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On Staying Sexy and Not Getting Murdered

Do women love true crime out of legit fears or media hype?

It’s not just you. Or your mom. Or that one friend you can talk to about this stuff without them looking at you like, dear God, have you been a morbid sicko all along? It turns out we’re everywhere. Loads of us, tons of us, binders full of us: Women who are really into the freakiest and most gruesome true crime.

And that’s not a popular misconception. Actual studies have shown that women are significantly more interested in reading about these kinds of murders than their male counterparts. Not to imply that bloody true-crime stories are the exclusive territory of women — though I’ve yet to attend a Mommy, Dead and Dearest viewing party hosted by a man. But the uptick in the number (or at least visibility) of female true-crime fans is definitely having a moment, thanks in no small part to the impact of the oft-discussed podcast My Favorite Murder, which made headlines in 2016 when it debuted to a sonic boom of popularity, especially among women. The series has definitely helped normalize the practice of sitting down with your friends to dish about dismemberment between jokes about pet ownership and anecdotes about mental health. Mainly because that’s essentially the format of the show, which is recorded on a couch into a laptop. Hence, the reason it’s filed in iTunes under Comedy rather than Crime.

Hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark often sidebar to explain why they allow the ridiculous tangents and fits of tension-breaking laughter that characteristically interrupt the podcast — a practice their largely female fans relate to and love. It’s because, hey man, we all need a little humor to get through such dark material. And the reason we need to get through such dark material is because, hey man, we have to. We’re driven to. These stories could easily be about us!

At least that’s what everyone from clinical researchers to podcast hosts seem to postulate. We want, maybe even need to know about these things so we can feel, in some distant, probably futile way, like we know the worst of what’s out there waiting for us. That’s what it really comes down to—the overwhelmingly female audience behind everything from MFM to Law & Order: SVU. It’s why one of the biggest women-focused cable networks in the country opted to rebrand itself as a true-crime network, and why women so often sniff out true-crime stories with equal parts empathetic horror and compulsive fascination: We’re usually the ones who get murdered.

Aren’t we? It seems like a reasonable conclusion for any woman living in modern American society. We’re the ones who can’t walk alone at night, or go running with headphones on, or walk to our cars without gripping our keys like makeshift brass knuckles.

But that doesn’t necessarily tell us if our fears about being murdered are well-founded or if we’re being manipulated by a media that most certainly profits from our fear. Nancy Grace’s 11-year campaign of highly lucrative cable-news terror left millions of viewers with the impression that America is suffering an epidemic of child abductions, while in reality, children are safer now than at any time in our nation’s history. In fact, Americans generally perceive the crime rate as steadily rising, even though it is, in fact, markedly falling. Considering the soapy river of tawdry “murder porn” docuseries hemorrhaging from Investigation Discovery and the afore-alluded-to Oxygen network to an audience of mostly women, it hardly seems like a leap to assume the media trades on our collective terror.

But where’s the chicken and where’s the egg when it comes to women and true crime? Is the media capitalizing on our legitimate fears, or did the media invent the very fear it’s cashing in on? Does our attraction to the most mortally disturbing true-crime stories proportionately represent the threats we face as a gender?

Well, yes and no. Definitely not as a strict numbers game; women certainly don’t account for even close to a majority of American murder victims. Or offenders, for that matter. But that’s the thing: We’re not compelled by just any old murder. The true crimes that draw in the dense cross-section of women we’re talking about here aren’t the ones about gang violence or mafia hits or drug deals gone awry that account for the majority of killings in the United States. Male victims comprise 90 to 95 percent of those cases. The kinds of murders that account for the present zeitgeist of interest among women are all of a specific type: murder for murder’s sake. Thrill killings, serial killers, sex-related murders, and the like. Not to mention murders by romantic partners.

Homicide data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When it comes to dying at the hands of a straight-up psycho or someone you love, that’s where women are totally crushing it. Women may only account for 22 percent of murder victims in total if you count all those aforementioned drug deals and mafia hits, but according to FBI ViCAP data, women make up a monumental 70 percent of U.S. serial killer victims. Of course, most of us know at least intellectually that serial killers make up a comparatively tiny portion of the murderous landscape as a whole, but they undeniably take up a lot of real estate in our collective imaginations.

Not to mention that a woman’s fear of being targeted by a serial killer is actually just one node in a wide and complex web of far more terrifyingly reasonable fears about being targeted and attacked by men in general. Anybody can be shot or stabbed for their wallet or cellphone, but women have to worry about being attacked anywhere, at any time, just for being women, and trans women have it even worse. Women may not appear much in statistics involving gangs or drugs or even “workplace-related” murders. But there’s a “circumstance” in which female murder victims hit it out of the park: “sex-related.” Women dominate that category, accounting for 81.7 percent of victims, with men comprising 93.7 percent of offenders. It’s a wonder why living in a world where sexually motivated violence so lopsidedly effects our gender doesn’t make murderinos out of us all.

My Favorite Murder’s fan base propagates the show’s anti-murder message largely via Etsy.

Of course, women commit murders, too, as well as other acts of violence. And there’s nothing less valid or important about the victims of those crimes or, indeed, the victims of any crimes, regardless of gender. But we’re talking about a trend here, and trends are borne out of numbers. If you want to understand why so many women are deep-diving into grisly true crime, all you have to do is look at the number of women targeted by the kinds of killers they’re reading about.

And that’s not even the end of it. When you weed out all those murders between, uh, “business” associates and focus on the home, women really start owning it. Women make up 70 percent of victims killed by an intimate partner, and black women are even more likely than white women to be killed by a boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse. To look at it another way, 64 percent of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, while the same victim/offender relationship only applies to 5 percent of male victims. Oh, and pregnant women and and new mothers are more likely to die by murder than as a result of the three most prevalent pregnancy- and birth-related medical complications.

So, do women gravitate toward true crime out of legitimate fears about being murdered? The short answer is yes. And while there’s definitely no discounting the media’s ability to exploit and warp even our reasonably justified fears into malformed straw men, the phenomenon of women and true crime feels undeniably positive. Not just because it has apparently resulted in a far-reaching subculture joyously identifying itself, but also because it’s taken a pervasive fear that used to live underneath the surface and made it a topic of open conversation.

One of the many catchphrases from My Favorite Murder that quickly caught on with listeners is “fuck politeness,” a cheeky aphorism inspired by the exploits of killers like Ted Bundy, who lured women into his grasp through feigned injuries and faux requests for directions, exploiting his female victims’ conditioning to always be polite. Judging by the sheer girth of heartfelt crafting that the phrase has inspired, this new tidbit of common sense shouldn’t be underestimated. If we soon see a downtick in the number of women getting cajoled into vans, at least partial credit should definitely go to the murderinos.

Writer. Musician. Maximalist.

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