Why are women so bloodthirsty for true crime?

Cristen Conger

America's true crime obsession really took off in the 1940s and 1950s with Detective Magazine. (Flickr/California Cthulhu
America's true crime obsession really took off in the 1940s and 1950s with Detective Magazine. (Flickr/California Cthulhu
Will Hart

In September 2013, TIME magazine asked whether murder shows are the "new soap operas for women," judging by the meteoric rise of Investigation Discovery, a 24-7 cable true crime extravaganza*. Launched barely five years ago, Investigation Discovery (ID) has attracted an overwhelmingly female audience rabid for shows about horrific crimes, including lovers-turned-murders, housewives-turned-sociopaths and run-of-the-mill stranger danger. Now, ID claims the 8th-highest cable TV slot among women 25 to 54 years old -- but why?

STREAM: "Is there a gender gap in crime?"

[audio http://podcasts.howstuffworks.com/hsw/podcasts/smnty/2009-10-19-smnty-gender-gap-crime.mp3]

Speaking to TIME, ID's head of development Jane Latman supposes it has to do with the satisfaction of seeing criminals -- typically men who victimize women -- brought to justice:

"I think there's a cathartic journey that the audience goes on that in the end makes you feel somehow safer. It's counterintuitive, but when the handcuffs are on, justice is served and the perpetrator is behind bars and you see these real people getting on with their lives you kind of feel like 'okay I can go to bed and I'm not going to check my door ten times.'"

That theory jives with the results of a 2010 study looking into why women are particularly drawn to true crime literature. Women buy a majority of mystery and true crime titles, but its isn't a craving for violence that steers women toward gritty titles. In "Captured by True Crime: Why are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?," psychologists Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley examined Amazon book reviews and women's book preferences and found female readers opted for books that examine the psychology of killers, share escape tactics and involve women as victims. Based on that, the study authors linked true crime's popularity to evolutionary fear instincts that might propel women to learn how to protect themselves from danger.

What those psychologists didn't highlight, however, was a potentially erotic -- and taboo -- appeal. In Laura Browder's 2006 study "Dystopian Romance: True Crime and the Female Reader," she interviewed a number of women true crime fans and found that "In reading true crime, women can vicariously experience kinky sex and violence and survive." In a way, Browder surmises, true crime novels pick up where romance novels leave off with the knight in shining armor turning out to be a Ted Bundy, complete with photo inserts displaying the real-life perpetrators and victims. That visual element, which is a staple of the true crime book genre, helps explain why a network like ID would soar in the ratings so swiftly.

STREAM: "Women's Prisons vs. 'Orange Is the New Black'"

[audio http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/podcasts.howstuffworks.com/hsw/podcasts/smnty/2013-09-30-smnty-orange-is-the-new-black.mp3]

Whether a steady media diet of true crime is all that healthy is debatable, with some scholars warning that it only breeds anxiety and unfounded panic. And certainly when it comes to the demographics portrayed in both the written and film genres, the reality of true crime is heavily skewed -- and heavily white. Statistically, African American woman are significantly more likely to be victims of violent crime and intimate partner violence than any other ethnic group in the United States. In Jean Marley's comprehensive "The Rise of True Crime in the 20th Century," she points out how "the overwhelming majority of true-crime stories portray white killers and victims, with a heavy emphasis on both serial killing and murder in the domestic sphere, and the 'missing white woman of the week' is vastly overrepresented in major media forms like cable television news and their Internet affiliates." In which case, the continuing rise of true crime only perpetuates the puzzle of how to rectify mainstream misrepresentations of who crime truly affects offscreen.

*Stuff Mom Never Told You and Investigation Discovery are both part of the Discovery Communications media family.