Skip to content

The Kind of Man Your Mother Warned You About

Why women love true crime.

· 10 min read
The Kind of Man Your Mother Warned You About
Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The film depicts characters who use seduction as a weapon to manipulate and degrade others.

My mother always told me that there were two types of rapist. The first, by far the least common, was the sort who knew no woman would ever willingly want him and so went forth equipped with things like drugs and duct tape. The second was the sort that believed no woman could resist him and was often genuinely surprised when one did, sometimes refusing to take “no” for an answer.

I should probably clarify. My mother worked in a psychiatric prison in the UK and had first-hand experience of the worst that humanity has to offer. Some evil people know that they are evil or, at the very least, disgusting to wider society. But the majority of wrong-doers feel themselves—sometimes with the active encouragement of those around them cheering on their greatness—to be fully deserving of their elevated view of themselves. This can result in them thinking, with some justification, that the rules do not apply to them.

What Does She See In Him?
The strange phenomenon of hybristophiles.

Dark Triads

We call these people narcissists. And, if this trait of self-aggrandizement is combined with the two other traits of Machiavellianism (treating others as pawns in the great game of your life) and lack of empathy, then we have what most people would call a psychopath. This dark triad of traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and lack of empathy—has been extensively studied by psychologists. Some argue that a fourth trait—sadism—should be added to the mix, in order to have a scientific handle on what everyday people think of as evil, but I do not want to get into that controversy here. People who score highly on all three of these traits are not necessarily killers, but they act without conscience or remorse, and whether or not other people are hurt by them does not figure in their moral calculus.

I doubt whether Russell Brand is a psychopath, even given the recent investigations into his abusive behaviours towards women stretching back decades. I also have no idea if what he is accused of would pass the stringent standards of evidence to be called criminal in a court of law. I do know, however, that, had he tried, out his antics back in those ages that his occasional pretentious Regency dandy impersonations evoke, he would have ended up getting called out. And, back in the eighteenth century, being “called out” did not mean a few Twitteratti getting their panties in a wad. It would have meant getting a swordy-wardy in the gutty-wuts, delivered under the dripping trees at dawn. Ah, the good old days.

In such a lawless age, one where so-called “anti-establishment” figures like Brand could not reach for their expensive lawyers when called to account for their behaviour, the concept of honor was one’s main protection. The decline of duelling directly parallels the rise of lawsuits in our culture. In the past, men had to protect their reputations with credible threats of violence, and women had to protect theirs without an official police force.

Whatever one might think of the armies of young women who fought over one another to get into bed with Brand, much of his behavior was dishonourable. Publicly mocking, and humiliating, both the individual you had sex with—however willingly—and their family, would have resulted, in more civilized times, with Brand likely being shut up by extra-legal means.

Brand is, quite literally, the sort of man your mother warned you about. He is what used to be called a cad. Fruit fly semen contains a chemical that makes the female fruit fly less able to mate with other males. Convincing a naïve young woman that you love her, and that she is the one who will finally tame your caddishness, is a similarly dastardly trick. We all know that caddishness—the man who could have lots of women but is giving that all up for you—can be quite sexy. At least, up to a point. Where is that point? Well, as with any other social trait, there is a certain amount of local calibration necessary. This brings me to the topic of true crime. Why are we all, and women in particular, obsessed with it?

True crime, gossip, reputation, and self-defence.

Feminist scholar Germaine Greer made herself few friends when she made the point that I just echoed above: that bad boys are sexy. However, she is obviously right, and you need only remember the hordes of majority female audiences screaming approval, and throwing underwear, at Brand’s gigs, to be reminded of this fact. But no woman—unless she has spilled over into full-blown hybristophilia—wants to be the victim of such a person. How, then, to distinguish between the sort of rule-flouter who is sexy and the sort who might pose a danger? I suggest that trying to solve this calibration, at least in part, explains the specifically female obsession with true crime: How do I avoid becoming a victim?

A recent movie, Woman of the Hour, explores a very particular instance of this. A TV show called ‘The Dating Game’ had a format where three members of one sex gave prepared answers to dating questions from a member of the opposite sex screened off from them. The single contestant chooses one of the three, and they are then sent off on a date together, with the understanding that they will report back the following week for the entertainment of the audience. Only, this time, the contestant, Cheryl Bradshaw, took stock of the man she had chosen, Rodney Alcala. Thank the Lord that Cheryl called the producers the very next day and backed out. I would love to have been able to ask her what had tipped her off, but whatever instinct she listened to was a sound one, because Alcala was one of America’s worst-ever serial killers…and he was in the middle of a murder spree. He was eventually convicted of five murders, but police suspected him of 130. He died in prison in 2021.

Back to true crime. Why so interested? There are a number of ways we humans explore—in other words calibrate for local signs—moral (and immoral) behavior. Stories, songs, art, and gossip are just some of these. These behaviours are all proximate mechanisms. What does this mean? We can ask (very broadly) two types of question of a trait in behavioural science: How and Why?

How and Why

How questions are the meat and drink of most of behaviooral science: How does this enzyme work? How does it feel to be abandoned? How do eyes process colour vision? How questions are proximate questions. Why questions (or, to give their technical term, “ultimate” questions) are always cashed out in terms of evolution by natural selection. (Why is that? Because this is the only non-supernatural mechanism that can give the appearance of design.)

