Wanted: The Female Serial Killer 2

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 33, Summer 1996.

The West case offered an opportunity for intense media focus on and speculation about ‘the female serial killer’. Debbie Cameron argues that whilst Rose West should be understood and categorised as a female sex murderer, most of the commentary to date has re-worked old ideas, and offers little to those of us wishing to develop a feminist analysis.

Almost exactly ten years ago, Liz Frazer and I were finishing The Lust To Kill, a feminist study of sexual murder.[1] Our starting point was that any satisfactory explanation of sex killing must account for the fact that it is gender-specific: only men do it. The experts whose works we read had remarkably little to say about that. Assuming they mentioned it (which many did not), they either explained it in biological terms or else treated it as incidental, needing no explanation at all.

We, by contrast, wanted to make explicit the connection between this most extreme form of sexual violence and a particular way of con­structing identity and sexuality which in patriarchal societies is only available to men—indeed, in less extreme forms it is considered ‘normal’ for them. However, we assumed that gender identities and sexual desires are socially constructed, not ‘natural’ or biological. This prompted us to ask whether, if cultural condi­tions changed sufficiently, some women might also take up the role of the sexual killer. We wondered if tendencies in contemporary western culture (notably the 1980s libertarian equation of sadism with women’s ‘empowerment’ and sexual ‘liberation’) might bring this about in the foreseeable future. Since patriarchal power relations were unlikely to wither away, however, we predicted that if and when a female sex murderer emerged, her victims would most likely be women.

Now we know that well before we wrote this, a woman, Rosemary West, together with her husband Frederick, had already embarked on a long career of abducting, abusing, torturing and murdering young women. Fred West killed himself before he could be tried, but Rose West was convicted in 1995 of the murder of ten women and girls. These killings were shown at the trial to have occurred within a context of extreme, ongoing sexual abuse which took many different forms and was sustained over many years—it remains unclear how many people were involved either as perpetrators or victims. Some survivors testified in court; conversely, there may well have been more than ten women who did not survive their encounter with the Wests.

Ambivalent responses

In spite of having predicted that women might one day do what Rose West was convicted of, I did not find the reality easy to accept. It wasn’t that I believed women couldn’t do appalling things: I knew from our research that they could and they had. But this one very particular appalling thing—destroying another person for sexual pleasure—had seemed not to be in their repertoire.

Other writers claimed it was, but when we really looked into the cases they cited there was always a question-mark over what was done, by whom, and why. It is common for women’s involvement in sex murder to be exaggerated, and for sexual sadism to be imputed to them on the flimsiest of evidence; some women’s involvement, though real, occurs under severe duress which puts their own motives in ques­tion. ‘Accomplice’ would in many cases be a better description than ‘murderer’ (though an accomplice in such cases is still guilty of very serious crimes). But I would not describe Rose West as an accomplice. There is no question in my mind she was actively involved in and got pleasure from sexual abuse, torture and murder. Yet I still found I wanted either to disbelieve in her guilt, or to find an explanation for it that would make her less culpable.

Once I had recognised this ambivalence in my own response, I saw it in other responses too. My desire to explain Rose West differently (that is, from men like her husband) was paralleled in mainstream commentary on the case, where the effect was to give prominence and legitimacy to a lot of confusing, contra­dictory and damagingly anti-feminist ideas. At the same time, I was not the only feminist with ambivalent feelings. Rose West challenges everyone’s most cherished beliefs about women, and for feminists she poses a particular dilem­ma. Assuming we do not think she was wrongly convicted, what does it mean that these horrific crimes were committed by a woman? What do we say to nonfeminists for whom the existence of Rose West ‘proves’ that when it comes to sexual violence, women are as bad as men, if not worse?

I want to approach these questions from two different angles. On one hand something needs to be said about how Rose West was discussed in mainstream commentary, the way she was ‘framed’, categorised, made intelligible to the general public. On the other hand we do need to consider whether Rose West’s case might have implications for feminist analysis too. I think it raises questions for which our own answers, though different from mainstream ones, are not entirely adequate. I will return to these ques­tions at a later date. In this piece however I will deal with the first issue, the problematic nature of mainstream discussion.

