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Crime News

What's The Difference Between Male And Female Serial Killers?

We talked to the experts. 

By Gina Tron

[Serial Killer Dorothea Helen Puente:Central California Women's Facility]

Female serial killers comprise less than 20 percent of all serial killers, according to Psychology Today, and they are very different than their male counterparts.

When the general public thinks of female serial killers, they typically think of Aileen Wuornos, arguably the most infamous female serial killer in contemporary times. She was a highway prostitute who shot and killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. Wuornos had alleged that the victims either raped or attempted to rape her. Multiple documentaries were made about her, in addition to the award-winning 2003 Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlize Theron Monster.

[Wuornos:Getty Images]

But before Wuornos, most people believed that female serial killers didn’t exist. Not even the FBI. In 1998, according to Psychology Today, a member of the FBI stated outright at a conference that there are no female serial killers, period.

Oxygen conducted an interview with Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology and author of Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers on the subject.

“That’s just wrong. You can go back through recorded history and see instances of female serial killers,” said Bonn.

One such example is an Nannie Doss, who killed 11 people in Oklahoma between the 1920s and 1954. Her victims included her five husbands, two of her sisters and two of their children, a mother-in-law and her own mother. She collected the insurance policies of several of her victims.

Bonn and Oxygen discussed how men and women become serial killers, and why. 

What drives female serial killers?

“The most common female serial killer is what is known as a comfort or gain killer. They are killing for some material end. Female serial killers tend to be more practical in their reason for killing than males," said Bonn.

Doss murdered for financial gain. Bonn said that Wuornos was also a comfort/gain killer.

“She (Wuornos) was a robber. She was killing for money. She also had anger towards these men, but it was mostly about material gain.”

Bonn cited another comfort/gain female serial killer, Dorothea Helen Puente. She is believed to have murdered between nine and 15 people, all for financial gain. In the 1980s, Puente ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California.

“Elderly people would check in and never check out. She (Puente) would take over their social security checks and kill them and bury them in the backyard,” said Bonn. Newspapers had dubbed Puente the "Death House Landlady" according to news reports.

According to Sci Tech Connect, even though most female serial killers killed for money, the majority of them came from middle and upper class families.

Sharon Martin, narrator and executive producer of Snapped told Oxygen that she has noticed that women generally kill for money. Although Snapped does not focus on serial killers, it features women accused of murder.

"Of the more than 350 cases we’ve profiled on Snapped, money is by far the most common motive: women who killed to cash in a life insurance policy. In some cases they even initiated the insurance policy—with murder in mind.  At least one woman killed her husband on the day the policy was going to expire," she said.

Martin added that other motives include infidelity, dissatisfaction with the marriage and the threat of divorce. She said those factors often push some women "to kill to cash in." She said she has profiled women with children to support, who are desperate to keep their husbands from divorcing them and leaving them penniless.

What drives male serial killers?

According to Bonn, most male serial killers tend to be driven by sexual motivations and fantasies. He said about 50 percent of all male serial killers are driven by sexual fantasy in one form or another.

The other half have different motivations.

“In some cases it’s about controlling people and domination, and not sex. Sometimes it’s about material gain," said Bonn.

He said that there is also a percentage of male serial killers known as visionary serial killers who think that they are killing for a particular cause. For example, they believe that they are killing for God or the devil.  

What are some signs of a future female serial killer? 

Bonn said that many female serial killers become involved in theft, fraud or embezzlement prior to becoming murderers.  

“Their overall motivation is material gain in some way, and it escalates into murder. They find out that they gain control and gain more money by killing people. It was convenient for Dorothea (Puente) to make these old people disappear, to just bury them in the backyard and get rid of all the evidence.”

Female serial killers’ pre-murder crimes start much later than men, typically. Bonn said that they become involved in financial crimes during their late teens or during their 20s.

What about men?

Male serial killer’s pre-crimes start a lot younger. According to Bonn, it begins around puberty, usually around age 13. They often start by tormenting and killing animals.

“They become sexually aroused by dismembering and putting their hands inside dead animals,” he said. “And that somehow escalates into sexual fantasy and violence.”

This is true of the male serial killers David Berkowitz (also known as Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Rader (also known as the BTK Killer.)

“Serial killers don’t just emerge overnight. It’s a whole incubation period, if you will," said Bonn.

[Dahmer:Getty Images]

Why are men more prone to becoming serial killers?

Bonn said that there are fewer female serial killers because there are fewer female murderers in general.

“About 90 percent of all homicides are committed by men, so it’s a much more of a masculine endeavor.”

Bonn says many male serial killers cannot be helped by therapy or an outlet for expression. He said that a high percentage of male serial killers have a profound personality disorder such as psychopathy or sociopathy.

