Why Necrophilia is So Hard to Prosecute, Explained

Josh Clark

You know how people often wonder why, despite being among the most taboo acts for possibly every culture that has ever existed, necrophilia is so difficult to prosecute here in the United States? Well, we have an answer for that.

As researcher John Troyer has determined, it turns out that necrophilia -- in the most clinical sense of the term, performing sex acts with a corpse, most often a human cadaver -- is very difficult to prosecute because in some states there aren't any actual laws expressly prohibiting it. While the act of necrophilia is fundamentally reviled by our society, it is apparently too abhorrent to put into words that are written down in legal codes. The feds have no laws against it. In only a handful of states is necrophilia itself expressly outlawed, and other states have no laws to prosecute necrophilia at all. It wasn't until 2013 that Illinois' first law against necrophilia came into effect, outlawing "sexual conduct with a corpse or involving a corpse," making Illinois among the most explicit in the language it uses to ban the act. A number of states seem to really want to throw the book at necrophiles but can't bear to say it. Take, for example, the statute an Idaho prosecutor would be faced to work with when confronted with an accused necrophile:

"Every person who is guilty of the infamous crime against nature, committed with mankind or with any animal, is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not less than 5 years."

You can almost see the, "well...you know" in there a couple times, written between the lines. And that was written in 1972. A number of states use this very broad, and often unprosecutable, language in their statutes, using terms like "abuse of a corpse."

In a number of states there are no laws whatsoever regarding sex acts with dead people. In cases like this, prosecutors have to take whatever statutes they can get their hands on to prosecute a necrophile. John Troyer recounts a case in Wisconsin in 2006 where three boys were caught red handed in the act of digging up the grave of a girl in order for one of them to have sex with her corpse. They confessed to their intention; one had even purchased condoms specifically for the occasion. And although Wisconsin is not a state necessarily known as a necrophile's paradise (despite being home to Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer), the judge determined the language of the statute regarding sex with a corpse didn't make sense. It described the victims of sexual assualt, as someone, whether dead or alive, unable to give consent. The judge determined that a corpse could not be considered a victim, since a corpse isn't considered a person under Wisconsin law and so, by extension, Wisconsin effectively had no law against necrophilia. Prosecutors were left with the only recourse available to states in situations like this by charging the three 20-year-olds with attempted theft of property, in this case the corpse, which under state law was the property of the dead girl's parents.

Troyer points out that this is probably one of the bigger reasons why it's difficult to prosecute necrophiles: the object of their desire and their crime has the same legal status as steak - it can be illegally taken from the possession of its owner and that's about it. Under these terms, a corpse is a thing and as such -- legally speaking -- can't be considered the victim of a sex act any more than that steak can. Some state legislatures, like Illinois, coming to understand that necrophilia is a real proclivity and that there really are people out there who really do want to have sex with the dead bodies of their recently deceased constituents, have moved to elevate the legal status of the corpse and thus protect it against necrophiles. In the UK, for example, the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 spelled out in detail what constitutes a punishable act of necrophilia and prescribes six months to two years in prison for it. In Nevada, the legal status of the corpse insofar as it pertains to its ability to be the victim of a posthumous sexual assault is closer to the moral status the dead hold for society in general: A convicted necrophile faces life in prison with parole possible after a minimum of five years, along with a $20,000 fine.

After the sensational 2006 case, Wisconsin's highest court determined the original law does indeed ban sex with a corpse. That leaves seven states in the U.S. with no laws regarding necrophilia at all.