The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
Gov. Sean Parnell was right in August when he said we can't be a decent, good society - no matter what our wealth - unless we reverse Alaska's chronic epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence.
A survey of Alaska women by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center tells us the epidemic is worse than we thought. The survey found more than half the women contacted reported being victimized at some point in their lives - and one in eight during the year before the survey.
When a veteran Alaska law enforcement officer like Audie Holloway, director of the Alaska State Troopers, says he finds the numbers shocking, that should get everyone's attention.
So what do we do to change it, besides wringing our hands and shaking our heads?
"We need to stop blaming the victims of sexual assault," says Nancy Haag, director of Standing Together Against Rape (STAR). Haag says that blame remains more prevalent - sometimes unconsciously so - than many people believe.
That change helps the victim - and puts the blame squarely and entirely where it belongs - on the perpetrator.
Yes, we should be realistic about warning girls and women - and boys and men too - away from dangerous situations. But with that warning should always come a clear distinction - a violent attack is never the victim's fault, no matter what she's wearing, where she's gone, who she's with. Haag points out that some victims do everything "right." No blame should fall to any victim.
The standard should be simple - no matter where a woman or girl may go in this city or state, from her living room to a downtown bar to a bike trail at midnight, she should be safe. If she's not, it's the predator's fault, not hers.
Haag adds that assailants look for victims. Sexual assault and domestic violence are not accidental crimes. Perpetrators target the vulnerable.
She points out citizens can help protect the vulnerable. If a situation looks wrong, don't hesitate to call 911. With the prevalence of cell phones, being a Good Samaritan has never been easier. Don't be afraid that you're overreacting. Make the call and let police officers take it from there. If the situation is urgent but you feel you can't directly intervene, create a distraction. Honk a horn if you're in a vehicle. Make some other noise. Alert other people nearby.
The point is to create a community where we don't turn away from sexual assault or domestic violence, but rally to their victims - and stand up to the perpetrators.
Or better, prevent the violence in the first place. To that end, Haag recommends education from an early age about how we treat one another. To regard anyone as less deserving of basic respect, as if their humanity isn't equal to ours, is wrong. That bullying isn't to be appeased or feared, but reviled.
And, because most of the assailants in sexual and domestic violence crimes are men, we need to promote a culture that defines manhood with a standard of self-control, not self-indulgence, where being a man means the kind of strength that protects, defends and respects women and children, that handles the friction of relationships with patience. That standard allows for anger, for frustration - but never out of control, never across that line.
"Where are our role models?" Haag asks rhetorically. They're out there, men of strength, kindness and care. They need to be the norm, setting the standard that boys and young men aspire to.
Aside from personal choices, Haag also suggested some policy initiatives. One is swift justice, which may require more prosecutors. Now, a victim may wait years for justice while a perpetrator remains free. Another is mandatory treatment for convicted sex offenders and batterers, and closer supervision after their release from prison. She'd also like to see follow-up surveys to refine information from different parts of the state.
Haag does see hope and some progress. She says that not many years ago, she could empty a room by bringing up the topic of sexual assault. Not so now.
Her ideal is to work herself out of her position, to see a day when sexual assault and domestic violence is "an anomaly, not just another 24-hour period in Anchorage, Alaska."
That's a challenge we can all help to meet.
The report puts some numbers on what many Alaskans already knew about sexual assault and domestic violence. May the shock move us to change it.
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