“They are predisposed to it. Probably somewhere between a third or half of all male serial killers are psychopaths. They are just unable to feel normal emotions,” said Bonn. To psychopaths and sociopaths, people are mere objects.

“So, killing, dismembering and hurting human beings doesn’t phase them,” said Bonn. “If you’re a psychopath that’s a wonderful personality to have if you’re a serial killer. Being a psychopath is very useful to being a serial killer because you don’t feel guilty.”

There are several schools of thoughts about psychopathy and sociopathy, but that Bonn believes psychopaths are born and not made: that there is something faulty in the wiring at birth in the brain that makes one a psychopath.

But not all psychopaths become serial killers or even criminals.

“A psychopathic personality is very conducive to success because they are very goal oriented people who don’t mind hurting people’s feelings and people along the way,” said Bonn. “There are lots of people in corporate America and politics who are psychopaths.”

Bonn said that many serial killers with personality disorders often run normal lives, are married and respected in the community. They often enjoy killing and want to avoid getting caught.

What do mass shooters and serial killers have in common? 

Mass shooters are a completely different animal and have entirely different motivations than serial killers. The only thing mass murderers and serial killers have in common, said Bonn, is that they have killed a certain number of people. That’s pretty much it.

According to Bonn, mass shooters are generally mentally unstable and rage-driven. Often, they don’t even get enjoyment from the one-time killing spree itself. According to various reports, many male mass shooters were sexually frustrated. Many male serial killers, such as Bundy, had no problem finding dates. Rather, women were drawn to him. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often charming, and even though many male serial killers' crimes were sexual in nature, the killers themselves were not actually sexually deprived. Bonn said that unlike mass shooters, serial killers aren't usually suffering from mental illness, technically.

“A serial killer may well be a psychopath or a sociopath but that does not quality as either legal or clinical mental insanity,” said Bonn. He said that mass shooters are much more likely to be clinically and legally mentally ill.

“Often these (mass shooters) are people who feel powerless in their own lives and they are basically saying, ‘f-- you to the world, take this. I’m going to take as many of you out as possible and you will remember my name.’”

Does trauma help create serial killers of either gender?

Bonn doesn’t go so far as to say that trauma could create a serial killer, but he did say that certain serial killers did suffer significant trauma in their childhood, and that it may have been a contributing factor to their later homicidal tendencies. Wuornos is certainly one of them, he said.

A male serial killer who endured a lot of trauma in his youth, according to Bonn, was Edmund Emil Kemper III, known as the "Co-Ed Killer." He killed 10 women in the 60s and 70s in California.

[Kemper:Getty Images]

“He had a genius IQ and he was brutalized by his alcoholic, crazy mother and he grew up to hate women, and his whole killing spree culminated in him chopping his mother’s head off. That was his ultimate goal, was to kill his mother and to shut her up. He chopped her head off and kept it on his dresser for a while.”

Bonn said that Kemper never blamed the trauma for the murders, and that he was aware what he was doing was wrong.

“It’s just he felt compelled to do it and really didn’t have a sense of remorse because I think he was a psychopath,” said Bonn. “So this is a guy, who I believe was a genius and had a  psychopathic personality, and then he was triggered by the abuse by his mother. You put it all together and he becomes an extremely violent, remorseless individual.”

Martin said that there isn't a single factor that can lead to murder, and that includes trauma.

"In my experience, it’s typically a chain of events and choices over a lifetime that leads a woman down a road of no return. Trauma certainly plays a role in how these women perceive their choices and circumstances.  But they reach a point where given all the normal option, murder seems like the best choice—even when other people wouldn’t see it that way."

How common are serial killers? 

Regardless of gender, serial killers only make up for 1 percent of murders in the United States. But, that’s not a percent to scoff at. We are at an all-time murder low in the United States, according to Bonn: about 15,000 homicides annually in the US which is down dramatically since the 1990s when it was close to 25,000. But, the United States still has a higher homicide rate than virtually any other country in the world, according to Bonn.

“The only countries that have higher homicide rates than us are countries that tend to be unstable like Nicaragua. Our peers like Germany, Canada, Australia and France,  their homicide rate is nothing compared to ours. A handful of people a year are murdered.”

15,000 homicides a year means that there are about 150 serial killings per year in the United States, according to Bonn.

“There are as many one to two dozen serial killers active in the United States at any given time,” said Bonn. He said that fact is based on FBI statistics.

He said it’s likely a myth serial killers are an American trend.

“We keep really good records here that other countries don’t," he said, adding that the United States is particularly meticulous at keeping track of serial murderers. “I’m sure there are plenty of serial killers in China but the government doesn’t release the information and the controlled television never reveals it.”