Clowns’ syndrome: A brief look at coulrophilia
There are various websites that list hundreds of different types of sexual paraphilias. Many of these paraphilias are simply the names of specific phobias with the suffix ‘-phobia’ replaced by the suffix ‘-philia’. Examples of this include: agoraphobia and agoraphilia (fear of the outdoors; sexual arousal from the outdoors), cremnophobia and cremnophilia (fear of steep cliffs and precipices; sexual arousal from steep cliffs and precipices), and kynophobia and kynophilia (fear of getting rabies; sexual arousal from getting rabies). Another sexual paraphilia that often appears in these lists is coulrophilia (sexual arousal from clowns) that I assumed was just based on the opposite phobia (coulrophobia – fear of clowns) and didn’t really exist (especially as it doesn’t appear in either Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices or Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Furthermore, there is not a single reference to coulrophilia in any academic article or book that I am aware of. The most in-depth piece of text that I came across was this snippet from the online Urban Dictionary that notes:
“Coulrophilia is the paraphilia involving sexual attraction to clowns, mimes and jesters. The most likely reason behind this is because of lack of childhood, but some say the attraction is because the person behind the face paint could be anybody that you may or may not know”
I had all but given writing up a blog on coulrophilia until I (by chance) stumbled upon an online forum where a group of people were discussing their respective clown fetishes. I’ve picked out some of the more interesting admissions and have attempted to provide a little commentary on each extract and then a more general summary at the end of the blog. Obviously I have no way of knowing how truthful any of these accounts are, but they appeared genuine to me (particularly given the detail that some of them go into).
Case 1 (Gay male): “I think my fetish started out as more of a fetish for face painting, which has turned me on [for] as long as I can remember…Until I found this [paraphilia] site I always thought I was pretty much alone. Most of the comments I’ve seen elsewhere revolve around scary clowns. Not for me. My face paint interest has always been about silly, the sillier the better! That goes for clowns too, the clown face always seemed like the goofiest, silliest face paint you could possibly put on. One thing led to another and I went from painting my face to buying a clown nose, to the whole deal, costume, paint, wig, gloves, bow tie, shoes, you name it. I think for me the turn on comes from the willingness to look silly. I’ve always been very stoic and uptight to a fault, I find it very hard to let my hair down and relax. So, I think it’s the fear of being silly in front of other people that gives me a rush. To see someone not only look goofy in front of other people, but to actually want to do it, and enjoy it, is overwhelming to me…Although most people don’t find this stuff sexual and would never know the difference, in my mind I’d be doing something private out in the open. My partner has been wonderful with this. I got up some incredible courage one day and put on a clown nose in front of him and to my surprise he wasn’t the least bit put off. I eventually felt him out a bit more here and there and then just told him everything, since then he’s been very supportive and helped me embrace my fetish and the happiness it brings me”.
Commentary: This person notes that their initial sexual arousal dates back (presumably) to childhood, and was for face painting rather than clowns. It appears there was a gradual generalization process that changed the sexual focus from face painting to clowns. In addiction terminology, this individual seems to have developed a kind of ‘tolerance’ over time as the sexual focus went from just buying a clown nose to gradually buying the whole costume to satisfy their sexual needs. The ‘high’ or ‘buzz’ came from the silliness associated with wearing clown’s clothing although I am unsure as to whether it is genuinely just the ‘silliness’ or whether it might be some sort of feeling humiliated (but that’s pure speculation on my part). Given the partner supports the fetish, there is no problem with the behaviour. The fetish only appears to be manifested when the individual wears the clown outfit himself.
Case 2 (Heterosexual male): “I am a very lucky man. Roughly ten years ago, I completely opened up to my then girlfriend of a few months, admitting everything to her…That I loved seeing girls get pied in the face and have buckets of slime dumped on their heads. And that what I promoted as an irrational fear of clowns was to hide the fact that I actually was heavily aroused whenever I saw a female clown. That I really just wanted to dress in baggy pants, wear greasepaint and a big red nose, hurl pies, spank with rubber chickens and have a good silly ****. She said ‘okay’. It was no big deal. Years of repression and guilt and I had nothing to fear. She loved me and was willing to indulge in my fetish sparingly. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world”.
Commentary: As with Case 1, the partner was supportive of the fetish (following an ‘opening up’ conversation) and therefore there is no problem. Interestingly, the person pretended to be afraid of clowns as a way of masking his true feelings (and is something that is not unusual in the more general fetish literature). The most interesting observation is the fact that there is also a crossover with ‘pie fetish’ (the throwing of pies at people) that is a form of salirophilia (sexual arousal for messiness) that I outlined in a previous blog. The reference to spanking with ‘rubber chickens’ may also suggest (at least in part) a spanking fetish. The fetish appears to be located in the visual attraction to women in clown’s clothing rather than wearing it himself.
