The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
No longer shocked.
Mat-Su numbers on violence against women are typical.
It’s an awful commentary on the state of human relations in Alaska that this week’s report on the frequency of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Mat-Su Borough came as no surprise. That’s because Mat-Su’s numbers weren’t that different from those in other regions in Alaska.
But the numbers are staggering, and if they no longer shock, they should strengthen our resolve to do something about them.
When we read the numbers below, we should remember that these are not just numbers. They are mothers, daughters, sisters; extended family members; neighbors and friends. Yes, men and boys are victims too but it remains true that women and girls make up most of the victims.
In the Mat-Su survey:
• 52.5 percent — that’s 16,033 women — reported threats of violence, actual physical violence or sexual assault in their lifetimes.
• 8.8 percent — 2,687 women — reported threats of violence, actual physical violence or sexual assault in the last year.
• 44.9 percent — 13,712 women — reported intimate partner physical violence in their lifetimes.
• 7.2 percent — 2,199 women — reported intimate partner physical violence in the past year.
• 33.7 percent — 10,292 women — reported sexual violence in their lifetimes.
• 3 percent — 916 women — reported sexual violence in the past year.
These numbers — extrapolated from a survey of 1,190 women — are terrible enough. What’s worse is that they almost certainly underestimate the real toll of violence against women, according to Andre Rosay of the UAA Justice Center, one of the survey partners.
Rosay said that when he started his work on domestic and sexual violence in Alaska, he was shocked at what he found, at how widespread the suffering was. Now he, like many of us, is no longer shocked.
But that doesn’t mean that he and the rest of us must accept these numbers as part of life in Alaska.
What to do about it?
We know some of the answers for after the fact. Mat-Su has restored a local Sexual Assault Response Team, so that victims can seek justice close to home and prosecution can be swifter. Assailants must face that justice; they should know they stand to lose their freedom for a long time — and carry the stigma of the offense even longer.
But the real key to changing these numbers — and by that we mean changing the lives of women in Alaska, and thereby changing all of our lives for the better — is prevention.
“We can’t just arrest our way out of this problem,” Rosay said.
Rosay said if he were to choose one focus, it would be on teaching healthy relationships at an early age — ideally first and foremost in the home but also in schools and in other programs. To that end, he sees good work in programs like Coaching Boys Into Men, Girls on the Run, The Fourth R (adding relationships to the three Rs in school) and Green Dot, etc., which offers training in how to recognize, defuse and/or report dangerous situations.
In addition, Rosay sees hope in more talk about other forms of prevention, like avoiding dangerous situations and behavior. He noted that there’s some discomfort with teaching prevention out of fear that the victim who doesn’t practice prevention will be blamed. We should make clear whether any victim practiced prevention methods or not, she or he is not to blame — the assailant is. But that doesn’t preclude good-sense decisions in taking care of yourself.
This is work for the long haul. Our popular culture is full of mixed messages and contradictions about power, sexuality and respect. But those healthy relationships of care and respect are worth the struggle — and the money for the programs that build them. It doesn’t take a social scientist to figure out that if we make serious progress against domestic violence and sexual assault, we take so much fear and darkness out of our lives, and open the way to so much grace and good.
As Rosay said, “The benefits are endless.”