Our culture is having a true crime moment. These spine-tingling stories dominate across almost every medium. Whether it's a new Netflix documentary about Alex Murdaugh, a limited series about Jeffrey Dahmer, a new novel about a woman on a train or in a window or who’s just gone, or even a podcast like Serial – we can't get enough true crime.
The whole idea of a culture obsessing over true crime stories is pretty morbid (which, funny enough, is actually the name of another popular true crime podcast). What is it about our society that makes us go so crazy for stories about the worst aspects of humanity? It’s probably the same reason that people slow down and rubberneck when they drive by a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t help yourself.
Humans are innately curious creatures. When things go horribly wrong, your desire to know what happened is so strong that you simply can't bring yourself to look away, despite the gruesome details. That explains why true crime dominates in the ratings department, but it doesn’t quite explain the gender differences when it comes to true crime viewership.
Why Women Can’t Get Enough True Crime
A 2010 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that “women are more drawn to true crime stories, whereas men are more attracted to other violent genres.” The researchers postulate that women prefer true crime media due to the educational and psychological aspects and because the victims are typically female.
Women are more obsessed with true crime because we’re more likely to be the victims of it.
That last part is one of the most important pieces of this puzzle. Think about the most popular true crime stories in recent memory. While there are some male victims, the overwhelming majority of the victims in these cases are women. Between 1985 and 2019, women accounted for roughly 70% of all serial killer victims. Women are more obsessed with true crime because we’re more likely to be the victims of it.
Dr. Joyce Benenson, a lecturer of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, has done extensive research on human social structures and sex differences. She spoke to this topic in a recent podcast and her belief that women’s obsession with true crime is rooted in our survival instinct – we want to know how we can avoid the same fate. It’s more than just mere curiosity that draws women to true crime stories, it’s a desire for self-preservation.
When we hear a news story about a woman who was abducted and killed because she was walking home by herself late at night, we learn from it and vow to never put ourselves in a similar position. Men don’t have quite the same response.
Obsessing over Our Darkest Fears
Despite what some people might think, women and men are very different. One of the most obvious differences is the fact that men on average are larger and stronger than women. Men don’t have the same fears that we do when it comes to self-preservation. Men don’t know just how scary it is to be a woman walking to her car alone in a dark parking lot. Or how it feels to walk down the street late at night with the spooky sense that you’re being followed.
In addition to being more vulnerable than men, women typically score higher than men on the trait of neuroticism. No, this doesn’t mean we’re crazy. Neuroticism is one of the Big 5 personality traits, along with openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness. Everyone scores differently for these traits, but women – on average – tend to score higher on the neuroticism scale.
Neuroticism is the “tendency to experience anxiety, depression, and negative emotions generally.” This explains why women are typically more anxious than men, which also plays into our fascination with true crime.
You’ve probably experienced examples of neuroticism in your own daily life. Women are more likely to obsess over the worst possible outcomes or entirely made-up scenarios. Some men do this too, of course, but not to the same degree as most women.
It’s more than just curiosity that draws women to true crime stories, it’s a desire for self-preservation.
Women are more vulnerable than men, so when we hear about a true crime story it agitates our survival instincts. We obsess over the details because we’re thinking about what we would do in that same situation and wonder how we could avoid that same thing happening to us. Women’s obsession with true crime is a byproduct of our natural neuroticism, our inherent vulnerability, and the fact that we’re more likely to be the victims of it.
These fears are deeply rooted in our biology, and the reality is that there are some truly evil people out there. You shouldn't walk around petrified every single day, but you should be alert. That’s why all women should learn self-defense and practice situational awareness. Is it likely that you’ll ever be a victim of true crime? No, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The real reason women are obsessed with true crime is a little sad, yes, but it’s also enlightening. So the next time anyone gives you grief about why you’re listening to another true crime podcast or watching another Alex Murdaugh documentary, you can now tell them you’re not listening for fun, you’re actually doing research.
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