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Pulling muscles: A beginner’s guide to sthenolagnia

Back in 2007, the UK’s best selling tabloid The Sun published an article called Top five freaky fetishes”. The journalist who wrote the article – Josh Burt – wrote that:

“We’ve all gasped with disbelief at the mega-bronzed muscle-bound ladies in those weird bodybuilding competitions, but sthenolagnia is a condition where men find that hugely sexually attractive. These men like to be wrestled, lifted up and even carried around by their big iron-pumping dreamgirls”.

So what is known about this type of fetishistic behaviour? Sthenolagnia is – according to Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices – a sexual paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from displaying strength or muscles. However, there are other slightly different definitions (all of which involve the derivation of sexual pleasure from muscles and/or strength). For instance, in the 2007 book on The Miscellany of Sex, Francesca Twinn defined sthenolagnia as the love of giant, overpowering women”. Here, the definition locates the sexual focus of the paraphilia as being in women only, and is also loose enough to include aspects of macrophilia (i.e., sexual arousal and pleasure from a fascination with giants and/or a sexual fantasy involving giants). There are also related paraphilias such as cratolagnia where – again according to Aggrawal’s book – individuals derive sexual arousal and pleasure more generally from displays of strength.

Reports of sthenolgnia – in both males and females and of all sexual orientations – date back to the 1800s. The term ‘sthenolagnia’ is thought to have been first coined by the German psychologist Magnus Hirschfeld. The term is not in popular usage, and most contemporary sthenolagniacs define themselves as ‘muscle worshippers’ (itself a sub-branch of more general ‘body worship’). In Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices she refers to sthenolagnia (and cratolagnia) but only in an entry on ‘wrestling’ for erotic purposes.

There appears to be different sub-categories of sthenolagnia, such as men who derive sexual arousal from female muscle growth (FMG) – particularly bicep growth – and frequent places where female body builders are found (e.g., gyms, health clubs, bodybuilding tournaments, etc.). However, some of this may be based in fantasy rather than actuality, particularly if it is related to aspects of macrophilia and transformation fetishes (both of which I covered in previous blogs). For instance, Marvel Comics character ‘She-Hulk’ is a popular representation of FMG fantasy and can be found on websites such as the Female Muscle Factory. FMG can also be related to other specific fetishes (such as fetishes surrounding breast expansion fetishism). Although there is little in the way of academic research on the topic, many sthenolagnia devotees appear to be sexually aroused by an equalization (or reversal) of the stereotypical power relationship among heterosexual couples. I also came across an anonymous article online which claimed that:

“The psychology of muscle worship is not fully understood. The practice developed from envy, jealousy, or profound appreciation for excellent muscularity. It is a relatively modern social activity that began to gain popularity with the rise of competitive bodybuilding. When the worshiper is of a less-muscular stature, the aspects of envy or jealousy are more pronounced. Typically, profound appreciation for the achievement of exceptional muscularity and stroking of the muscle god’s ego remain the primary motivations, particularly when muscle worship is done between two or more accomplished bodybuilders in a session”

Muscle worshippers can derive sexual arousal from simply touching those with highly visible muscles (often referred to as the ‘dominator’ – and typically a fitness instructor, bodybuilder, wrestler, etc.). The various tactile activities that can facilitate sexual pleasure include rubbing, massaging, kissing, licking, and/or other more diverse activities including lifting, carrying, and engaging in wrestling moves. Muscle worshippers themselves are typically (but not always) much smaller and skinnier than the dominator. According to Steven Davis and Maglina Lubovich in their 2007 book Hunks, Hotties, and Pretty Boys, those individuals conforming to this stereotype are called schmoos (and often refers to men who worship women’s muscles). According to a Wikipedia:

“The amount of forceful domination and pain used in muscle worship varies widely, depending on the desires of the participants. Sometimes, the dominator uses his or her size and strength to pin a smaller worshipper, forcing the worshipper to praise his or her muscles, while in other cases, the worshipper simply feels and compliments the muscles of a flexing dominator. Both male and female bodybuilders offer muscle worship sessions for a price in order to supplement their low or non-existent income from bodybuilding competitions, although the lack of adequate funding is far more dire in female competitions. Paid sessions rarely involve sexual gratification, especially when well-known competitors are involved, they offer fans – both male and female – the rare chance to meet in person and touch a highly muscular man and especially a muscular woman…Muscle worship engenders a specific type of pornography often produced professionally, but also web cam sessions, an underground erotic literature, and specific internet discussion fora like the gaymuscle IRC channel. A (possibly fictional) account of muscle worship by H.A. Carson combines it with infantilism”.

I tracked down H.A. Carson’s book – called A Roaring Girl: An Interview with the Thinking Man’s Hooker. Part of the book focuses on the ‘muscle girl’ phenomenon, and the interviewee is asked by Carson whether many of her clients fantasize about female bodybuilders. She replied also by making reference to schmoos:

“Female bodybuilders call their groupies schmoos, and a lot of schmoos pay…Most of [them] were into wrestling – you know: the Chyna Syndrome, i.e., the fantasy of being bodyslammed by a muscular woman. But a lot of them are into body and muscle worship. They want to be talked through an entire posing/oiling/pump room routine…Kissing. Licking, tonguing, and rubbing posing oil and Pro Tan all over my muscles while I lift and flex and military press them above my head like a barbell…[One client] liked to picture me as a humongously muscular woman performing serous feats of strength…He also liked muscle worship – especially on my ‘muscle’ boobs…There are also musclegirl fetishists with very specific, custom tailored fantasies. [Two women I know] combined infantilism with humiliation and muscle worship”

As the Wikipedia article notes, there was no telling to what extent the interviewee’s narrative was true but my reading of the book was that it seemed to be based on someone who knew what she was talking about. This is another in a long list of paraphilic and fetishistic behaviours that we know little about empirically. Given the lack of references in the clinical literature, it would appear that treatment is not generally sought and that such people live happily with their fetish.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Assael, S. (2007). Steroid Nation. New York: ESPN Books.

Burt, J. (2007). Top five freaky fetishes. The Sun, September 7. Located at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/21158/Top-five-freaky-fetishes.html

Carson, H.A. (2010). A Roaring Girl: An interview with the Thinking Man’s Hooker. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

Davis, S.L. & Lubovich, M. (2008). Hunks, Hotties, and Pretty Boys. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Sex and the University (2008). Sthenolagnia: Muscle fetishism. Located at: http://sexandtheuniversity.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/sthenolagnia-muscle-fetishism/

Twinn, F. (2007). The Miscellany of Sex: Tantalizing Travels Through Love, Lust and Libido. London: Arcturus.

Wikipedia (2012). Muscle worship. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_worship