The female of the species…

I apologise in advance, I got so into the reading behind this post that I didn’t write down where my quotes and stats came from!  Also, I’m switching a bit between female killers and female serial killers here but will try to make it clear.  That said, at least statistics wise, the numbers for one off kills and for serial killers do tend to correlate.

Whilst Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Female of The Species declares us to be more deadly than the male, we, as a culture, don’t expect female killers, let alone female serial killers.  It is telling that Christopher Berry-Dee’s book Talking With Serial Killers has the byline “The most evil men in the world tell their own stories” despite it containing a chapter dedicated solely to Aileen Wuornas and including one on Douglas Clark & Carol Bundy.  Allegedly, a member of the FBI said that there were no female serial killers as recently as 1998.

Knowing they do exist, lets get a feel for that statistics around female killers and female serial killers.  Between 2010 and 2012 in Australia, there were 49 homicides, 85% carried out by men and 15% by women (abc.net.au).  Internationally, the Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database echoes these stats, with 11.4% of serial killers as women.  Christopher Berry-Dee noted 12 female serial killers in England’s past and present, some of whom acted alone and others who worked with a (usually male) accomplice.  Whilst I’m focusing more on women who kill alone, the former is interesting because its thought that many of them wouldn’t have committed murder if they hadn’t met the more dominant male partner in crime.  For some of these duos, Berry-Dee regards the female as more of a tool in the male killers toolbox, for example used to lure in victims.

Unlike most male killers, female killers don’t tend to have a criminal record, the same being true of female serial killers.  The average male serial killer starts killing aged 27.5 whereas female serial killers start at an average age of 31.  Another key difference between male and female killers is that victim wise, women are much more likely to know their victims, killing husbands, partners and ex partners.

“Women are typically viewed as nurturers but when they commit violent crimes this takes away that identity or public perception, so they may look more terrible and monstrous than men.”
– Deborah Denno

Women who kill are seen as outrageous and unnatural anyway, but those women who kill children are seen by society as somehow more heinous than women who kill adults, likely because killing a child goes against the stereotype of nurturing mother.  However, female killers are people you’d trust, they are mothers, sisters and daughters.

“Female serial killers act like chameleons who blend in with their intended victims and seem to be the last person anyone would suspect.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, The New Predator–Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers

In part, this trust allows female serial killers to kill, something that is easily seen when we look at different types of female serial killers.  Black widows are almost exclusively female, killing their husband, lover or relative for financial gain and almost 90% of known black widows used poison.  Another archetypal serial killer that is almost always female is the lethal caretaker, often being paid to kill a patient, or profiting directly in some other way. Lethal caretakers may also kill or hurt others in order to be admired for curing them or to get sympathy for the death of a loved one.  A similar crime with a different motive is the angel of death who kill for the feeling of power and control and who are normally women.  Thus, the gender role cast on women by society, allows potential female serial killers access to a pool of vulnerable victims, such as the ill, the elderly, and babies and young children.

The same gender that allows access to victims, may also allow female serial killers to get away with killing.  They are likely to operate for longer as they slip under the radar.  This is in part because compared to their male counterparts, they are less likely to have a criminal record, they tend to kill people emotionally and geographically closer to them and they tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering.  On average, a female serial killer can have a career spanning 8-11 years whereas the average for male serial killers is 2 years.  This discrepancy is almost certainly, in part, due to the idea that women don’t kill and certainly don’t kill multiple people.

“Very few people believe that a female could hold the vicious capacity to commit serial murder, despite confessions from the offenders themselves.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin

As well as probably reducing the rate of women as suspects in murders, this almost certainly reduces the chance of being convicted for the crime if and when it goes to court.

Women’s motives and methods also contribute to the female’s serial killers lengthy killing career.  Women tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering to murder.  Female serial killers don’t tend to stalk or torture their victims and there is an overall practicality that tends to come with the female killer.  Their motivations are more practical and so are their techniques.  Additionally, there is rarely a sexual aspect to the crime.  On the whole, female serial killers also show less mobility than males, tending to kill near their home or workplace.

