The notion that all serial killers are men is simply not true, but it's understandable why the public would hold this erroneous belief. As late as 1998, a highly regarded former FBI profiler said, "There are no female serial killers."
The news and entertainment media also perpetuate the stereotypes that all serial offenders are male and that women do not engage in horrible acts of violence. When the lethality of a femme fatale is presented in book or film, she is most often portrayed as the manipulated victim of a dominant male. This popular but stereotypical media image is consistent with traditional gender myths in society which claim that boys are aggressive by nature while girls are passive. In fact, both aggressiveness and passivity can be learned through socialization, and they are not gender specific.
The reality concerning the gender of serial killers is quite different than the mythology of it. Although there have been many more male serial killers than females throughout history, the presence of female serial killers is well documented in the crime data. In fact, nearly 20 percent of all serial homicides in the U.S. are committed by women.
Interestingly, only 10 percent of total murders in the U.S. are committed by women. Therefore, relative to men, women represent a larger percentage of serial murders than all other homicide cases in the U.S. This is an important and revealing fact that defies the popular understanding of serial murder.
Female serial killers share certain common characteristics with male serial killers but they also differ from them in significant ways. For example, female serial killers are far less likely to torture their victims before killing them or to practice necrophilia or cannibalism than male serial killers. This is because the psychological motives of female serial killers are generally very different than their male counterparts.
As it applies to popular mythology, the news and entertainment media focus on and sensationalize the acts of violence and torture perpetrated by male serial killers. The gory tales of atrocity committed by men provide enticing entertainment content to the public. The shocking and stereotypical depictions of male serial killers serve a large consumer market, so their sensationalized stories are good for business profits.
At the same time, however, media distortions do a disservice to the public. Although the graphic images of male serial killers sell countless books and movie tickets, they also perpetuate the myth that all serial killers are demented men.
Nevertheless, there are some similarities between male and female serial killers. Most female serial killers act alone, similar to males, and they are just as effective in the business of killing as their male counterparts.
Perhaps the most infamous female serial killer in U.S. history is Aileen Wuornos, a highway prostitute who killed seven men in Florida during 1989 and 1990. She is a unique exception to the typical profile of female serial killers who target people they know for financial gain. The “black widow” killer is the media stereotype of female serial killers. Wuornos, unlike the stereotype, was driven to kill male strangers out of rage and a desire for vengeance.
Wuornos sought retaliation for a lifetime of rape and beatings by men, so she killed prostitution clients that picked her up along Florida highways. She used a gun which is atypical of female serial killers who more often use either poison or smothering to kill their victims. Following her conviction, Wuornos was sentenced to death and she was executed by lethal injection in 2002. She rose to infamy after the release of the 2003 blockbuster Hollywood film Monster in which she was played to great critical acclaim by Charlize Theron.
Prior to Aileen Wuornos, the term "female serial killer" was generally considered to be an oxymoron, even among law enforcement authorities, despite numerous well documented incidents of female serial killers throughout history. The lack of public awareness of female serial killers prior to Aileen Wuornos is due to earlier stereotypical depictions of deranged male serial murderers in the news and entertainment media.
Prior to Wuornos, the mass media almost always depicted a serial perpetrator as a man, largely due to the erroneous and paternalistic societal notion that women could not commit such crimes. I believe that Wuornos rose to infamy because she was atypical of female serial killers. Ironically, she became a celebrity monster and popular culture icon because she killed like a man.
I offer many other shocking insights into the minds and actions of deranged serial predators in my new book Why We Love Serial Killers which will be released by Skyhorse Press on October 7. Pre-order my book now, save 20%, and you won't pay until it ships in October. Click to order: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1629144320/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_B-2Stb0D57SDB
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com