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What We Can Learn From the Gabby Petito Case

Strangulation is one of the strongest predictors of domestic homicide.

Key points

  • Strangulation is an important and less understood aspect of domestic violence.
  • Strangulation is often minimized and seen as synonymous with choking, when, in fact, they are quite different.
  • Strangulation is the epitome of abusive and controlling behavior as it is the ultimate denial of voice.

In July, I was interviewed on television for a special story about strangulation. So, I was particularly struck by the news that Gabby Petito’s autopsy revealed that she died from strangulation. I wasn’t really surprised but it surely stands out as something worthy of discussion. As an expert in domestic violence through research, teaching, and my previous work as a counselor for abusive men, I can say with great certainty that we need to pay more attention to strangulation.

Sydney Sims/Unsplash
Source: Sydney Sims/Unsplash

Strangulation is the epitome of abusive and controlling behavior as it is the ultimate denial of voice. It renders a person literally speechless. It makes it so a person cannot call out for help. It’s fully dehumanizing because it denies a person the ability to talk, which is uniquely human. It declares to the victim, and anyone witnessing this heinous act, that the threat of murder is very real and possible, that with just a little extra time, it is the likely last act of violence. Given all of this, it is strange how little it is discussed and understood for the very threat it is.

The act of strangulation is based on a pervasive sense of entitlement and the belief that one has the right to fully dominate and control another person, her mobility, and her speech.

Minimization is a tactic and strategy that abusers use to make their abuse seem less serious. We see this in remarks like, “Well, I didn’t hit her, I slapped her.” As a society, we do a lot to minimize strangulation. We downplay what strangulation is and its effects by referring to it as choking. These are entirely different things.

A person might choke on a hard candy or cough so hard that they start choking. Strangulation is, in essence, attempted murder. A person may not have the intention to murder and may believe he is just finally getting the other person to shut up, or preventing her from going anywhere so he can teach her a lesson of some kind. Abusers have shared exactly this line of thinking in counseling groups I have facilitated. Yet, regardless of intention, the effect can be deadly, and if a person survives strangulation, it can have a deleterious impact for days, weeks, and years to come.

Importantly, the effects of strangulation are not always immediate. A devastating consequence of strangulation is the emotional chokehold that remains on someone’s psyche: surviving violence of this kind can carry with it a greater chance of having PTSD symptoms. Also, a victim doesn’t necessarily and immediately present with any visible injuries. The physical effects can, and often do, manifest much later. There can be damage to the brain from reduced oxygen, damage to the throat and larynx, as well as other internal organs.

When we think about the continuum of abusive and controlling behaviors in intimate relationships, ranging from things like calling someone names, belittling them, hitting, punching, shoving, grabbing, kicking, pulling hair, coercive sex, financial control, gaslighting, etc., strangulation figures prominently as one of the more extreme forms of violence. In fact, it is one of the strongest predictors of homicide. In abusive relationships, the abuser doesn’t usually start with strangulation; other abusive actions can escalate toward that. But, the thing about strangulation is that there is not far to go from that to murder.

As one of the strongest indicators of lethality, strangulation is not just a threat to the victim, but research shows that domestic violence is also a menace to society, as the deadliest mass shooters have extensive histories of domestic violence perpetration. For Gabby Petito, and other victims like her, we owe it to them to better acknowledge and understand strangulation. And we owe it to the communities we inhabit to take it seriously. The safety of all of us depends on it.

If you are in danger, or someone you care about about is being abused, please contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. You will also be able to find local resources from this website.