General motives for murder include revenge, jealousy, thrill, love, gain, conviction or hate and concealing another crime.  Whilst these are all likely motives for men who kill, women mostly kill for gain (eg money, insurance payment, assets or personal advantage) and love (such as assisted suicide, getting someone away from a situation deemed worse than death or a mother who is going to kill herself and believes her children can’t cope without her).

In addition to the regular motives for murder, women also kill because of abuse.  In these cases, murder is often depicted as a final straw and a way out of a tough situation and as such, prison is cast as a way of refinding themselves, self worth and getting back on track.  However, you cannot assume that all women who kill have been abused and I wonder if some women claim abuse as a way of making their kill seem more justified in the eyes of the law.

As an aside, my friend Jen wrote an interesting essay on a case where a woman retaliated against domestic abuse and how society and the legal system dealt with it.

“Most reasonable people simply cannot imagine why a woman, being the mother figure, could harbour such evil desires, the overwhelming, sickening need, or indeed perverse inclination to destroy human life, especially in abhorrent cases as multiple child torturing kills.”
– Christopher Berry-Dee

If convicted, once in prison, men who kill may well find themselves inundated with letters from women and may even end up married.  Women on the other hand, find they have “forsaken their assigned gender role and have been ostracized by their loved ones and shunned by the general community”.  They are cast as wicked women and find themselves abandoned.  Where sympathy is elicited for male killers, female killers cannot be comprehended are often cast as vain, as manipulated (by a man) or abused, possibly because it is far easier to imagine these options than it is to imagine or accept the idea of a sadistic woman.

Resources I’ve used

Women who love men who kill

I’ve been reading a lot about crime and murder recently and one of the reoccurring themes has been how men who have carried out horrific crimes don’t have a problem finding women.  In fact, women seem to throw themselves at these, often self professed, killers.  This was the case even when the men had killed their wife and children, and when they were on death row awaiting execution.

Given that this seemed to be an actual phenomenon, I wanted to know more.  What takes ordinary, every day women and makes them a) reach out to these men and b) then fall in love with them?

An important point to make here is that I’m talking about women who didn’t know the men before they were found guilty of their crimes.  For example, in the UK in 2001, Charles Bronson who has the title of “Britain’s most notorious prisoner”, married a woman who would later go on to lose her job because of the marriage.  They would go on to get divorced but by 2017 he was in another relationship and had married again. In the US, a journalist doing a story on the death penalty, met and fell in love with Billy Sinclair whose crimes included murder and rape.  The woman, who was married at the time, lost her husband and her children because of her relationship with the prisoner.

These are not isolated incidents, they seem to be commonplace for notorious male criminals.  A 2003 Guardian article says that more than 100 British women are engaged or married to men on death row in the US.  And that’s just British women and men in the US on death row.

So what is it that drives these women?

Well, obviously the answer is complicated, as it is whenever we’re dealing with human behaviour.  But predictably, there are some trends although there also seems to be a lack of research into the area.

Sheila Isenberg, in a 1991 profile of women who love men who kill, found that they tended to be “little girls lost, reared in dysfunctional families where they were victims of abuse at the hands of harsh dictatorial fathers aided by passive mothers.”  Whilst I don’t want to rule this profile out completely, it feels like a fraudian hypothesis and I don’t feel it explains many of the women in question.

Looking at how women meet men in prison may give us some insight into why they fall for them.  Anecdotally, there seem to be a few patterns. There are the women who see a man in the media and something captivates them, compelling them to make contact with that particular criminal.  There are women who write to criminals through official programmes and go on to fall for them.  And there are women who come into face to face contact such as through volunteering or working at the prison.  Knowing this alone, I feel we can rule out Isenberg’s profile as universally applicable.

Intuitively, it feels like the women who write to criminals through official programmes or who volunteer in prisons have a different motivation or reason for falling in love, coming into proximity for charitable or humanitarian reasons.  Women who contact a specific criminal after media presence would be more focused on establishing a relationship with that particular person.  The other women, perhaps, just happening to get feelings for a person they were getting to know.

