Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Understanding Sexual Serial Killing

Frederick Toates

We are frequently asked “Sexual serial killing is such a hideous subject, so why on earth did you decide to invest so much time and effort investigating it?” “Don’t you need to have nerves of steel to live day-in and day-out with this subject?” The second question is easy to answer: maybe you do need them, but we don’t have nerves of steel! There were indeed times when we had cause to wonder – what are we doing here? Can we cope with this?

The answer to the first question is a little more complex. One of us (F.T.) has spent many years investigating motivation, i.e. what causes us to act as we do? This involved looking at the causes of the motivations underlying, amongst other things, feeding, exploration, sex and aggression. In 2014, F.T. published a book with C.U.P. entitled How Sexual Desire Works: The Enigmatic Urge. In researching for this,  it became apparent that, in order to understand aberrations of sexual desire, you do not need to suggest any entirely new processes, such as a rare aberrant gene.  Rather, you can get a long way by considering what underlies conventional sexual desire and how, by tweaking some of the parameters, you can generate deviations from normal.

One of the contributions that the second author (O.C-T.), a native Romanian but also fluent speaker of Russian,  brought to the book was insight into Russian sexual serial killers. There is an extensive literature on these and their numbers appear to be growing. However, very little of this is available to a readership lacking an understanding of the Russian language. Some of what is available is unreliable, possibly dependent upon cutting bits from Wikipedia. We discovered striking similarities between Russian and Western killers, which we document extensively in the book.

In summary, what did we discover? With some variations, there is a common core, a tragically familiar story that is repeated throughout. Out of the 100 or so killers we examined, in around 95 there was a strong suggestion of early psychological and/or physical abuse. Sometimes this was  in the family and thereby created a failure of bonding. In many cases there was also bullying by peers for such things as facial appearance, a stammer or a gay orientation. The sexual desire of these men emerged in a context not of friendly social relations with family and peers but of resentment and hostility.

Why do we use the term ‘men’ rather than ‘people’? There are female serial killers, and our colleague Marissa Harrison has just produced a book about them with C.U.P, entitled Just as Deadly: The Psychology of Female Serial Killers. However, men and women kill for different reasons. Men do so for such things as power, money and revenge but the majority do so for sexual gratification. Women killers do not go out looking for sexual pleasure with strangers. We could not find an unambiguous example of a single woman killing for sexual pleasure. Women serial killers usually stay at home and kill for resources such as financial gain. The occasional woman meets the wrong man and is groomed into sexual killing. Myra Hindley is perhaps the best-known example of this. Whether they derived sexual pleasure from killing is unclear.

Male or female, there are no winners here – only tragic losers.

Understanding Sexual Serial Killing by Frederick Toates and Olga Coschug-Toates

Title: Understanding Sexual Serial Killing

Authors: Frederick Toates and Olga Coschug-Toates

ISBN: 9781316517598

About The Author

Frederick Toates

Frederick Toates, D.Sc., is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Open University, UK. His book How Sexual Desire Works: The Enigmatic Urge (Cambridge, 2014) won the 2015 PROSE A...

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