From podcasts to Tv-shows, books to movies, society is completely fascinated by serial killers. Be it real life or fiction, this controversial topic has made its mark on mainstream media and entertainment around the world. We have probably all heard of the serial killer that lurks in the dark and preys on his victims, the creepy and disturbed neighbour or the handsome, ruthless narcissist. One thing these stereotypes all have in common: they are men. Just take a moment to think of serial killers you have heard about…
Men, right? The thing is that society tends to dismiss the fact that men are not the only ones convicted of multiple murders and for example finds it inconceivable that a woman would be capable of such horrible acts. This has of course a lot to do with stereotypical gender norms and how murders are often viewed as a masculine act. These viewpoints do however paint an incomplete picture of serial killers and can actually be, well, deadly. Let’s explore why.
Approximately one in every six serial killers are women but very limited research has been done on the gendered aspects of serial killers. However, the research we have has found significant differences between men and women serial killers (the current research is unfortunately only binary) when it comes to motives, victim profile, and murder weapons. First, women serial killers’ motives are often financially related, they usually know their victims and those are most likely children or elderly people (usually family members). One research found that women serial killers often take the role of a caretaker when they kill, leading them to be called ‘angels of death’ or ‘lethal caretakers’.
Another group of women serial killers are called ‘black widows’ because they kill their husbands for financial gains. This is different to men serial killers who usually don’t know their victims and kill for sex, power and control. In fact the sexual abuse aspect of men’s motive has had a large impact on the definitions of the concept serial killer, which has often completely dismissed women as perpetrators because the definitions (necessarily) include sexual attacks, violence, and torture. Women serial killers are usually more organised and leave little to no trace behind and tend to have longer criminal careers. They are usually calm before and after they have committed their crimes and are known as ‘quiet killers’. On the flip side, because of the sexual and power related motive for many men, their crimes are more likely to be disorganised stemming from a confused and distressed state of mind.
Women and men serial killers tend to prefer different murder weapons. In one research it was found that 50% of women serial killers use poison such as arsenic, bleach, and succinylcholine, as their weapon of choice followed by suffocation used by 26.6% of the women serial killers. Although men employ a few different methods to kill, these are often physical. Men’s murder weapons of choice include firearms and hands-on methods such as bludgeoning, stabbing, strangulation, or suffocation. These hands-on methods are often used by men because of their need to show strength and assert dominance.
Moreover, the victim profile of men and women serial killers differs. Most women murder both men and women throughout their criminal career (again, only binary data) whilst research varies a bit more with men. According to the FBI women have accounted for 75% of victims in serial homicide cases since 1985 but make up only about 22% of victims in homicide cases. Moreover, in sexually motivated killings, 70% of victims are women. These statistics demonstrate the misogynistic aspect of serial killings. We have for example most likely all heard about how the victims of serial killers and rapists are often women sex workers which are approximately 18 times more likely to be victims of a serial killer than those who do not participate in sex work.
On top of that people of colour and Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in such murder cases. For example, in British Columbia, Canada, Indigenous women account for 75% of all sex workers. This is related to the fact that Indigenous women are more likely to be vulnerable in Canadian society due in large to colonial history and intergenerational trauma. Unfortunately, even though many of us have heard of those types of cases, most go unnoticed because people in marginalised positions are often afraid to come forward, the perpetrators are strangers and, because of a racial and classist problem that police prioritise missing white middle class women instead of marginalised people (of colour).
Yet another gendered aspect worthy of a closer look is the romanticisation of men serial killers. The latest example perhaps came following the release of the Netflix Series about Jeffrey Dahmer (Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story) with young people sympathising and making fan videos about him on TikTok’s. This is not a new phenomena and men serial killers have regularly had fans and received floods of love letters. This is somewhat because they are portrayed as these anti-heros and “bad boys” who are excitingly sinister. And it doesn’t help that Hollywood hires actors like Evan Peters and Zac Effron (who are arguably very attractive actors) to play these notorious men, although of course some serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, have been described as charming and handsome. Even after Bundy had been arrested for murdering and raping over thirty young women and girls(!), he somehow kept his charm on and had a huge fanclub of young women and even got married whilst he was on trial.
It is of course complicated to understand why this happens but if we use the gender lens we can see that this is usually not happening in the cases of women serial killers. Perhaps, because men being violent is pretty normalised in our societies but women being violent isn’t? I wonder if that might play a role. Moreover, interestingly enough, women that have romantic heterosexual relationships with serial killers and end up becoming their partners in crime, would rarely have committed these types of crimes if they hadn’t met their partners. On the other hand, the men would probably not have become successful criminals if it wasn’t for their woman acolyte. This shows how men and women tend to have different roles in the commission of crimes, which are in many ways based on somewhat traditional gender roles.
Overall, we can see that there are many systematic factors at play that need to be addressed. When it comes to gender stereotypes that dismiss the capabilities of people because of their gender, which demonstrates the importance of gendered research that can make authorities better equipped to prevent and solve these atrocious acts. Since many of these crimes disproportionately affect marginalised peoples and women, it also shows the importance of dismantling and rebuilding a system that does not protect us all.