Social Control Theory of Sexual Homicide Research Paper

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For decades, the study of offenders who commit sexually based offenses generally and who commit predatory sexual homicide specifically has come almost entirely from psychiatry, forensics, and applied criminal justice. Mainstream theoretical criminology has mostly abstained from studying predatory sexual homicide offenders for a variety of reasons that will be explored. A negative consequence of this omission is that criminological theories are often poorly suited to explain the most pathological forms of criminal violence and, by extension, poorly suited to realistically explain the most pathological offenders. This is a major limitation.

This current entry seeks to redress this by exploring the utility of self-control theory (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) as a conceptual vehicle to understand sexual homicide offending. Although these offenders evince lifestyles that are consistent with the theory, their instrumental, methodical approach to sexual homicide is also in many respects directly contrary to the tenets of the theory. In addition, the current authors suggest that forensic typologies that seek to characterize sexual homicide offenders as organized or disorganized (Ressler et al. 1988) can be fruitfully understood within a self-control theoretical framework.

Criminology And Sexual Homicide

Two overlapping reasons explain the presumed incompatibility of studying sexual homicide offenders within the parameters of mainstream criminological theory. The first relates to the infrequency of sexual homicide and the likelihood that offenders in traditional criminological datasets contain such offenders. If murder has a low base prevalence, then the base rate of an even more pathological crime is of course lower still. For instance, the prevalence of serial murder has been estimated to constitute less than 1 % of the total murders in society (McNamara and Morton 2004). This means that community samples and even epidemiological samples simply will not contain predatorily violent offenders such as sexual murderers. Prior studies have found that some of the most frequently used datasets in criminology have approximately zero homicide offenders in them (DeLisi 2001) and instead are comprised of less severe/violent offenders. Due in part to data accessibility issues, mainstream criminology simply declined to understand the most severe offenders in favor of explanations that are compatible with more common, normative offenders.

A second reason that criminological theory has ignored sexual homicide offenders is plain condescension toward a topic that some academics view as too sensationalistic to be taken seriously. Although this might seem like a harsh accusation, the literature is littered with examples of it. For instance, Edwin Sutherland (1950), the patriarch of American academic criminology, argued that sexual psychopath laws – which were designed to socially control instrumentally violent criminals such as sexual murderers – were based on false, questionable knowledge based in popular literature as opposed to science. The tenor of Sutherland’s differential association theory is to repudiate individual-level pathologies of the offender in favor of social learning processes. Thus, sexual homicide offenders and the nosology surrounding them (e.g., psychopathy, sexual sadism) were portrayed as antithetical to more appropriate criminological theorizing.

More recently, Ray Surette advanced that serial murderers are media icons, the purpose of which is to “generate fear, degrade social networks, increase reliance on the media, and foster social isolation and polarization” (1994, p. 147). In a review of a book that was at best tangential to the topic of sexual homicide, Shadd Maruna (2006) opined:

My only substantial complaint though is the embarrassing decision to include the dated, nonacademic, non-theoretical chapter by Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas on serial killers in the collection. Talk about letting down the side. With one, cheap attempt to grab the attention of the ‘I signed up for criminology because I like ‘Silence of the Lambs’ market of undergraduate readers. Cromwell almost completely undermines all of the remarkable achievements of the real criminologists pushing the boundaries of criminological research. (2006, p. 275)

Indeed, the indices of major criminological theoretical works and anthologies of criminology theory contain little to no references to sexual homicide offending suggesting that the topic is largely unrelated to mainstream criminological thought.

Fortunately, not all criminologists have been so dismissive of the most extreme and violent criminals (see, e.g., Vaughn et al. 2009). And not all criminologists have ignored potential linkages between criminological theory and homicide offending. For example, Castle and Hensley (2002) surmised that social learning theory could be a useful theoretical framework toward understanding serial murder by exploring experiences from military service and exposure to killing as potential precursors to multiple homicide offending. Social learning theory was also used to understand the prospective linkages between juvenile fire setting and subsequent serial murder (Singer and Hensley 2004). Within the literature, there is also increasing acknowledgement that criminology has for too long overlooked the study of the most violent offenders. To illustrate, DeLisi (2006) noted, “For some time, unfortunately, mainstream criminology tended to focus on more normative offenders and less extreme forms of antisocial behavior. As a result, the study of murder and other extreme forms of violent crime were important but demonstrably peripheral to the discipline. Since the general public is fascinated with more extreme forms of criminal violence, academic criminology clearly missed an opportunity to connect with public audiences, including practitioners and policy makers” (pp. 172–173). Unlike their criminologist peers, forensic psychologists, neuroscientists, historians, and journalists have focused considerable scholarly energy toward understanding the etiology of sexual homicide, and it is from these disciplines where the sexual homicide epistemology largely resides.

