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Serial delights: Killing as an addiction

A couple of days ago I watched the 2007 US psychological thriller Mr. Brooks. The film is about a celebrated businessman (Mr. Earl Brooks played by Kevin Costner) who also happens to be serial killer (known as the ‘thumbprint killer’). The reason I mention all this is that the explanation given in the film by Earl for the serial killing is that it was an addiction. A number of times in the film he is seem attending Alcoholics Anonymous and quoting from the 12-step recovery program to help him ‘beat his addiction’. With the help of the AA Fellowship, he had managed not to kill anyone for two years but at the start of the film, Earl’s psychological alter-ego (‘Marshall’ played by William Hurt) manages to coerce Earl into killing once again. I won’t spoil the plot for people who have not seen the film but the underlying theme that serial killing is an addiction that Earl is constantly fighting against, is embedded in an implicit narrative that addiction somehow ‘explains’ his behaviour and that he is not really responsible for it. This is not a view I hold myself as all addicts have to take some responsibility for their behaviour.

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The idea of serial killing being conceptualized as an addiction in popular culture is not new. For instance, Brian Masters book about British serial killer Dennis Nilsen (who killed at least 12 young men and was also a necrophile) was entitled Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder, and Mikaela Sitford’s book about Harold Shipman, the British GP (aka ‘Dr. Death’) who killed over 200 people, was entitled Addicted to Murder: The True Story of Dr. Harold Shipman.

One of the things that I have always argued throughout my career, is that someone cannot become addicted to an activity or a substance unless they are constantly being rewarded (either by continual positive and/or negative reinforcement). Given that serial killing is a discontinuous activity (i.e., it happens relatively infrequently rather than every hour or day) how could killing be an addiction? One answer is that the act of killing is part of the wider behaviour in that the preoccupation with killing can also include the re-enacting of past kills and the keeping of ‘trophies’ from the victims (which I overviewed in a previous blog). As the author of the book Freud, Profiled: Serial Killer noted:

“The serial killer is most often described as a kind of addict. Murder is his addiction, the thrill achieved in murder his ‘kick.’ This addiction requires a maintenance ‘fix.’ At first, the experience is wonderfully exhilarating, later the fix is needed to just feel normal again. It is a hard habit to break, the hungering sensation to consume another life returns. Between murders, they often play back video or sound recordings or look at photos made of their previous murders. This voyeurism provides a surrogate death-meal until their next feeding”.

In Eric Hickey’s 2010 book Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Dr. Hickey makes reference to an unpublished 1990 monograph by Dr. Victor Cline who outlined a four-factor addiction syndrome in relation to sexual serial killers who (so-called ‘lust murderers’ that I also examined in a previous blog). More specifically:

“The offender first experiences ‘addiction’ similar to the physiological/psychological addiction to drugs, which then generates stress in his or her everyday activities. The person then enters a stage of ‘escalation’, in which the appetite for more deviant, bizarre, and explicit sexual material is fostered. Third, the person gradually becomes ‘desensitized’ to that which was once revolting and taboo-breaking. Finally, the person begins to ‘act out’ the things that he or she has seen”.

This four-stage model is arguably applicable to serial killing more generally. It also appears to be backed up by one of the most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy. In an interview with psychologist Dr. James Dobson (found in Harold Schecter’s 2003 book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers), Bundy claimed:

“Once you become addicted to [pornography], and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping-off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it”.

Dr. Hickey claims that such urges to kill are fuelled by fantasies that have become well-developed and killers to vicariously gain control of other individual. He also believes that fantasies for lust killers are far greater than an escape, and becomes the focal point of all behaviour. He concludes by saying that “even though the killer is able to maintain contact with reality, the world of fantasy becomes as addictive as an escape into drugs”. In the book The Serial Killer Files, Harold Schechter notes that:

“For homicidal psychopaths, lust-killing often becomes an addiction. Like heroin users, they not only become dependent on the thrilling sensation – the rush – of torture, rape, and murder; they come to require ever greater and more frequent fixes. After a while, merely stabbing a co-ed to death every few months isn’t enough. They have to kill every few weeks, then every few days. And to achieve the highest pitch of arousal, they have to torture the victim before putting her to death. This kind of escalation can easily lead to the killer’s own destruction. Like a junkie who ODs in his urgent quest to satisfy his cravings, serial killers are often undone by their increasingly unbridled sadism, which drives them to such reckless extremes that they are finally caught. Monsters tend to be sadists, deriving sexual gratification from imposing pain on others. Their secret perversions, at first sporadic, often trap them in a pattern as the intervals between indulgences become briefer: it is a pattern whose repetitions develop into a hysterical crescendo, as if from one outrage to another the monster were seeking as a climax his own annihilation”.