Framing devices

The terms of public debate about the West case were set by an unholy alliance of media pundits and ‘experts’ (clinicians, social scientists, law enforcement professionals). In an attempt to unravel the tangled web of their discourse I will focus in particular on two ‘framing devices’ that were used extensively. By a ‘framing device’ I mean a general scenario into which, by common consent, a particular set of events may be slotted like a picture into a frame. The same event can be framed in a number of different ways: a frame is judged suitable for a given event if the same kind of event has been put in that frame before—it’s a convention that solidifies over time, and its function is to provide ready-made ‘angles’ which save time and thought for media producers and consumers. The two devices I want to look at in this discussion are ‘the [female] serial killer’ and ‘the mother as murderer’.

The ‘female serial killer’: fact or fiction?

The ‘serial killer’ is a cultural icon—as a newspaper article recently remarked, perhaps one of the cultural icons of the late twentieth century. The ‘cultural’ tag is important here. It isn’t always fully appreciated that most of what we ‘know’ about this figure—whether male or female—comes from fiction (films, detective/horror novels, TV shows like Cracker) rather than reality. Even where information is avail­able about actual cases, it is typically packaged in a genre (‘true crime’) that borrows the techniques of fiction, like rounded ‘characters’, narrative structures which rearrange the time frame, detailed descriptions of events which the writer did not witness, suspense and pathos. This very popular genre is often written by journalists who covered a murder case for a newspaper, and in many instances it now provides the frame for actual news reporting. The boundary between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred.

Rose West was instantly categorised as a ‘serial killer’. She was also, of course, a woman; so predictably her case inspired an outbreak of handwringing about ‘female serial killers’. Shortly after the West trial ended, the Guardian newspaper published a long article by another woman convicted of multiple sexual killing, Myra Hindley, in which she discussed her part in the moors murders. This took up two pages, and a further page was given over to comment­ary from various ‘experts’. The newspaper’s justification for the column-yards it devoted to this murder-fest referred explicitly to the West case. The trial of Rose West had made painfully clear that ‘we still know too little about the female serial killer’.

There is rather a simple explanation for this ignorance. Though there are many women serial killers in fiction (cf Dirty Weekend, Basic Instinct, Butterfly Kiss, Cracker), in the real world the category ‘female serial killer’ does not have enough people in it to make it a respect­able object of scientific knowledge. Much depends on how you define ‘serial killing’—a question I will return to, since there is a suspicious elasticity in the definition where women are concerned. If we interpret it as referring to repeated homicides involving sexual sadism, I estimate that the number of women known to the authorities worldwide whose actions make them even possible candidates for the label ‘female serial killer’ is between seven and ten, all but one of whom acted in partner­ship with a man.

In this country, the category (if defined in the terms I’ve just mentioned) has precisely two people in it: Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. Yet the Guardian was typical of the media at large in basing much of its feature coverage on the idea that ‘female serial killers’ constitute a growing social menace, a criminological mystery we urgently need to solve. This is, to put it mildly, a considerable overstatement. Even the FBI, no slouch when it comes to sweeping statements about criminal ‘profiles’, has so far declined to offer us a thumbnail sketch of ‘the female serial killer’[2]. There is not enough evidence to generalise from, and—from the point of view of law enforcement—no very urgent need.

So why are we fixated on a mythical figure? I believe that what is really happening is that the unholy alliance mentioned earlier between the experts and the media has a desperate need, not to understand the female serial killer but to create her as a culturally recognisable figure. Later I will say why I think there is this need to create the female serial killer at this time. First, though, I want to look at how ‘serial killing’ itself has taken over from other stories we used to tell about sex murder, and what this has meant for the representation of women.

Rose West and Myra Hindley

I have already introduced the subject of Myra Hindley; it cropped up with monotonous regularity throughout Rose West’s trial, right up to the point when TV viewers watched a convicted Rose West being taken away in a prison van, its destination described in voice­over as ‘the same jail that contains Myra Hindley’. (Inevitably, the tabloids started manufacturing unlikely stories that the two women had become close friends.) Some news bulletins even used the archaic word ‘murder­ess’ to emphasise the parallel, pointing out that Rose West has taken over from Myra Hindley as ‘the worst murderess in Britain this century’.