Marrying or being in a relationship with a prisoner comes with a high price tag.  We’ve already seen women losing their job and their family but there is also a loss of respect in the community, loss of friends and wider family, isolation, damaged reputation and the years of pain you spend apart from the person you love.  This is alongside the advocacy and fundraising role that many of these women take on as they champion their partner’s innocence and manage their legal case, all of which takes time and money and emotional toll.

Given this, the pull towards the men must be immensely powerful.  Why else would you give up so much to be in a relationship with someone you can never spend time with?

Well, that may be the draw for some women.  There is an element of safety when you are in love with someone behind bars.  They can never hurt you, at least physically or sexually.  It also allows the honeymoon period to last forever, allowing women to stay in love with a fantasy and not having to risk the mundane day to day of life bursting that bubble.  This idea of having the perfect boyfriend may appeal to women who’ve been hurt in the past by partners or who have a history of abuse.

Perhaps the phenomena of women who love men who kill could be put down, in some cases, to extreme fanaticism.  Indeed, the more infamous the killer, the more interest the killer has from women.

Some women feel powerful because of their role in their partners life.  To a certain extent the prisoner is dependant on the woman and feeling in control of a powerful man can bring a thrill.

Another thrill may come from the attention and fame that arises as a result of being married or in a relationship with someone notorious.  It may also fulfil a need in the woman for danger and drama.  There is a soap opera element to these relationships – the unfulfilled love, the longing and yearning that comes with such situations and of course the controversial and taboo aspect of it.  There’s also the ever present questions of will I get into the prison to see him, when will I see him, will he get parole, what’s happening to him, when will he get an execution date… All of which creates drama and cliffhangers.

In some cases there seems to be a sense of the two of you vs the world which creates a powerful bond and perhaps this is what attracts women to the outlaws.  Another, more sinister theory is that the women themselves would want to carry out murder but for whatever reason can’t and they live out their killing fantasies through their partner.

“Women may be sublimating their murderous eroticism by making connections with men who have committed murder.”
– Peter Morrall, Murder and Society

A seemingly common explanation is the idea that the woman can change the man.  That they see something special in them that no one else does and if they just nurtured and cared for the criminal they would be a changed man.  This delusion of being a saviour may apply more commonly to the women who have written to or volunteered with criminals as a way of converting people to their religion.  In the case of Ted Bundy, women writing to him tend to be lonely, religious and looking to get him on the right path.

We must remember that a number of these men will be psychopaths and psychopaths can be charming.  They can make you feel special, they can make you feel like they’ve chosen you and they can manipulate your behaviour, such as by sharing things with you that they haven’t shared with anyone else.  Inside prison, there is reduced opportunities to play with people’s lives and this may be one way they can do so.  One case I read about involved the man getting a woman to fall for him and then when he was bored or had had enough, he’d end things abruptly, with no regard for her.

“Women who get emotionally involved with prisoners almost always end up rejecting the idea that this man could have committed the crimes for which he was convicted.”
Independant, 2005

If they don’t reject the idea, then they are able to make excuses for the crimes, or rewrite history to reduce the man’s role or involvement or motives.  This is evidenced by the time and money and effort that women put into championing their loved one and the level of obsession that some women get to when trying to prove their innocence or improve their living conditions.

For some women, there may be an attraction to the display of manliness expressed in their crimes.  Taken to the far end of this is hybristophilia where sexual arousal is responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner who is known to have committed something wrong, whether it’s as ‘mild’ as lying or cheating or as ‘strong’ as murder.  One person in a 2016 article said that the details of the crime are a turn on, with another quoted as saying the criminals “give in to the animal, uninhibited selves, and I love the rawness of that.”  Whilst this probably accounts for some of the women who love men who kill, hybristophilia is thought to be quite uncommon and is defined by arousal so won’t apply to all.

Despite these hypothesises, this seems to be an under-researched area, lacking in statistics and quantifiable evidence, instead conclusions appear to have been drawn from qualitative sources.  Perhaps this is because of greater priorities, perhaps it is because whilst the number of women is shockingly high, the harm caused is comparatively minimal.  Or, perhaps it is because research is still a patriarchal arena.  Regardless, I have found it a fascinating look into the human psyche and what drives us to do the things we do.