Ever since Darwin, there has only been one set of answers to why questions—things are the way they are because they got that way. And the way they got that way—assuming that what they are are complex functional designs—is by natural selection. Descent with modification through differential reproduction. And ever since we realised that Mendel and Darwin belonged together, ‘evolution by natural selection’ has meant differential selection of genes in the gene pool.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t this all “selfish gene”-ery imply a ruthless competitiveness? Nature red in tooth and claw? Dog eat dog? ‘Dog Bites Man’? ‘Man Bites Dog Back Again’? Instead, what we get is Man and Dog (as well as Woman and Cat) living in relative harmony. How is this possible? How is it that, as Stephen Jay Gould put it, our days are filled with 10,000 acts of kindness (that we don’t bother to record) and not with murder and mayhem (which we certainly do record—though not in proportion to their occurrence). How, in other words, is it possible for us—for any , in fact—to be social, which has to be based on some level of altruism?

William Hamilton has provided the basis for the answers to that question. Hamilton’s rule is reasonably well known in biology, namely, a gene that underlies some altruistic trait (which could be a behaviour such as sharing food, or a body part like a bee’s sacrificial sting) can spread throughout the population if the cost of that trait (C) is lower than its benefit (B) multiplied by the coefficient of relatedness (r). This is often formulated as rB > C.

Getting technical about morality

The coefficient of relatedness attempts to quantify the [chance/probability/likelihood] that that two individuals share a particular gene by common descent, and is expressed as a decimal. An r of 0.5 means a 50 percent chance of sharing that gene; r = 0 means no chance; an r =1 means you are identical twins. It’s important to put it this way because saying things like “r = 0.5 means you share 50 percent of your genes” can get you confused mighty swiftly.

What Hamilton’s rule seems to be saying is that blood is thicker than water—and this fits with our intuitive sense that we help our family (our kin) over strangers. The problem is that, in the rush to simplify the rule (for textbooks), it’s very easy to misapprehend what it actually says.

There are four ways in which you (or any organism) can act in relation to fellow organisms:

1) Selfishly (you get something at their expense). This happens a lot.

2) Spitefully (you both end up worse off). This happens pretty rarely. Despite how it feels sometimes.

3) Altruistically (they get something at a reproductive cost to you).

4) Mutually (you both benefit).

These benefits and costs are average effects, of course. A friendly dolphin who mistakes a drowning human for a young dolphin and pushes them to the surface is, on average, benefiting its own kin by this behavior, not being exploited by a selfish human.

There are a lot of things to say about this list, but one of the most important is that it’s easy to confuse mutualism (4) with altruism (3). Oftentimes, when we call an action “altruistic”, what we really mean is that there was mutual benefit. And I think that one of the reasons for our confusion here is that we have a whole bunch of (proximate) mechanisms for separating out the really beneficial from the spiteful and the selfish in our vicinity. That is the meat and drink of gossip and cautionary tales, after all.

Gossip 1: “Why did he help her out?”

Gossip 2: “Oh, he’s not really being kind. It makes him feel good to help people.”

This is all (biologically) wrong. Feeling good is the how of the behavior, but why we evolved to feel good when we help others (e.g., why it advanced both our interests) is an ultimate question. And they shouldn’t be mixed up.

It’s commonly thought that behaviours that benefit non–family members constitute a huge challenge to Hamilton’s rule, but this is simply untrue. There are, in fact, a large number of ways that direct benefits could accrue to those acting in mutually beneficial ways, and they usually go hand in hand with some sorts of mechanisms for enforcing compliance and punishing cheaters. And this means that we are expected to have (and we do have) a whole raft of ways to spot said cheaters. One set of these is our obsessive interest in who can be trusted; whose reputation has been sullied, and whether this was fair or unfair; who is gearing up to kill whom if they dare go near that person again; what their Kevin ought not to have said about our Sharon at the wedding, and so on and so forth.

What Explains Women’s Fascination With BDSM Fiction?
Every generation or so (i.e., roughly every 25 years) a woman (it’s always a woman) writes a book about kinky sex—and a very specific type of kinky sex.

Hamilton’s rule only kicks in when the benefits are indirect, and his key insight was to frame this in terms of genes. Given that our ancestral dispersal patterns used to be pretty viscous—that is, we didn’t stray far from our birth group—a lot of benefits we doled out to those around us would have also benefited those who shared that altruistic gene by common descent. This would be true even if we didn’t have better-than-average ways to spot kin. Of course, we also have (proximate) ways that we use to carve out “us” and “them”. And a lot of this is the bread and butter of social psychology—describing proximate mechanisms of tribal allegiance, none of which has to be parcelled out in terms of who shares most genes (or not).

All of this means that there is a constant never-ending need for all of us to assess what counts as signs of acceptable behavior in any local setting so that we do not get exploited by free riders, or worse.


So, back to the original question. Why are we in general, but women in particular, interested in murderers, rapists, and miscarriages of justice? Ultimately, it’s because we have a whole raft of mechanisms that we evolved to be obsessively interested in (and to thus spot) potential social dangers, and those who might try to exploit those feelings to manipulate us, and how to spot those cheaters, and so on. There exists no greater exploitation for a woman than a man who tries to subvert a woman’s sexual choice mechanisms by forcing himself on her. And, given the closeness of attractive narcissism to exploitative psychopathy, only attention to the boundaries can allow women to make fine judgements. Anyone doubting how attractive narcissism can be to some women, at least, can get some insights with these interviews. Our True Crime media are stepping in (or riding on the back of our interest) where once we would have had gossip, vertical transfer of strategically useful information—such as ‘the sort of man your mother warned you about’—‘NST’ (not safe in taxis), and similar sharings of strategic information. And this interest, and obsessiveness, will never go away. There is no stable balance point in the battles of the sexes.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette