Early in 1980, a woman named Carole Ann Boone took advantage of an obscure Florida law to marry the man she loved in court by making a public declaration on the record. He accepted, and the two had a daughter in 1982. The man Boone married was recently convicted serial killer Ted Bundy, who had called her as a character witness during the proceedings that would later sentence him to death for multiple murders. Carole Ann Boone didn’t know Bundy before the trial but had started showing up to court with other women dressed like Bundy’s victims to get his attention.
Why Am I Attracted to Criminals?
The women who competed outside the courtroom for a serial killer’s affection were not alone. Almost every high-profile serial killer, rapist or other psychopathic criminal eventually gets fan mail from people who claim to be in love with them. Psychologists call this phenomenon hybristophilia, which is defined as feeling romantic or sexual arousal for criminals or an act of crime in itself.
While the phenomenon of people — overwhelmingly women — seeking the attention of violent and dangerous criminals may seem odd, it’s actually surprisingly common. According to research done by Dr. Philippe Bensimon, a criminologist at the University of Montreal, upwards of 4% of Canadian prison and jail employees show signs of this condition, and it may be a significant factor in personal relationships outside of correctional facilities as well.
Is Hybristophilia a Mental Disorder?
At first glance, it’s tempting to write off this behavior as a symptom of mental illness, but it isn’t that simple. Technically, hybristophilia is not a mental disorder in itself but a condition known as a paraphilia. Paraphilias are sometimes called fetishes, when the normal course of human attraction gets diverted into an unusual or inappropriate avenue. Often, this involves a person developing a fixation on an object or set of conditions for arousal, such as wearing certain fabrics, role-playing with a partner or watching certain types of media that may or may not be explicitly pornographic.
In severe cases, a paraphilia can interfere with normal arousal patterns and prevent healthy adult relationships from forming. At lower levels, however, they’re commonly known as “kinks” and may be processed as private preferences that don’t have larger consequences for the person’s normal life.
Because it affects a person’s choice of partner, hybristophilia is somewhat more consequential than a predilection for scented candles or wearing latex. People with this condition may privately fantasize about relationships and/or sex with criminals, consume media stories about widely publicized crimes and the people who commit them or engage in increasingly risky behavior to find a person who matches their fantasy. A person with hybristophilia might make major life decisions, such as taking a job in corrections or proposing marriage to a convicted murderer, in order to satisfy their urges.
What Is a Mental Disorder?
This returns to the question of whether hybristophilia is a mental illness. According to mental health authorities, a proper mental disorder is characterized by clinically significant disturbances in a person’s perception of reality, ability to think, regulation of emotions or behavioral output. When the disturbance rises to the point that it interferes with a person’s ability to live a normal life, most clinicians are prepared to diagnose a mental illness. To do this, doctors and therapists in the United States typically refer to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5-TR) to compare their patients’ symptoms with the most current research into conditions and diagnostic criteria.
Does Hybristophilia Meet the Criteria for Mental Illness?
There isn’t a consensus about whether hybristophilia is or should be classed as a mental illness or symptom of illness in itself. This is partly because of the limited amount of research on the phenomenon as opposed to, for instance, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It’s also controversial because of the differing degrees of severity the condition can develop into. The case of Carole Ann Boone, who publicly agreed to marry a man who raped and murdered sorority girls with exceptional cruelty, is rather extreme and probably not the sign of a healthy relationship model.
But most hybristophiliacs are far less extreme than this example. In fact, an unknown number of people may secretly fantasize about crime and criminals without ever letting on. For these people, the paraphilia has little or no impact on their lives, which makes it difficult to justify a formal diagnosis of mental illness.
Why Are Women Attracted to Serial Killers?
There’s no single reason why hybristophilia develops. Like most paraphilias, it seems to be a combination of genetic factors, environmental factors and chance that causes the condition to develop. Several factors have been proposed to account for the phenomenon.
Hybristophilia is an overwhelmingly feminine condition, with hardly any male subjects showing signs of it. This may be because of the evolved preference of women for strong, protective men, which in its most extreme form could be mistaken for a violent or controlling man. While a woman’s healthy attraction to certain types of men would normally stop short of abusive and dangerous criminals, outliers will feel attraction beyond the tolerance point most women have for aggressive behavior.
A case can be made for childhood environment triggering hybristophilia, though no conclusive link has ever been established. A woman who was abused or neglected as a child may develop an unhealthy attraction as an adult to men who violently transgress against rules and laws, which sometimes emerges as a sexual attraction to killers and other predatory criminals.
It’s also possible that social conditioning relates to hybristophilia. After pictures of Ted Bundy’s victims were printed in the papers and shown on TV, a number of people commented that they all had a similar look, with long brown hair parted in the middle and large hoop earrings. Before long, women started appearing in front of the courthouse with their long hair parted in the middle and wearing hoop earrings. At least one of these women admitted to a reporter that she had dyed her hair to more closely resemble one of Bundy’s victims. This may be attention-seeking behavior for some, or irrational acting out for others.
What Can Be Done?
Hybristophilia can have devastating consequences for the women who have it and carry things too far. Consistently seeking out violent partners not only puts them and their children at risk, it potentially creates a partner in crime for men who are set apart by their ability to manipulate and hurt other people.
At the low end, where hybristophilia manifests as a private sexual fetish, harm is not typically done. But for women who actively seek out the most attractive criminals they can find and put themselves in harm’s way to be with them, a strong family and peer support network, willingness to communicate and management of other emotional disorders the woman might have are key to limiting the damage hybristophilia can cause.