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J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2012;40(3):409-16.

Sexual sadism: avoiding its misuse in sexually violent predator evaluations.

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  • 1Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), Task Force has recently rejected the proposal to include coercive paraphilia as an official diagnosis, reaffirming that rape is a crime and not a mental disorder. We hope this will discourage what has been the inappropriate practice of giving rapists the made-up diagnosis of paraphilia, NOS, nonconsent, to facilitate their psychiatric commitment under sexually violent predator (SVP) statutes. Losing the paraphilia, NOS, option has tempted some SVP evaluators to overdiagnose sexual sadism, which is an official DSM mental disorder. To prevent this improper application and to clarify those rare instances in which this diagnosis might apply, we present a brief review of the research on sexual sadism; an annotation of its definitions that have been included in the DSM since the Third Edition, published in 1980, and in the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Edition (ICD-10); and a two-step process for making a diagnostic decision. Rape and sexual sadism have in common violence, cruelty, and a callous indifference on the part of the perpetrator to the suffering of the victim, but they differ markedly in motivation. Rapists use violence to enforce the victim's cooperation, to express aggression, or both. In contrast, in sexual sadism, the violence, domination, and infliction of pain and humiliation are a preferred or necessary precondition for sexual arousal. Only a small proportion of rapists qualify for the diagnosis of sexual sadism.

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