Why you should care

Because women fear being a victim — so they listen hard.

While studying for a Ph.D. in mass communications at the University of South Carolina, Kelli Boling often found herself cutting across radio lines during her hour-and-a-half-long commute. Looking for something to occupy her time, she started listening to true crime podcasts. First Serial, made famous by NPR’s Sarah Koenig, and then Undisclosed, another deep dive on wrongful convictions. Then she found herself falling down an addictive audio rabbit hole, listening to everything from American Public Media’s In the Dark to The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Accused to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown.

Boling became curious: Was she the only woman deeply interested in these real-life tales of murder and violence? She decided to lead a study, which found that she was far from alone. In fact, according to her study, published in the Journal of Radio & Audio Media last year …

Nearly 75 percent of true crime podcast listeners are women.

So why are female listeners drawn to the grim genre? The online survey, which received responses from 308 Reddit users, found that there were three motivating factors significantly more salient for women than for men: social interaction, escape and voyeurism. But the fact that three-quarters of true crime listeners are female is even more interesting considering that podcasting audience numbers normally reflect a gender bias.

In 2008, the percentage of women who listened to a podcast lagged behind men by 25 percent, and even as recently as 2017, the podcast audience was 56 percent male and 44 percent female, according to Edison Research. That means the gender gap for true crime is even wider than it seems. A 2018 study by Westwood One Podcast Network found that men outnumber women in listening to every genre of podcast except storytelling/drama, which included true crime.

Women’s fascination with crime also cuts across media. A 2019 CivicScience study found that viewership of true crime TV also skews female, and a 2015 Harris poll of readers found that “mystery, thriller and crime” was the genre most read by women. It also found that women were more than 46 percent more likely to have read a true crime book than men.

 

While it may seem counterintuitive, Boling’s results have a basis in human psychology, says Michael Mantell, founding chief psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. On a very basic level, “women fear being crime victims more than men do,” Mantell says, which means they also have a strong interest in learning how to prevent becoming a victim. “For some, it’s a method to ‘feel like’ they have control over a given situation, though they often don’t.”

There are other factors too. Women tend to prefer female protagonists, for instance. That was one of the conclusions by researchers Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley in a 2010 study titled “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder and Serial Killers?” Studying Amazon reviews of nonfiction books, the researchers found that those about war were more likely to be positively reviewed by men (an 82 to 18 percent margin) while true crime books seemed to attract female reviewers (a 70 percent to 30 percent margin). What’s more, 59 percent of female participants in the study chose books with female victims, while only 41 percent chose those with male victims. “If a woman, rather than a man, is killed, the motives and tactics are simply more relevant to women reading the story,” Vicary and Fraley wrote. 

Boling’s research, however, has some potential pitfalls. The sample came solely from Reddit, which skews toward younger, White and highly educated crowds. “I would love to avoid some of those buckets, for it to be more of a diverse sample,” Boling says of plans for future studies on podcast demographics. She also didn’t leave room for more open-ended answers, which she would like to do in the future to get more context for why women are drawn to true crime. 

On the other hand, the reliance on Reddit, where 71 percent of users are male, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, means that the dominance of women among true crime podcast listeners may be even greater than Boling found. 

While true crime authors aren’t any more likely to be female than male, as Vicary and Fraley found, true crime podcasts do seem to be giving rise to more opportunities for women than men. Investigative journalists have followed Koenig’s microphone, from Phoebe Judge (Criminal) and Madeleine Baran (In the Dark) to Amber Hunt (Accused) and Ashley Flowers (Crime Junkie). Of the top 20 podcasts on the iTunes chart as of May 29, for example, 11 could be classed as true crime, and seven of those have female hosts. Women are taking the microphone as true crime creative leads in a way they haven’t in text, which is perhaps a testament to the more egalitarian model of podcasting.

Consider the success of My Favorite Murder, a weekly podcast in which stand-up comedian Karen Kilgariff and Cooking Channel host Georgia Hardstark discuss murders over wine and snacks. Their show has become so popular that fans (who call themselves “murderinos”) shell out $66.50 to watch live tapings of it, hoisting signs touting the show’s pseudo-slogan, “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered.” If that’s not an empowering message, what is?

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