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Cybercoprographia: Where Cyberbullying Meets Deviant Fantasy

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In my chapter “Cybercrime & Cyberdeviance” in the recently published eighth edition of Criminology: A Canadian Perspective, I provide some preliminary results of my sociolinguistic research at Western on cyberbullying, cybermobbing, trolling, flaming, and other forms of electronic harassment committed to writing. The initial findings, while incisive, are not necessarily surprising.

Having spent a year amassing a corpus (word stock) of nearly 45,000 samples of writing from various public forums—insults, threats, overtures, bizarre screeds and vicious exchanges posted to message boards and social media accounts—some startling trends have been noted once those exchanges are disaggregated (separated according to identifying features) using the appropriate software. In brief, a categorical breakdown of words, word orders, sentence structures, and screen names provides insight into why—at least in Canada—some of the most notorious, and tragic, cases of cyberbullying have been correlated with sexual offending. For instance, the January 2014 arrest of the Dutch suspect known only as “Aydin C” for international acts of cyberbullying and sextortion, including acts that led to the 2012 suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd as one of his victims, mirrors a number of other cases where cyberbullying and the possession or production of child pornography tend to occur concomitantly. As my recent publications suggest, there is now cogent and demonstrable evidence suggesting that cyberbullying has a salient and deviant sexual component, and might in fact be classified as its own paraphilia.

From the Greek word “para,” meaning “beside” or “other,” and “philia,” meaning “love,” the term describes an attachment to or fixation on objects, images, people, or circumstances that are either forbidden by conventional society or prohibited by law—often both. The first definitive and credible list of paraphilias, along with some related case studies, was likely populated by Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his foundational textbook Psychopathia Sexualis, originally published in 1886, and which laid out some of the paraphilias that are commonly known today. These include scopophilia (voyeurism), exhibitionism, pedophilia, and necrophilia—all of which have serious crimes associated with them. These are what are therefore more broadly known as criminal paraphilias, or compulsions and attachments that are so inherently bizarre and offensive that indulging them inevitably violates criminal law. Conversely, preparatory paraphilias—of which there are nearly four-hundred—represent fantasy attachments and preoccupations that can sometimes serve as gateways to more serious criminal offending. For instance, somnophilia (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about sleeping and submissive people), taphophilia (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about cemeteries, funerals, or mortuaries) and galateism (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about statues, mannequins, or dolls) are all preparatory paraphilias that have been shown in the forensic and clinical literature to prefigure necrophilia. At the same time, some of the more innocuous “lifestyle” paraphilias that encompass role playing, cos play, bondage, or similar consensual acts never progress beyond the preparatory stage, and often have no known accompanying criminal paraphilias with which they’re associated.

The origins of paraphilias and how and why they take hold to dominate a person’s life has been the focus of much debate. Some experts have proposed a combination of environmental and biological explanations. For instance, necrophilia—previously mentioned—has been affiliated with diminished intelligence and compromised brain development in countless case studies (biological), as well as parental neglect and sexual prohibition in the home during developmental years (environmental). It is also disproportionately represented among persons of both genders who have a paralyzing fear of rejection or abandonment, or who were punished as children for viewing erotic material. Other explanations are purely environmental, the most compelling and frequently cited being what’s known as the “vandalized love map” theory.

The vandalized love map theory was first proposed by pioneering psychologist Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s. Money proposed that it is human nature, and the product of our evolutionary biology once we begin to develop a sexual curiosity and awareness of our bodies in childhood or early adolescence, to instinctively form innate interconnections between sex and consent, love and lust, intimacy and respect. If left to his or her own devices, a healthy child in a healthy household will do this on his or her own accord, using his or her parents and other adult role models as exemplars. These ensuing connections are what are collectively known as the love map—a frame of reference for all intimate relationships through each stage in life. However, the child who (during this very sensitive and exploratory, curious, and role-playing stage) is subject to mockery, prevention, prohibition, or punishment will have the routes of reference between sex and consent, love and lust, intimacy and respect all corrupted and re-routed. As the child’s love map becomes vandalized and healthy connections are damaged, the child becomes imprinted with ideas of thebody and intimate situations that are highly abnormal, even violent and humiliating. Like so many things in life, it all goes back to childhood, and the trauma associated with a vandalized love map will in later years offer form bizarre sexual preferences that replace people with objects and consenting and reciprocal situations with bizarre and sadistic fantasies left to fester as the child grows older and learns to act on them.

