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Dr. Saltzman:

I'm an ex soldier. I fought alongside my girlfriend in Afghanistan until she was killed in front of me. We had been separated from the group. It got quiet after a while and I just held her. But something in my head made me do something that's so abhorrent to me now that it makes me feel physically sick when I think about it. I made love to her. I really don't know what happened in my mind. I knew she was gone and I still did it. I hate to think that it's necrophilia. She was still my girlfriend to me. I just wanted to comfort her and keep her safe one last time. I really don't understand. Could you please explain what happened to me? Thanks.


It is hard for people who have not been in combat to understand the extreme states of mind and concomitant extreme behaviors which can occur in those circumstances. The behavior you describe was certainly unusual, and certainly a manifestation of an extreme state of mind, but it was not, in my opinion, necrophilia.

The term necrophilia was coined by the German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886 book, Psychopathia Sexualis, which proposed that any sex act which could not lead directly to procreation was a perversion. To create this word, which simply means sexual arousal when in the presence of a corpse, or when thinking of a corpse, Krafft-Ebing simply combined two ancient Greek words, "nekros" which means corpse or dead, and "philia" which means love.

Technically, necrophilia is one of the so-called "paraphilias," which are a group of sexual behaviors involving sexual arousal under unusual circumstances or in response to stimuli not ordinarily considered sexually stimulating. But in order to qualify as a paraphilia, a behavior must be "must be the sole means of sexual gratification for a period of six (6) months, and either cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" (this according to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which provides the official criteria used in diagnosis of mental disorders).

Now your behavior, as I understand it, was a one time event which you have no desire to repeat, and that is part of the reason why I say it was not necrophilia. By no stretch of the imagination does that one event meet the criteria as stated in DSM which require that the behavior be the sole means of sexual gratification and that the behavior continue over time. But there is more. The classic necrophiliac is a person who is fearful of rejection by women and so has sex with a corpse which is unable to resist, unable to reject him, and unable to make any disparaging remarks about him or his sexual performance. A somewhat similar motivation seems to explain the men who drug women with substances such as GHB or ketamine, and then violate them. In other words, necrophilia is the behavior of a man who, feeling powerless around women and without sexual self-esteem, wants to assert his power with an unresisting and unrejecting partner.

This, clearly, was not at all your motivation. Now the battlefield, as I said, is an extreme circumstance, and it is not easy for me, sitting at my computer in my safe and peaceful office, to imagine your state of mind at seeing your beloved girlfriend suddenly killed before your eyes, but I will make a guess at your motivation in having sex with her corpse. I believe it was a combination of two very powerful, and completely unconscious mechanisms: 1) a desire to deny the reality of her sudden death, and 2) a desire to deal with your own fear of death by converting it into sexual desire by means of what psychologists call "reaction formation."

Regarding the first feeling: one rarely witnesses the sudden death of a loved one. Normally, there is a period of becoming accustomed to the idea of such loss as, for example, when learning that a loved one has a terminal illness, or an injury from which he or she might not recover. In this case, her death was sudden, and also, even though this seems a bit contradictory given the circumstances of battle, unexpected. It was unexpected because soldiers, in order to do their jobs, must be in denial of the possibility of sudden death. So her death was an unexpected shock, and I believe that having sex with her corpse was a way of temporarily denying it, denying, that is, that she was dead. My clue here comes from your account where you wrote: "She was still my girlfriend to me. I just wanted to comfort her and keep her safe one last time."

Regarding the second feeling: "reaction formation" is a defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions are replaced by their direct opposites. Now soldiers are supposed to be brave, not fearful. This is absurd, of course, but nevertheless it is the expectation. But you are afraid of death, and you were afraid while in battle, and all the more afraid when seeing it occur to a loved one right before your eyes. So, in order to deny that unacceptable feeling, you defended against it, quite unconsciously of course, by becoming sexually aroused instead of breaking down entirely into fear and grief, which are acceptable emotions in ordinary life, but not on the battlefield.

Only knowing you personally and discussing this experience at length could make me confident of this analysis of course, but I think it is a good guess, and I hope will relieve you of your fear that you may be some kind of pervert. I do not think you are.

Before closing, let me express my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your girlfriend.

Be well.

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page last modified January 20, 2008

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