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I Don’t Mean to be Forward, but Please Park on my Face?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Christie Brinkley, "The Girl in the Red Ferrari"/National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

For most of us, the prospect of getting injured in a car accident isn’t particularly erotic. But of course, that’s just most of us. When it comes to human sexuality, anything—and I really do mean anything—can become subjectively eroticized in a rogue mind. And, indeed, for the 20-something masochist described by the psychiatrist Martin Keeler in 1960 (in a report published as a brief case study in a long-forgotten issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry), nothing was hotter than the thought of a beautiful woman hitting him with her car.*

This particular paraphilia might fall under the broad heading of “symphorophilia,” originally defined by the sexologist John Money as “arousal from stage-managing or arranging a disaster, crash, or explosion; or arousal by accidents or catastrophes.” (There’s no telling how many symphorophiles are among us, but the next time you notice an unusually absorbed rubber-necker on the highway, check to be sure that both of his–or her–hands are on the wheel.)

I suspect that many men of his era would have described their interests as “fast cars and fast women,” but for this particular gentleman, the two were quite literally one and the same.

[He] reported a periodic desire to be injured by a woman operating an automobile. This wish, present since adolescence, he had by dint of great ingenuity and effort, gratified hundreds of times without serious injury or detection. Satisfaction could be obtained by inhaling exhaust fumes, having a limb run over on a yielding surface to avoid appreciable damage or by being pressed against a wall by the vehicle.

Ah, but the man wasn’t just your average promiscuous symphorophile. He had certain standards, after all:

[Sexual] gratification was enhanced if the woman was attractive … Injuries inflicted by men operating automobiles or other types of injury inflicted by women had no meaning.

Now, if I were a Freudian, I might point out that the man’s occasional desire to, ahem, suck on dirty exhaust pipes in fact calls his self-professed exclusive heterosexuality into question. Alas, I’m not. So, I won’t.

Keeler, however, who was a Freudian, nonetheless leaves us little to go on in trying to get to the bottom of this man’s peculiar pattern of arousal. “Two unusual biographical items,” the clinician recounts cryptically, “were the presence of considerable maternal rejection and of a clouded and probably distorted memory of being hurt at the age of 6 by some woman in a manner connected with sexuality.” Curious details indeed.

Like most individuals with a fetish or paraphilia, the man was completely normal in all other respects—intelligent and without any other florid psychiatric conditions to speak of. “He was ashamed of his symptom,” Keeler explains, “but [and I can’t help but picture the patient’s wry smile here] somewhat proud of its unusual nature.”

I discuss paraphilias like this one, and much, much more, in my new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which will release on October 8, 2013. Follow me @jessebering (#DailyDeviant). For more on all things deviant, and to find out if I’ll be visiting a city near you for the Perv book tour, visit

*A special thank you to Debayan Sinharoy @natselrox for bringing this case study to my attention.

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit or add him on Facebook ( Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. way2ec 1:21 am 09/4/2013

    “Alas, I’m not. So, I won’t.” But you did. Prefers a gear shift to an automatic? Likes to manhandle his car? Is “autoerotic”? Jacked up his car?Freud is SO passé. Why not update to he likes to twerk the wheel? And finally, to put a bit more science into this stuff, what DO you think is the nature of the perv? Surely more than simple neurolinguistics?

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  2. 2. jh443 1:49 pm 09/4/2013

    I doubt that there will ever be definitive proof as to the origin of individual sexual preferences. If any papers are published on the subject, I’d expect the LGBTQIA community to condemn them. If the paper suggests an environmental origin, I expect them to claim that preference isn’t a choice. If the paper suggests a genetic origin, the objection will be based on a fear of DNA profiling.

    Bottom line, I believe any research into the cause is very unlikely.

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