Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sex Slaves: The Psychology of Mastery

What's with These Guys?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders

Strangely enough, despite the long list of sexual dysfunctions included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there appears to be no category for the perverse desire to own another person for sexual pleasure. Even the lists created outside "DSM-IV" to describe more types of sexual deviance fail to include it. The idea of taking prisoners to do with them as one wants appears to answer an extreme need for power and control over someone, yet there's clearly a delusional quality to it (albeit not necessarily psychotic). Some "masters" believe they're entitled to do whatever they want with another person, discounting that person's humanity, and experiencing no concern for their comfort or survival. Yet others have expressed the belief that they're doing something "beneficial" for their abductee — introducing them to sexual "pleasure," for example, or keeping them out of a terrible world (apparently not noticing how their own act is part of that "terrible" world). In short, there's no specific type of personality disorder involved, although some are clearly psychopathic.

John Robinson
John Robinson

One might fairly view this behavior as an illegal extension (and distortion) of the world of dominance and submission, even sadomasochism, which involves sexual rituals into which many people enter voluntarily. John Robinson is a case in point. Boldly calling himself "Slavemaster," he entered Internet chat rooms to lure willing women into bondage to his commands. They left homes and families and even signed contracts that gave him total control. While this type of arrangement attracts thousands of adherents who seek either mastery or the experience of submission, and there are safety precautions in place so they can pursue their pleasure without undue concern, some, like Robinson, exploit the arena of trust as a way to gain easy access; they then harm their "slaves." In the end, Robinson was convicted of several counts of murder.

Men interested in sexual slavery often keep a log as a record of their mastery and a means of reliving what they have done. An examination of these logs confirms their need for control, as it typically shows a record of minute details of their slaves' existence. Berdella, for example, had recorded the exact words the captive had said whenever he applied his fiendish methods of torture. He also noted the exact amounts of the injections he gave, along with the times he gave them, the victim's slightest movement, and an indication of when the person had died. Thus, he might have an eroticized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There could be some truth in the idea that kidnapping people, especially children, to keep as slaves, is a way for these offenders to keep an otherwise chaotic world from becoming overwhelming. We would have to examine the childhoods of the majority to spot these patterns. If such an analysis showed that, as children, they shared an inability to deal with change or had grown up in chaotic homes, then kidnapping and chaining children might be an unconscious attempt to anchor their own childhoods in a stable regimen. However, no such study has yet been done, so this is mere speculation. We do know of at least one case where the need for control seemed to emerge from an unrelenting atmosphere of instability.