Alaskans should have zero tolerance for assault, degradation of women

This week my house became a refuge of sorts for a young woman who had to escape from a bad situation. Just 21, she was on her first trip to Alaska, staying with a farming family through a program called Willing Workers on Organic Farms. She weeded and planted and explored the area.

And then, things got less pleasant. Her host, the man who invited her to join him at his home with his family, made lewd comments to her about her body, invited her to join him for movies alone, offered backrubs, and generally made her feel completely uncomfortable. Luckily, she had made some friends here and was strong enough to realize the situation was not her fault and she did not need to put up with such behavior. She sought her friends help, gathered her belongings, and left.

By coincidence, this man had done this same thing to another young woman I know. He had shown up at her house late at night, with a bottle of wine, and tried to give her a backrub. She asked him to leave, and he did, but she was still angry with herself for letting him into the house. So I knew this was not a one-time offense, but a pattern of aggressive, demeaning behavior toward women, especially those much younger than him.

On the surface, many would say such actions don't cross any real line. In the face of the law, do they really constitute a crime? Perhaps it could be defined as sexual harassment, but it's hard to know where making a pass at someone ends and sexual harassment begins. But I do know the emotional impact this man has had on his victims. The young lady who is staying with me is reporting him to the organization that connected him to her, and is therefor fearful that he might retaliate. Her mother is in a full state of alarm, threatening to come to Alaska to protect her daughter. It's messy all the way around, and completely overshadows this person's experience here.

As a young woman, I spent a decade working as a waitress and a bartender. During that time, I learned to deal with men like this, to treat them like children in a way, laugh off their advances and get them to relate to me like a friend instead of a female. If you know how, you can often diffuse that sort of energy. But a large part of me wished I could yell at these men, tell them to keep their thoughts to themselves, to stop treating me like a lesser gender even if I was serving them their beer.

The bottom line is our country still has a tremendous problem with sexual violence, be it sexual harassment, assault or rape. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that one in five women and one in 71 men in the nation experiences rape at some time in their lives. Most were raped by family members or acquaintances. In Alaska, that rate is triple the national average, and the younger you are, the worse it gets.

Most of us know the statistics and want to do something to stop it, but when a situation arises, we have to make a choice -- do we sweep it under the rug, or do we stand up for what we know is right? Do we try to stop another person from being victimized? It's pretty easy to get up on a soap box and say you are a victim's advocate. It's more difficult when it's personal and you will likely have to invite drama into your life to make anything change.

The trick to motivating yourself to take a stand in situations like this is to imagine how you would feel in two or three years if you had heard that another person had been victimized and you had knowledge that might have stopped it but chose not to act. For most of us, myself included, that is enough to spur one on -- the thought of these women who might be coming to this man's home in the future, and what might happen to them. Maybe someone would arrive who wasn't strong enough to stand up for herself and say no when someone older, in a position of authority, puts sexual pressure on her. While these young ladies are going to be angry but generally OK, the next woman might not be so lucky.

Really, the only way to put a stop to some of these horrible statistics is to take a stand each and every time the opportunity presents itself -- to institute a zero tolerance policy for such behavior. Anything less is simply encouraging the behavior to continue.

Carey Restino is editor of The Arctic Sounder and Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this opinion first appeared.