Women are not safe. Anywhere.
Not in our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhood streets, clubs, schools, or anywhere else we dare to go. We’re not safe alone, or with strangers; we’re definitely not safe around the men who claim to love us.
As the media remains fixated on the story of Gabby Petito women everywhere are rolling their eyes at the wall to wall coverage because NOTHING about this story is new. It’s news but it’s not new news. If you don’t know that women go missing and get murdered all. The. Time. Then you haven’t been paying attention.
Gabby’s innocence and zest for life captured our hearts. We mourned the loss of her mega-watt smile and giant dimples. Gabby was both familiar and aspirational – the girl next door, the girl we wished we knew, and the girl we wished we were, all rolled into one; and this is a large part of what makes her story compelling. But’s it’s far from unique.
Here in the U.S., last week’s news was dominated by three big stories: Gabby’s as well as that of Alex Murdaugh (believed to have killed or arranged the killing of his wife and son) and Miya Marciano (allegedly murdered by her apartment maintenance man who gained entrance to her home dumped in the woods near her Florida home). Before that it was Sarah Everard (kidnapped, raped and murdered by a policeman while walking home) and Sabrina Nessa (kidnapped and murdered while making the five minute walk from her home to a nearby pub).
If you’re looking for a pattern among these tragedies, something that explains the why, don’t bother. There isn’t one.
There isn’t a common denominator other than the fact these women were, simply, women. We cannot chalk any woman’s murder up to ‘wrong place, wrong time’ because, increasingly, it seems that there is no right time or place to be a woman.
My brother, a raging feminist and one of the very few men I know who truly, truly understands the scope of the problem, likes to say that men shouldn’t be allowed out of the house unsupervised. He doesn’t have daughters. I mention this last part because “I understand, I have a daughter” or “As the father of daughters …” is a weak and common platitude often trotted in an attempt to demonstrate allyship and understanding. The sentiment is well-meaning, sure, but it’s also so very tone deaf because it unwittingly proves that many men locate women’s identities in relation to themselves which is of course part of the whole gender inequality conundrum that ultimately breeds so much violence against women.
The truth is, women are sitting ducks.
In the US in 2018, nine out of 10 female murder victims (92%) knew their offenders. Of these, 63% were wives or other intimate acquaintances of their killers. Eleven times as many females were murdered by a male they knew than were killed by male strangers. As well, 72% of all murder-suicides involve women and 94% of the victims in murder-suicides are women. Statistically, we’re safer outside our homes, but safer isn’t the same as safe.
I think about my safety all the time. My favourite thing to do is to hike the mountains near my home. I like going with friends but I prefer trekking alone. I’ve seen rattlesnakes, scorpions and mountain lion tracks. I’ve walked narrow trails in deep, slippery snow with only luck and my own non-cat-like agility to save me from plunging over the edge. And still, my biggest fear is men: men hiking alone or in a small group. Friends have questioned the wisdom of trekking alone but I refuse to give into the fear. I cling to the statistics that say I’m safer among strangers, which is pretty bizarre thing to take comfort in.
At 23 I backpacked across Europe by myself. One of my most vivid memories is of being pawed on a city bus in Italy by two teenage boys who sat directly behind me, making sucking and kissing noises and pawing at me through the gap between seats. I was terrified. Praying they wouldn’t follow me off the bus and into the dark and unfamiliar streets (they didn’t) I exited the bus at my stop, shaking and in tears. Every woman I know has a story like this, and some have many of them. These experiences are so common that they’re rendered unremarkable.
Ironically, while I’m hiking, I like to listen to true crime podcasts. I haven’t completely unraveled the why behind this obsession – one I share with millions of others, mostly women – but I do think many of us are drawn to the genre by a “there but for the grace of God go I” type of thinking. Maybe we’re hoping to learn something that will help us keep ourselves safe. Perhaps we feel a perverse sense of relief at seeing bad things happen to other people, not us. Or maybe we’re drawn to the resolution at the end of many of these stories – the punishment of the offender; the sense of order and relief that comes from seeing bad people get what they deserve. I also think, completely illogically, that listening to true crime lessens the chance of my becoming a victim because dying violently would be a little too on-the-nose for someone so intrigued by stories of exactly that.
Despite being surrounded by actual violence and stories of violence, most women manage to live their lives normally. We’ve decided (or, more accurately, been forced to accept) that moving through the world (ie. merely existing), carries a certain level of risk.
Are all men dangerous? Of course not. But if we’ve learned anything from Shanann Watts, Susan Powell, Gabby Petito and thousands of others who met similar fates, it’s that the danger is often highest when we think we’re the safest. This is why we should be talking to our daughters less about stranger danger and more about safe and healthy relationship skills.
The discovery of human remains in the search for Brian Laundrie may mean that Gabby Petito’s story is winding down. But truthfully it’s only a matter of time before another one takes it place. The headlines might fade but the killings won’t stop because women aren’t safe in their homes and they’re not safe on the streets. They’re not safe with strangers and they’re not safe with the men they know.
For women, there’s no foolproof way to live. For women, there is no safe place.