Culture 

I Could Have Been Lauren Smith-Fields

What the 23-year-old’s death reveals about racism and gender violence.

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I Could Have Been Lauren Smith-Fields

What the 23-year-old’s death reveals about racism and gender violence.

Lauren Smith-Fields and I are both Connecticut natives, as I grew up and live an hour away from where the 23-year-old died. While the aspiring physical therapist preferred the beauty side of TikTok, I personally have a penchant for posting fashion content on Instagram. Although I may not have an active Bumble account, I have met older white men on online dating apps and walked away from dinners with these potential suitors, whereas Lauren did not survive her date on December 12. The stark similarities Lauren and I share are enough to terrify me, and since becoming engrossed with the facts of her life, I have had to relive my own near brushes with death. After surviving an abusive relationship, the news of Lauren’s death has put me in a state of paralysis, unable to continue pursuing the online courtships I once felt ready to start. As a 20-something Black woman living in the United States, I have come to accept my entire existence as precarious.

Six days after Gabby Petito went missing, the New York Times posted a thorough timeline chronicling her disappearance. It took almost seven weeks for the same publication to tell Lauren’s story, mostly prompted by the deafening uproar caused by concerned citizens on social media. After speaking with her Bumble date, Matthew LaFountain, on the day Lauren was found dead, the Bridgeport Police Department concluded that he was “a really nice guy,” and let him go. On January 24, the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released the cause of Lauren’s death, ruling it as accidental overdose of fentanyl combined with prescription medication and alcohol, leading Bridgeport Police to initiate a criminal investigation the following day, a month after her passing.

If Lauren wasn’t Black, her family probably wouldn’t have had to wait for a detective to arrive, only to enter the crime scene on their own, finding a used condom, pills and bloody bed sheets. In LaFountain’s account of the date, he reports that she fell asleep on the couch, too ill from drinking and carried her to bed, falling asleep beside her only to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to find her unconscious. I wonder what Bridgeport Police made of the used condom, given Lauren’s unconscious state.

What frightens me is that Lauren could have been any woman, and more upsetting is the blatant and even worse, subtler ways our habitual and ingrained rationalization of gender violence blames Lauren for her own death.

What I find most chilling about Lauren’s death is not the event’s proximity to me, but its disturbing normalcy. In 2022, Lauren’s story is not new. Plagued by “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late journalist Gwen Ifill, the delayed media coverage and law enforcement’s neglect of Lauren’s death affirms what Black women have always known, that our lives don’t matter. What’s worse to see is the internalization and obsession with perfect victims. While Gabby fit the role of the attractive, white girl next door, many are quick to paint Lauren as the opposite, justifying her untimely death.

While many are confused by the murky circumstances of Lauren’ death, the Black manosphere, a community of Black conservatives, view her voluntary coupling with a white man as the reason for her passing. A light search into the subculture’s corner of the internet reveals a handful of Black men on Youtube using their free time to urge Black women to remain virgins, using Lauren’s death as an example of what happens when we “divest” or date folks outside of our race, i.e. not them. On Twitter, a few Black women affirm Lauren’s passing as their decision to exclusively date Black men, with one user writing, “Black women, quit trusting white men.” Through therapy, I’ve been able to realize that dating someone is not an invitation for assault, that there is no action that warrants a non-consensual act. However, conservative and honestly even mainstream trains of thought, will make allowances for sexual and gender violence.

These well-intentioned urges for women to be more vigilant of who we surround ourselves with immediately call to mind survivors’ stories of their trusted partners and friends betraying their trust and assaulting them.

What frightens me is that Lauren could have been any woman, and more upsetting is the blatant and even worse, subtler ways our habitual and ingrained rationalization of gender violence blames Lauren for her own death. It seems as though where white women are offered sympathy and protection, Black women’s hypersexualization and dehumanization continues, even in our death.

While TikTok has been instrumental in creating awareness around the case, a deeper dive shows some pointing to Lauren’s decision to use online dating apps as the reason for her sudden passing. Commenting on a breakdown of Lauren’s Bumble date, one user wrote, “People should all know the dangers of internet dating. You never know who someone is behind a screen. She was too trusting and it cost her life. We are all accountable for our actions and we control who we allow in our lives. I said what I said … take it how you want to.” Notwithstanding the fact that this victim-blaming rhetoric ignores that more than 90% of rape and sexual assault victims know their abuser, it saddles women with the burdensome and impossible order of being able to control and predict the actions of other. These well-intentioned urges for women to be more vigilant of who we surround ourselves with immediately call to mind survivors’ stories of their trusted partners and friends betraying their trust and assaulting them.

This commonplace acceptance of violence against women maintains the harsh reality that we are raised to brace and prepare ourselves for a potential — and almost inevitable — form of sexual violation in response to the lack of accountability placed on our male counterparts.

Bridgeport Police’s absolute negligence, as well as the victim-blaming occurring in certain pockets of the internet, reveal the inescapable truth that women’s lives do not seem to matter — and Black women’s even less. Holding women accountable for men’s actions, or asking that we become part-time detectives and masters at psychology, only further perpetuates this dangerous level of misogyny. This commonplace acceptance of violence against women maintains the harsh reality that we are raised to brace and prepare ourselves for a potential — and almost inevitable — form of sexual violation in response to the lack of accountability placed on our male counterparts. While online dating apps need to take care to perform background checks, the extent to which society will go to avoid naming and looking male violence in the face, and blaming everything else, is almost comical.

While it should go without saying that Lauren did not deserve to be harmed, regardless if she was meeting her date with the intention to start a long-term relationship or not, the overall dismissal of Lauren’s death is a harsh reminder of the reality for women. We could just be walking home like Sarah Everard, backpacking with our boyfriends like Gabby, or simply going on a date enjoying ourselves like Lauren, only for our bodies to be objectified, used and discarded. The absurd acceptance and rationalization of male violence, that “boys will just be boys,” is killing us.

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