Though there are resemblances between the two women (both killed as one half of a heterosexual couple; both victimised children and young people) the main reason for making the connection so insistently is simply that both are women, and even more importantly, they are the only women of their type. The existence of Myra Hindley was crucial to the construction of Rose West: one woman is an aberration, two are a class. But since three decades separate the revelation of these two women’s crimes, there are also differences in the way they have been understood.

Sexual versus serial

To begin with, their crimes were categorised differently. In 1995, what Fred and Rose West did is unhesitatingly recognised by experts and laypeople alike as ‘serial killing’—a term originally coined by the FBI which was subse­quently taken up by law-enforcement agencies elsewhere and widely disseminated through popular fictions like the film The Silence of the Lambs. In Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s time this term did not exist, and the ‘serial’ aspect— killing over and over again—was far less important to people’s understanding of the meaning of the crime. Both single and multiple murders where the victim had been raped, tortured, sexually abused and/or mutilated, were usually referred to as ‘sex murder’, a term that foregrounds sexual gratification as the motive. ‘Serial killing’, by contrast, is frequently (and mislead­ingly) described as motiveless.

The older term says more about what is at stake; it also says more about why women’s engagement in this form of violence was not just statistically rare (in fact, so rare as to be virtually non-existent) but unintelligible. The sort of ‘sex maniac’ who is popularly believed to commit ‘sex murder’ could not be convinc­ingly visualised as a woman, whereas ‘serial killing’ can more easily be stretched to encom­pass instances of multiple murder by women (which are rare, but not unknown).

This brings us back to the ‘suspicious elasticity’ of the category. Elastic definitions are strategically useful in discussions of the ‘female serial killer,’ which depend implicitly on the presupposition that such women exist in significant numbers. Stretching the definition allows you to bump up the numbers when your argument requires it, without worrying too much about the diversity of motives this lumps together.

For instance, a recent British case of multiple murder by a woman is that of Beverley Allitt, the nurse whose killings of children were attributed to Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy. Beverley Allitt’s actions do not really belong in the same category as Myra Hindley’s or Rose West’s, but if the logic of a discussion so dictates, the mere fact she killed repeatedly can be used to classify her crimes with theirs under the heading of ‘serial killing’. Other so-called ‘female serial killers’ may have had revenge or self-defence as their motive. The indiscri­minateness of the category ‘serial killing’, and most especially its capacity to obscure a specifically sexual element in murder (which may also be present in single, non-serial crimes), is one reason why I believe feminists should reject the term and oppose its use in law enforcement.

In the 1960s the moors murders were understood as ‘sex murder’ rather than ‘serial killing’. So the work which had to be done around the representation of Myra Hindley was essentially the work of explaining how she, as a woman, could possibly have become involved. One approach was to represent her as Ian Brady’s adoring creature (too much of a woman for her own good, she had no will of her own and submitted entirely to his); the other, which endures to this day, was to represent her as a monster, not really a woman at all.

The West case is different because of the availability of the ‘serial killer’ category. This has led commentators to try with hindsight to construct a tradition of ‘female serial killers’, in which Rose West figures as Myra Hindley’s successor. But in consequence the treatment of both women is riddled with anachronisms and contradictions. On one hand, Myra Hindley is retrospectively redefined as something which did not exist 30 years ago (a ‘female serial killer’); on the other hand, the discussion of Rose West contains traces of the ‘monster’ archetype which was used to represent Myra Hindley. New discourses have not replaced older ones, but have merely been tacked onto them, with contradictory results.

Equal opportunity evil?

Among the ‘new’ discourses, the most important is a pseudo-feminist popular discourse on female sexuality and violence, which has rendered the idea of female sexual deviance and sadism less alien to common sense than it was 30 years ago. The new discourse draws on ideas about ‘equal opportunity’ in all spheres, not just sex and violence: at its crassest, the thought behind it could be expressed as ‘if we accept women can be airline pilots, we should also accept they can be rapists’. Other versions suggest either that women in the new age of equality have become capable of desires and actions previously unknown to them, or else that they were always capable of these things, but this went unacknowledged because of misplaced chivalry.

