True crime, trauma, and TikTok: why women fall for serial killers

Prison writing has existed for roughly as long as humans have tried to lock each other up. St Paul, writing in AD 60, was an early pioneer of the genre, penning his epistles whilst under house arrest in Rome. Before that, Plato wrote his Apology as from an imprisoned Socrates – his mentor, who was sentenced to prison and then death for corrupting the Athenian youth.

And letters don’t just come from prison: inmates today receive millions of letters a year. Religious groups, charities, voluntary organisations, and individuals put pen to paper for all sorts of reasons; mostly compassionate and humanitarian.

Some writers, however, have something else in mind. One trend on TikTok in particular caught our eye: women seeking husbands in prison. 

There’s nothing new about TikTok users sending letters to those incarcerated. And much of the phenomenon is cause for celebration: treating vulnerable people with respect and advocating for them in public has helped rehabilitation efforts, and might even serve to lower recidivism in future.

But several prominent TikTokers have already managed to meet their partner, or indeed spouse, in US prisons – despite being British or from other non-US countries themselves. And it’s a growing industry: there now exist a number of companies that charge inmates to post videos of themselves on websites and TikTok with their names, prison numbers, and contact details.

One such company,, has almost 100,000 followers on TikTok and 700,000 likes. It features hundreds of introductory videos from inmates in states around the US, with captions like “For the mature ladies 🥰” and “Single, 6’0″, 175lbs, athletically built, dark brown eyes, tattoos & dreads.” Hashtags include #prisonwife, #single, and #justice.

Every inmate and his – for they are overwhelmingly male – convictions can be looked up online, though videos and profiles are usually devoid of reference to them. Some show prisoners singing, or telling jokes, but most read like any other personal ads: hobbies, interests, and sometimes preferred partner characteristics, although many inmates make it clear that they don’t mind what someone looks like. also shows convicts’ star signs, religious faiths, and sexual orientations. The crimes that put these men in prison range from non-violent drug offences to kidnapping, domestic assault, murder, battery, and multiple counts of rape.

It’s human nature to seek connection, especially when confined and isolated. But what makes women, particularly social and attractive young women with plenty of romantic prospects, seek out men in foreign prisons for (often) violent crimes?

The phenomenon of women falling for violent offenders is nothing new. It’s hard to find a serial killer whose crimes are well-known who has not been propositioned by at least a dozen women, and sometimes hundreds or even thousands. Jeffrey Dahmer, a gay man who murdered adolescent boys, killed within two years of his incarceration, received so many fan letters he couldn’t reply to them all. His adorers also sent him money, prison coupons, and photographs of themselves and their families.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that women make up nearly 75% of the audience for ‘true crime’ series and media. There are a lot of theories about why this might be. One is that women are much more likely to be victims of serial killers, and so pay more attention to crime media than men as a way of trying to understand the threats they face. In the same way that someone with health anxiety might obsessively research symptoms and diagnoses, women might consume media about murderers and rapists in an effort to understand – and so feel more in control of – their predators. 

But this doesn’t account for the legions of women who not only obsess over criminology, but go as far as falling in love with violent offenders. What do we know about this from a scientific perspective? 

Evolutionary psychologists are quick to highlight the historical reasons that women might have evolved to be attracted to predators in this way: harming others is a good way to show that you’re physically and mentally strong enough to defend the things that matter to you, which may well include your family. For prospective mothers, protecting future children is of paramount importance, and a strong mate who can see off competition and threats has obvious appeal.

But this doesn’t make sense of the fact that women are disproportionately likely to die at the hands of their partners. In fact, of women who are murdered, almost 60% of them are killed by family members, and (within that) more than a third of them are killed by their current or former partners. Being close to violent men makes women more likely to be murdered, preventing them from passing on their genes. If there had been evolutionary pressure on women when it came to partner choice, we could reasonably expect it to work against their coupling up with potential killers – not in favour of it.

In reality, selection pressures and the changes they precipitate are extremely difficult to chart, not least because we still don’t have a definitive accounting of which traits are “exclusively” genetic, which are epigenetic (influenced by our DNA responding to our environment), and which are “exclusively” environmental – if those categories are even the right ones. 

