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Do not answer the phone. Do not go into the basement. Scary movie aficionados know the best ways to avoid an encounter with a serial killer.
In real life it is not so simple. Some violent crimes are lethal to the victims and others are not. Criminologists are increasingly interested in why apparently similar violent encounters result in different outcomes. Understanding the variables associated with the escalation of violent sadistic behaviours can help law enforcement and policymakers address these crimes and the individuals that perpetrate them.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) Criminology Professor Eric Beauregard is a prolific scholar whose expertise includes criminal profiling, decision making and Modus Operandi, the psychology of sex offending and crime scene investigation. Prior to joining SFU, he worked for the Correctional Service of Canada where he was responsible for the assessment of individuals who had committed sexual crimes. He has evaluated more than 1200 offenders, many of whom were sexual murderers.
In a recent study, Beauregard worked with Julien Chopin from Laval University and Park Dietz from the University of California, Los Angeles to examine the factors associated with fatality in sadistic sexual crimes. With a database of 735 cases of sadistic sexual assaults of which 100 had lethal outcomes, the researchers sought to determine whether the death of the victim was the result of situational factors, the expression of specific sadistic fantasies or a combination of both. Their article, Death in Sadistic Sexual Crimes: A Neural Network Analysis of Factors Associated With a Lethal Outcome, outlines their findings.
We spoke with Professor Beauregard about his research.
How can understanding the escalation in sadistic sexual crimes help law enforcement and policymakers?
One of the most pressing questions when it comes to sexual violence is the risk of reoffending. People are worried that an offender who has committed a sexual crime is likely to commit another one. This is obviously a legitimate question and one that we need to address. However, another very important question that has been less investigated is whether some individuals are more at risk of killing their victims. In our research we have tried to identify factors that could help us better understand what makes some offenders more at risk of killing a victim during a sexual crime. This is naturally very important to the police, especially when it comes to prioritizing how they will allocate their limited resources.
You tested several hypothesis in your study. Can you describe some of the reasons why a sadistic sexual crime might turn lethal?
Probably the most obvious reason is that the acts committed by the offender are so violent and extreme that they will lead to the death of the victim, as is the case in the infliction of mutilations. In other cases, it is possible that some behaviors may lead to an escalation in the crime. As an example, an offender may have brought a weapon with them to the crime scene. After encountering more resistance than anticipated, they may decide to use the weapon to better control the victim, which may lead to their death. Finally, in other cases, killing the victim may serve an instrumental purpose such as eliminating a witness that could identify the offender to police.
Fans of true crime may suggest that the victim is able to do something to prevent a lethal outcome. Based on your research is this the case? What puts individuals at risk of suffering a lethal outcome?
This is a very delicate question and unfortunately there is no definitive response! With some sadistic offenders, no matter what a victim does to resist their attacker the offender will do everything they can to kill them. However, typically sadistic offenders often try to bring the victim to an isolated location to commit the crime. Given that these types of criminal scenarios are often planned very elaborately, they need an isolated location to enact their deviant sexual fantasies. Victims may have their best chance to avoid being killed if they can resist being taken to an isolated location. If offenders are successful in isolating the victim, the likelihood of the victim being killed increases significantly.
What motivates you as scholar to do this difficult work?
When I joined graduate school, I was initially interested in working on psychopathy. Instead, my supervisor offered me a unique opportunity to travel to all the penitentiaries throughout Quebec to interview sexual homicide offenders. I think I have always been fascinated with extreme behavior, such as criminal behavior. Speaking with these individuals made me realize that it was possible to understand why they were engaging in these behaviors and the decision-making involved in their crimes.
What motivates me the most doing this work is the fact that my research may be useful to the people working with these offenders as well as to the police investigation. At the end of the day, the goal is to prevent these crimes from happening.