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Give me strength: Another brief look at muscle worship

In previous blogs I have examined sthenolagnia (a sexual paraphilia in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and sexual arousal from individuals displaying strength or muscles). Another related behaviour is cratolagnia where – according to Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices – individuals derive sexual arousal and pleasure more generally from displays of strength (rather than muscles in and of themselves). Following that blog, I received a couple of emails from two males who suggested that I should write a blog on ‘muscle worship’ that although having a sexual aspect, is not the only aspect. According to the Wikipedia entry on muscle worship:

“Muscle worship is a social behaviour, usually with a sexual aspect (a form of body worship), in which a participant, the worshipper, touches the muscles of another participant, the dominator, in sexually arousing ways, which can include rubbing, massaging, kissing, licking, “lift and carry”, and various wrestling holds. The dominator is almost always either a bodybuilder, a fitness competitor, or wrestler, an individual with a large body size and a high degree of visible muscle mass. The worshipper is often, but not always, skinnier, smaller, and more out of shape”.

According to a couple of academic authors, muscle worshippers can be of either gender, and of any sexual orientation, although many authors appear to suggest it is more prevalent among gay men who view bodybuilders as little more than ‘sex objects’ and because bodybuilding is common among members of the gay community (see for instance: Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s 2009 book America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life, or John Edward Campbell’s 2004 book Getting it on Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality, and Embodied Identity). A quick search online also suggests there is a large gay pornographic market for muscle worship along with numerous webcam muscle worship sites. Muscle worship appears to have crossovers with other sexually paraphilic behaviour such as sexual masochism. As the Wikipedia entry notes:

“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 worshiper, forcing the worshipper to praise the dominator’s muscles, while in other cases, the worshiper simply feels and compliments the muscles of a flexing dominator. Male and female bodybuilders offer muscle worship sessions for a price in order to supplement their low or nonexistent income from bodybuilding competitions. Paid sessions sometimes involve sexual gratification, even when well-known competitors are involved, they offer fans the chance to meet in person and touch a highly muscular man or woman”.

A 2008 paper by Dr. Niall Richardson (2008) in the Journal of Gender Studies also made some interesting (and important) distinctions between muscle worship and two other erotic practices often associated with bodybuilding: ‘hustling’ and ‘sponsorship fantasies’. More specifically, Richardson wrote:

“Alan Klein describes ‘hustling’ as ‘the selling of implicit or explicit sex by a bodybuilder’ (1987, p. 132) and this can range from doing stripogram type work to engaging in full penetrative sex. Likewise muscle-worship is not to be confused with ‘sponsorship’ or ‘growth fantasies’. Katie Arnoldi’s superb first novel, Chemical Pink (a book which will probably become as revered a text for cultural critics of bodybuilding as Sam Fussell’s Muscle [1991]) describes, often in lurid detail, the horrors of female bodybuilding sponsorship. In Chemical Pink, Arnoldi depicts the ‘sponsorship’ agreement between female bodybuilder Aurora and her sponsor Charles. It soon becomes evident that Charles has a Pygmalion fantasy and gains supreme pleasure from his manipulation of Aurora’s body, feeding her endless protein-rich meals and hefty cycles of anabolic steroids and growth hormones (Arnoldi 2001, pp. 100–102, 111). While Henry Higgins delighted in shaping Eliza’s social graces, the muscle sponsor wants to build and shape his idealized female body and, as such, muscle-sponsorship can be compared to other sexual fantasies, such as ‘feederism’, in which the manipulation of the sexual partner’s weight is the sexual pleasure”.

What I found most interesting here is how various aspects of Muscle Worship are compared to both mainstream (i.e., prostitution) and not-so-mainstream (e.g., feederism) sexual behaviours. Another short article I read on muscle fetishism (outside of the gay community as it concerned female muscle growth) on the Sex and the University website suggested that there were also links with macrophilia (sexual arousal from giants) and breast expansion fetishes:

“Female muscle growth (FMG) is a fantasy genre involving muscular growth of a woman. Many who enjoy these fantasies are attracted to Female bodybuilding or other muscular women. This interest frequently centers on the biceps. FMG is related to the growth fantasies giantess and breast expansion fetishism. This fantasy is sometimes about an equalization or reversal of the stereotypical power relationship (that some people imagine/take for granted) in a heterosexual couple”.

As I noted in my previous blog on sthenolagnia, FMG devotees frequent places where female body builders are found (e.g., gyms, health clubs, bodybuilding tournaments, etc.). However, I also noted that some FMG devotion 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. Although there is little in the way of academic research on the topic, many devotees of Muscle Worship appear to be sexually aroused by an equalization (or reversal) of the stereotypical power relationship among heterosexual couples.

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

Campbell, E. (2004). Getting it on Online: Cyberspace, Gay male Sexuality, and Embodied Identity. London: Routledge.

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

Denizet-Lewis, B. (2009). America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Klein, A.M. (1993). Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

Richardson, N. (2008): Flex-rated! Female bodybuilding: feminist resistance or erotic spectacle? Journal of Gender Studies, 17, 289-301

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

Steele, V. (1996). Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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