Fast-forward to today and how the digital sphere and ubiquity of devices that deliver images and information that can be accessed in private have changed the way that paraphilias develop—and created new ones altogether. A 2015 Brigham Young University study, for instance, suggests that the Western world is actually on the verge of a “loneliness epidemic” wrought by our superficial dependence on social media and its normalizing of what would have historically been seen as actually very anti-social behavior. The study suggests that the long-term effects of this alienation and the anxiety brought on by digital pressures will have catastrophic effects on physical and mental health—a crisis that many would rightfully argue has already started. In a world where, as other studies have suggested, nearly 50% of people would rather have an attractive online profile picture—even a doctored or Photoshopped one—than actually appear attractive in person, and where over 50 million Americans are dependent on mood altering prescription drugs, it would appear as though the line between fantasy and reality is increasingly a blurred one. It is therefore not a stretch to hypothesize that amidst this sea change and ensuing celebration of the superficial and the illusory, the way that paraphilias are classified—including what classifies as deviance in the first place—will also change, and new research into the relationship between fantasy, technology, socialization, and sexual deviance needs to be undertaken. This is in part why studies on cyberbullying have really just been scratching the surface. The reality is that in many cases there is a more insidious and paraphilic component at work but that has yet to be substantively identified, especially among adult offenders who—based on some of the individuating data drawn from the 45,000 samples I’ve collected to date—suggests are the worst offenders.

While traditional schoolyard and workplace bullying has become a very well-studied phenomena in recent decades, cyberbullying and similar acts of online deviance have until now overlooked what is perhaps the key distinction—aside from the distance and time lapse between offender and victim—of cyberbullying in comparison to “corporeal” bullying as it’s known. The fact that cyberbullying, trolling, etc. is relegated to a written form in nearly every circumstance allows for a more structured and empirical examination of offending and victimology through the use of established linguistic analysis techniques. The results of these analyses have to date suggested that cyberviolence committed to writing immediately engages two preparatory paraphilias that have existed for quite some time in an offline, analog form—paraphilias that have now taken on a digital, networked (cyber) dimension. In other words, the medium might well have changed, but the underlying motives and behaviors have not.

The first of these paraphilias I actually discussed a previous blog post, where I outlined how trollers and cyberbullies appear to be digital versions of telephone scatologists—compulsive and sexually motivated obscene callers. In the last several months, after overlaying my corpus of text samples on to some of the historically documented methods and words employed by scatologists, this appears to be an even more accurate deduction than initially thought. In fact, the corpus suggests that three previously identified categories of scatologists—the “panic inducer,” the “annoyance creator,” and the “trickster”—are also identifiable categories of cyberbullies and trollers based on repeated similarities in word stocks. Using the scientific method and established data collection, curation, and visualization techniques, the connection between online deviance and obscene telephone calling as mutually paraphilic activities now appears to be largely cemented, and is discussed further in my article “Towards a Cybervictimology” published in a 2015 edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication. But it doesn’t stop there. It turns out that there is in fact an even more obscure—and equally dangerous—paraphilia engaged by acts of cyberbullying and trolling, and which predates even the advent of the telephone and classification of scatologia by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s what’s known as coprographia.