Case 3 (Bisexual male): “I have always had a clown fetish as long as I can remember. Even before I knew what arousal was, or fetishes for that matter, any of it, I have been strangely interested in clowns. I used to think of clowns before I went to sleep at night…I honestly thought it was because I hated clowns and wanted to fight them, but I realize it was the other way around. I would imagine myself at an entire circus surrounded by clowns and going on adventures to fight them…So I don’t remember thinking about clowns that much after I was really young until puberty hit…Throughout my teens and beyond, I’ve fantasized about clowns. I’ve also have always liked both sexes of clowns, male and female. My fetish can work with both, honestly…I’ve always been into a classical clown look, circus type, hilarious and silly…In my late teens and early adulthood, when the internet was becoming more common, I would talk to others that had clown feelings like me. It was a shock, at the time, to log online to look up pictures of clowns and suddenly realize that others had your fetish. As tame as my fetish is, it honestly takes up the primary desire of my sexuality and to meet others that felt the same way, it was cool. Clowning also introduced me to the pie fetish, which I like as well but honestly, it’s the clowning that does it for me”.
Commentary: This person’s clown fetish again began at an early age and appears to have built through thinking about clowns before going to sleep every night (and thus sexualizing the content even if the individual was unaware that the content was sexual. There appears to be what Sigmund Freud would call a latent period (the years before puberty) when the sexualization of clowns all but disappeared only to re-appear in his teenage years (i.e., am adolescent ‘awakening’). Like Case 2, it appears the individual is sexually aroused by watching clowns (irrespective of gender) rather than dressing up as a clown himself. Also like Case 2, he mentions an associated ‘pie fetish’ (i.e., a possible salirophilia crossover fetish). He describes is love of clowns as his “primary desire” indicating that it may well be a true fetish rather than just a strong liking for clowns. It appears he has met other like-minded coulrophiles on the internet, and as I argued in one of my recent papers on paraphilias, it is the rise of the internet that has facilitated the growth of this little known paraphilia.
Case 4 (Heterosexual female): “I’m an 18 year old chick and well I’m not sure how it all started. But I’ve always thought of clowns as being so sexual and crazy. I get turned on by the way they act and make perverted jokes. The make-up and clothes are really fun and exciting. Recently I went to Halloween horror nights and had a blast. At the center of the amusement park there were these clowns just messing with people and scaring them…The main clown was on a podium…I went to go get a picture with him and…he said ‘hey how about me and you go behind that ice-cream truck and I give u a little popcicle treat eh?’…He pulled me closer to him with the cane and I almost went crazy. I wanted to **** that guy in the costume so bad. I don’t see clowns as innocent childhood ideas. I see them more as erotic fantasy sex trips”
Commentary: This person is unsure of how her clown fetish began but appears to suggest it started back in her childhood given she “always thought of clowns as sexual”. It is unclear whether this person’s experiences of coulrophilia have gone beyond masturbatory fantasies but does seem to have a clown fetish rooted in make-up and dressing-up (two activities that she may have enjoyed as a child and more likely to be encouraged by parents as she was female rather than male).
Case 5 (Bisexual male): “Well, at first I never really liked clowns. In fact, I hated them but I was never afraid of them…One day, I went to my granny’s house after school. I had this one massage ball/stress ball or whatever and occasionally put it close to my nose and looked in the mirror and thought it looked like a clown nose. But this particular day, I had this odd thought that my math teacher wanted me to dress up as a clown and entertain some younger kids to bring out my happiness or some crap like that. The thought seemed stupid to me at first, but at my granny’s house I was known for being mischievous, curious, overly imaginative, and above all weird. So I had to try it and pretend. I made a hole in the ball so it could fit on my nose, got some of my granny’s old baggy scrubs, some fluff, and markers. I sort of looked like a clown so I danced around a bit and made silly faces in the mirror then I put the costume away. A couple days later I was at my granny’s house again and I had the ball on my nose again and I had the urge to masturbate…After I would go to my granny’s house every now and again and I had the urge to masturbate but with the ball on my nose. It never occurred to me that I needed the ball to masturbate with but without it, it wouldn’t feel as good. Eventually, I started picturing myself in a full clown suit with make-up on when I masturbated…I realised that I had a sexual attraction to clowns and I would fantasise about them…I fought this fetish for years…[At school] in the drama room…I found a real clown nose in there…and I had so much fun with it but I would always feel guilty afterwards…Now I can be attracted to someone without being a clown but if they are dressed as clowns, it turns me on waaaay more. So now I’m bisexual and I have a clown fetish”.
Commentary: This person’s sexual interest in clowns doesn’t appear to have begun until the onset of puberty, and even then it was only through associative arousal where the masturbatory spherical stress ball eventually represented a clown’s nose. The clown’s nose is then becomes central to all masturbatory fantasies so much so that it has to be present for sexual arousal to manifest itself (and thus a true fetish). As with Case 1, there is a kind of ‘tolerance’ behaviour where more and more aspects and items of a clown’s clothing have to be present to feed the sexual fantasies. There also appears to have been some associative pairing (i.e., a classically conditioned response) between an attractive teacher and the thought of him as a clown entertaining the children in his class.
