Like many Americans, I spent this summer — one filled with political scandals and rampant pop culture gossip — haunted by one news story in particular: the story of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student. Tibbetts’s disappearance prompted a national media circus, a desperate search and the ultimate discovery of her murder resulted in political outcry.
Twenty-year-old Tibbetts was last seen before she went for a jog on the evening of July 18, 2018. She was reported missing the next morning when she did not show up for work, and for the next month her image was plastered on major news outlets and across social media. Her family pleaded for her safe return — a cry that went unanswered until August 21, 2018, when 24-year-old Cristhian Rivera confessed to her murder and led authorities to her body. Rivera later revealed that he came across Tibbetts on her evening jog, where he then pursued her both in his vehicle and on foot. She repeatedly told him to leave her alone, finally threatening to call the police. It was then that Rivera, angry at her blatant rejection, allegedly kidnapped and murdered Tibbetts, leaving her body in a vast cornfield.
There is much to be said about Mollie Tibbetts’s story, and many reasons why it resonated so strongly with the American people. There is the shock value of a wholesome young Midwestern woman meeting a violent and tragic end in a small sleepy town. Then there’s the political: Rivera’s contested legal status. This detail has been seized upon to support the anti-immigration narrative of President Trump and other members of the Republican Party — a political move subsequently denounced by the victim’s father.
But among these various debates, one fact of her story remains clear: In 2018, among an age of anti-misogynist social movements and female political empowerment, it still remains dangerous, even potentially fatal, for a woman to reject the advances of a man. The hardest aspect to swallow of Tibbetts’s story is that it is not at all unique. In the days after her body was found, a 2016 Runner’s World survey resurfaced. The survey asked readers, “How often, if ever, does a stranger whistle at you, comment on your body, needlessly honk at you, or give you other similar unsolicited sexual attention?” Forty-three percent of female respondents answered that they “sometimes, often, or always” encountered such attention during a run, while only 4 percent of their male counterparts reported the same. The statistics get even more abysmal from there. While only 3 percent of female respondents reported any sort of physical contact or assault while on a run, 30 percent reported being followed on foot or by car, 18 percent reported being sexually propositioned and 5 percent reported being flashed.
Maybe, in light of Tibbetts’s murder, a whistle, honk or unwanted comment seems trivial, and there is undoubtedly a world of difference between a catcall and a murder. But ask any girl or woman above the age of 15, and she will certainly have an arsenal of instances of being leered at, whistled at, groped or spoken to like a sexual object by a man in a way that made her fear for her safety, or even her life.
These small instances build up to create a society in which women are taught to constantly be on edge. In this society, we’re instructed to never walk anywhere alone, especially at night, or if we must, to never wear headphones, to hold our keys between our fingers to use as a potential weapon and to carry pepper spray. We’re taught that simply existing as a woman makes us an open invitation to men, and we must do everything in our power to make ourselves less inviting, to dress ourselves in modest clothing, to wear less makeup and to drink less alcohol. We’ve had to hold ourselves responsible for crimes in which we were victimized. Perhaps most difficult of all, we’ve been conditioned to view every man as a potential threat, even the ones we think we trust and know intimately.
While Tibbetts fell victim to the violence of a stranger, women are overwhelmingly more likely to be stalked, threatened, assaulted or murdered by men they know. In fact, as reported by the National Organization for Women, every day three women are murdered by an intimate partner, and up to one-third of female homicide victims are killed by their partners. The stories of these women are not as widely shared as that of Mollie Tibbetts, maybe because as a society we hold them responsible for their deaths because they closely knew their attackers, or maybe because they are disproportionately low-income women of color.
Yet, these women, along with Mollie Tibbetts and the smattering of other women who make headlines from time to time, highlight the fear that accompanies the everyday actions of women. Actions as habitual as going for a run. When it comes down to it, Mollie Tibbetts was not killed by illegal immigration, or because she made the “mistake” of going for a run by herself. She, along with thousands of other women annually, fell victim to a culture that encourages male entitlement and toxic masculinity. She was killed by a man enraged with her exercising her theoretical right to say no, a right that was stripped away from her and so many others. If we really want to address the violence that brought Tibbetts to her end, we need not look to our borders, but at ourselves. Until we rectify a society that places male desire above female safety, such horrific events will undoubtedly continue.
Alanna Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org