Coprographia: From the Greek “copros,” meaning “filth or feces,” and “graphia,” meaning “to write” or “to draw,” it is a lesser-known paraphilia defined by erotic fixation on, excessive fantasizing about, or sexual gratification and empowerment obtained through the writing of obscene, vulgar, or shocking material. While much of it is thought to be involuntary and fall within the spectrum of Tourette’s Syndrome and other clinical mental disorders, there are also studies that suggest it is in fact quite voluntary, even recreational in nature in some cases. There is also indication that the writing and posting of traditional personal letters offers the most intense cultivation of fantasy and arousal,with the transit time between the authorship of a document and its eventual delivery, receipt, and ability to elicit a reaction in the recipient being what drives the offender. In many cases, the writer is satisfied merely visualizing, guessing, or fantasizing about what that reaction might be or when it might happen, expecting no response in return.

Cybercoprographia: The same phenomenon as coprographia but enabled and even intensified by a networked environment, and with personal letters being substituted with electronic writings where the transit time between authorship and receipt is determined by the medium, platform, or application used by the writer. This may also explain why certain online forums seem to be more prone to abuse than others, with offenders targeting them selectively based on this necessary “build up” or deferral of gratification. The clinical and forensic history of coprographia is sketchy at best, though some notable case studies suggest that, like scatologia, it can serve as one or both a stepping-stone to serious violent offending, or can present itself contemporaneously with attack paraphilias up to and including sadism and necrophilia. While it has been speculated that the thrillmurders committed by David Berkowitz (The Son of Sam) and the officially unidentified Zodiac Killer were directly tied to their lurid writings sent to the newspapers and police of the era—that the murders were primarily used as means to an end, or as actions that would enable the generation of these taunting letters—the content of these writings, at least with respect to the early cryptograms sent by the Zodiac, is not really in keeping with other documented cases of suspected coprographia. The more tell-tale case would therefore be that of Albert Fish, the so-called “Werewolf of Wysteria.”

Even the grandiose and Gothic sounding alias assigned to Fish by the media of the day doesn’t appropriately capture the abject horror and brutality of his crimes. Between 1924 and 1932, he is suspected to have kidnapped, murdered, and cannibalized up to ten schoolchildren in the areas of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and elsewhere through the greater New York City area. These crimes, like those of Berkowitz and the Zodiac, later became the excuse for Fish to author obscene and taunting letters, the difference being that he sent these crass pieces of correspondence to the families of his victims rather than to the press. After being arrested in 1934, Fish was summarily tried, convicted, and executed in the electric chair, the infamous “Old Sparky,” at Sing Sing Prison in 1936 at the age of 65—one of the oldest men ever executed in the United States. A look at Fish’s early life and experimentation with various preparatory paraphilias, including the same type of coprographia that later compelled him to write obscene letters to the families of murdered children to prolong and protract his psychosexual gratification obtained from murder, provides some insight on how this paraphilia can quickly escalate and evolve to take on new forms of offending. It once again points to the fact that digital iterations of these practices are similarly connected to both deviant fantasy and paraphilias developed in early life.

Having grown up in an orphanage and hailing from a long line of paternal-line mental illness and mood disorders, Fish was a poster child for Money’s vandalized love map theory, having been severely beaten and abused during his boyhood to the point that he would seek and later enjoy, in a masochistic sense, the pain of that same abuse and torture as his sole form of human contact. As is not uncommon, these masochistic drives began to morph into sadistic impulses and the need to inflict pain on others. It was around this same time, while working as a house painter and having access to family residences in a position or trust, that Fish began molesting children. It is also around this same time in early adulthood—already harboring deviant fantasies and displaying paraphilias that broadly encompassed sadism and pedophilia—that Fish began experimenting with coprographia.