Schecter uses the ‘addiction’ explanation for serial killing throughout his writings even for serial killers from the past including American nurse Jane Toppan (the ‘Angel of Death’) who confessed to 33 murders in 1901 and died in 1938 (“she became addicted to murder”), cannibalistic child serial killers Gilles Garnier (died in 1573) and Peter Stubbe (died 1589) (“both became addicted to murder and cannibalism, both preferred to prey upon children”), and Lydia Sherman (died 1878) who killed 8 children including six of her own (“confirmed predator, addicted to cruelty and death”).

In a recent 2012 paper on mental disorders in serial killers in the Iranian Journal of Medical Law, Dr. N. Mehra and A.S. Pirouz quoted the literary academic Akira Lippit who argued that in films, the “completion of each serial murder lays the foundation for the next act which in turn precipitates future acts, leaving the serial subject always wanting more, always hungry, addicted”. They then go on to conclude that:

“Once a killer has tasted the success of a kill, and is not apprehended, it will ultimately mean he will strike again. He put it simply, that once something good has happened, something that made the killer feel good, and powerful, and then they will not hesitate to try it again. The first attempt may leave them with a feeling of fear but at the same time, it is like an addictive drug. Some killers revisit the crime scene or take trophies, such as jewelry or body parts, or video tape the scenario so as to be able to re-live the actual feeling of power at a later date”.

Although I haven’t done an extensive review of the literature, I do think it’s possible – even on the slimmest of empirical bases presented here – to conceptualize serial killing as a potential behavioural addiction for some individuals. However, it will always depend upon how addiction is defined in the first place.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, 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.

Brophy, J. (1967). The Meaning of Murder. London: Crowell.

Hickey, E.W. (2010). Serial Murderers and Their Victims (Fifth Edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Lippit, A.M. (1996). The infinite series: Fathers, cannibals, chemists. Criticism, Summer, 1-18.

Masters, B. (1986). Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder. New York: Stein and Day.

Mehra, N., & Pirouz, A. S. (2012). A study on mental disorder in serial killers. Iranian Journal of Medical Law, 1(1), 38-51.

Miller, E. (2014). Freud, Profiled: Serial Killer. San Diego: New Directions Publishing.

Schecter, H. (2003). The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers. New York: Ballantine Books

Sitford, M. (2000). Addicted to Murder: The True Story of Dr. Harold Shipman. London: Virgin Publishing.

Taylor, T. (2014). Is serial killing an addiction? IOL, April 9. Located at: http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/is-serial-killing-an-addiction-1673542

Lust discussed: A brief overview of our recent papers on sex addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling, exercise addiction, and shopping addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on sex addiction.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

  • At present, the prevalence of rates of sexual addiction in the UK is unknown. This study investigated what treatment services were available within British Mental Health Trusts (MHTs) that are currently provided for those who experience compulsive and/or addictive sexual behaviours within the National Health Service (NHS) system. In March and April 2013, a total of 58 letters were sent by email to all Mental Health Trusts in the UK requesting information about (i) sexual addiction services and (ii) past 5-year treatment of sexual addiction. The request for information was sent to all MHTs under the Freedom of Information Act (2001). Results showed that 53 of the 58 MHTs (91 %) did not provide any service (specialist or otherwise) for treating those with problematic sexual behaviours. Based on the responses provided, only five MHTs reported having had treated sexual addiction as a disorder that took primacy over the past 5 years. There was also some evidence to suggest that the NHS may potentially treat sexual addiction as a secondary disorder that is intrinsic and/or co-morbid to the initial referral made by the GP. In light of these findings, implications for the treatment of sex addiction in a British context are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

  • Background and aims: Hypersexuality and sexual addiction among females is a little understudied phenomenon. Shame is thought to be intrinsic to hypersexual behaviours, especially in women. Therefore, the aim of this study was to understand both hypersexual behaviours and consequences of hypersexual behaviours and their respective contributions to shame in a British sample of females (n = 102). Methods: Data were collected online via Survey Monkey. Results: Results showed the Sexual Behaviour History (SBH) and the Hypersexual Disorder Questionnaire (HDQ) had significant positive correlation with scores on the Shame Inventory. The results indicated that hypersexual behaviours were able to predict a small percentage of the variability in shame once sexual orientation (heterosexual vs. non-heterosexual) and religious beliefs (belief vs. no belief) were controlled for. Results also showed there was no evidence that religious affiliation and/or religious beliefs had an influence on the levels of hypersexuality and consequences of sexual behaviours as predictors of shame. Conclusions: While women in the UK are rapidly shifting to a feminist way of thinking with or without technology, hypersexual disorder may often be misdiagnosed and misunderstood because of the lack of understanding and how it is conceptualised. The implications of these findings are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 163-174.

