Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Why Do Women Fall for Serial Killers?

Women frequently betray a strong erotic preference for dominant males.

Charles Manson
In her post, “Women Who Love Serial Killers,” PT blogger, Katherine Ramsland, offers some suggestions about why some women can be so attracted to, or hopelessly beguiled by, the most terrifying of human predators. At first, she provides explanations from the women themselves, women who actually married these dangerously unhinged criminals. Their reasons (somewhat elaborated here) include the assumptions that:

  • their love can transform the convict: from cunning and cruel, to caring, concerned, and compassionate.
  • there’s a wounded child nested somewhere inside the killer that can be healed through a devoted nurturance that only they can provide.
  • they might share the killer’s media spotlight, and so triumphantly emerge from their anonymity, and maybe in the process even land a book or movie deal (an aspiration about as cynical as it is narcissistic and self-serving).

Since these mostly self-deceptive notions derive from these women’s conscious minds, we need to delve much deeper if we’re to grasp the subconscious motives driving such melodramatically aberrant behavior. And here I should mention that Ramsland notes that some experts in the field regard these women either as incapable of finding love in more normal ways, or as seeking a relationship that “romantically” can never be consummated (or, I might add, domesticated). Probably closer to the mark are other theorists she alludes to who hypothesize a more evolutionary (or Darwinian) motive, kindred to female primates regularly attracted to “larger, louder, more aggressive males.” Up just one level to the human species, we discover women drawn toward super-aggressive males who, presumably, can offer them much more status and protection than the average man.

What I’d like to do in this post is expand further on the biological, sexual, and psychological dynamics that Ramsland only touches upon. After all, in trying to adequately account for a most peculiar (not to say, bizarre) female preference, it only makes sense to explore its origins on as many levels as possible. My key reference here is a recent, provocative book on male vs. female sexual brains entitled A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire, by computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam (Dutton, 2011). This comprehensive undertaking (with a bibliography containing over 1,300 items) analyzes enormous amounts of data extracted mostly from the Internet to come to conclusions that at times confirm earlier research in the area and almost as frequently contradict what previously had been inferred (thereby boldly turning a good deal of conventional wisdom on its head).

To simplify this work’s findings for my present purpose, however, let me begin by emphasizing that Ogas and Gaddam find substantial evidence from Web searches, posts, and many 1,000s of romance novels that women demonstrate a strong erotic preference for dominant men. Or toward what’s now commonly referred to as alpha males—in the authors’ words, men who are “strong, confident, [and] swaggering [as in “cocky,” and the pun is intended].” Unfortunately, what these descriptors often imply is behavior sufficiently bearish, self-centered, and insensitive as to often cross the line into a physical, mental, and emotional abuse that can be downright brutal.

Consciously, most women would like their men to be kind, empathic, understanding, and respectful. But there’s something in their native wiring that makes a great many of them susceptible to “bad boys.” Possibly because, as the authors quote Angela Knight as reflecting (in a sentiment that echoes the conclusions of most evolutionary psychologists): “[Their] inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order” (p .97).

Moreover, in responding to the question as to whether some men, such as “serial killers, violent offenders, and rapists," might be too dominant for women to accept, Ogas and Gaddam note: “It turns out that killing people is an effective way to elicit the attention of many women: virtually every serial killer, including Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and David Berkowitz, have received love letters from large numbers of female fans” (p. 98).

The fantasy that seems to be operating in such devotees, and that constitutes the plot of virtually all erotic/romantic novels written with women in mind, is that the “misogyny and jerkdom” they might have to battle with in such super-dominant males is only temporary. That it doesn’t really represent the man’s innermost reality. That his violence and lack of tender feelings is only the beginning of the story, and that their unsparing love, affection, and dedication can ultimately transform his character by helping him get in touch with his, well, “inner goo.”

It’s no coincidence that the whole genre of fictional romance is so hypnotically enticing to so many women that—surprise, surprise!—it actually outsells the pornography everywhere out there that’s expressly designed to appeal to the male brain (which, alas, focuses far more on female body parts than anything pertaining to “romance”). Women regularly purchase an astronomical amount of romance fiction (and, more and more, anonymously through the Web). And what this suggests is that while those who fall for serial killers may represent a pathological exaggeration of a female’s erotic mind, many women (at least secretly, or subliminally) can’t help but be drawn toward cold-blooded, controlling, “bad boys” whose dominance symbolizes quite the opposite of what in relationships they’re consciously seeking.

(And here I should probably mention the astoundingly successful e-book and New York Times bestselling erotic fiction trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, which graphically depicts so many scenes of BDSM. The book’s phenomenal popularity doesn’t at all relate to its originality or creative prose, but to its striking a powerfully erotic chord in so many of its readers.)

As repeatedly demonstrated in romance novels, heroes aren’t simply strong but competent also — the best at what they do. And, however ironically, serial killers seem to fit the bill in this respect, too. They may not be corporate CEOs or Hollywood movie stars, but they’re extraordinarily skilled at annihilating people. Additionally, the combination of dominance and competence is typically linked to age. So it follows that those who are attracted to serial killers tend to be much younger than the violent criminals they find so alluring.

Again, much of this might well go back to prehistoric times when it was crucial that women choose mates who could best provide for them and their children, as well as defend them from various external threats. In today’s society, women typically are far more independent and have the freedom to choose a partner based primarily on mental and emotional (vs. physical or material) needs. But if their hardwiring predisposes them to be attracted to alpha males, modern-day rationality can still be offset by primordial instincts having little or nothing to do with reason. And, frankly, as a therapist I’ve encountered many women who bemoaned their vulnerability toward dominant men who, consciously, they recognized were all wrong for them.

What might also be noted here is that many women experience as enticing the idea of surrendering to a powerful male figure because of its very riskiness. Curiously, such an acutely felt threat can actually be eroticized by women’s minds into exceptional sexual excitement so compelling that (at least on a fantasy level) it’s almost irresistible. (And see here my earlier post "Fear-Inspired Sex".) Add to this the captivating illusion that their special womanly qualities eventually will diffuse the man’s aggression to the point that he’ll come to reveal his “inner mushiness” (the norm in romance fiction plots) and you have a recipe for real-life disaster. For there’s much evidence suggesting that female brains are cued to “set out on a mission to tame, heal, or soften the alpha hero’s wild heart” (Ogas & Gaddam, p. 99).

So, returning to the women who fall for serial killers, such distorted notions about love would seem a perfect set-up for the rudest of awakenings. But fortunately, though women may frequently entertain fantasies of such an impetuous romantic involvement, and be tantalizingly turned on by all its forbidden elements, very few are actually swayed by such primitive instincts.

NOTE: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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