fatality might automatically view a death like this as a suicide. Hence, there’s a need for a thorough and instructive book like Autoerotic Deaths: Practical Forensic and Investigative Perspectives (CRC Press).

A correct death determination matters to surviving friends and relatives. Suicide clauses on insurance contracts block payouts for suicide and some religions view suicide as the greatest sin. In addition, there's survivor's guilt. Although autoerotic accidents can be embarrassing, they generally don't have the shattering emotional impact for relatives as a suicide does. Thus, death investigators must learn how to distinguish one type of death from the other.

Anny Sauvageau, the Chief Medical Examiner in Alberta, Canada and world-renowned expert on asphyxia, teams up with retired NYPD lieutenant commander Vernon Geberth, equally renowned author of books like Practical Homicide Investigation, to describe and illustrate the types of autoerotic deaths that investigators have encountered. They also show how to investigate such scenes.

They hope this book, based on scientific research and extensive case experience, will become the “best practice model” for recognizing when a death is the result of autoerotic activity. Helpfully, they include detailed checklists at several strategic points. It’s easy to make hasty judgments. This book assists investigators to think, observe, and recognize distinctions between accident and suicide.

The authors cover a lot of ground. They provide the history of the concept since the earliest reported cases, describe errors of judgment, discuss death scene characteristics, and illustrate the differences between typical and atypical incidents. They also demonstrate how the mechanisms work. Death occurs when some part of the mechanism fails.

Not all autoerotic fatalities involve asphyxiation, they point out, but most do. This is a self-induced reduction in oxygen to produce a state of hypoxia. Reportedly, it results in feelings of elation, exhilaration, and heightened sexual pleasure.

Often, autoerotic deaths have obvious features, such as sexual paraphernalia nearby, neck padding, transsexual clothing, and access to pornography. The victims might have encased themselves in something like plastic or duct tape. Aerosol inhalants such as CO2 or nitrogen might also be present, or an electrical apparatus. However, some victims have no obvious paraphernalia and some incidents do closely resemble suicide.

In addition, there are atypical incidents that can be difficult to fathom. One man, 19, died from a massive compression of the thorax when he dressed in a pressure suit for military pilots, covered his head with three masks and a helmet, bound his arms and legs, and turned on a 12-volt air compressor. It inflated the suit to the point that the pressure stopped his ability to breathe and he lost consciousness.

The victims are predominantly young to middle-aged men, but women, the elderly, and even children have engaged in this practice.

In rare instances, the sexual activity is performed underwater. A 25-year-old man went into the water in a homemade plastic bodysuit. He wore a hockey helmet, and over the bodysuit was a snowmobile suit and ski boots. He was bound with an elaborate set-up of straps and chains, padlocked at his groin. However, he’d used a tube too narrow for both the intake and expulsion of air, so his air supply was fouled with carbon dioxide. An indicator that this incident was not a suicide was his membership in an online autoerotic practitioner’s club.

Many autoerotic accidents are associated with paraphilias, some of which are quite unique. When a man went missing in Pennsylvania, police went to his home. They saw stacks of magazines and pornographic videotapes about mud eroticism. They also found several empty 5-gallon cans of plaster. The resident’s keys and wallet were present, but he seemed to have vanished.

In the bathroom was a large trash receptacle filled with hardened plaster. The investigators might not have given it a second thought except for the plaster-encrusted hand that broke the surface. A TV set was on and a pornographic video was playing in a continuous loop.

The trashcan was hauled into the morgue for removal of the body. Its posture suggested that the victim had planned an autoerotic session, using plaster in place of mud, but had slipped, gone deep into the plaster and aspirated it into his lungs.

Paraphilias show us just how varied the development of our erotic inclinations can be. Some can become addictive and compel us into dangerous territory. One man was actually stuck in a washing machine, but you’ll have to get the book to see how that happened.On rare occasions, autoerotic acts coincide with suicide, but people typically do not seek to die in the ways depicted in this book. These incidents are tragic accidents.

Although there are two other books on this subject, Autoerotic Fatalities was published in 1983 and Autoerotic Asphyxiation narrows the definition and lacks the elaborate color photos, tables, checklists, and illustrations. Thus, Autoerotic Deaths has no real competition for its intended audience.

This important resource is not just for investigators, although it’s invaluable for them. These cases will also enlighten psychologists, sexologists, and suicidologists about the risks some people are willing to take when chasing the ultimate pleasure.

There has never been such a thorough examination of autoerotic deaths, nor one as meticulously helpful to investigators as Sauvageau & Geberth’s text. Autoerotic Deaths provides a comprehensive reference that will clearly become a classic in the field.