The current entry has an explicit aim: to explore Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory – a dominant content area in criminological theory and research – and its relation to sexual homicide offending. Sexual homicide offending is defined as the predatory perpetration of murder in conjunction with some sexually oriented offense, such as rape, sodomy, or other type of sexual assault. In some ways, self-control theory provides a useful framework for understanding the lives of predatory sexual murderers particularly those who leave disorganized crime scenes. However, in other ways, the offending behavior of these offenders is characterized by extremely high level of self-control and self-regulation particularly those who leave organized crime scenes. Thus, a self-control paradox exists when studying the apex of violent criminals.

Self-Control And Violence

To date, no study has formally examined self-control theory vis-a`-vis sexual homicide although a range of studies have explored the association between low self-control – characterized by Gottfredson and Hirschi as being self-centered, impulsive, poorly tempered, and action oriented as opposed to cognitively oriented, preferring simple tasks as opposed to ones requiring tenacity, and having poor gratification delay – and violence. DeLisi and Vaughn (2008) reported that self-control was a strong indicator of career criminality, a status that is disproportionately responsible for the most serious crimes in a society. Using data from a statewide sample of institutionalized delinquents, they found that those scoring 1 SD above the mean on a low self-control scale were over five times more likely to become a career criminal and disproportionately likely to commit violent crimes. The association between low self-control and violence is not limited to offender samples. Drawing on data from students, Bouffard (2010) found that self-control was inversely related to both sexual entitlement and self-reported perpetration of sexual aggression. Self-control is a potentially important moderator of criminal careers over time because persons with very low self-control are theorized to continue offending often in violent ways.

Given the nature of most violent disputes, it is unsurprising that the self-control construct would be associated with reactive violence, which frequently typifies intimate-partner violence and generalized assaults (e.g., bar fights). By definition, having a quick, volatile temper means that interpersonal conflicts are not handled internally and ignored; they are handled externally and instantaneously settled. Inherent in this statement, moreover, is the salience of impulsivity and low gratification delay to understanding violence. Consistent with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory, violence is an easy option to quickly end the aggravating stimuli created by another person. According to the theory, those with low self-control do not handle frustration and the day-to-day adversities imposed by adult responsibilities and thus will use a quick, easy method to deal with that frustration.

To use a clearly unscientific yet accurate descriptor, it could be said that offenders characterized by self-control deficits are generally sloppy. They are sloppy in their school habits and attention to detail which contributes to adverse encounters with teachers and other students and generally negative academic performance outcomes (Houts et al. 2010). They are sloppy in their attention to the emotional and time commitments of interpersonal relationships, and those relationships suffer. Almost an extension of their school difficulties, they are sloppy in their dedication and commitment to work responsibilities and, predictably, experience frequent periods of unemployment. Given the syndromic nature of self-control (DeLisi 2011), it is probable that offender sloppiness is also gleaned from their murder scenes. This issue is explored within the framework of self-control theory next.

In an important work that sought to differentiate the murder scenes of sexual homicides and potentially draw inferences from the crime scenes to profile the offender, Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988) advanced a typology of sexual homicide offending. On one hand was a disorganized sexual murderer whose offense was spontaneous, whose victim was known but depersonalized, and who engaged in minimal conservation during the attack. The disorganized killer’s murder scene was random and sloppy, characterized by sudden violence with minimal use of restraints, and sexual acts after death. The victim’s body was left in view at the death scene, and importantly, weapons and other forensic evidence were often present at the scene.

In contrast, the organized sexual murderer committed a planned killing of a targeted stranger who was personalized. There was controlled conservation during the killing, use of restraints, aggressive acts before death, and demand for submission. The entire crime scene of the organized killer reflected control. The victim’s body was hidden, often transported, and there was an absence of weapons or other forensic physical evidence. Taken together, the Ressler et al. (1988) typology painted a picture of two very different perpetrators in terms of their functioning, their competence, their mastery over their murder victim, and (semantically most important) their control over their murder scene.

