Alaska’s already high rate of sexual assault surged by 11% between 2017 and 2018 — to nearly four times the national rate. One thousand and one hundred rapes and 88 attempted rapes were reported in Alaska in 2018. If we want to stop this epidemic we all must recognize our roles in perpetuating it.
Last month a local paper ran a story about Alaska Native women in Nome who said police ignored or failed to thoroughly investigate rapes. One woman did not get a sexual assault exam because the investigating officer told the forensic nurse not to perform it. The officer had already “talked” to the accused, who said the sex was consensual. No charges were filed.
The same day an additional accusation of sexual assault was leveled against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Another story of dismissed and diminished sexual assault.
Twenty-four women have stated that President Donald Trump sexually assaulted each of them. Many reflexively believe Trump’s explanation of “lies and fake news.” What kind of example does this set for the young women and men in our towns and communities? What is the social cost of accepting this behavior?
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 69% of sexual assaults and rapes are never reported to the police. The myth exists that women frequently make false accusations of sexual assault when it couldn’t be further from the truth. Numerous studies show as few as 2 to 10% of those reported sexual assault charges are false.
Congress has a history of ignoring women’s assertions of sexual misconduct. Consider Christine Blasey Ford. She was harassed for months after she testified about her sexual assault by Kavanaugh. Her voice was still ignored because the default is to believe the men. It is no wonder women don’t report rapes and sexual assault.
And then we have the case of the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of three felonies of sexual assault and served three months in jail. His father thought the punishment was a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” The father appears to have no empathy for the woman whom his son violated both physically and psychologically. Some men seem to be saying that “it was just sex, why should the perpetrator suffer or be punished.”
There is a historic backlog of untested rape kits in Alaska and across the U.S. One woman in Alaska waited 18 years to have her rapist arrested because her rape kit wasn’t processed. Our state’s backlog and current testing is only being addressed because Rep. Geran Tarr, a woman, helped pass two laws to address the problem. No male legislators or governor saw this as a priority. She did. Women’s priorities are often different from men’s.
We all play a role in maintaining the system as it is. We are comfortable with the status quo. Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has shown a bright light on the problem of sexual assault and rape. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, “Sexual assault is about power and control and is not motivated by sexual gratification.”
Mass media too needs to examine its role in maintaining the status quo. Consider the initial demeaning coverage of Kathleen Henry and her brutal death in an Anchorage hotel. The Anchorage Daily News detailed Henry’s substance abuse and criminal history. That kind of reporting implies she somehow deserved it. The focus should have been on the murderer. Empathy should have been given to the victim. Only after public outcry was the story changed.
If Alaskans want change we must be that agent for change. We must stand as a community and change our priorities. It means challenging our friends and our families. It won’t be easy. It will cause division.
We must ask ourselves what changes can media organizations and all businesses make to ensure women’s voices, issues and concerns are heard? How many women are on the governance or editorial board of your company? What is the ratio of men to women at your business and in its management? Remember, it’s always been easier for men to hire and promote men.
Alaskans aren’t hearing all the voices. When you’re only listening to half the people, you’re only getting half the solutions.
• Robin Smith has lived in Alaska 38 years and resides in Anchorage.