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.