As shown in Fig. 1, the disorganized-organized sexual homicide offender typology can effectively be understood as a continuous distribution of self-control. In many respects, the disorganized offender’s behavior contemporaneous to their homicide event is consistent with the conduct of the modal criminal offender. The murder is unplanned and hasty and represents a poorly contemplated, rash action to satisfy an underlying desire (recall that the victim is known to the offender). The crime scene of the disorganized sexual homicide offender is, simply, sloppy.

Social Control Theory of Sexual Homicide Research Paper

In contrast, the organized sexual homicide offender seemingly exudes self-control in certain respects. The crime scene evinces self-control: forensic evidence is cleaned up, and weapons and other physical evidence are removed from the scene. The murder itself is premeditated and reflects considerable planning and control; it is a well-executed plan. Planning is not the strong suit of offenders with low self-control. All of these conditions of the organized sexual homicide offender intimate a paradoxical relationship between self-control and violence, one that could not be anticipated by self-control theory.

A sense of higher self-control has also been shown among other types of multiple homicide offenders. In their study of 34 subjects who perpetrated 27 mass murders between 1958 and 1999, Meloy et al. (2001) found that adolescent mass murderers are more often predatorily rather than affectively violent and often do not display sudden, highly emotional warning signs. In other words, their violence represents considerable control evidenced by their selection of victims.

Recasting the organized-disorganized typology as a continuous measure of self-control allows researchers to utilize a criminological theory to conceptually understand sexual murderers. Empirical research is needed to access the threshold where high levels of offender self-control are associated with extremely violent conduct. Additional research is also needed to access the linearity of this relationship. It is possible that the relationship between self-control and sexual homicide is curvilinear. It is also possible that high self-control evinced by sexual homicide offenders is comorbid with other important constructs, particularly sexual sadism and psychopathy. These correlates of sexual homicide offenders are examined next.

In his landmark Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1886) introduced the construct of sadism which involved a melding of sexual gratification of the offender with the infliction of pain and humiliation of the victim. In its original conceptualization, sadism was referred to as lust murder and correlated with an absence of guilty (today, known as psychopathy) and even the attempted consumption of the victim. A recent summary review of studies that examined the prevalence of sexual sadism among forensic populations produced a variety of important findings. Chief among them was the finding that the prevalence of sexual sadism was very high, about 30–40 % among offender samples. However, when the sample contained exclusively homicide offenders, the prevalence of sexual sadism was in the 70–80 % range (Krueger 2010; also see, Berner et al. 2003).

An important comparative study also shows the salience of sexual sadism to homicide offending. Yarvis (1995) interviewed and surveyed 78 murderers, 92 rapists, and ten rape murderers to assess the prevalence of sexual sadism. None of the murderers and just 6.5 % of the rapists met the criteria for sexual sadism; meanwhile, the prevalence among rapemurderers (or, in the parlance of the current entry, sexual homicide offenders or sexual murderers) was 30 %. The criminal careers and life circumstances of sexual homicide offenders are typically severe and noteworthy for their psychopathology even compared to other serious criminals. For instance, Trojan and Salfati (2010) recently compared 137 single-victim homicide cases drawn from the Cincinnati, Ohio, Police Department and 17 closed serial murder cases obtained from the FBI. Whereas the single homicide offenders averaged 13 arrests and eight convictions, serial murderers averaged five arrests and three convictions. Although this seems comparatively less severe, five or more arrests is a standard measure of habitual or chronic criminality (the most prolific serial killer had 25 prior arrests). The criminal histories of serial murderers also demonstrated more instrumental offenses suggesting a specific targeting of a victim that is consistent with the organized typology described earlier.

Hill et al. (2008) studied the forensic reports of 139 sexual homicide offenders in Germany who had served time in prison and 90 of whom had been released. The mean number of sexual homicide victims per offender was 3.7. Twenty years after their release, more than 23 % of offenders recommitted sexual offenses, and more than 18 % committed nonsexual violent offenses, such as armed robbery and aggravated assault. Three men or more than 3 % were subsequently convicted of attempted or completed murder. They found that the earlier that an offender committed his first sexual homicide, the more likely he was to be convicted of a sexual crime, which included extremely violent offenses such as sexual homicide, rape, sexual abuse of a child, and other sexual assault and any violent crime. Nearly one in five defendants convicted of sexual homicide has prior convictions for homicide, and more than half have other violent crimes in their criminal history (H€akk€anen-Nyholm et al. 2009).

