Women love true crime. Studies over the last few years report that women overwhelmingly make up most of the audience of the explosion of true crime podcasts, books and TV shows. It’s almost a cliche, the image of a woman sitting with a glass of red wine and consuming with rapt attention one of the countless choices in the genre, from Dirty John to Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.
Researchers have offered a number of theories about why women are so attracted to tales of serial killers, murder and rape. One possible reason, they say, is that women identify with the victims of violent crimes, as women are often victims of such crimes themselves. In the US, nearly three women are killed every day by intimate partners. According to the CDC, over half of women have experienced sexual violence. And women make up 70% of the victims of serial killers.
Through consuming true crime content, studies say, women experience catharsis; they work out their fears about their own vulnerability and perhaps their rage about what has happened to other women as well. They see in true crime a source of education about how not to wind up a victim.
While none of these hypotheses sounds wrong to me, I think something is missing. Why now? What else has been going on in women’s lives during this time when they’ve become obsessed with true crime content?
It’s striking that the surge in women’s interest in true crime is concurrent with the rise of online dating, particularly in the last 10 years when dating apps have become the No 1 way people in the US date. Serial, the mother of the true crime podcast trend, became a huge hit in 2014, the same time Tinder, the father of dating apps, went mainstream. (Tinder was launched in late 2012 and thousands of other dating apps came on the market soon after.)
Dating was never totally safe for women. But now women are routinely going on dates with men who are virtually unknown to them, which can be scary. Once upon a time, people met through mutual acquaintances and community ties; blind dates were not unheard of, but rarer. Now most women meet men through dating apps, where catfishing and romance scams are not only possible but common. Dating apps don’t vet their users, though most users say they wish they would. Which puts women at not insignificant risk – and on a regular basis if they date frequently.
Women, of necessity, have become amateur detectives, often impressively adept at researching the backgrounds of their matches and potential dates. It is the detectives in true crime they are identifying with as much as the victims. Of the hundreds of women I’ve interviewed about online dating, many have said some version of: “Every woman I know could be hired by the FBI,” regarding her ability to find out the truth of someone’s history beyond what he puts on his dating app profile.
“I start by Googling and looking them up on their social media profiles and LinkedIn,” a woman in her 20s told me. “Then I run a reverse image search to see if their picture is really them.” One study found that 73% of online daters have vetted their matches; of this group, half said they unmatched with someone based on findings.
“If I feel suspicious,” a woman in her 30s told me, “I might do a criminal record search or a public records search.” Background check sites like TruthFinder and Information can be expensive, she added, “but sometimes I’ll pay for them. I don’t want to get killed – or tricked by someone who’s married.”
Women who date in the digital age have become online detectives to keep true crimes from happening to them. But they’ve also developed their sleuthing skills to find out if they’re being cheated on – which smartphones, social media and dating apps have made it considerably easier for men to do.
“The real mystery is, is he seeing someone else?” said another woman I spoke to. “There’s no trust any more and that’s why so many women check their husbands’ and boyfriends’ phones.” Apps that are used for checking on cheating spouses’ phones abound, with names like mSpy and Hoverwatch. On Google and YouTube, there are hundreds of web pages and videos with names like “How to find out if your partner is on dating sites.”
Women have also turned to other women on social media to help them find out if their partners are stepping out. In 2020, Carlita Victoria went viral on TikTok for asking users to assist her in finding out if her boyfriend was being unfaithful. “The Internet moves quick,” Victoria said in an interview, after users confirmed her suspicions.
In 2023, Mikayla Miedzianowski did a viral TikTok in which she discussed finding out her boyfriend was cheating on the Tampa page of “Are We Dating the Same Guy?”, a Facebook group where hundreds of thousands of women in cities all over the world play detective for their local online dating communities.
Apparently some famous women have turned detective to catch a cheater too. In 2015, Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale announced their separation after Stefani allegedly found out that Rossdale had been cheating with their nanny through seeing “explicit texts”, “including nude photos”, “and their plans to meet up for sex” on the family’s shared iPad, according to Vanity Fair.
The anxiety over whether a partner is cheating has become even more vexing at a time when “situationships” – or undefined relationships – seem as common as committed ones. “Nobody has to say if they’re seeing other people anymore, which makes us crazy, so we’re constantly trying to find out online,” said a woman I know.
And then there is the desire to see whether one’s ex – whom one is reminded of more than ever before due to his online presence – is dating someone new. “Peter Nugget,” a TikTok comedian, has a very funny video (with nearly 9m views) entitled “POV: the FBI friend.” In it, a woman’s voice says, “Oh, my God, guess what? I heard my ex is seeing someone.”
Whereupon Peter, wearing a blond wig, holds up his computer and quickly says: “Her name is Emily Sanchez. She graduated from UPenn, works at a law firm called Kirkland and Ellis and she shops at Lululemon. Her favorite movie used to be Titanic, until her mom died in a boating accident when she was 10 years old!”
No doubt that “FBI friend” will be bingeing Secrets, Lies and Alibis tonight.
Nancy Jo Sales is the author, most recently, of Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno