Gabby Petito died from strangulation. And while her case has opened up national conversation about partner abuse, experts hope the tragedy will shine a spotlight on a serious danger: Potential strangulation in domestic violence.
Strangulation is defined as killing someone by squeezing the throat. But a growing number of domestic violence experts believe that the term should be used more loosely to apply to situations where the incident is non-fatal.
"When journalists correctly utilize the term 'strangulation,' they increase the public’s familiarity with a specific form of abuse and acknowledge the severe short and long term consequences of this type of violence," according to a media guide by Jane Doe Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
Assaults that seek to deprive someone of oxygen are more common than most people realize, experts say. A woman who has been assaulted in such a way by a partner has a sevenfold risk of being murdered by that partner, according to Dr. Eve Valera, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who studies intimate partner violence and brain injury.
"It's one of the most frightening experiences that women tend to report in intimate partner violence situations," Valera said. "It's really about power and control . . .It's sort of of like saying, 'I can take your life at any moment.'"
Petito's death was ruled a homicide last month; on Tuesday, a coroner specified the cause of death as strangulation. The vlogger's video journal of her life on the road with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, attracted worldwide attention after she disappeared in late August in Wyoming.
Laundrie has since also disappeared. Police and the FBI, citing previous reports of possible domestic violence while the two were traveling together, have named him as a "person of interest" in the case. He has not been charged in connection with her murder.
"Unfortunately this is only one of many deaths around the country of people who are involved with domestic violence, and it's unfortunate that these other deaths did not get as much coverage as this one," Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue said Tuesday.
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Though it's impossible to know with certainty that Laundrie had something to do with Petito's murder, there were red flags about violence in the relationship, Valera said.
While the couple was in Utah, the Grand County sheriff's office released a 911 call on Aug. 12 in which the caller says he witnessed that "the gentleman was slapping the girl."
Body camera video showed Petito in tears during a police stop on the side of a highway. The footage shows a police officer speaking with Laundrie, who said friction had been building between the two for several days, though authorities at the scene took no action other than telling the couple to separate for the night.
Intimate partner violence experts say there needs to be greater awareness about the risks of potential strangulation. Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland's law school where she teaches the Gender Violence Clinic, said one way to take the issue more seriously is to differentiate between "choking" and "strangulation."
Some victims of domestic violence may report that they have been "choked," because they think "strangulation" must be fatal or involve an object like a rope or other restraint, Valera noted. This can lead to law enforcement and others in the judicial system taking the incident less seriously.
Choking is what you do on food, Goodmark said. "Strangulation" in the context of the domestic violence discussion is when someone uses their hands, another body part or an object to compress another person's airway and restrict the flow of oxygen - fatally or non-fatally.
"When people say 'choking,' it really does minimize the amount of harm done by strangulation and the intentionality of it," Goodmark said.
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In nonfatal cases, strangulation can lead to a number of symptoms, including hoarseness, shortness of breath, memory lapses, loss of consciousness and even brain injury. Valera's research has indicated that brain injury in domestic violence cases is not uncommon.
"There are likely more women who have experienced repetitive, or at least single, but probably multiple, mild traumatic brain injuries from their partners than professional athletes," Valera said.
But evidence of strangulation is not always visible; experts say that strangulation can even lead to death without leaving any external marks on the body. That's why greater education on prevention of strangulation and intimate partner violence is needed.
"It’s so stigmatized that people don't want to admit it," Valera said, emphasizing the need for communities to be aware of the risks.
More people need to be aware that a single instance of potential strangulation from an intimate partner is a huge red flag for future homicide, according to Goodmark.
"We really need to be focused on prevention and education around what it means to experience strangulation in terms of your future risk," Goodmark said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, intimate partner violence — and its severity — has "skyrocketed," Valera said. That means instances of women being strangled by their partners have certainly gone up, Valera said. She said we should be checking in on each other, because intimate partner violence can be happening without anyone realizing.
"It’s always good to open up the conversation, ‘I know that COVID has made things very stressful and bad for a lot of families and people. Are you feeling safe in your relationship, is everything OK?'" Valera said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gabby Petito was strangled. Experts say it's common in intimate partner violence