Why are so many women fascinated with serial killers? That evergreen topic came up again this week in two different articles in Psychology Today. Both pieces focus on the specific phenomenon of women who fall in love with and attempt (with mixed success) to marry imprisoned murderers. What they leave unanswered is a larger question: what about the far greater number of women who would never dream of sending Anders Breivik a fan letter, but who find themselves compulsively drawn to TV shows and books about sociopathic criminals?
In the first PT article, Katherine Ramsland (a writer who self-describes as "keenly interested in dark things") suggests that women who fall for murderers are following a "biological impetus." As she notes, "primate research finds that females prefer the larger, louder, more aggressive males who show clear markers of their maleness. In humans, then, certain women might sense in an aggressive male a larger-than-life companion who can deliver more than an ordinary man could." Of course, aggression happens on a broad continuum; Ramsland's thesis better explains why women fall for Navy SEALS or MMA fighters (whose aggression is theoretically only towards specific other men) than towards serial killers.
In the second piece, Dr. Leon Seltzer offers an alternative to Ramsland's argument. He opines that the turn-on is less about a biological attraction towards aggressive males than it is about the fantasy that inside the heart of every murderous sociopath lurks a healthy dollop of sweet, sensitive "inner goo." Serial killer obsession is simply "bad boy syndrome" taken to its logical conclusion. According to stereotype, women who consistently fall for bad boys delude themselves into believing that they can spot a concealed goodness that eludes everyone else. Since murderers are the ultimate bad boys, the women who fall in love with them flatter themselves that they are uniquely insightful, the only ones able to find the hidden diamond of kindness in these predators. For Seltzer, this is less about biological attraction than it is about the self-regard of those women who imagine that they see what no one else can.
But fascination with sociopaths is hardly limited to those women who seriously dream of marrying them. Look at the popularity of the various CSIs and Law and Order franchises. A 2008 National Institutes of Justice survey found that CSI viewers skewed heavily female, and that most CSI fans also regularly watched other "procedural" dramas that focused on violent crime. In 2010 Michael Kinsley in Slate described the obsession with Law and Order reruns as the "secret vice of power women." Kinsley distinguished women's fascination with procedurals from their openly shared fandom for shows like Sex and the City. When it comes to Law and Order, he writes, "far from discussing it with one another, women seem to watch it alone and may be unaware that anyone else shares the habit." Writing more recently at the F Word, Natalie Hill backs up Kinsley, sharing her reminiscences of secretly "holing up" in her room to watch SVU marathons.
In 20 years of teaching, I've encountered many female students who have a fascination with sociopaths. Many want to major in abnormal psychology or become forensic pathologists. As one former student of mine put it, "I'm disgusted by them but I'm drawn to them. I want to find out what makes them tick." She recently ended up at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, pursuing her dream of pursuing serial killers.
After all these years of hearing from young (and not-so-young) women who are fascinated with predators, I've developed a theory of my own. The women who become easily intrigued by sociopaths are of course interested in protecting the vulnerable (including themselves). But they are also enthralled by those who represent the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from where these women find themselves.
Sociopaths, by definition, lack compassion and remorse. Some young women in our culture, on the other hand, are overwhelmed by those very same things. Think of emotional sensitivity as a spectrum from 0-10, similar to the volume controls for a radio. It's healthy to be tuned into the needs of others at about 4 or 5 on the continuum. At that volume, you're aware of the needs of those around you without being overwhelmed by them. But for some women, the world's "emotional noise" comes through at 8 or 9 on the spectrum. The needs and demands of others are so clear and loud that these young women often can't hear themselves think. They're nearly incapacitated from the effort of absorbing so much emotion, and frequently they feel immensely guilty for not meeting the insatiable demands of those around them. Is it any wonder that they become fascinated with — and even, in some sense, envious of — sociopaths? What else is a sociopath than someone whose "volume control" for the needs of others has been set to mute?
There may be women who fall for dangerous predators because of the evolutionary impulses that Ramsland cites; others may be filled with the desperate quixotism that Seltzer suggests, believing that their love is powerful enough to tame even a serial killer. Many surely identify with strong female characters like Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson, SVU's brave and relentless protagonist. But admiration for the cops and lawyers who keep the streets safe is only part of the draw. For many who have made SVU and CSI into two of the most successful scripted televisions shows of the modern era, the fascination may be less about attraction than about a strange kind of envy of the shows' sociopathic villains. How many bright, talented, acutely sensitive young women have occasionally fantasized about having an internal "mute button" that could silence the judging, nagging, needy voices of all around them?
One obvious reason for the popularity of the Law & Order and CSI franchises among women has to do with women's greater vulnerability to violent crime. Those who are at increased risk of being targeted have a vested interest in becoming students of predatory behavior, a point made in Gavin de Becker's indispensable The Gift of Fear. But the specific fascination so many women seem to have with serial killers and sociopaths suggests that something more is at play. For those who feel pressured to people-please and to empathize with virtually everyone, the allure of those who never feel those obligations is powerful indeed.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.