Back in November 2011, I recalled seeing a Daily Mail headline “Ritualistic hair-fetish killer serving life in British prison is convicted in Italy of 1993 teen murder”. The story concerned Danilo Restivo – a man with a fetish for cutting off women’s hair – who was sentenced to 30 years in prison following his killing of 16-year old Elisa Claps in 1993 (in Potenza, Italy). He was also convicted of killing 48-year old Heather Barnett in 2002 (in Bournemouth, UK). The murders were described as ritualistic and both killings involved the victims’ breasts being cut off and strands of their hair being placed in her hands. Another link between the two cases, were that 15 women had reported their hair being involuntarily cut on buses in both Bournemouth and Potenza around the time of the murders. Clearly, Restivo is not a typical trichophile (i.e., hair fetishist), and is not representative of those who enjoy this paraphilia. However, it is one of the few times that hair fetishism has been highlighted by the mass media.
According to Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, trichophilia is a sexual paraphilia (sometimes called trichopathophilia, hirsutophilia, and/or hair fetishism) in which individuals derive sexual pleasure and arousal from human hair (most commonly head hair). The source of sexual arousal may be derived from viewing, touching, or (in extreme cases) eating hair. Although head hair is the most common source for arousal, other types of hair may be equally if not more arousing for some people including pubic hair (i.e., pubephilia), armpit hair, chest hair, or facial hair such as beards (i.e., pogonophilia). Some authors – such as Dr. Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices – use the word ‘hirsutophilia’ to refer to fetish for armpit hair only. Dr. Love also claims that some hair fetishes are more favoured by particular genders (e.g., she claims chest hair is more likely to be preferred by females).
The fetish has been observed in both males and females (although as with most fetishes and paraphilia, it appears to be predominantly male). Those with hair fetishes may also have very specific attributes as to what is most sexually arousing (such as the hair being from a stranger rather than someone they know, hair length, hair colour, hair style, and whether the hair is wet or dry). They may also prefer hair to have been washed with a particular shampoo or hairspray suggesting an overlap with olfactophilia (i.e., the deriving of sexual pleasure and arousal from particular smells).
Other variants may include the deriving of sexual pleasure from having hair cut, shaved, and/or washed (in fact, a fetish for manipulating and/or shampooing hair is known as tripsoplagnia). Freud believed that men cutting long female hair may represent a man’s fear of castration (i.e., the woman’s hair represents a symbolic penis and that a male feels dominance by cutting it off). There is absolutely no empirical evidence for such claims but Freud is one of the few people to put forward a psychological explanation. The Fetish Connections website makes a number of assertions about hair fetishes, who engages in it, and different subtypes:
“Enthusiasts claim an interest since childhood and are especially interested in shampoo commercials on TV. A few hetero voyeurs like the look of women with hairy underarms, or men with hairy chests, but there’s also a gay sub-community involving “musclebears” with hairy chests. Then, there’s transvestite hair salons or spas where the full treatment involves a haircut, hair massage, shampoo, and rollers. The shampoo and rollers ritual is also shared by straight enthusiasts. Long, upright hair (beehive, flip, etc.) is perhaps the most common fetish, followed by long, straight hair, followed by curly hair, followed by short, stubbly hair. Enthusiasts like to put the hair in their mouth during sex, but many achieve orgasm just by touching the hair or by masturbating (sometimes on the hair itself, but not always)”.
I haven’t come across a single empirical study to support any of these claims but given the absence of any academic research literature, the assertions made (at the very least) provide direction for confirmatory studies to be carried out. In their book Death/Sex, biologist Tyler Volk and author Dorion Sagan claim that the roots (no pun intended) of trichophilia may lie in the physiological feelings that the body experiences when hair is played with in some way. More specifically, they claim that:
“Being groomed, having one’s hair cut, like a massage, caresses, or laughter can produce endogenous endorphins, the body’s own pleasure drugs”
I have yet to track down the study (or studies) demonstrating this, but based on other pleasurable activities that have been shown to produce endorphins, there is no reason not to think this isn’t the case with hair grooming. In a previous blog on fetishism, I wrote at length about a study led by Dr G. Scorolli (University of Bologna, Italy) on the relative prevalence of different fetishes using online fetish forum data. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). Their results showed that body part fetishes were most common (33%) with trichophilic fetish sites accounting for 7% of all sites studied (6,707 fetishists in total). A further 864 fetishists comprised other types of body hair including depilation sites, beards, and pubic hair.
To date, there are no detailed accounts of trichophilia in the clinical literature. Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebbing noted the case of a man married to a bearded lady who was distraught after her death and constantly searched for another (although here the trichophilia is implied). However, Dr. Magnus Hirschfield in his book Sexual Anomalies and Perversion recounted a more detailed case of a male (gay) trichophile. He noted:
“When the patient (a highly placed civil servant now aged 50) was seven years old, it happened one night that when he was already in bed the maid-servant, who was leaving, came up to him and embraced him. The patient still remembers quite clearly how he pushed his fingers through her hair. At the age of puberty he begun to experience sexual excitement whenever he saw or touched nicely dressed hair. But from then on, excitement was only induced by the hair of men; the hair of women exercised no effect whatsoever on him, and even in men he was only interested in sleek, dark brown hair, which had to be brushed right back…He derives particular pleasure and sexual excitement from dressing other people’s hair. He executes this operation in the following manner. He stands behind the other man, applies hair oil, which, together with combs, he always carries with him, then he combs the hair back. As the comb reaches the top of the head, ejaculation takes place…the patient, whose behavior has frequently attracted attention, is known by the nickname ‘The Hairdresser’”.
Unfortunately, there is very little information provided by Hirschfield in his case study to make any serious informed speculation as to the causes and/or motivations for his fetish. It obviously started in childhood and developed over the subsequent years. It would also appear that these early experiences appear to have been paired with sexual excitement and that the fetishistic behaviour most likely developed via classically conditioned experiences. Like many other fetishes and paraphilias that I have examined in my blogs, this is yet another one where there is a great need for further research.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Allen, E. (2011). Ritualistic hair-fetish killer serving life in British prison is convicted in Italy of 1993 teen murder. Daily Mail, November 12. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2060444/Ritualistic-hair-fetish-killer-serving-life-British-prison-convicted-Italy-1993-teen-murder.html
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Fetish Connections (2005). Fetish V [Hair fetishes]. Located at: http://www.fetishconnections.com/foot_hair_watersport_fetishes_.html
Hirschfeld, M. (1948). Sexual Anomalies and Perversions. New York: Emerson.
Krafft-Ebing, R. (1977). Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Paperback Library (1965 reprint).
Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.
Parfitt, A. (2007). Fetishism, transgenderism, the concept of castration. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 21, 61–89.
Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.
Tyler Volk, T. & Sagan, D. (2009). Death/Sex. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.