OPINION: Alaska should declare sexual assault state of disaster
By now, most Alaskans are woefully aware of the alarming reality. Alaska's sexual crime rates are three times higher than the national average, and child sexual assault rates are six times the national average.
A 2016 state report confirms that, disproportionately, victims of sexual violence are between 11 and 17 years old, from Western Alaska or the Anchorage Bowl, and were attacked by someone they knew. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, 59 percent of Alaska women report having experienced sexual violence. Native Alaskans make up 61 percent of rape victims in the state, making Alaska Native women 9.7 times more likely than other Alaskans to be victims. Remarkable though they are, these numbers are by all accounts conservative, as the reported assault rate comprises only a portion of the overall rate of incidents.
Alaska's recent governors, starkly cognizant of this disaster, have responded, albeit to limited effect. Gov. Sean Parnell was right to term sexual abuse in Alaska "an epidemic." He launched Alaska Men Choose Respect, a statewide prevention program that combined widespread public service announcements and annual rallies with increased sentencing for sex offenders and mini-grants for community-based prevention programs. Parnell also made efforts to expand law enforcement in remote areas through the Village Public Safety Officers program.
As part of his "Safer Alaska" initiative, Gov. Bill Walker has followed suit, though, laudably, he has ramped up efforts to treat the issue with accelerated urgency. On June 19, the governor signed Senate Bill 55 into law, bringing the state into compliance with the federal Violence Against Women Act, enforcing out-of-state protective orders registered in Alaska courts, and ordering local law enforcement agencies throughout the state to report their untested rape kits to the Alaska Department of Public Safety. The state received a $1.1 million, three-year grant to process 1,000 untested sexual assault kits held in storage by Alaska State Troopers. Walker also declared April the perennial Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
"For too many years," Walker wrote, "Alaska has been plagued with high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. Solving these problems will require a multi-pronged approach across many departments addressing victims, perpetrators, families and bystanders."
Walker is right. The causes of sexual violence in Alaska are complex and ingrained, and redressing the multidimensional social problems that underlie such violence will require maximum coordination among networks of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, community groups and individuals. This is why the governor should immediately declare a sexual assault state of disaster in the state of Alaska.
Some apparent progress has been made in recent years. The 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey reflected a significantly decreased rate (roughly one-third) of reported sexual violence since 2010. It is unclear how much of this change is accurately reflected by vital advancements made in preventing violence, or if it is the reporting of sexual assault that has flagged. Either way, as long as Alaska continues to rank the highest in the nation for sexual crime, more must be done to ensure the safety of our residents.
Declaring a state of disaster could catalyze public assistance measures at the state, local and tribal government levels, and direct the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to establish funding for emergency protective measures. The declaration would also allow the governor and his emergency management team to swiftly establish a sexual violence commission that could work closely with the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to expand the exceptional services it currently offers in the form of emergency shelters, safety planning, community advocacy and batterers' intervention programs. A state of disaster could also provide greater financial assistance for victims seeking legal redress.
Were the governor to take this needed step, the declaration would allow the state to petition federal government agencies for funding and logistical help. Though the federal grant the state received will no doubt help, in fact thousands more untested rape kits will remain in need of subsidy.
Declaring a state of disaster will elevate the issue's notoriety and call further attention to sexual violence as a matter of significant state priority. Serious change, proportionate to what is required to fully eliminate the conditions of possibility for sexual assault, may remain a cultural concern so long as widespread misogyny persists. But cultural change is invigorated by shifts in policy, which signal new directions and quicken variations in cultural consciousness.
Like torture, rape is a paradigm of what the philosopher Jay Bernstein terms "moral injury", both are "paradigms of acts that no one should ever do." The devastation reaped by rape is revealed in the experience of suffering and pain related to the "destruction of individuals' standing as persons — as having dignity," writes Bernstein. The profound result of thinking this way about sexual violence as a form of torture is, "When people do terrible things it is not moral rules that are broken but other persons that are broken, their bodies and dignity."
On Feb. 15, the governor issued an order officially declaring the state's opioid abuse crisis a public health disaster. This created a legal foundation for the state to issue a medical "standing order" that allows community groups, law enforcement and members of the public to dispense and administer naloxone, an anti-overdose medication. It was the 11th disaster declared by the governor, but the first addressing a dire need in Alaska that was not strictly related to the damage caused by storms or wildfire.
A similar declaration for sexual violence would dignify Alaskans who have suffered in the past, but also demonstrate respect for equally considerable future generations of victims. The declaration could open pathways to renewal in a state where, as Gov. Walker rightly admits, "more must be done."
Alexander Keller Hirsch is associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UAF.