Like much of America, I spent the past two weeks closely monitoring the case of Gabrielle Petito, 22, who left home with a van and aspirations of seeing America but also a partner who was later seen slapping and hitting her, according to a 911 caller. On police body camera footage taken one month before she was reported missing, Ms. Petito says that Brian Laundrie, her fiancé, grabbed her by her chin, and his face appears scratched.
Her body was found Sept. 19 in a national park in Wyoming, according to the F.B.I. Meanwhile, authorities are searching for Mr. Laundrie, who has been named a person of interest in the case.
This is, in many ways, America’s favorite story: the American woman who, last seen with her American man, is later found dead. And it plays to an American audience that seems surprised nearly every time.
We don’t yet know whether Ms. Petito was murdered by her boyfriend or whether there was ongoing abuse in their relationship. But the fact is that intimate partner violence is epidemic in this country; we just don’t always hear about it.
About 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men have been victims of sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. The majority of these women first experienced those forms of violence when they were younger than 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I know personally how circumstances can quickly turn threatening. Seven years ago, I was in a relationship that was lovely, except for when it wasn’t. Like Ms. Petito and Mr. Laundrie, my partner and I were in our 20s and on a road trip when it happened. Like her, I wanted to see the American West.
One evening, my partner became enraged suddenly and uncontrollably. He was livid, gesticulating wildly and moving closer to me. His behavior was intimidating and terrifying, and though he did not physically harm me, I believed that evening that he would kill me.
I remember the evening and its purple sunset, the canyon we climbed in order to see it. And then I remember our conversation, its escalation. That night, I lay beside him for seven hours as he screamed and sobbed and raged and became someone else entirely.
I didn’t tell anyone about it then because I was embarrassed that the person I loved was someone who could be so cruel to me. I thought I could hide this shame by displaying a curated version of my life on social media — photos of the rocks we climbed in Joshua Tree or the yucca palms we split in two to act as natural desert disinfectant.
No one would have believed how scared of him I was as I posted my cheerful images, and I wouldn’t have really believed it, either, because we don’t think these things happen to us until they do.
And yet it’s happening every day, in our backyards and bedrooms.
We are riveted by stories about white women in peril, but the risk of this violence is significantly greater if you are a woman of color. Some 56 percent of Native American or Native Alaskan women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. More than 40 percent of Black women will suffer from the same during their lifetime, and they are two and a half times as likely to be murdered by men as white women are.
The risks are also high for Americans who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.; 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women report rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of straight women, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. More than half of transgender and nonbinary people responding to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that they had experienced intimate partner violence.
While Ms. Petito’s case is an example of the problematic phenomenon of missing white woman syndrome, the story is amplifying crucial conversations about the need for all cases of missing people to receive the same heightened level of media coverage, the same allocation of resources, the same deployment of law enforcement.
We also must help vulnerable women before they ever need to be found. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has advocated immigration reform that would protect women who fear their immigration status will be used against them if they report a crime or take their partner to court.
We also can improve how we respond to women in distress. Our law enforcement officers need further training so that they can better recognize body language and behavior indicative of ongoing emotional, verbal and physical abuse. A clinical social worker should also be part of the team that responds to reports of domestic violence, to help de-escalate conflicts and guide those in danger to safe shelters.
While we focus on Ms. Petito’s story, millions of other American women are still suffering and, often, suffering secretly. It is important we learn their names, too. And it is absolutely vital that we hear their stories.
Amy Butcher is the author of the book “Mothertrucker,” which explores America’s quiet epidemic of intimate partner violence and will be published this November.
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