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Anchorage, Fairbanks among 'most dangerous cities for women'

Alex DeMarban

Another disturbing claim to fame for Alaska puts the state's two largest cities No. 2 and No. 3 on a Forbes list of the nation's most dangerous cities for women.

While Anchorage and Fairbanks trailed Saginaw, Mich., for the overall lead, the two Alaska cities had the highest rape rates for cities on the list.

Fairbanks finished third overall, but the Golden Heart City has a monstrous lead in per-capita rapes, with more than double the rape rate of the other nine cities. Forbes reports the equivalent of 191 rapes per 100,000 residents in what it termed a "hotbed for sexual violence."

Anchorage finished second overall and second in rapes, with 86 per 100,000 residents.

Forbes reviewed recent sexual assaults and violent crimes against women in those cities and others to reach its conclusions, relying on the FBI's 2010 Uniform Crime Report. The numbers barely scratch the surface, because many assaults go unreported and because the FBI statistics at that time counted only forcible rape, not other attacks such as date rape or sexual crimes against children.

Still, of the two states with an outsized problem, "the numbers are clear in one thing: for women in Alaska and Michigan, the threat of sexual assault is clear and present," the article says. 

Nancy Haag, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape in Anchorage, said "it doesn’t matter how you slice and dice the numbers," Alaska has a massive problem with rape and sexual assault. 

Are things improving? Haag said she could speak only for Anchorage because that's the city she's familiar with. Victim services have improved there, she said, and there is more help and a more coordinated response after a rape. Law enforcement, forensic nursing and victim advocates show up simultaneously to work with victims.

Haag also said that Anchorage Police Department's Special Victims Unit is quick to respond to sexual assaults. She said the department's Crimes against Children Unit is down two detectives, however, and needs to be beefed up.

Overall, more resources are needed to help victims and prosecute crimes, she said. But social attitudes also need to change. Some people are quick to blame the victim, creating a stigma for those who report crimes.   

"If we as a society and individuals continue to blame the victim, we're playing right into the hands of perpetrators," she said.

The perpetrators count on that stigma to avoid prosecution, targeting victims with questionable behavior or a child they can easily confuse, she said.

Andre Rosay, director of the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said surveys show that sexual violence is a much greater problem than victims' reports suggests, because not all victims report attacks. A statewide phone survey conducted by the center in 2010 found that 37 percent of adult women in Alaska had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. 

"We found the problem is far worse than law-enforcement statistics show, which we expected. But it's disappointing nonetheless," he said.  

Lt. Dave Parker, spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department, said domestic violence and sexual assault rates are high in Anchorage and Alaska. But he added that lists such as Forbes' often don't tell the full story, and that Anchorage may not be as dangerous as it sounds.

During his years of experience investigating sexual assault cases in Anchorage, Parker said he saw less than 10 "jump-out-of-the-bushes-type rapes" that many people envision when they think of sexual assault. In fact, many rapes involve people who know each other. Alcohol is often involved, reducing the perpetator's inhibitions and the victim's ability to flee.

Also, attacks reported as sexual assaults sometimes turn out to be something different, he said. 

As for the article, it notes that in Saginaw, Mich., the No. 1 city on the list, Forbes counted 870 violent crimes and 76 rapes for every 100,000 residents.

In Anchorage, 813 was the rate of violent crimes against women. In Fairbanks, 783 was the rate.

The article notes that high Native populations in Alaska may push overall rates higher, since that demographic tends to have even higher rates of sexual assault. 

"Research points to as many as one in three Indian women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime -- a rate 3.5 times higher than any other racial group," the article notes.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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