This popular discourse is not only connected with other popular discourses on gender equality, but also with a number of new expert, clinical and therapeutic discourses on female deviance. These clinical discourses were very important in the representation of Rose West: they helped to make her intelligible in a way that Myra Hindley never was. The media gave prominence to a number of experts who had, we learned, been toiling in obscurity for some time to uncover, explain and treat the phenomenon of the sexually violent woman. These authorities were able to discuss Rose West not as a puzzle or a novelty but as an extreme example of something already known to science and in the process of being theorised by it: the sexually sadistic woman (who prototypically abuses her own children), and who, we were constantly told, is much more common than most people imagine. Although it was unclear whether any of these other alleged women sexual sadists had murdered a string of women and children (one assumes not, since if they had we would surely have heard about it), reports of their existence prompted speculation that there might be other Rose Wests ‘still out there’, and perhaps, too, that there were many more in the past whose crimes went undetected.

This sort of discussion created a category for Rose West, while at the same time implying that this category had always already been in place, just waiting for science to elucidate it. The ability to ‘place’ her particular brand of deviance and to invoke a historical or clinical record of other similar cases is precisely what was lacking in contemporary discussions of Myra Hindley.

Yet if you look more closely, the ‘new’ discourses which differentiate Rose West’s case from Myra Hindley’s turn out to be pervaded by older assumptions. In practice the discourse of gender equality or sameness is constantly undercut by an older discourse of differ­ence—essentially the ‘monster’ discourse.

Myra Hindley is the classic ‘monster’. A myth quickly grew up in which she rather than Ian Brady had killed the two child victims (this, for instance, is the belief of Ann West, Lesley-Anne Downey’s mother, and it was recently repeated as fact in a Sunday newspaper feature that included Myra Hindley in a list of the 100 most influential modern women. At most, all that can be said is that we do not know who did what). In commentary on the West case a similar myth became evident. The defence that Rose knew nothing of her husband’s activities was undoubt­edly feeble; but evidence of her active involve­ment was widely taken, just like Myra Hindley’s in the moors murders, as a sign that she was the dominant partner, the boss. This is one of the most enduring hidden assumptions in all cases of horrible crimes involving women. An evil woman must be more evil than an evil man, because she departs more markedly from her ascribed gender role—which is to tame the beast in man, not embody it.

Pathologising the mother

The main gender role ascribed to both Myra Hindley and Rose West was that of mother. This might seem surprising given that Myra Hindley, unlike Rose West, was not literally a mother; but to read the trial transcripts and the commen­tary of the time is to realise very quickly that she was treated as a ‘crypto-mother’ because of the unquestioned cultural tendency to conflate femininity and maternity. Thus Myra Hindley’s crimes were placed firmly in the context of women’s natural and instinctive propensity to nurture children. The greater repugnance felt then and now towards Myra Hindley than towards Ian Brady arises from a conviction that the abuse of children by a woman is peculiarly heinous because it is against the order of nature. In the pre-feminist 1960s this was a truism which barely needed spelling out; in the 1990s the question of how to represent the abusive mother became a more prominent, but also more problematic theme.

Abusive mothers became both prominent and problematic for commentators on the West case not only because feminism had critiqued and to some extent displaced the axiomatic belief in ‘maternal instinct’ (so that the common­­-sense account of Myra Hindley as simply unnatural and evil—lacking something that all normal women had—was less readily available). It was also important that in the years between the two cases, the notion of ‘bad/failed/inadequate mothering’ had been placed at the centre of an expert discourse on sexual violence, particularly child abuse, and even more particularly women’s abuse of children. I have already discussed the importance of the new expert discourse on abusive women in making Rose West intelligible, but here I want to point out that the ‘new’ discourse itself incorporates elements of older ones. The most obvious point of continuity with earlier dis­courses (both expert and popular) is the pathologising of the mother.

