Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Sunday, human remains consistent with the description of Gabby Petito, the “van life” blogger who disappeared while on a cross-country van trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie and whose fate has stirred a growing digital frenzy, were found in Wyoming. On Tuesday, a tweet from the FBI Denver field office confirmed the remains found were those of Petito, who was reported missing on September 11, and said “the initial determination for the manner of death is homicide.”
A police affidavit filed last week for a search warrant indicated that before she vanished Petito’s conversations with her mother appeared to reveal “more and more tension” between Petito and Laundrie. As of last weekend, roughly 50 law enforcement officers from five local agencies and the FBI were searching for Laundrie, who hasn’t been named a suspect or charged, and hasn’t been seen since September 14.
Every element of the disturbing circumstances surrounding Petito’s disappearance and death has been dissected across the internet and discussed constantly in the news over the last few days. The couple’s August 12 encounter with the police in Utah during which Petito described a fight between herself and Laundrie that morning. The TikTok-er who claimed that she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a ride on August 29 in Wyoming. The odd text message from Petito’s phone on August 30, which her family doubts was written by Gabby herself.
Everything has been combed over again and again, the public obsessing over theories, the media racing to deliver each new tidbit of information. It feels impossible that something horrific could have happened to a young woman whose life and relationship – documented on her beautiful Instagram grid – appeared to be perfect. The fact that it likely wasn’t – and that the stories of most women who go missing remain untold – both speak to a darker truth about the dangers all women face every day.
A 2018 United Nations study on homicide found that of the 87,000 women intentionally killed worldwide in 2017, 58% were killed by intimate partners or family members. More than a third of the women were killed by their current or former intimate partner. According to UN Women, almost one in three women globally over the age of 15 have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life, mostly by current or former partners. Statistically, the most dangerous place for women is their own home.
Yet while all women face the threat of violence from men, the steps taken by the authorities meant to protect them differ radically, especially depending on their race. According to a January report by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, at least 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, went missing in Wyoming – where Petito reportedly disappeared – from 2011 to 2020.
A 2020 report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute found that the vast majority of 2,306 cases of missing Native American women and girls in the US remain unsolved. Last year Tammy Carpenter, a Native American mother whose daughter Angela McConnell was found shot to death with her boyfriend in Northern California in 2018, told the press that she got angry when a member of law enforcement, who was not Native American, was insensitive when questioning her about her daughter, implying she came from a broken home where people were unemployed or involved with drugs. She told NBC News: “With society today, people look and think: ‘It’s another dead Indian girl. Probably a drug addict. Homeless. Who cares?’ That got me very upset.”
The bias the media shows in favor of covering the stories of White women who go missing is often referred to as “missing White woman” syndrome. Factors like race seem to determine not only a victim’s “newsworthiness,” but how their disappearances are covered.
A recent report from the Violence Policy Center found that in 2018 Black women were murdered by men at a rate nearly three times higher than White women. And yet their deaths aren’t reported in the press nearly as regularly.
When they are, research shows they’re often portrayed negatively – as aggressive, promiscuous, living off the state. Coverage of White victims is often far more sympathetic, but also extremely gendered. Those women tend to be painted as nurturing, gentle. They’re described as good “mothers” and “daughters.”
Perhaps one of the most painful reasons stories about pretty young White women seem to capture the public imagination so completely is the subconscious prejudice that bad things aren’t “meant” to happen to privileged people. Safety is one of the aspirational perks of having an apparently perfect life. Well-off White people can generally assume that when they call the police, law enforcement will automatically be on their side and want to help them. But this level of support is far from a universal given, and far too often a function of racial privilege.
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Part of the reason that women of color are so shamefully overlooked by both law enforcement and the media when they disappear is there’s a degree to which their pain is priced into the human experience. Too many in society simply expect White women’s lives to be easier, and because of institutional racism they are treated as more deserving by the systems that kick into action when they’re endangered. When White women vanish, it’s a more confrontational public reminder that no woman, whatever her background, can ever take her safety for granted.
Stories like Gabby Petito’s capture all women’s imaginations because they highlight the fact that women are at most risk from those they should be able to trust. We listen to true crime podcasts, pore over the timelines from news stories, look at the apparently happy, carefree photos of the victims, and wonder whether we’d be able to spot or intercept a threat close to ourselves, a friend, daughter, or sister.
Male violence is never a woman’s responsibility, but when it is most likely to occur out of sight of anyone who could prevent it, women are burdened with the task of policing it themselves. For women whose safety is often taken even less seriously by some in law enforcement and considered less newsworthy by many in media, that burden is reinforced long after they are reported missing or found dead.