Case 6 (Gay male): “I honestly do not recall when I started liking clowns, I was not a big fan of the circus and I do not remember seeing lots of clowns on TV or in real life… Somewhere in high school, I remember seeing some guys with their faces painted (I recall being at some sort of carnival or fair). One of these guys had his face painted like a clown…I remember being mesmerized by his painted clown face. I started fantasizing about myself painted up like a clown. Then I started having fantasies about a guy dressed up like a clown coming up to me and painting my face like a clown. These fantasies stuck with me for years. I knew they excited me, but was not ready to admit to myself that I found clowns sexy…A couple years later I was in some store, around Halloween…Suddenly my eyes focused on a clown makeup set…I painted my face up like a clown – it was amazing! There is just something about becoming a clown, your face underneath all that makeup, it’s silly, exciting, humiliating, liberating, and sexy all at the same time, at least for me…Several times during college I grew a beard, but I would always end up shaving it off, so I could paint my face up like a clown…I find it is such a turn on to think of a guy protesting, adamantly refusing to wear clown makeup and a clown costume, swearing up and down he is not a clown, will NOT dress up like a clown, yet somehow he ends up dressed and painted up like a clown anyway…Somewhere in my childhood I also discovered I love seeing guys hit in the face with a nice, thick cream pie (and of course getting hit in the face with a pie or twenty myself)…Becoming a clown and being pied is a big turn on for me…I would love to find a guy someday who understood this, who loved to take or throw a pie, loved clowns or loved being a clown”.
Commentary: This person does not recall how his clown fetish developed but given he did not like circuses or clowns in childhood it is something that developed during adolescence. There was clearly a key incident of seeing someone with a painted face and feeling sexually attracted towards that person which initiated the fetish (again through associative pairing). As with Cases 2 and 3, there is also a salirophilic pie fetish and he loves to dress up as a clown himself as well as finding other people dressed as clowns sexually arousing. He also describes the act of dressing in clown’s clothes as simultaneously “silly, exciting, humiliating, liberating and sexy”. Again, this suggests there are some sexually masochistic desires underlying the behaviour. He also says that “being pied” is a sexual turn-on (which again has sexually masochistic undertones).
Case 7 (Male, unknown sexual orientation): “I loved clowns ever since I was about 5 [years old]. I don’t know exactly how it started (probably me seeing them on TV)…but one night I decided that I really wanted to be a clown. This gradually grew into a full-blown fetish as I got older, and I would create fantasies about them and masturbated whenever I had time alone…Above all things, I had always wanted a clown nose. For some reason, that part of the costume just turned me on the most (especially the honking ones)…Oddly enough, when I’m not thinking about clowns, I am a VERY serious, nerdy, and down-to-earth student…After a trip to the grocery store in my mom’s car, I decided to take a detour to a party/costume place nearby and pick up everything clown-related that I wanted. Ironically, most of my fantasies involve other people laughing at my stupidity, despite the fact that my friends are convinced in real life that I can’t take a joke…The few friends who actually know about my fetish are generally supportive”.
Commentary: This person’s clown fetish appears to have started in early childhood as they “loved” clowns from an early age. As with other cases discussed here, masturbatory fantasies appear critical to the development and maintenance of the fetish through repeated associative pairing of fantasies about clowns and sexual arousal. Interestingly, this person appears to use the dressing up in clown’s clothing as an escape from his day-to-day life. As with Case 1, the clown’s nose appears pivotal in the development of their sexual fetish. This person appears to only derive sexual arousal from dressing in clown’s clothing himself (as a form of escape) rather than watching other people dressed as clowns. There is also a masochistic element to the behaviour as he admits that he enjoys others laughing at his “stupidity” at wearing a clown’s outfit.
Looking at all the cases as a whole, there are some commonalities – even among such a small number of cases. On the whole, coulrophilia appears to originate from a young age, mostly male-based, and arguably there appear to have been associative pairings from this young age (between sexual arousal and clowns) resulting in classically conditioned behavioural responses (i.e., sexual attraction to clowns). There also appear to be overlaps with other sexually paraphilic behaviours (i.e., salirophilia in the form of ‘pie fetishes’ and transvestic dressing-up). Also, Halloween appears to be a time that some enjoyed as an annual opportunity to engage in their preferred sexual behaviour. There didn’t seem to be any association between coulrophilia and sexual orientation as even among such a small number of cases, there were homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual orientations. Whether any empirical or clinical research into coulrophilia will ever be carried out remains debatable, but these few cases at least suggest the paraphilia may exist.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.
Posted on October 13, 2013, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Obsession, Paraphilia, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged Agoraphilia, Coulrophilia, Cremnophilia, Kynophilia, Sexual fetish, Sexual paraphilia. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.