It’s no secret that true crime is a topic of fascination for many women. But what about those who take this affinity to another – sometimes dangerous – level?
The allure of crime stories for female consumers is undeniable, if rather counterintuitive. After all, the majority of victims of violent crime are women themselves.
In an interview with MagellanTV, Dr. Meghan Sacks, a criminologist and co-host (with Dr. Amy Shlosberg) of the “Women and Crime” podcast, shared her theories about why this interest exists. “There are many reasons why true crime and women are a perfect fit for each other.” Part of the draw, Sacks believes, is that true crime stories provide a safe vantage point from which to examine criminality and attempt to better understand it. “We like to sneak a peek at the dark side of human nature. There’s no doubt about that,” Sacks says.
There’s also a survival factor. By learning about violent offenders and their victims, women might be better able to protect themselves from the same cruel fate. “We want to see what we should fear.…We also want to see, why were these people victimized? How can I protect myself?” In addition, many women are intrigued by the puzzle inherent in unsolved cases. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the rise of “armchair” (or Internet) detectives, those who are so engrossed in cold cases that they have taken on the role of amateur sleuths themselves.
These underlying reasons for interest in true crime stories are easy enough to understand. But there’s another group of individuals who take their fascination with criminality to a whole other level. They actually develop sexual fixations on perpetrators of crime, and there’s a name for it: hybristophilia, defined by sexologist Dr. John Money in 1986 as “a paraphilia (sexual deviation) in which sexual arousal, facilitation, and attainment of orgasm are responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed an outrage, cheating, lying, known infidelities, or crime – such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.”
For more on the curious and disturbing machinations of psychopathic killers, check out the MagellanTV documentary Psychopath: Redefining “Rational”.
The Perverse Allure of Infamous Serial Killers
Hybristophilia is unique among other paraphilias, in that it has primarily been observed among women. Like many paraphilias, hybristophilia exists along a spectrum. A more moderate form of the condition would include serial killer “groupies” who may experience a mental disconnect between the reality of an individual’s crimes and an idealized concept of the men behind the actions.
American serial killers Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez (“The Night Stalker”), and cannibal-killer Jeffrey Dahmer all received love letters and gifts from admiring women. Bundy, Ramirez, and Charles Manson would marry women they met either during their trials or following their convictions. As a more recent example, Chris Watts, the Colorado father who is in prison for annihilating his family, has also received a significant number of letters from female fans.
Beyond American borders, Peter Sutcliffe (the “Yorkshire Ripper”) and Josef Fritzkl, an Austrian man who imprisoned and sexually assaulted his daughter in a cellar for 24 years, both received affectionate, frequently sexual, correspondence from female admirers.
For those who don’t experience hybristophilia themselves, the impulse to engage with individuals who have committed heinous acts remains perplexing. “It’s really interesting because you wouldn’t think these serial offenders who have violently sexually assaulted numbers of women, who have murdered them in horrific ways, would draw the attention of female admiration. It is a phenomenon and it’s a weird one,” Sacks says.
It’s also challenging to pinpoint who might be prone to developing infatuations with convicted criminals. “A lot of these women are surprisingly very well educated and stable,” Sacks says. Also surprising is that physical attraction to the criminals in question is often not the driving factor.
Why Do Some Women Develop Hybristophilia?
So what explains hybristophilia? Sacks first notes “the phenomenon of the ultimate bad boy. … Certain women are attracted to those who are a little darker … a little ‘bad.’ This would be the ultimate form of that.” As with true crime itself, an innocent curiosity and drive to learn more about criminality may lead some women to form a more intimate relationship to the cases and the convicted offenders than they perhaps intended.
Another underlying factor in hybristophilia would be many women’s tendency toward nurturing behaviors. Certain women may feel empathetic toward criminals, expressing understanding of their transgressions, regardless of how vile their acts may be. “Women may see why a person became the ‘monster’ they may have become,” Sacks says. “They want to reach out and help and do something. [They may feel] there’s a way to ‘fix or help this person,’” says Sacks.
Another possibility is that knowing an individual is imprisoned might lead to a feeling of security and certainty on the part of the women. The mindset might be that “this person cannot seek out someone else on the outside. I don’t have to worry about what they’re doing because I always know they’re inside,” Sacks says.
The question arises: if these women had encountered these same criminals outside the walls of a prison, would the attraction persist? Or might amorous feelings be instead replaced with those of revulsion and fear?
While curiosity, the “bad boy” allure, misguided empathy, and assurance of an incarcerated partner’s fidelity offer some explanation for hybristophilia, there’s another significant factor at play. “These offenders are highly manipulative,” Sacks says. “They are able to manipulate women who are vulnerable – or not.”
