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Flaming desire: A beginner’s guide to pyrophilia

Pyrophilia (also known as pyrolagnia and sexual arson) is a sexual paraphilia in which a person derives sexual arousal from fire and/or fire-starting activity. It is sometimes confused with pyromania but pyromaniacs do not get any sexual pleasure when they start fires. Most of what is known academically comes from case studies published in the academic and clinical literature. Writings dating back to the 19th century have suggested that psychosexual factors may sometiems play a role in pyromaniac activities. Pyrophilia is thought to be very rare and there are no incidence or prevalence studies on the condition. Even in major texts on sexual paraphilias such as Richard Laws and William O’Donohue’s Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (2008) it is not even mentioned, and in Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (2009) it is only given ten lines (and much of that is taken up with the speculation that the Roman Emperor Nero was a possible pyrophiliac).

A 1989 paper by Dr. Vernon Quinsey and colleagues in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry examined arsonists and sexual arousal to fire setting. They wanted to further explore to what extent pyromania was sexually related. They measured and compared the penile responses of 26 arsonists and 15 non-arsonists to audio taped narratives. The narratives were categorized as (i) neutral, (ii) heterosexual activity, and (iii) fire setting motivated by (a) sexual excitement, (b) general (unspecified) excitement, (c) insurance, (d) revenge, (e) heroism, and (f) power. Penile responses to all categories were of small although both the heterosexual activity and the sexual excitement fire setting categories produced more erectile activity than the neutral category. However, Quinsey and colleagues reported there were no significant differences between the arsonists and non-arsonists to any of the story categories. They argued that their data demonstrated no support for the idea that sexual motivation is commonly involved in arson.

In 1979, the psychotherapist Dr D. Cox stated that, having set a fire, the fire fetishist “will claim that he has had his best ever orgasm as he watched the flames leap up” (although the claim was unsubstantiated by anything else in the book chapter). Dr. Stephen Lande arguably published the first case study of a pyrophiliac in a 1980 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Lande reported the case of a 20-year-old male with a history of arson associated with masturbation as his sole means of obtaining sexual arousal and gratification. Physiological and subjective measures of sexual arousal were taken while he looked at various photographs. The man was most sexually aroused by those involving fire with lesser sexual arousal when looking at photographs of naked females. He was treated using orgasmic reconditioning to increase heterosexual arousal and covert sensitization to decrease arousal related to fire. At the end of treatment, sexual arousal was greater for heterosexual than for fire stimuli.

In 1987, Dr Dominique Bourget and Dr John Bradford reported two cases pyrophilia in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Their two cases were both adult male arsonists whose intense interest in fire was sexually fetishistic. However, these cases concentrated more on their treatment than the psychological motivations behind such an activity.

In a 1999 issue of the Canadian Psychological Association Bulletin, Dr Larry Litman reported the case of a married 25-year old male pyrophiliac. He voluntarily referred himself for a psychological assessment (at the request of his wife) as a consequence of psychopathology and sexually motivated fire-setting activities. (However, he himself didn’t see his sexually motivated fire setting as a problem). He would set fire to anything at hand when the urge struck him (e.g., paper, clothing, etc.). He reported that for as long as he could remember he had been sexually aroused by fire and had a frequent irresistible compulsive urge to set fires. He recalled that his fascination with fire may have started when helping his mother to shovel lot coal and touching it to see how hot it was. He had also burned himself by accident on a number of occasions. He told Litman that he was “used to pain” as his father had regularly physically abused him when he was a child. Litman reported that:

“He used heat to give himself sexual excitement, and he reached a point where he could be sexually aroused by just talking about fires or having his wife talk about burning things (she reportedly resented having to do this)…The patient’s penile tumescence in response to audiotaped scenarios based on his self-reported sexually arousing fantasies of heat and fire (which I asked him to transcribe) was physiologically assessed via phallometry. Despite his self-reported attempts to not become sexually aroused by the scenarios (as a result of being anxious about the procedure), substantial psychophysiological sexual arousal in response to masochistic sexual scenarios of being forcibly and painfully set on fire by a heterosexual partner or by a mob of sadistic people and subsequent combined intense feelings of love, peace, warmth, pain, and sexual excitement was observed…[He] appeared to be suffering from a longstanding pyrophilic disorder with sexual masochistic features in a personality that revolved around hysteric, obsessive–compulsive, and masochistic dynamics”.

Litman reported that the man had actually engaging in behaviours designed to induce pain with fire for sexual stimulation (including sitting on a hot stove, and wrapping a pair of trousers around his arm and setting fire to them). His anti-depressant medicine helped reduce his thoughts about fire setting but stopped taking it due to other side-effects. His wife subsequently left him because of his sexual fascination with fire.

In a 2002 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Krishna Balachandra, and Dr. Swaminath described the what they believe is the only case in the literature of a female arsonist (a 29-year old heterosexual woman) with a fire fetishism. The case history revealed she had been sexually abused at the age of 8 years, and that during adolescence she had been cruel to animals, and began setting small fires. She used to scout for places to set fires and focused on setting fire to bins and recycling containers. No-one was ever hurt or burned as a result of the arson. She would hide, watch the fire, and then go home and masturbate (while thinking about the fire she had just started). She also kept a detailed diary of every fire she had started. The behaviour escalated and she had started over 175 fires by the time she received psychiatric help. The authors reported:

“The motives were described as an outlet for anger, sexual motivation and satisfaction, and an intense preoccupation with fire, together with tension and affective arousal that was relieved by setting fires. There was no correlation between the fires and her menstrual cycle or substance abuse”.

These cases studies (when taken together) suggest that pyrophilia doesn’t appear to include behaviours commonly associated with pyromania (such as watching neighbourhood fires, setting off false fire alarms, getting non-sexual satisfaction from being around those who work in the fire services, starting fires to be affiliated with the fire services, showing indifference to human life and property after setting fire to something. It also appears that sexual arousal may not always depend on an actual fire as it may also be facilitated by photographs and verbal stories about fire and/or arson. While seemingly rare, case studies show that pyrophilia is a real and bone fide clinical entity.

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.

Balachandra, K. & Swaminath, S. (2002). Fire fetishism in a female Aasonist? Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 47,

Bourget, D. & Bradford, J.M.W (1987). Fire fetishism, diagnostic and clinical implications: A review of two cases. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 32, 459-462.

Cox, M. (1979). Dynamic psychotherapy with sex-offenders. In I. Rosen (Ed.), Sexual Deviation (pp. 306-350). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Laws, D.R. & O’Donohue, W.T. (2008), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (Second Edition). New York: Guildford Press.

Litman, L.C.  (1999). A case of pyrophilia. Canadian Psychological Association Bulletin, February, 18-20.

Quinsey, V.L., Chaplin, T.C. & Upfold, D. (1989). Arsonists and sexual arousal to fire setting: Correlation unsupported, Canadian Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20, 203-209.