  • Researchers have suggested that the advances of the Internet over the past two decades have gradually eliminated traditional offline methods of obtaining sexual material. Additionally, research on cybersex and/or online sex addictions has increased alongside the development of online technology. The present study extended the findings from Griffiths’ (2012) systematic empirical review of online sex addiction by additionally investigating empirical studies that implemented and/or documented clinical treatments for online sex addiction in adults. A total of nine studies were identified and then each underwent a CONSORT evaluation. The main findings of the present review provide some evidence to suggest that some treatments (both psychological and/or pharmacological) provide positive outcomes among those experiencing difficulties with online sex addiction. Similar to Griffiths’ original review, this study recommends that further research is warranted to establish the efficacy of empirically driven treatments for online sex addiction.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding conceptualisations of female sex addiction and recovery using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Psychology Research, 5, 585-603.

  • Relatively little research has been carried out into female sex addiction. There is even less regarding understandings of lived experiences of sex addiction among females. Consequently, the purpose of the present study was to examine the experiences of female sex addiction (from onset to recovery). This was done by investigating the experiences and conceptualisations of three women who self-reported as having had a historical problem with sex addiction. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) methodology was applied in the current research process in which three female participants shared their journey through the onset, progression, and recovery of sex addiction. The IPA produced five superordinate themes that accounted for the varying degrees of sexual addiction among a British sample of females: (1) “Focus on self as a sex addict”; (2) “Uncontrollable desire”; (3) “Undesirable feelings”; (4) “Derision”; and (5) “Self help, treatment and recovery”. The implications of these findings towards the understanding and the need for the implementation of treatment are discussed.

Dhuffar, M., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The role of negative mood states and consequences of hypersexual behaviours in predicting hypersexuality among university students. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 4, 181–188.

  • The issue of whether hypersexual behaviours exist among university students is controversial because many of these individuals engage in sexual exploration during their time at university. To date, little is known about the correlates of hypersexual behaviours among university students in the UK. Therefore, the aims of this exploratory study were two-fold. Firstly, to explore and establish the correlates of hypersexual behaviours, and secondly, to investigate whether hypersexuality among university students can be predicted by variables relating to negative mood states (i.e., emotional dysregulation, loneliness, shame, and life satisfaction) and consequences of hypersexual behaviour.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, in press.

  • Sex addiction is a disorder that can have serious adverse functional consequences. Treatment effectiveness research for sex addiction is currently underdeveloped, and interventions are generally based on guidelines for treating other behavioural (as well as chemical) addictions. Consequently, there is a need to clinically evaluate tailored treatments that target the specific symptoms of sex addiction. It has been proposed that second-generation mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) may be an appropriate treatment for sex addiction because in addition to helping individuals increase perceptual distance from craving for desired objects and experiences, some SG-MBIs specifically contain meditations intended to undermine attachment to sex and/or the human body. To date, no study exploring the utility of mindfulness for treating sex addiction has been conducted. This paper presents an in-depth clinical case study of a male individual suffering from sex addiction that underwent treatment utilising an SG-MBI known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT). Following completion of MAT, the participant demonstrated clinically significant improvements regarding the addictive sexual behaviour, as well less depression and psychological distress. The MAT intervention also led to improvements in sleep quality, job satisfaction, and non-attachment to self and experiences. Salutary outcomes were maintained at six-month follow-up. The current study extends the literature exploring the applications of mindfulness for treating behavioural addiction, and findings of this case study indicate that further clinical investigation into the role of mindfulness for treating sex addiction is warranted.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Sex addiction on the Internet. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(2), 188-217.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Collecting behavioural addiction treatment data using Freedom of Information requests. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Located at: DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/978144627305014533925

The must of lust discussed: Why isn’t sex addiction in the DSM-5?

Please note: A shorter and slightly different version of this blog first appeared on addiction.com

Sex addiction appears to be a highly controversial area among both the general public and those who work in the addiction field. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can’t really be considered an addiction. But I’m not one of them. If it were up to me, I would have given serious consideration to including sex addiction in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Given that ‘gambling disorder’ was reclassified from a disorder of impulse control to a behavioural addiction in the DSM-5, there is now no theoretical reason why other behavioural addictions can’t be added in the years to come. So why wasn’t sex addiction included in the latest DSM-5? Here are some possible reasons.

