What Are the Differences Between Male and Female Serial Killers?

It is no lie that when it comes to thinking about serial killers, a single image comes to mind; a white male. Most depict the crimes committed by males are sexual and sadistic. Indeed, there are serials that depict that image such as Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer, but they are not the only race who commit atrocious acts of murder. Men and women from all different ethnic backgrounds and culture commit these violent acts as well. Knowing this, why do males get all the media press in our society? There are female serial killers that do exist, and in some cases, more lethal than their male counterparts regarding their astronomically high kill counts.

However, most of the time, the news and entertainment media perpetuate the stereotypes that all serial offenders are male and that women do not engage in horrible acts of violence. This may be due to the gender myth which claim that boys are aggressive by nature while girls are passive. What explains this? What are the differences between male and female serial killers? An average, what drives each gender to commit murder?

First of all, let us take a look on what exactly serial killing is. Defining serial killing is somewhat problematic due to the fact that there is no agreement on what definition should be used. According to experts, categories based on forming definitions include but not limited to: the number of victims; the relationship (or lack of one) between the victims and the perpetrator; whether or not the perpetrator acts alone; the amount of time elapsed between the killing; the period of time over which homicides take place (Yardley and Wilson 2). The most widely used definition of a serial killer is a person that has killed three of more victims in a period of greater than 30 days (Wilson and Yardley, 2013; Wilson et al, 2015). This is most likely to distinguished serial killing from spree and mass killing. Research has found that serial killings accounts for less than one percent of all murder occurring any given year (FBI).

While this relatively rare phenomenon does not happen, studies show that fifteen percent of serial killers are indeed women (Kelleher and Kelleher, 1998; Hickey, 2006, 2010). Keep in mind, this low estimate for female serial murder most likely reflects society’s attitudes toward female aggression.

According to the FBI, the majority of serial killings are sexually motivated. Historically, terms that apply to these sexual acts are terms such as lust murder, sexual homicide, lust killings, and sadistic killings. The acts that the killer enforces upon the victim include vaginal, anal, and oral sex. There are also a number of unconventional sexual acts including fetish behaviors and paraphilias. These include fetishism, postmortem mutilation, foreign object penetration, sexual sadism, necrophilia, cannibalism, and vampirism (FBI).

Sexual orientation is predominantly heterosexual, followed by homosexual, and bisexual, respectively

What motivates one to commit such an atrocious crime? The statement that serial killers aren’t born, they’re made is a controversy amongst psychologists and criminologists. There have been many debates regarding whether or not serial killers are born or made. For example, in The Anatomy of Violence, British psychologist Adrian Raine goes into detail about several biological markers for potential criminality; being male, certain gene variants, a low resting heart rate, brain damage, and a mother who smoked and drank while carrying you in her womb. Raine’s research also talks about devoted parenting and how that can play a role as well; when children are separated from parents before the age of three, or their mothers are cold and their fathers disengaged, they are more likely to show signs of a psychopathic personality at the age of 28. In most cases regarding serial killers, deeply traumatic experiences in childhood always seem to have taken place. Of course, not all abused children become serial killers, and not all serial killers suffered from childhood abuse, but the connection between the two can’t just be a coincidence.

Mental illness may also be a factor. The data for this is mixed. One study found that 28% of serial killers had been treated for mental illness. This is in sharp contrast to a study done by the FBI that found that 69% of their offenders had some form of psychopathology.

Serial killers tend to prey on women of their same race, which is predominantly Caucasian. It should be noted that women account for as much as 67% of the victims in serial murders. In studies of sexually sadistic criminals, it was reported that 73% of the offenders only victimized females, compared with 17% who only victimized males. Ten percent victimized both genders. The target age range for most serial murderers is between the ages of 18 and 50 years. In the majority of cases, the victims of serial killers are often complete strangers. Prostitutes, drifters, & hitchhikers are their victims of choice because they are easy prey & aren’t usually missed by society.

But does this information and evidence apply to female serial killers? Female serial killers tend to be ‘black widows’ who kill a succession of husbands, lovers, or other family members. They can also be nurses or other medical professionals who become self-appointed ‘angels of death’ murdering babies, elderly, or the desperately ill in a misguided effort to relieve their suffering. While female serial killers share some characteristics with their male counterparts, they differ in significant ways. For instance, they are far less likely to torture their victims before killing them or to practice necrophilia or cannibalism. Their methods of killing differ as well; they are much more subtle, making it hard for authorities to catch them. Marissa Harrison, an associate psychology professor at Penn State Harrisburg, suggests that there are probably more female serial killers than have been recorded/caught. Just as society tends to underestimate women, it also tends to be dismissive of female serial killers, giving them silly nicknames to make the situation less serious.

America’s most famous female serial killer is Aileen Wuornos. She was highway prostitute who killed seven men in Florida during 1989 and 1990. Wuornos, unlike the stereotype given to female serial killers, was driven to kill male strangers out of rage and a desire for vengeance. A sexually abused child, she endured 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.

Another female serial killer is Miyuki Ishikawa, a Japanese midwife known as the “Demon Midwife.” She is considered Japan’s most prolific serial killer in the country’s history. It is estimated that she murdered at least 169 infants through neglect. After Japan was forced to surrender in 1945, the birth rate was increasingly dramatically. The consequences of being in a war and the economic turmoil led her to believe that she should leave all these newborn babies to die rather to live a life full of misery, disease, and suffering (Absolute Crime).

Nannie Doss was known as “The Giggling Nanny,” ‘The Giggling Granny,’ and ‘The Jolly Black Widow,’ nearly wiped out her entire family singlehandedly. She used arsenic to murder four of her previous husbands who had all died mysteriously. She also murdered three of her five children, her mother, sister, grandson, and mother-in-law. The nicknames she received was due to her joking and smiling about her dead husbands and the method she used to kill them. Her reasoning for committing these murders was that she was inspired by her love of romance literature to find the perfect husband. However, some think the head injury she sustained as a child played a role as well (Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers).

Juana Barraza, known ‘La Mataviejitas’ or ‘The Old Lady Killer,” was a Mexican wrestler by day, but a serial killer by night. She had the ring name La Dama del Silencio (The Silent Lady). She was obsessed with form of Mexican masked professional wrestling, lucha libre, in which the wrestlers engage in titanic mock battles (Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers). Her victims were elderly women over the age of 60, many of which lived alone. She would strangle or bludgeon her victims prior to robbing them. It should be noted that police found evidence of abuse as well. Barraza posed as a government official, offering victims the chance to sign up for welfare programs and gaining their trust before murdering them. Her childhood trauma was played a factor in her killings; her mother was an alcoholic who reportedly exchanged her for three beers to a man who repeatedly raped her in his care, becoming pregnant with a boy. Barraza’s resentment toward her mother’s treatment of her ultimately led to her becoming a killer. She was sentenced to 759 years in prison.

There are striking similarities between these four female serial killers and the many that are listed on Murderpedia.org. For example, abuse, alcoholic parents, becoming pregnant at a very young age, and childhood illness or injury seemed to be a factor. A 1995 study found that women are more likely to kill for money or power. They used their gender roles as an advantage to elude suspicion (Geberth).