In the 1960s and for that matter earlier, it had been commonplace for both expert and popular explanations to locate the genesis of the male sexual offender in the inadequate beha­viour of his mother: the classic example of this story in its popular form is the Hitchcock film Psycho. What was more or less unthinkable in the 1960s was the idea that Mom herself might be the abuser. By the 1990s, however, this had become thinkable.

While some might see this development as part of the onward march of science—perhaps the theory was necessitated by a steady accumu­lation of unignorable clinical or criminological evidence—I would want to point to powerful ideological factors influencing its emergence at just the moment it did emerge. The tendency to think in terms of ‘equal opportunities’ which I discussed earlier in relation to popular discourse affects expert discourse as well (and of course they influence each other). One response to feminism—sometimes part of an oppositional ‘backlash’, but in this scientific context probably more often part of a misguidedly liberal, ‘anything-men-can-do’ agenda—has been an urgent desire on the part of many experts to frame all kinds of phenomena in gender-neutral terms, as if differences in the positioning of men and women had now been totally eliminated. Battered husbands, male anorexics and violent female street gangs have all made their appearance under this regime of equal opportunities, and deliberately genderless terms like ‘parenting’, ‘spousal abuse’ and ‘family violence’ have proliferated. The result is to mystify the unequal relations which still exist between the sexes.

Without necessarily denying that the newly-named phenomena exist, it is clear that (as with the ‘female serial killer’) their prominence in public discourse is out of all proportion to their real incidence and significance. The same goes for the mother who is a sexual abuser—but she is a double mystification. She is a mystification first, because the focus on her is a focus on women rather than men (who are the over­whelm­ing majority of abusers); but second, and just as important, because the focus on her is a focus on mothers rather than women per se.

The ‘mother as murderer’… but what about dad?

Rose West’s trial and conviction called forth a flood of commentary either written by psycho­therapists or drawing heavily on quotes from them, specifically about the phenomenon of child sexual abuse committed by mothers. There are two points to make about this. One is that Fred West also abused the children of his own household. That fact, however, while it was absolutely obvious, did not occasion the same kind or quantity of comment.

Of course, Fred West was not on trial, having committed suicide while on remand. Furthermore, sexual abuse by fathers is not a novel concept, whereas sexual abuse by mothers, relatively speaking, is. But it is interesting that whereas early attempts to discuss sexual abuse by fathers in public were met with widespread denial, these attempts to discuss abusive mothers like Rose West were not. In a culture saturated by the discourse of equal opportunities and gender-neutrality, many people were on the contrary eager to believe (nor do I suggest they were wrong to believe, even if I find the eagerness suspect). They were also, of course, eager to condemn; but here they tended to fall back on a version of the same ‘how-could-a-mother-do-this-to-children’ trope as in the Brady/Hindley case.

Commentary on the case was pervaded by a contradiction between two basic theses: on one hand that women are, axiomatically, the same (that is, ‘just as bad’) as men, and on the other hand, equally axiomatically, that they are different (which in this context means ‘worse’). While commentators overtly made much of the equal depravity of the two partners in crime, they did not treat them equally. It was somehow more understandable that a father should behave like Fred West than that a mother should behave like Rose West. And indeed, statistically Fred’s behaviour is less remarkable. Yet that is surely no reason not to ask questions about it (rather the reverse).

On the other hand, why should it be assumed that Rose’s abusiveness must have an entirely different explanation from Fred’s? Again this seems to be in contradiction with the ‘sexual abuse is gender neutral’ thesis. In practice, though, a different and gender-specific explanation was what we were given. According to this explanation, women who abuse their children are guilty of a ‘failure of mothering’. This isn’t meant in the obvious sense that if you abuse your kids you are a failure as a mother, it means (so far as I can make any sense of it at all) that the need or desire to abuse arises from something going wrong in the mother-child relationship. It doesn’t go wrong because of the abuse, the abuse happens because it has gone wrong. This reworks the idea of ‘family dysfunction’ which feminists have criticised when applied to the abuse of daughters by fathers. Here it is transferred to explain murder as well.