But that doesn’t mean we know nothing about the psychology behind this phenomenon. Some things are common to women who end up in love or relationships with dangerous men, and we’ve taken a look at those factors below.

I Can Fix Him

Your inner narrative is something like this.

Sure, he may not always treat me kindly, but I understand why. He’s suffered so much. All he needs is someone to be kind to him for once. If I’m patient and gentle enough with him it will work. I know he’s trying his best, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I can forgive him for the pain he causes me. He just needs to be loved.

As common as it is unsettling, this mindset sees abusive or vicious men as victims. This alone isn’t necessarily inaccurate: we know that children of violent adults are more likely to become violent in turn, and those abused or neglected as children are more likely to become abusive or neglectful adults. But the perception that a violent offender is, deep down, a wounded child aching to be loved is consistently identified by psychologists as playing a role in women’s commitment to aggressive or vicious men.

This perception also tells us something about those who hold it. Some psychiatrists consider it to be projection, and it’s often seen in victims of abuse (who are well represented in the so-called “prison brides” category). Women, particularly vulnerable women, sometimes believe that they are responsible for their own past or present mistreatment, and care for abusive or emotionally unavailable partners because they are psychologically unable to direct such loving compassion towards themselves. They may also believe that their partner will eventually reward them with kindness, made all the more valuable because he gives it so rarely. Women are socially compelled to be altruistic and self-sacrificing, priming them for this kind of vulnerability to dangerous or exploitative actors.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that so many of the women who become pen-pals with convicts end up falling for them: those motivated enough to write to strangers are likely to be more altruistic than the general public already. The same may be true of criminal defence lawyers, a few of whom have ended up in high-profile relationships with their clients. 

Power is sexy

Those serving jail time are not usually seen as having much agency. But as we touched on above, the ability to murder someone requires at least a moderate level of physical competence and psychological aggression. Serial killers also have to be intellectually capable enough to evade police forces whilst amassing victims. All those factors, abstracted from their horrific consequences, are generally considered attractive in a partner.

We also know that women find men with “dark triad” traits – psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism – attractive, at least in short-term mates. Men score more highly than women in all of these three attributes, and men that score particularly highly are likely to report having more sexual partners over their lifetime – although there are reasons to doubt that men high in narcissism and psychopathy are truthful in their reporting here.

This doesn’t mean that women find the dark triad traits attractive in themselves. Men who are more likely to lie or mislead women about their social status, resources, character, or accomplishments may attract women only by virtue of those lies, rather than because they really possess any of those things. We typically think of psychopaths as charming and persuasive, at least superficially, and those are attractive characteristics. The same is true of confidence – and we know that those with psychopathic traits are typically low in anxiety and self-doubt.

He’s the perfect boyfriend

Imagine a partner who loves you unconditionally, will never leave you or be unfaithful, asks for almost nothing, and lets you live your life without restriction or compromise. For some, that sounds like the perfect relationship. Inmates aren’t often fussy, because they can’t afford to be. For women who have been socially rejected, or who are unable to meet the demands of a more conventional relationship, a prisoner offers the prospect of intimacy in a way other partners cannot.

Because contact between prisoners and the outside world is limited, the girlfriends or wives of inmates don’t get to see their partner function in society. They’ll never experience their boyfriend getting angry in traffic or being rude to waiting staff; they’ll never have to do his laundry, wash up after him, or ask him for the millionth time if he wouldn’t mind putting the toilet seat down when he’s finished. They see only the aspects he wants to present in letters and maybe occasional visits – and he sees the same of them. Both partners are blank slates to the other, able to bear almost any amount of projection or make-believe. There are interesting parallels to be drawn with relationships that start online, or those between long-distance partners. But those relationships are at least between two free individuals, able to video-call and travel to meet each other.

Of course, not all inmates serve life sentences, and a convict’s release is a pivotal moment for any prison-based relationship. But far less research exists on the long-term success of these relationships than on their formation. Inevitably, some end in horrific tragedy:

Jacquelynne Willcox-Bailey's book Dream Lovers: Women Who Marry Men Behind Bars is a series of interviews conducted with Australian women. The most melancholy story concerns two middle-aged Christian sisters, Avril and Rose, who left long-term "boring" marriages for men in prison. One man had been convicted of a string of minor property offences, the other man had killed his previous wife. His new wife, Rose, said: "I have faith that if you're genuine with the Lord you're a new person. A lot of people have said I should be worried about him because of what he did and his background - which is pretty awful and violent - but I have no fear."