By 1900, while married yet moonlighting as a male prostitute and inveterate voyeur at public bath houses, Fish began anonymously responding to personals advertisements in various newspapers, including Lonely Hearts Club classifieds that served as the progenitor to more discreet dating services created in the late 20th century—and which are now largely relegated to digital personals ads and hook-up sites like Tinder, POF, or other paid dating websites. Fish, unlike some later serial killers like Harvey Glatman who used these same Lonely Hearts Club services to troll for victims, was simply satisfied sending the female members replies by way of letter that were really nothing more than rambling screeds that indulged in obscene name calling, threats, and descriptions of what he thought the women looked like. Even once having irreversibly escalated to serial murder and cannibalism, Fish continued to send these anonymous and offensive letters during his cooling-off periods between crimes, eventually—including a specific case in 1930—his responding to regular employment classifieds through the mailing of irrelevant and unprovoked but entirely grotesque letters. Curious that for prolonged periods, these acts of letter writing—including the climactic wait time between document generation and receipt by the victim—seemed to be able to keep his sexual sadism contained. Even while a condemned man and waiting his execution, Fish used his final hours on Earth to indulge his coprographilic drives one last time, requesting a pen and paper to compose a final statement—his last words—to be delivered to the court and the people of New York via his lawyer, James Dempsey. After the letter was written and handed to Dempsey to publicly recite, the dismayed and disturbed lawyer refused, claiming that the writing was “the most filthy string of obscenities” he had ever read in his life.

Fish, as described at his trial, certainly endures as a “psychiatric phenomenon” as experts of the day from the Bellevue Mental Hospital described him, and is obviously an extreme outlier in terms of coprographia. His case, while extreme, is nonetheless topical in an age where cybercoprographia as the digital and networked version of what amounts to the same thing—intentionally offensive, lewd, and alarming documents or writings being anonymously generated and sent either to specific individuals or to users of a specific space. Like Fish’s Lonely Hearts Club personals, contemporary digital versions also seem to have preferentially targeted victims based on their personal circumstances or personal information that can be gleaned from social media or messaging sites. In a preliminary analysis of these posts—and the associated screen names—there is actually very little in the way of versatility or variability shown with respect to the obscene or insulting content being written, nor with respect to the screen names of offenders that—like Fish’s own delusions—reflect grandiosity, fantasy, and detachment from reality. In brief, coprographia as one of the lesser-understood paraphilias has left us with little in the way of a body of research and knowledge that might help us gain better insight into the link between fantasy and deviance online, at least with respect to anti-social activities such as trolling and cyberbullying that are target or environment specific and which necessitate that acts of abuse being committed to writing—the hallmark of coprographia’s chief distinction from other paraphilias.

As scholarship and both clinical and forensic insight in this area progresses, some key questions that require addressing are whether what appears, based on publicly reported incidents, to be an over representation of cyberbullying cases with simultaneous dabbling by offenders in other sex crimes is the exception or the rule. Like in Fish’s case, might it be that coprographia can both prefigure significant future offending—both online and offline—or does it also serve as a referral paraphilia as the sender begins to experiment with more violent attack paraphilias? The finding of consistent answers to these questions has been hindered and the research further complicated by the fact that the vast majority of incidents are thought to go unreported—in part because of the inability or lawmakers and law enforcement alike to keep up with technical trends and develop a sustainable framework for criminalizing and then subsequently investigating cases of cyberbullying.

Some recent (2014) research coming out of the United Kingdom—initiatives spearheaded through logical collaborations between Scotland Yard’s Home Office and various universities—has actually sought to distinguish between “cyber-dependent” crime and “cyber-enabled” crime. The latter would describe most acts of cyberviolence or online sexual offending, whereby the Internet has not necessarily created as much as dramatically expanded the opportunity and scale of offending. If we therefore examine the way that historical paraphilias are similarly “enabled” and allowed to take on new computer-mediated forms, a number of the anti-social behaviors seen online can be better understood in the context of the historical research. In other words, what’s old is new again. How and why coprographia became cybercoprographia is therefore less arcane, and is actually the secondary and less important questions as compared to how, like in Fish’s case, we can learn to recognize signs of escalation—cyberbullying as a type of distant early warning and accurate predictor of other forms of paraphilic offending. Perhaps then, at last, law makers who have failed in many cases to appropriately recognize that this is one of the key socio-legal and cultural issues of our time, will stop with the pennywise plodding and half measures and take seriously the creation of proper legislation, protocols, and infrastructural support for law enforcement.