When Obsession Turns to Complicity: The Darkest Side of Hybristophilia
In the most extreme instances of hybristophilia, individuals may become participants in criminal activity alongside their (usually male) partners. These instances are known as “active” or “aggressive” hybristophilia. Whether through manipulation, coercion, or – the most unnerving possibility – willing desire, individuals might assist in plotting crimes, concealing evidence, or even taking part in crimes themselves. In these cases, the true culpability of the hybristophiliac may be a point of contention in the public mind and within the legal system.
Let’s take a look at two cases in which women partnered with the objects of their fixation, and suffered the ultimate consequence as a result.
Joey Haarhof: South African Hybristophiliac
Forensic psychiatrist Robert Kaplan (who is featured in the MagellanTV documentary Hitler’s Secret Sex Life) has studied the phenomenon of hybristophilia and notes the South African case of Gert van Rooyen and Joey Haarhof. Between 1988 and 1990, the couple is believed to have abducted, molested, and murdered at least six young girls, though there may be many more, including children of color whose disappearances were not prominently featured in the media. The murdered victims’ remains have never been located.
Before meeting Joey Haarhof in 1987, Van Rooyen had married multiple times and fathered several children. He had also been convicted and imprisoned for abducting and molesting two girls, for which he served three years before being released for good behavior. Despite his previous conviction, Van Rooyen continued to pursue children.
When Van Rooyen met Haarhof, she was in her 50s and had been twice married, with several children of her own. Like Van Rooyen, who moonlighted as a preacher, Haarfhof proclaimed strong faith and was a member of the Apostoliese Geloofsending church (Apostolic Faith Mission), a Pentecostal church.
Beyond speculation on behalf of Haarhoff’s daughter about her mother’s abusive upbringing, there was little to suggest she suffered from any psychological conditions, certainly nothing that would logically explain her willingness to abduct and abuse children. Van Rooyen, however, was a confirmed psychopath. Kaplan speculates that Van Rooyen’s “hold over Joey had similar elements to that of a cult leader abusing followers.”
Joey Haarhoff's son, Braam, was convicted in 2022 of molesting a young girl in New Zealand.
Not long after becoming romantically involved, the pair began making applications to foster children, but the applications were rejected. Over the course of their relationship, Van Rooyen and Haarhof developed a pattern of abducting children using this modus operandi: Dressed in a wig, Haarhof would approach young girls in public spaces like shopping malls and persuade them to accompany her to the couple’s car, where Van Rooyen awaited.
In 1990, a victim escaped from the couple’s house in Pretoria and informed the police, who went after the pair. During the chase, Van Rooyen shot and killed Haarhoff, and then himself.
Vicky White: Corrections Officer Goes Rogue
(Source: Lauderdale County Sheriff's Office/UPI/Shutterstock)
Very recently, a bizarre story with a tragic outcome unfolded against the backdrop of Lauderdale County Detention Center in Florence, Alabama. There, Casey White had been awaiting trial since 2020 on two charges of capital murder. Vicky White (no relation) served as the assistant director of corrections at the facility and came to develop a close relationship with Casey White, with the two engaging in frequent private conversations that included “phone sex.” Armed with Vicky’s insider knowledge of the prison’s security system, Casey hatched a plan to escape – a feat successfully pulled off in April of 2022.
The pair went on the lam for more than a week, finally being spotted in Evansville, Indiana, about 270 miles north of the prison. There, the couple was pursued by police. Following the crash of their vehicle, Vicky White was discovered to have a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. She died shortly after.
In a press conference following Vicky White’s death and Casey White’s capture, Lauderdale sheriff Rick Singleton said that he “had every bit of trust in Vicky White. She had been an exemplary employee, and what in the world provoked her, prompted her to pull something like this, I don’t know.”
After the events transpired, Casey White was indicted for felony murder in connection with the death of Vicky White.
While the exact nature of the relationship between Vicky White and Casey White is still unclear, Meghan Sacks has this take on the circumstances: “You have a scenario with a highly manipulative offender. You have that coupled with a female who may be susceptible and vulnerable with possible trouble in her personal life. This offender was very good at reading … was able to fill a void he observed in her. That was how he was really able to convince her this was true love, a relationship, and establish an alternate reality.”
The Challenge of Understanding Hybristophilia
Despite the many cases of hybristophilia available to interpret, the paraphilia remains somewhat of an enigma, and research into the topic is still in its infancy.
One thing remains certain: Women fascinated by the darkest extremes of human behavior are a far cry from those who pursue actual emotional and physical relationships with known killers – or who, in the most astonishing cases, become murderers themselves.
That said, when it comes to unraveling the complex factors that contribute to the phenomenon of hybristophilia, perhaps female true crime aficionados are perfectly primed for the challenge.
Matia Query is a freelance writer and the editor of BookLife, the indie author wing of Publishers Weekly. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Title Image via Pexels
Editor's Note: We regret that we were unable to find a public domain image of Joey Haarhoff and Gert Van Ruyen for use in the section of this article concerning them.