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How do we end Alaska’s plague of sexual violence?

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 1
  • Published February 29

From left, sexual assault survivor Anna Sattler, U.S. Attorney for Alaska Bryan Schroder, Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, Alaska State Troopers director Barry Wilson, and FBI special agent Jeffery Peterson participate in a panel about public safety and violence against women Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

One of Alaska’s most serious problems is worse than we’ve ever known.

The number of sex crimes reported in Alaska jumped 20% from 2017 to 2018, according to a new state report. The findings confirm what FBI data last year indicated, as well as what has long been the case: Our state has the worst rates of sexual assault in the nation, and whatever we believed we knew about it before, it’s worse.

As has been the case with shocking jumps in years past, law enforcement sources pointed out that it’s possible there’s a positive in the increased number of sexual assault reports: Maybe in previous years, fewer victims were reporting, so the increased number of reports may not indicate a worsening problem but more victims coming forward.

Even as silver linings go, that’s pretty bleak. At best, it indicates we had little grasp of the extent of the problem in previous years, and the sexual assault epidemic in Alaska was far worse than we knew. And because there’s no way to know how many victims aren’t reporting, it could also be the case that more sexual assaults are indeed being committed, and the rate of reporting is the same or potentially even lower than in previous years. Only our sense that this must be the worst of it — because how could it be worse? — and our optimism that we’ve reached the true bottom argue that it must be better reporting of crimes, not a worsening problem.

But we thought that last year, too, when the number of reported sexual assaults was 20% lower. And the year before, when it was lower than that. And the year before that, when it was even lower. For years, Alaska’s rate of reported sexual assaults has been climbing. Reported rapes in the state increased from about 100 per 100,000 residents in 2014 — 2.5 times the national average — to 162 per 100,000 residents in 2018 — four times the national average. If we now have a more accurate grasp of the extent of our problem, what a problem it is.

Here’s what we do know:

• Sexual assault in Alaska is incredibly lopsided by gender, both for victims and suspects. A whopping 96% of sexual assault suspects are male. By contrast, their victims are 88% female. This is an epidemic almost entirely perpetrated by Alaska’s men on Alaska’s women.

• The victims are predominantly our children. The most common age for female victims was 15; the most common age for male victims was a shocking 4 years of age. More than half of victims — 55% — were minors.

• The perpetrators are often close to home — and inside it. Victims younger than 10 years old were most likely to have been abused by a family member.

So what are the root causes of this epidemic, and how can we turn it around? In some places, one likely factor is law enforcement, or the lack thereof. Southwest Alaska has the highest reported sexual assault rate of anywhere in Alaska, and its communities are isolated and many have no meaningful police presence, as the ADN has explored in its Lawless reporting series. If we want rates there to improve, we must give rural residents more assurance that perpetrators will be brought to justice.

But simply having a strong law enforcement presence is no panacea, either. Anchorage’s rate of sexual assault, though lower than Southwest Alaska, is well above the statewide average — nearly 50% of sexual assaults occur in Alaska’s largest city.

Alaska’s lawmakers should take this issue more seriously and devote more resources to combating it, but we also share a personal responsibility for combating it ourselves, any way we can. It’s not enough that we quietly spread the word among our friends or family members when an uncle or a cousin is known to prey on children. We must see that they pay for their actions, that they receive treatment to deal with their issues and isolation from potential victims if they are beyond help.

The damage done by sexual assault is generational. Children who are victims of abuse are far more likely to abuse others as adults. If we don’t commit to rooting it out now, it will poison Alaska’s future for decades to come.

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