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LOUPS Pub Social: Sex-Linked Serial Killing (Part 2), Frederick Toates

A darkness exists within humanity. Sex-linked serial killing (SLSK, [acronym also used to represent sex-linked serial killer]), is an example of such darkness. On Friday 5th June 2020, the London branch of OUPS held their end-of-academic year pub social online. Professor Fred Toates presented the lecture, Sex-linked serial killing (Part 2). SLSK is a challenging topic to talk about but it is important as psychologists, as scientists, to research it and gain as much insight as possible. At the 2018 OUSA Conference, Fred presented Sex-linked Serial Killing. The 2020 lecture is Part 2: an update. Fred outlined some features of SLSK such as, sociological dimension, lack of lone women killers, empathy, fantasy, dissociation, displaced aggression and adoption. This report provides a brief account of this complex, but fascinating lecture outlining; some of the sociological dimensions of SLSK, commonalities in their development trajectory, the victimisation of sex workers, the role dissociation plays, and the importance of building psychological knowledge, for science and society.

The sociological dimension of SLSK that Fred discussed included the domination of Americans, the surge of cases following the 1960s and the decrease in recent decades. Speculative answers were offered, for example, the gun culture in America, although SLSKs do not typically involve shootings. The 1960s saw a number of significant cultural shifts such as, the increase in car ownership and importantly, highways which afforded killers ease of travel between jurisdictions evading capture and even detection. The reduction of cases in recent decades is interesting because nobody knows why. Fred asked on Twitter [@FrederickToates] and Dr David Keatley [@DaveKeatley] (Senior Lecturer and Chair of Crime Science and a Police cold case consultant), suggested the “70s-90s heyday of profiling … 2000+ forensics meant fewer false positives … or … fewer being convicted as courts wouldn’t find guilty without forensics”. Forensics is certainly a factor because the technological advances has increased the capabilities of science. However, there is also the issue of the CSI effect in which the proliferation of fictional television dramas showing sophisticated forensics not representative of real life investigations but juries have expected similar levels of irrefutable evidence. Fred suggested that acceptance of homosexuality, DNA advances and broader technological progress could all be factors too. The sociological dimension of SLSK is complex and there are gaps in the knowledge so further research is needed.

Fred discussed the development of a heterosexual killer from childhood to immediately prior to killing. The childhood of SLSKs features physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse, plus neglect and poor diet. Adolescence is a fraught stage of development because of the formation of the desire template and the emergence of fantasy, plus at school the individual experiences bullying and academic failure. Adolescence is an arduous time in the development of homosexual SLSKs also, who are often subjected to taunting about their sexual orientation and/or effeminate mannerisms. Adulthood pre-killing involves the consolidation of the fantasy, violent pornography, voyeurism, and problems in work and relationships. Immediately prior to killing, the individual experiences an acute stressor, such as, unemployment or the comment of a sex worker. Fantasy is an important component of SLSKs and victim choice can reflect a careful selection of someone fitting the killer’s parameters, for example matching the target of the killer’s rage. These experiences will not apply to every SLSK but there is a frequency in which they are found thus reflecting their significance. However, as Fred said, it is not the case that everyone with a traumatic past will become a serial killer, plus fantasy is a normal activity for many people, not a sign of pathology.

Sex workers are a common victim of SLSKs. Fred spoke about a number of factors which make them vulnerable, such as; having sex with strangers, the desperation for money, an unstable or transient lifestyle, and the apparent low interest of the police and the general public in crimes against sex workers. Both heterosexual and homosexual SLSKs have extensive histories of targeting sex workers. Fred discussed comparisons between hetero and homosexual SLSKs, such as them each targeting sex workers however, there can be marked differences between their interactions prior to kills. Heterosexual SLSKs exhibit traditional sex role values; are attracted to the sex worker, and although they may simultaneously experience disapproval, this does not reflect their heterosexuality. In contrast, homosexual SLSKs detest their sexual orientation, display reaction formation, and have tortured and killed male sex workers. Some SLSKs perceive sex workers as sharing a collective guilt for promiscuity and the transmission of sexually-transmitted diseases. The transience of sex workers represents a vulnerability exploited by SLSKs by the aforementioned ability to drive across jurisdictions. Fantasy is also significant in relation to the victimisation of sex workers because they can serve as surrogates for SLSKs seeking to avenge a perceived injustice against them, for example by sharing the appearance of the target. Alternatively, a comment made by a sex worker can act as an acute stressor immediately prior to their murder; potentially leading the killer to dissociate, which is another compelling factor of SLSK.

Fred’s lecture included an excellent discussion about the issue of dissociation in SLSK. The DSM-IV defined dissociation as the ‘disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception in the environment’. Dissociation impacts SLSK as a killer can experience sub-personalities, often conceptualised by the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde phenomena of two or more distinct personalities within one person. In this paradigm, a typically pleasant person can flip and exhibit diametrically opposed characteristics, for example, a family man being discovered to have committed violent crimes. A different presentation of dissociation is when a person has an ‘out of body’ experience, for example, an SLSK may report having felt as if they were outside of themselves, watching their body commit the murders. Dissociation links to trauma because when a person is living through a traumatic situation, such as abuse, they can dissociate as an adaptive, protective response. Fred explained how memories can be specific to the state in which they were formed and so may be inaccessible in an alternative state. Dissociation can manifest during the commission of an SLSK, for example, a killer may see the face of their childhood abuser on an innocent victim; or a comment made by the victim can trigger dissociation in the killer. Dissociation can be used by SLSK to deny responsibility for their crimes, but nonetheless, it is a powerful and complicated facet of SLSK.

Toward the end of the lecture, Fred shared how some prolific SLKS had been caught by the police for innocuous reasons, such as, a routine traffic stop. At his lecture, What Makes a Human? Fred talked about Robert Ressler. Ressler was a prominent FBI agent in the Behavioural Sciences Unit who interviewed serial killers, built profiles and contributed enormously to VICAP. VICAP, or, Violent Criminal Apprehension Programme, is a database where officers can upload specific details of crimes enabling greater access of information across jurisdictions. The sharing of knowledge in this manner could potentially account for the aforementioned decreasing numbers of SLSK in recent decades due to earlier recognition of an active killer. The research and interviews conducted with existing SLSK have enabled greater understanding of underlying mechanisms and developmental histories. Fred’s lecture presented difficult topics in an accessible way and also demonstrates the scientific cycle of inquiry by providing an update to his earlier work.

Sex-Linked Serial Killing (Part 2) investigated the darkness within humanity. Fred presented a compelling lecture looking at some of the associated factors. The sociocultural dimensions of the domination of prolific American cases, and the debate around the causes of recent decreasing numbers. Typical factors represented in the developmental histories of SLSK included abusive childhoods, adolescent bullying and adulthood stressors. For homosexual killers, there is the added dimension of taunting about their sexual orientation. Sex workers are particularly targeted by SLSK and can trigger an earlier trauma in the life of the killer, demonstrating dissociation. Dissociation impacts SLSKs in various ways, such as amnesia in contexts not representative of the time the trauma occurred. Finally, this report referred back to the lecture, What Makes a Human? Ressler’s enduring contribution to the psychology of SLSK advances the knowledge of this complicated phenomena. Sex-Linked Serial Killing (Part 2) offered attendees an examination of a difficult subject but Fred presented a brilliant, engaging lecture which skilfully demonstrated the links between the factors discussed and the psychology behind them.

 - Thanks to Fred and everyone at LOUPS for another fantastic lecture.

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