Langevin and his colleagues (Langevin 2003; Langevin et al. 1988) compared the antisocial histories of 33 sexual homicide offenders to 80 sexually aggressive offenders, 23 sexual sadists, and 611 general sex offenders. All these men had been seen for psychiatric assessments either for pretrial or as part of parole evaluation. Overall, the criminal careers and antisocial pasts of sexual homicide offenders were significantly worse than even these other severe risk groups. More than 27 % of the sexual homicide offenders had been committed to reform school, more than 21 % were gang members, over 15 % had been expelled from school for behavioral problems, and greater than 30 % had prior history of animal cruelty, vandalism, and/or fire setting.

Dietz et al. (1990) conducted a descriptive study of 30 sexually sadistic criminals. All of these men intentionally tortured their victims for sexual arousal. Their crimes often involved careful planning, the selection of strangers as victims, approaching the victim under a pretext, participation of a partner, beating victims, restraining victims and holding them captive, sexual bondage, anal rape, forced fellatio, vaginal rape, foreign object penetration, telling victims to speak particular words in a degrading manner, murder or serial killings (most often by strangulation), concealing victims’ corpses, recording offenses, and keeping personal items belonging to victims. Beauregard and Proulx (2002) compared the offending process of two groups of non-serial sexual homicide offenders, 20 who were characterized or driven by anger and 16 who were motivated by sadistic pathology. Sadistic murderers were significantly more likely than non-sadistic killers to premeditate their crimes, humiliate their victims, mutilate their victims, and dismember the corpse of the victim. Sadistic murderers took longer to complete their offenses – nearly 90 % took longer than 30 min and were significantly more likely to be apprehended. They also experienced greater positive affect after the commission of their murder. Sadistic killers were also less likely to surrender to police after their crimes, less likely to admit to their crimes, less likely to admit all of the acts committed during their homicides, and less likely than other murderers to admit responsibility.

Research based on analyses of crime scene behaviors of sexual murder and rapes differentiates these forms of sexual violence. In cases of rape, offense behaviors include blindfolding and binding of victims, ripping the clothing of victims, possession and display of weapons, theft, and vaginal penetration. In cases of sexual homicide, there were more severe and depraved indicators of violence including forensic awareness on the part of the offender (e.g., cleaning up or destroying evidence at crime scene), multiple infliction of wounds, and multiple forms of penetration of the victim including objects (Salfati and Taylor 2006).

Across these studies, there is interesting evidence for considerable self-control on the part of sexual murderers. It is not known currently whether these offenders are demonstrating self-control in the Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) sense or whether they are sadistic psychopaths whose proclivities for extreme violence are guiding their behavior. What is known, however, is that the violence of these offenders at least at the culmination of their murders does not comport with the sloppy profile of the modal criminal offender, one whose life is rife with self-control deficits.


For the purposes of theory building, the extreme violence of sexual homicide offenders provides an opportunity to stretch the empirical veracity of constructs. At times, the behaviors of the most severe offenders cast well-known criminological constructs in a new light. For instance, cognitive functioning and intelligence are inversely associated with antisocial behavior, yet some sexual homicide offenders (most famously Ted Bundy) were highly intelligent. This does not impugn the intelligence-crime relationship but does offer opportunities to rethink theory and the putative associations between variables at different points on the offending distribution.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) advanced a theoretical construct that was advertised to be the cause of crime, and empirically their theoretical ideas have fared well (see, DeLisi 2011). The current authors believe their theory also has utility for understanding sexual homicide offending and that the range of self-control can be superimposed on existing typologies of sexual homicide. But at another level, the pathology manifest by organized sexual murderers is contrary to the tenets of the theory. They are highly controlled. Based on prior studies of sexual homicide offenders, it is possible that what appears to be high self-control could be spurious and obscured by the effects of psychopathy and sexual sadism. Indeed, Meloy (1999) has previously characterized organized sexual murderers as compulsive (disorganized sexual murderers were referred to as catathymic in his model), which was characterized among other clinical features as having diagnoses for sexual sadism and psychopathy. Recent research has found that sadism and psychopathy are distinct factors in the psychopathology of sex offenders (Mokros et al. 2011); perhaps self-control is distinct as well.


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