Despite the women's faith, both relationships ended tragically: a week after his release the thief bludgeoned Avril to death with a hammer. The other husband ended up back in prison after trying to cut Rose's ear off and pull out her teeth with pliers.

Denise Mina writing in The Guardian

Others doubtless disintegrate when confronted by the toil of daily life, the reality of the personalities involved, or the challenges of social reintegration. Still others may succeed and flourish; very limited data exists either way. But it’s not hard to imagine the challenges faced by such a cataclysmic relationship change.

Something darker

A fourth and more sinister reason to seek out prison relationships exists. Some writers argue that female interest in true crime is partly a kind of sublimation: women are (on average) physically smaller and weaker than men, and subject to sexual abuse, physical violence, and murder by men at staggering rates. The implicit threat of male violence is nearly ubiquitous, but women have limited ways to express anger about it, or indeed about other perceived injustices. Becoming interested in, close to, and even in control of a violent man may act as a vehicle for releasing rage.

We’re familiar with the phenomenon of murderous duos: Bonnie and Clyde, Fred and Rose West, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Some women seek a share of the uncanny power that adorns murderers and serial killers, and will take radical steps to attain it. The term for sexual attraction to those who commit crimes is hybristophilia, from the Greek hubrizein (derived from “hubris”). More colloquially: Bonnie and Clyde syndrome. 

Veronica Compton was an aspiring actress, model, and playwright when she went to interview Kenneth Bianchi – the “Hillside Strangler.” Along with his cousin, Bianchi had raped and murdered ten women. Compton, then 23, fell in love with him. She even tried to prove his innocence – by attempting to murder another woman.

Compton’s murder attempt failed, and she was imprisoned. But what about Bianchi was so compelling to her that she was willing to share in his crimes?

The answer may lie less in Bianchi than in Compton herself. Sexually abused throughout her childhood, she was addicted to alcohol and drugs when she met Bianchi, who proceeded to take control of the substances she used. 

Veronica Compton Waller: My history has been difficult. As a child I was born with kidney problems and was frequently hospitalized. I was kidnapped at 11 and held for months where I was severely tortured. I finally managed to escape, very ill but alive. I was mute for a time. By 15, I had many surgeries and treatments for cancer and was told I would have to have a hysterectomy and double mastectomies. I stopped treatment and got pregnant before it was too late. Unfortunately, the father of my child was abusive and I was repeatedly hospitalized as a result of his severe beatings (one of which consisted in partial facial reconstruction). I was forced to stay with him until three of his friends helped me escape.

Amy Mackie interviews Veronica Compton Wallace for Pelican Bomb

Yet once imprisoned, she began reading and music programmes, directing an art course and eventually marrying a professor of government. Her artwork is available to buy at auction. One addiction expert, writing on Compton’s prison record, credits her imprisonment with her salvation.

Similar origin stories abound. Rose West was sexually abused by her violent father; Myra Hindley’s alcoholic father beat her and made her fight other children. Bonnie Parker married a classmate, who abused and repeatedly abandoned her, when she was 15.

Just as many violent criminals experienced trauma or extreme difficulty in childhood, the women who love them are often shaped by violence or neglect. 

Many relationships formed in prison may be healthy, resilient, and sincere. Even the most cursory browse of inmate profiles online throws up dozens of men with complex, thoughtful profiles and wide ranges of skills and interests.

But deliberately seeking out a romantic partner who’s incarcerated, as some women do, might not be indicative of a healthy attitude to romance. Consistent with the famous cases explored above, one US study found that 90% of women in relationships with incarcerated partners had previously experienced abusive marriages. Those who survive abuse and intimate partner violence are at particular risk of repeating previous traumatic scenarios, in a psychological and physiological attempt to escape feelings of terror.

It may be that those of us who find psychopathic traits (extreme confidence, superficial charm, failure to respect social norms, and so on) attractive have some self-interrogation to do. In the meantime, it's good to take sensible precautions when corresponding with those convicted of violent crimes.

Ready to find the one?

Become a member