Consent of the Corpses|Mitakshara Medhi

Mitakshara Medhi

The most interesting part of Psychology lies in the grey areas where seeking answer is almost a never-ending process. One such area is the case of Necrophilia – sexual attraction towards corpses. Whenever this issue is spoken of, it inevitably results in the argument that there are no proper laws against Necrophilia in India (and even in some states of the US). Hardly any academician sympathizes with it due to its seemingly cruel nature. Much debate spins around how it is a high time for our country to introduce a section dealing with this, although the infamous IPC Section 377 does entail some provisions. But the question here is, why should it be considered a crime?

First coined by Joseph Guislain, the term was used to refer to the case of Francois Bertrand. Born on 29th October, 1823, Bertrand was a sergeant in the French Army. While his attraction took off through dissecting cats and dogs, he soon began digging up dead bodies of men and women, to dissect them and masturbate. This earned him the name of the “Vampire of Montparnasse”. Several serial killers, including Ted Bundy, were necrophiliacs. This may, probably, be a reason for the widespread call for criminalizing this “aberration”.

Necrophilia is supposedly a mental disorder classified under “Other Specified Paraphilic Disorder” by DSM 5. The criteria includes the presence of the attraction towards corpses for at least 6 months, and one that leads to a dysfunction in the person’s life  Thus, in a layman’s statement, no ‘sane’ person would ever have sexual fantasies concerning dead bodies, let alone have sex with them. Keeping that in mind, how far can one convict a “mentally unstable” person of the crime? It is here that an important distinction is necessary. Necrophilia may or may not lead to murder. This is important because some people argue that this disorder is harmful as people are actually killed for it. But the definition simply includes an attraction, not necessarily a fatal action. DSM 5 provides a ten-tier classification of the disorder with only one of them – Homicidal Necrophilia – consisting of the “murderers”. What needs consideration are the other categories – necrophiliacs who don’t commit murder, but may have sex with or derive pleasure from the dead bodies. What makes them a criminal?

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Image: The US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

It is not very clear as to why Necrophilia develops in the first place. One may be the phobia of rejection. Hence, a dead body would be a safer option to derive sexual pleasures from. Second, it may be seen as “romantic” when the corpse is that of a deceased loved one. There may be hints of denial of the death altogether. Many necrophiliacs report low self esteem. Lastly, if looked at from the psychodynamic perspective, it is the fear of corpses itself that leads to a strong sexual attraction towards them, when the defense mechanism of reaction formation is at play. However, the above cannot be taken as actual causes since it does not explain why some people who experience any one or more of the above factors do not go on to develop the disorder. The disorder itself is fairly rare, mostly existing in men (92%) between the ages of 20-50 years (Rosman & Resnick, 1989). It is also the sensational cases of serial murders that are caught in the media, further increasing the fear of it.

So, setting aside the causes and focusing on legality, when an intercourse does occur with a corpse, is it violating the rights of the body of the corpse? But whose right would it be, if the person is dead already? How can there be a question of consent – which necessarily separates sex from rape – when the body isn’t living anymore? This is not to say that the very thought of it does not seem gruesome. But as cruel as it may sound to the general population, it may still not classify as a violation – the sole reason being the ‘deadness’ of the body. Violation is a subjective emotion possessed by a living individual. E.g. a woman standing a feet away from Ms. X may be considered a violator if Ms. X feels uncomfortable. But the same incident may not be considered as a violation by Ms. Y if her personal space is smaller than Ms. X. As is clear here, perception of violation is individualistic. So in the face of this information, what could be the answer to the seeming ‘violation’ of the corpse? How can we, as a third party, decide that it is an act of crime?

At this point, many readers may feel uncomfortable. It is never easy to understand that something that is considered a crime by popular public opinion and even by law in some regions like New Zealand and Africa may not be an actual criminal act. The dialogues may turn out as follows –

“Is Necrophilia (without murder) a crime?”

“Yes, of course!”

“But why?”

“Because it is cruel and bad”

“Cruel for whom? The dead body? Bad because it does not conform to the societal norm of what is right and what is wrong? But then different societies have different notions of right and wrong. What is appreciated in one culture may be condemned in another. So how do you decide if it is bad?”

 There is certainly no definite answer for this. The definition of aggression, as a necessity, contains the idea of intention. A necrophiliac, given that they are ‘natural’, does not have an intent of aggression. Rather, it is a sexual attraction. As cleared previously, there is no question of consent involved. Moreover, people with mental disorders are seen as having less agency of their own. Their actions are not always under their control. Many actual criminals misuse this in order to get acquitted in the court of law. Some have succeeded as well. Thus, what can be interpreted of the criminal nature of people who have sex with the dead bodies?

The notion of its unnatural-ness, too, is debatable. It was a friend, a homosexual himself, who had pointed this out to me two years back. Now, fifty years ago, homosexuality was also considered unnatural. Gays and Lesbians were prosecuted and punished because of their sexual preferences. Somewhere in between, it was considered a disorder that needed corrective therapy. About 80% were killed in the process of therapy that involved high voltage electric shock. In a country like ours, it is still “illegal”.  Yet we know how regressive and idiotic these notions are. So is it possible that fifty years hence, necrophilia would not really be considered a crime? This is not to equate necrophilia with homosexuality. The latter involves consent. And hence, nothing could be predicted for the former.

This again brings us back in a circle, with the one pressing question of consent. There could be a possibility of seeking consent of the family members. But family does not own a body. How can the family’s consent be a considered as one? Lest one finds a way to seek for the consent of the corpses, there can never be a resolution to the status of Necrophilia.

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