Hybristophilia: the psychology of those aroused by criminals

Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer in series “Dahmer” Netflix | Courtesy

Nearly half of Americans say they enjoy true crime, and a whole third consume it weekly. As a society, we have a fixation on real crime, potentially due to the close proximity. It’s in our nature to be curious — to revel in mystery; yet, against it to desire our own demise. However, there is a fetish for everything. In the illicit crossover between violence, suspense and desire is hybristophilia: the fetish of criminals.

There are many reasons why someone would be aroused by criminals. Many desire criminals as an outgrowth of their own desires and needs which mimic large society.

Below are some reasons people are attracted to criminals. 

1. Fear and arousal are closely interlinked

Now, remember that panic saying fight-or-flight? In evolutionary psychology, there are 4 Fs: fight, flight, freeze and finally, fornicate. Under stress, people seek out sex.

The phenomenon of the final F is discussed by professor and researcher Robert Sapolsky in his book “Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers. ” As epinephrine is released, the body responds with a fast heart rate, a feeling of urgency and heightened senses. 

Human bodies have a difficult time distinguishing the difference between fear and sexual arousal — the physiological response becomes whichever emotion it is attributed to. 

The two-factor theory of emotion is a phenomena stating emotions are made of two parts: physiological response and cognitive label.

This is seen throughout the Schachter and Singer’s experiment, where epinephrine was used to demonstrate how people interpreted the affects differently — ranging from euphoric to angry, dependent on the moods of a confederate in the group as well as the amount of information they were given on the drug.

Emotions, therefore, are not dependent just on individuals, but on behaviors around them. Given the study also showed the amount of information having an impact on interpretation, people’s explanations are volatile, and they will feel what they’re told to feel.

A study by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron reached the same conclusion using contrasted safe and threatening settings.

The men who met a woman in a dangerous setting were more likely to give her a call.

This concept is conducive to “the misattribution of arousal.” People may misconstrue an anxious physical response as sexual arousal because brains scan explanations inadequately, utilizing any information in sight. 

2. Heterosexual women like aggressive men in bed

Women make up many of the people attracted to serial killers.

Aggression is part of what makes criminals impulsive and successful in their crimes. Particularly during ovulation, women prefer aggressive men as short term mates.

Some women will pursue aggressive partners to fulfill that sexual desire. Regardless, women who fetishize criminals have many other reasons behind their desire, since violence has rightfully become socially stigmatized; at least in modern American society, it is still a deviance.

Despite some interest in aggressive men as short term mates, as long term partners, women agreed they were unattractive. Studies show that a large, women prefer men with dad-like features, (stable, altruistic, compassionate), to help raise their offspring. Still, the immediate sexual desire of an aggressive partner can lead someone to get involved with a malicious counterpart. 

3. They want a partner in crime.

Hybristophilia is also known as “Bonnie and Clyde syndrome.” Many people want to feel they have meaning; to be apart of a pair. They desire to be understood, specifically for those dark, deep qualities.

Because dark qualities are taboo, many are left with no one to turn to without feeling judged. 

For these people, to meet someone that understands, is more important than an element of physical safety, as they crave emotional safety. People risk a lot for connection. But, it is often those with rough childhoods who seek out dangerous partners for this sake. 

Many people who are in abusive relationships are in them because of their childhood shame. In a YouTube video by mental health YouTuber, Anna Runkle, she explains her aversion to people who treated her well. Her home was a mess and her mother was an alcoholic. She thought nice, stable people wouldn’t understand the trauma and would judge.

The shame of parents and living situations carry on to our relationship partners. Furthermore, she described she felt “nice people were dumb,” and she was always after dimension.

These subconscious desires to be seen and loved, even in situations of anguish, are bigger cues to why people subject criminals to eroticism. What they have is danger ridden, but, a life understood by suffering.

Part 3: Someone (maybe even themselves) conditioned them 

In Ivan Pavlov’s study, dogs began to salivate after hearing footsteps priorly associating that sound with the distribution of food. With consistency, humans can mimic Pavlov’s dog — body reactionary to a stimulus not manually authorized. 

For example, watching super hardcore porn while instigating sexual pleasure on a consistent basis will lead someone to become sexually aroused by the content. Doing something specific even — wearing a perfume every time there’s sexual intercourse, may soon cause a bodily response to the perfume’s scent even in the absence of intercourse.

People who have fetishized criminals may have had an exciting sexual experience with one, or have had sexual pleasure thinking about one, and began to associate that pleasure with that dilemma.

Some victims get caught in an abuse cycle, unable to tell the difference between their desires and their destruction, even despite consent breeches. As victims become more and more desensitized to violence, the abuser pushes the boundaries. 

Part 4: People take their “kinks” too far

In BDSM relationships, some play with dangerous or unethical ideas, such as crime. This is known as EdgePlay, as it is could be playing between the edge of what could be life and death. Practicers enjoy watching someone they love in every emotion, including unforgettable fear, and some gain a feeling of power from it. 

People can take their play too far, engaging in dangerous acts; if someone desires to murder or be murdered, there is something abnormal beyond the general scope of sadomasochism. People are left far past recovery — it is no longer a game. 

There are many legal cases in which murderers claim a sex game gone wrong, and the number is increasing rapidly

Part 5: Society aestheticizes violence

Our media works against us. Serial killers in media are often portrayed in erotic contexts, from licking their lips to thirsty vampires. While the media mixes aesthetic appeal and violent acts, anyone who grew up on this media, may have a an element of themselves aroused by it, too.

To an extent, this is normal, specifically if the actor portrayals are gorgeous and charming, which they often are. Take Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer or Zac Efron as Ted Bundy — media relishes in the limelight of a depraved, fascinating and attractive character, in order to make the audience feel just as confused as the victims. But, it doesn’t stop at Hollywood — worldwide, violent characters are casted or portrayed as attractive.

Films generate subcultures around them and perpetuate the taboo. With cult-like followings, it’s difficult to escape an echo chamber built upon reckless (although personally important) desires.

Now, life is not made to play out like a game or a movie, nor is it made to explore our deepest pleasures; taboo has consequences.

Acting implicitly on arousal against one’s best interest can harm people in multitudes and validate bad behavior. People may have many reasons to be aroused by criminals, but should not succumb to self destructive tendencies.

With therapy, self awareness and active decision making, people can relearn behaviors of engagement, making real, healthy connections built on mutual respect.

If you or someone you know is caught in an abusive relationship with domestic violence, you can call the domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233 or refer to their website for more information.