The Psychology Behind Prison Pen Pals

It has been referred to as the "Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome," but its medical title is hybristophilia — a paraphilia or condition in which one feels sexual arousal or has an affinity for people who do reprehensible things. These negative acts range from "small" offenses like cheating or lying to terrible crimes such as serial murder and assault. The condition is different than someone who may be physically attracted to a criminal despite their crimes; a person with hybristophilia is drawn to the person because of the crimes they committed. Those who identify as having hybristophilia often become pen pals, start fan sites, and form relationships with the accused — some have even married criminals while the inmates are still incarcerated. Famously, some serial killers have inspired fan clubs and groupies, consisting primarily of women who are drawn to their extreme bad-boy aesthetic.

What causes the sexual paraphilia known as hybristophilia, and what is it like to have it? Though the clinical research about the subject still leaves much to be uncovered, the stories about hybristophiles and those who fall in love with serial killers do reveal some of the fascinating affinities human beings can form.

  • Hybristophilia Tends To Affect More Women Than Men

    Hybristophilia is in the early stages of research, and not a lot is known about the condition. Most agree hybristophilia affects heterosexual women much more than it does men, but there are cases of men identifying as hybristophiles as well. Experts acknowledge the main reason for this may well be the lack of information available to analyze: there are far fewer female serial killers than male.

    For many, hybristophilia merely manifests as fantasies about getting intimate with violent criminals. However, some hybristophiles seek out relationships, often in the form of writing love letters to serial killers and mass murderers serving death sentences in prison. 

  • Experts Have Different Theories On Why Hybristophilia Exists

    Experts Have Different Theories On Why Hybristophilia Exists
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It's a struggle even for experts to understand why a person would actively search for a violent partner or seek out a relationship with someone in prison, but theories do exist about the psychology behind such actions. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology, is one of the paraphilia's main authorities. Ramsland believes there are several different reasons why an individual would seek out a relationship with someone such as a serial killer. 

    Ramsland speculates one of the reasons people reach out to notorious criminals is to gain notoriety and attention from the general public, citing the fact that women with hybristophilia tend to be open about their interest, appearing on TV talk shows and obtaining book deals. Ramsland also posits many women consider their violent incarcerated partners as the perfect boyfriend: after all, you know where your partner is at all times, and there is a level of control you have over the relationship. Another reason women may be drawn to criminals is the belief they can change the person and influence them in positive ways. Many women who have married serial killers excused their spouses' actions or denied their guilt.

  • Not Everyone With A Serial Killer Pen Pal Has Hybristophilia

    Not everyone who has an inmate pen pal has hybristophilia: there are killer pen pals who write to incarcerated individuals solely to collect murderabilia. Others are merely interested in true crime and want to gain tangible experience by engaging with criminals. Still, others may study criminal psychology and forensics and find it helpful in their research. 

    US senators attempted to pass a bill through Congress in the 1990s that would have prohibited the sale of murderabilia, arguing that the legislation would "protect the dignity of crime victims." The bill didn't go very far. However, in 2011, the US government itself auctioned "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski's personal belongings online and donated the proceeds to the victims and victims' families.

  • The Internet Makes It Easier For People With Hybristophilia To Contact People In Prison

    The internet makes it easier than ever for hybristophiles and those seeking out prison pen pals to find potential suitors. Websites such as Meet A Prisoner and Write A Prisoner allow you to search ads and send messages or emails to a prisoner. Other, even more niche sites exist where you can browse prisoners of a certain background or interest group. In addition, prisons throughout the United States have started transitioning to Jpay, a program that allows friends and family the ability to send emails, videos, music and even money to those incarcerated. 

  • Studies Show A Correlation Between Hybristophilia And A History Of Abuse

    Studies Show A Correlation Between Hybristophilia And A History Of Abuse
    Photo: Women Who Love Men Who Kill / P and E Press

    Using her own research and interviews with women who identify as hybristophiles (or hybristophiliacs), Sheila Isenberg authored Women Who Love Men Who Kill, a book exploring hybristophilia. Isenberg discovered that many who are drawn to violent men seem to have previous emotional trauma in some aspect. Isenberg explained that all of the women she interviewed have been abused at some point in their lives, be it by their parents, previous boyfriends, or husbands. She also cited different forms of abuse the women suffered: sexual, emotional, and even psychological. The correlation between women suffering from abuse and identifying with hybristophilia may be the strongest connection among women drawn to men who commit crimes. Not much else aligns: they tend to come from a variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. Some are highly educated, while others did not graduate from high school. Some are relatively wealthy, but others are poor. Some have children — others do not. 

    Isenberg believes that for many hybristophiliac women, a man in prison is a safe relationship as they are not able to physically harm anyone on the outside. A woman is also more likely to have a sense of control in the relationship with an inmate, like deciding when to visit or when to accept collect phone calls. 

  • Several Infamous Serial Killers Married Hybristophiles

    Several Infamous Serial Killers Married Hybristophiles
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    For infamous serial killers and mass murderers in prison, there is no shortage of women anxious for relationships with them. Not unlike stanning for some famous rock star, women pursue these murderers in the form of writing provocative letters and attending their criminal trials, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man with whom they're obsessed. During serial killer Ted Bundy's murder trial, several women went to the courthouse with their hair freshly dyed brown and parted in the middle in an attempt to grab Bundy's attention, since that was a general trademark look of Bundy's victims. While in prison, Bundy married Carol Boone, one of the women who wrote to him while incarcerated. 

    The "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez — who terrorized Los Angeles, CA, from 1984-1985 and was responsible for the murders of at least 14 — also had several women who some referred to as "serial killer groupies" attend his trial. Women from all over the world sent him letters and provocative photos, requesting to be added to his visitation list. Ramirez eventually married one of his pen pals, Doreen Lioy, in 1996

    Erik and Lyle Menendez, both serving life in prison for the 1989 murders of their parents, each married women who were pen pals.