Some researchers think that sex addiction just doesn’t exist (for moral and theoretical reasons): Many scholars have attacked the whole concept of sex addiction saying it is a complete myth. It’s not hard to see why, as many of the claims appear to have good face validity. Many sociologists would argue that ‘sex addiction’ is little more than a label for sexual behaviour that significantly deviates from society’s norms. The most conventional attack on sex addiction is a variation on the position outlined in my introduction (i.e., that ‘addiction’ is a physiological condition caused by ingestion of physiological substances, and must therefore be defined physiologically). There are also attacks on more moral grounds with people saying that if excessive sexual behaviour is classed as an addiction it undermines individuals’ responsibility for their behaviour (although this argument could be said of almost any addiction).

The word ‘addiction’ has become meaningless: There are also those researchers within the social sciences who claim that the every day use of the word ‘addiction’ has rendered the term meaningless (such as people saying that their favorite television show is ‘addictive viewing’ or that certain books are ‘addictive reading’). Related to this is that those that work in the field don’t agree on what the disorder (e.g. ‘sex addiction’, ‘sexual addiction’, ‘hypersexuality disorder’, ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’, ‘pornography addiction’, etc.) should be called and whether it is a syndrome (i.e., a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms) or whether there are many different sub-types (pathological promiscuity, compulsive masturbation, etc.). 

There is a lack of empirical evidence about sex addiction: One of the main reasons that sex addiction is not yet included in the DSM-5 is that the empirical research in the area is relatively weak. Although there has been a lot of research, there has never been any nationally representative prevalence surveys of sex addiction using validated addiction criteria, and a lot of research studies are based upon those people who turn up for treatment. Like Internet Gaming Disorder (which is now in the appendix of the DSM-5), sex addiction (or more likely ‘Hypersexual Disorder’) will not be included as a separate mental disorder until the (i) defining features of sex addiction have been identified, (ii) reliability and validity of specific sex addiction criteria have been obtained cross-culturally, (iii) prevalence rates of sex addiction have been determined in representative epidemiological samples across the world, and (iv) etiology and associated biological features of sex addiction have been evaluated.

The term ‘sex addiction’ is used an excuse to justify infidelity: One of the reasons why sex addiction may not be taken seriously is that the term is often used by high profile celebrities as an excuse by those individuals who have been sexually unfaithful to their partners (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand). In some of these cases, sex addiction is used to justify the individual’s serial infidelity. This is what social psychologists refer to as a ‘functional attribution’. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex. I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and succumbed. But how many people wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you’re discovered, when it’s in danger of harming the celebrity’s brand image.

The evidence for sex addiction is inflated by those with a vested interest: One of the real issues in the field of sex addiction is that we really have no idea of how many people genuinely experience sex addiction. Sex addiction specialists like Patrick Carnes claims that up to 6% of all adults are addicted to sex. If this was really the case I would expect there to be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city across the world – but that isn’t the case. However, that doesn’t mean sex addiction doesn’t exist, only that the size of the problem isn’t on the scale that Carnes suggests. Coupled with this is that those therapists that treat sex addiction have a vested interest. Out simply, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Getting the disorder recognized by leading psychological and psychiatric organizations (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization) legitimizes the work of sex addiction counselors and therapists so it is not surprising when such individuals claim how widespread the disorder is.

There may of course be other reasons why sex addiction is not considered a genuine disorder. Compared to behavioural addictions like gambling disorder, the empirical evidence base is weak. There is little in the way of neurobiological research (increasingly seen as ‘gold standard’ research when it comes to legitimizing addictions as genuine). But carrying out research on those who claim to have sex addiction can face ethical problems. For instance, is it ethical to show hardcore pornography to a self-admitted pornography addict while participating in a brain neuroimaging experiment? Is the viewing of such material likely to stimulate and enhance the individual’s sexual urges and result in a relapse following the experiment? There are also issues surrounding cultural norms. The normality and abnormality of sexual behaviour lies on a continuum but what is considered normal and appropriate in one culture may not be viewed similarly in another (what is often referred to by sociologists as ‘normative ambiguity’). Personally, I believe that sex addiction is a reality but that it affects a small minority of individuals. However, many sex therapists claim it is on the increase, particularly because the Internet has made sexual material so easy to access. Maybe if sex addiction does eventually make it into future editions of the DSM, it will be one of the sub-categories of Internet Addiction Disorder rather than a standalone category.

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

Further reading

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0055-x

Goodman, A. (1992). Sexual addiction: Designation and treatment. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 18, 303-314.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

Kafka, M. P. (2010). Hypersexual disorder: A proposed diagnosis for DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 377–400.

Orford, J. (2001). Excessive sexuality. In J. Orford, Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Chichester: Wiley.