But strangely we heard nothing about Fred West’s ‘failure of fathering’: that phrase has an odd as well as unfamiliar ring. Why do people not talk about men’s sexual abuse of children in these terms? Is it because we expect so much of mothers and so little of fathers? Or is it because we understand that child sexual abuse by fathers has more to do with their masculinity than with their fatherhood? Whatever the underlying logic of the assumptions, the outcome is implicitly to set up an asymmetrical pairing as the basic conceptual framework for any discussion of gender and sexual abuse: instead of man/woman or father/mother we have man/mother.

Distorting the picture

One of the distortions that arose from this in the West case relates to the second key point I want to emphasise, which is that the Wests did not only abuse and kill their own children, or children as such—most of their victims (eight out of the ten for whose murder Rose West was convicted) were young adult women who were not family members. I do not mean to minimise the killing of Charmaine and Heather West (or murder within the family more generally); rather I want to give equal value to all the lives that were destroyed and to retain some sense of the bigger picture, the full enormity of the crimes for which Rose West was tried.

It is amazing how routinely this enormity was and is glossed over, as if writers about the case had simply ignored or forgotten most of the material facts. Only a few weeks after the trial I read a newspaper article which summarised the couple’s activities over more than a decade in the sentence ‘Meanwhile, the Wests continued slaughtering their children’ (Observer, 28 January). Historians of the future could easily get the impression, from supposedly accurate journalistic sources, on one hand that the Wests killed every one of their children, and on the other hand that they killed nobody else.

Apart from being morally repellent (since it implies that the other victims mattered less) this is also sufficiently unusual to be worth remark­ing on. Normally it is the murder of strangers that causes the greatest public outrage, while the domestic abuse and killing of chil­dren, or wives, is seen as less heinous. But the focus on the West children as the central victims was required by two special features of the case as a whole.

One was the desire to paint 25 Cromwell Street as the home of a uniquely ‘dysfunctional’ family (and not, for instance, as the HQ of a sex abuse network involving outsiders as well). The family had to be made central to evade awkward questions about the wider context. Also, this family had to be pathologised in order to maintain the idealisation of families in general.

The family is usually seen as the domain of the normal, with sexual deviance and murder lying outside and in opposition to it. That is one reason why a common (though often inaccurate) stereotype of the serial/sexual killer is the ‘loner’—someone who does not fit into society, and is excluded above all from the safe and respectable world of the nuclear family. This stereotype was applied to Dennis Nilsen, another killer whose home, like 25 Cromwell Street, had corpses under the floorboards. Dennis Nilsen however was gay, single and childless, whereas the West household with its two parents, many children and countless lodgers who were ‘part of the family’ was almost a parody of the domestic ideal. When the truth was discovered, it was necessary to present the Wests as The Family From Hell. The fact that they were an outwardly normal family could not be treated as incidental to their hellishness, it had to be the key to it. Hence the narrow focus on what they did to their children.

Offensive logic

The other factor, which became even more important after Fred West’s suicide, was the portrayal of Rose West as a murderous mother. If her wickedness was to be understood prima­rily in terms of her failings as a mother (and not simply her failings as a human being) then the killing of her own children, particularly Heather who was biologically hers, had to be made to rank above every other wicked act.

This bizarre and offensive logic was implicitly accepted by both prosecution and defence in the trial. Great emphasis was placed on whether Rose West had, as she claimed, repudiated Fred West when she discovered Heather had been killed. The point of arguing about this appeared to be to establish a line of defence that Rose West was not so depraved as to lack the natural feelings of a mother for her child. As it happens, no-one was impressed by this defence, because they did not believe it. But even if Rose West’s answer had been credible, why should it have weighed more in the scales of justice than the treatment of so many other victims? Was she on trial as a murderer, or as a mother? The answer would seem to be, both: it was as if proving that she was a murderer depended on also proving that she was a bad and unnatural mother.

This approach may not, in this case, have perverted the course of justice, but it certainly did nothing for the cause of understanding. When commentators focused so narrowly on the murderer as mother, a response which was both dictated by Rose West’s gender and at the same time unhelpfully reductive about gender (i.e. ‘woman = mother’), they were not just distort­ing the facts about what was done and to whom, but failing utterly to get to the root of what the Wests’ criminal career was all about. But that is another discussion which I will take up at a later date.


