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A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito in North Port, Florida on Sept. 20, 2021.OCTAVIO JONES/Getty Images

As I write this, Gabby Petito’s video “Beginning our van life journey” has been viewed almost five million times on YouTube. In it, the 22-year-old and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, are living a dream of the golden West: They kiss on a beach, visit famous landmarks and practise yoga against stunning backdrops. At one point, a sign that says “Be kind” flashes behind them. It’s an idyllic, carefully curated portrait of young love.

A little more than a month later, Ms. Petito is dead and her fiancé is the subject of a massive manhunt in Florida. She was reported missing on Sept. 11 and her remains found in rural Wyoming earlier this week. The cause of her death has not yet been disclosed. Mr. Laundrie is a “person of interest,” but has not been charged with any crime.

To say the case has sparked public interest is a wild understatement. It has become a flashpoint for a society that does not know how to deal with violence as a social issue and cannot pass meaningful gun-control legislation, yet is obsessed with true-crime stories and the death of one young woman. But this has always been the case, sadly: One tragedy can galvanize, while a thousand cause numbness.

Which tragedies galvanize public interest is of course a more knotty question. The wave of sorrow following Ms. Petito’s death has shed light on the biases of public sympathy, which journalist Gwen Ifill called “missing white woman syndrome.” Where are the tears for the women of colour who are also the victims of violence? In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are much more likely to be affected by violence than white women, and their murders solved less often. Yet the general population doesn’t become obsessed with solving those cases.

At least new conversations are being held right now, and perhaps people are examining their own biases and faulty reasoning. In the same way, Ms. Petito’s tragedy might shed a new light on the ways that young women’s lives are affected by violence. Because at the moment, our understanding of domestic violence is so limited and based in myths that it’s a barrier to understanding. And, more importantly, to prevention.

If you were to conjure a mental picture of “domestic violence,” what would you see? Probably something like a stock art photo of a middle-aged woman with a black eye. Certainly not a beautiful young woman living the high life in an adorably appointed van. But cozy social-media posts might be a ruse and a camouflage; almost all intimate-partner violence takes place in secret, and very little of it is actually reported.

Young women are actually at high risk of violence at their partners’ hands (and yes, men are subject to this kind of violence as well). In the U.S., women between the ages of 18 and 24 are the demographic group most likely to experience intimate-partner violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Almost a third of college women said they’d been in an abusive relationship. In Canada, almost 40 per cent of the women murdered by a partner in 2020 were between the ages of 18 and 34.

The other myths have to do with what actually constitutes intimate-partner violence. It’s not just about physical abuse. Equally damaging, and less well-understood, are controlling behaviours, financial abuse, technology-assisted harassment, stalking and psychological harm. If anything, young women are more likely to fall victim to abusers who behave in ways that seem loving (especially in the smothering way that Hollywood likes to represent romantic love), but who are actually bent on control and domination.

It’s painful to watch the videos that Ms. Petito filmed when she set out on her journey, full of happiness and hope. It’s distressing to watch the video of her emotional interaction with police after a fight with Mr. Laundrie, and to realize that officers seem clueless about recognizing the red flags in front of them (except for the National Park Service ranger who reportedly told her she was in a “toxic” relationship). It’s alarming to know that onlookers called 911 to report disturbing interactions, including Mr. Laundrie allegedly slapping Ms. Petito.

At some point, the public interest in the case will wane. People will look away. But hopefully they’ll take with them a new understanding that might help another young woman in the future.

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