Opinion: What about the domestic violence victims who don’t look like Gabby Petito?

A police camera video provided by The Moab (Utah) Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, The FBI on Oct. 21, 2021 identified human remains found in a Florida nature preserve as those of Brian Laundrie, a person of interest in the death of girlfriend Gabby Petito while the couple was on a cross-country road trip.

A police camera video provided by The Moab (Utah) Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, The FBI on Oct. 21, 2021 identified human remains found in a Florida nature preserve as those of Brian Laundrie, a person of interest in the death of girlfriend Gabby Petito while the couple was on a cross-country road trip.

The Moab Police Department via AP

Since late summer we have been inundated with headlines and breaking news stories about Gabby Petito, a young woman who had gone missing while traveling cross country with her boyfriend. Photos of Gabby were, and still are, everywhere. So many of us anxiously awaited any small update about the case.

We came to learn that for more than a year Gabby had been separated from her family and friends in New York and was living with her boyfriend and his parents in Florida. We learned that she really only had one friend and confidante in Florida, and that her friend had concerns about Gabby’s relationship. Like how her boyfriend would get upset when Gabby made plans with this friend and without him, how he would hide her identification to prevent her from going out; and how he would show up, uninvited, when the girls went to the beach. Rather than joining them, he would set up a chair several feet away and just watch them.

We learned that the relationship was tumultuous, that Gabby would often call her friend crying about arguments she’d with her boyfriend, and that he deliberately made it difficult for her to make new friends. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the many red flags and to recognize her boyfriend as controlling and abusive.

On Oct. 1, new legislation went into effect in Connecticut redefining domestic violence to include coercive control. Coercive control is not a new phenomenon. Victims and survivors have always been trapped by abusers with tactics such as isolation, gaslighting, manipulation, controlling finances and monitoring activities; preventing their autonomy and independence. Abusers skillfully create an environment of deference and constant fear, without ever using physical violence.

The court system, intended to ensure justice for all, can be overwhelming for survivors and is often manipulated by abusers to further control and harass their victims. Public Act 21-78 provides survivors with enhanced tools to increase safety for themselves and their children. Now, victims can be granted orders of protection for a pattern of non-physical acts of abuse such as threats, intimidation and verbal abuse — all of which are well established precursors to physical violence.

Looking back on the history of Gabby’s relationship, we can now clearly see that her murder was the punctuation mark at the end of a long pattern of coercive control.

Gabby’s story is not unique, but it captured the attention of the county.

So what is it about this case, that resulted in mass media coverage? What was it about Gabby that made us all pay so much attention? It could be that she already had a large presence on social media, with images of herself readily available for public consumption. It could also be what those images depicted — a beautiful, enthusiastic and creative woman who was also young, blonde and white.

The media frenzy over Gabby Petito is not unlike that of other white female victims of domestic violence who have been sensationalized. We’ve been captivated by the stories of Laci Peterson, Shannon Watts and, most recently, Jennifer Dulos. But what about the thousands of other women in the United States who have been murdered by a current or former intimate partner? What about the victims who don’t look like Gabby? It’s clear, our society values some victims more than others.

On average, three women a day are murdered by current or former intimate partners in this country. Women of color are disproportionally victimized by domestic violence. Native American women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average. Black women are 2 1/2 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women are. Yet, we rarely learn these women’s names, see their faces or know their stories.

As we continue to mourn the loss of Gabby, we must also commit to increasing our understanding of the underlying dynamics of domestic abuse, including coercive control. How we respond to domestic violence matters, and it is imperative that we examine when and why there are differences between which victims capture our collective attention and sympathy.

The mission of YWCA Greenwich includes eliminating racism and empowering women. Our Domestic Abuse Services team has worked diligently every day, for 40 years, to bring that mission to life by raising our voices for those who have been silenced and by delivering comprehensive, client-centered services to those impacted by domestic violence.

Anyone, and everyone, who has been impacted by domestic violence.

Please call our 24-Hour Hotline for more information or to get help 203-253-6274.

Meredith Gold is director of domestic abuse services and Leslie Coplin is training and community engagement coordinator of YWCA Greenwich.