From Motive to Method, Women and Men Murder Very Differently

A detail of the 1789 fresco "Love Injuring Psyche" by Andrea Appiani. DEA/Studio AB/Getty Images

Sweden is not a murder-y place. In fact, it has one of the lowest per-capita homicide rates in the world. But a new study investigates the 1570 acts of deadly violence committed in Sweden between 1990 and 2010, and suggests some major differences in how, why, where and whom men and women murder. At least in Sweden.

Murders are most often committed by men. This is true everywhere in the world, but in Sweden during the 1990's and 2000's, 90 percent of homicides were committed by men. And even though the murder rate decreased over the two decades studied, the proportion stayed the same: Nine people were killed by men for every one killed by a woman.


As a result, much more is known about the habits of male killers than those of women. Researchers from Sahlgrenska Academy, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University, the National Board of Forensic Medicine, and the National Council for Crime Prevention in Sweden joined research forces to look into the motives, circumstances, methods and victims of female homicide offenders, and how they differ from those of men. The researchers found a marked difference in the nature of the deadly crimes committed by men and women against other adults.

"The act of killing among male offenders seems to be part of an aggressive antisocial lifestyle, characterized by impulsivity, externalizing behaviors and previous criminality," says Thomas Nilsson, researcher in the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg. "Female homicide offenders don't seem to be characterized by the aggressive antisocial traits that are so typical for male offenders."

With adult victims, women's murdering habits were very different from those of men. For starters, men more often used blunt objects or firearms to kill their victims, while women more often used a sharp object to kill (although they more often used asphyxia when killing a child). Women generally appeared to be more reactive than men in their violent acts, much of the time killing someone they had previously been victimized by. More of the time, they killed someone they knew well, most often male — an intimate partner, a family member, or a male acquaintance — and almost always in their or the victim's home. In many cases, the victim was intoxicated, and the killer herself was most often under the influence of some drugs or alcohol.

The 1861 painting "Charlotte Corday after the murder of Marat" by Paul-Jacques-Aim Baudry depicts a political assassination.
Fine Art Images/Getty Images

"For females, [the motive] seems to be a question of a tragic and burdened relationship between victim and offender — regardless of whether it is a love relation or a family relation — full of conflicts, stress, broken promises, and often violence from the victim against the killer," says Nilsson. "Male killing, on the other hand, is much more a question of the use of violence as part of a lifestyle, as a means to solve problems and achieve objectives."

The difference between male and female homicide offenders is not so pronounced when the victim is a child, and in both cases the killers were more often sober than in violent crimes committed against adults.

"The killing of a child, which in almost all cases is a family member, seems to be an act of despair and desperation — a reaction to an intolerable situation," says Nilsson. "We don't have data for how many of these offenders suffered from mental health problems, but I would guess a majority did. This is supported by the fact that about a third of all cases with child victims are homicide-suicides, applying to both males and females."

Regardless of sex, here are the take-homes if you're living in Sweden and want to avoid either murdering someone or being murdered:

  1. Avoid using drugs and alcohol and then getting in an argument.
  2. If you're in a desperate situation or are being abused, seek help before your life becomes a complete Greek tragedy and you kill a family member or loved one.
  3. If you become very angry or upset with a child, go outside and take a walk around the block.
  4. Take care of each other.