I called this piece ‘Wanted: The Female Serial Killer’ because for me the only key that can unlock the manifold mysteries of mainstream commentary on Rose West—the anachronistic stereotypes that have more or less disappeared in other contexts, the wilful elevation of a tiny handful of cases into a major social problem, the fixation on motherhood which caused reporter after reporter to suffer selective amnesia about basic facts like how many women the Wests killed—is the idea that this case gave people something they wanted. At this point in the history of ideas about gender, which is also of course the history of feminist political struggle, a large number of people are desperate to believe in equal opportunity sex, violence and murder. No doubt the actions of Rose West fill them with horror and disgust; I do not question the sincerity of those feelings. But at a deeper level, the level at which people conceptualise and make sense of the world at large, they feel vindicated by the existence of Rose West. The only way they can cope with feminism is to take literally the feminist axiom of women’s equality—preferably by pouncing on any sign that women are no better than men, that there is no depth of male depravity to which women cannot equally sink.

Misogyny being what it is, this quickly leads to the conclusion women are even worse than men. But above all, it triumphantly proves that feminists are in the wrong. Wrong to celebrate women, wrong to harp on the abuse women suffer, wrong to suggest that women’s position has not changed enough—for clearly, if we are now producing a monstrous regiment of ‘female serial killers’ it has changed far too much.

Of course, we are doing no such thing. The thesis of equal opportunity sex and violence is a gross misrepresentation of the available facts. The vigour with which that thesis is pursued in the teeth of all the evidence is indicative of deep-rooted anti-feminism and misogyny. And yet, there is a trap here which I do not want to fall into.

Because I am the co-author of a feminist book about sex murder, I was asked many times during the trial what I ‘as a feminist’ made of Rose West. Sometimes this question came from someone in the media who wanted a token feminist comment. And I often had the feeling it was meant to place me in a double-bind: either I believed in Rose West’s guilt, in which case I must end up rejecting my own feminist analysis; or I could stick to the feminist line and fudge the issue of what Rose West did. The implication was that any feminist account of Rose West would be essentially a defence of her; a plea in mitigation.

I do not think that is true; but as I said right at the beginning of this piece, I do think it is a temptation for feminists. Mainstream eagerness to embrace the ‘female serial killer’ is matched by our reluctance to treat women like Rose West as anything other than (a) utterly untypical and/or (b) what the FBI calls ‘compliant victims’ (see note 2). I am not suggesting these points are inaccurate ((a) is always true, at least so far, and (b) is true very often), but the West case has convinced me they are not the end of the matter. Why did Rose West do what she did? What would constitute a feminist account of her behaviour? These are questions I will come back to.

to be continued…


[1] I thank Liz Frazer for the contribution she has made over the years to my understanding of the issues discussed in this piece, but I would like to make clear that the views expressed here are entirely my own responsibility.

[2] Though it has produced a profile of the ‘compliant victim’, a woman who colludes with a male partner in sexual violence — not necessarily murder — following a lengthy period during which he systematically abuses her. This profile is based on about 15 case studies. The FBI clearly believes that ‘compliant victimhood’ is the commonest scenario for women’s involvement in sadistic sexual crimes.


Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer, The Lust To Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder (Polity Press, 1987).

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2 thoughts on “Wanted: The Female Serial Killer

  • Robert St. Estephe

    Men will indeed often not see the term “serial killer” the same way a gender theorist does. When our daughters, sons, brothers, fathers, friends are murdered by a woman it is the murder that we most care about. Sexual sadism is revolting, but murder is rather a notable crime. I know of over 700 female serial killer cases (3 or more victims). A large share of them involve sadism, sometimes of the sort that is commonly called “sexual.” Was the prolific murderess American Jane Toppan’s erotic pleasure in seeing suffering “sexual?” How about British female serial killer Agnes Norman? Certainly Bejarano’s was. Male porn and female porn are different. Female serial killer sexual sadism is different (usually from men’s). Yet a woman who tortures and murders people repeatedly for fun is a serious matter.