RED ZONE: 1 in 2 Anchorage women experience sexual or intimate partner violence

The 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey found that approximately one in two women, or 48 percent, in the municipality of Anchorage has experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetime. The survey was conducted from May to August 2015 by the UAA Justice Center.

Statewide, the numbers are very similar. In the entire state of Alaska, 50 percent of women have experienced either one or both forms of sexual violence in their lifetime. In 2010, the numbers were 9 percentage points higher. Still, rates for Alaska and Anchorage are exceptionally high, especially when compared to nationwide statistics.

Keeley Olson, executive director of the organization Standing Together Against Rape, sees it as a problem starting at a young age.

“Alaska’s rates of child sexual abuse are six times higher than those of the Lower 48. Statistically, once someone is harmed by sexual violence, they are more likely to be harmed repeated times,” Olson said.

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Photo credit: Jian Bautista

STAR has had a presence in Anchorage for over 35 years. The organization provides crisis intervention, education and advocacy services to survivors of sexual violence and their families.

They also offer a 24/7 crisis line all year round and work on educating people about healthy relationships and boundaries, self respect and consent. STAR strives to start early with that by teaching youth in primary school classes on personal body safety.

Preventing the first occurrence of sexual violence is of greatest importance for fighting the alarmingly high rates in Anchorage.

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“If we can prevent initial abuse, we can make a bigger impact on sexual violence occurring to older youth, teens and adults. But without trauma-informed interventions, those who were harmed as children are much more likely to be harmed as adults,” Olson said. “Since Alaska has more children than any other state harmed by sexual abuse, it makes more sense, then, that adult rates are also higher.”

The reasons for that are complex since the issue is multifactorial.

“The criminal legal system is not terribly evolved in Alaska; for example, there is no misdemeanor probation to hold low level offenders accountable,” Olson said.

The lack of law enforcement in more rural communities does not only affect these communities; Anchorage and other cities might be influenced by this as well.

“When you do not strive to make misdemeanor offenses of domestic violence and sexual misconduct matter, offenders tend to… advance to committing crimes that cause more damage and to more people. The fact there are whole areas of the state without local law enforcement and access to emergency response also plays a role. Those who are no longer welcome in their rural communities, may choose to come to Anchorage as a hub community, where they are likely to continue committing crimes,” Olson said.

People tend to assume that the rate of crimes related to sexual violence is only unusually high in more rural communities. While it is true that these communities experience more of these crimes, the rates for Anchorage are only slightly lower.

“Alaska’s rural areas do indeed experience a higher per capita rate of domestic violence and rape. But Anchorage has excessively high rates as well, compared to other states in the nation,” Olson said.

Ignoring the prevalence of sexual violence in the municipality could be a way of disassociating oneself from the issue. This is creating a false sense of security – anybody could be affected by intimate partner violence or sexual violence, regardless of their place of residence.

“I think it is simply a matter of distancing ourselves from grim reality. We would all maybe like to convince ourselves this is not an issue impacting me, this is an issue affecting someone else, somewhere else. Kind of an ‘us and them’ mentality,” Olson said.

Open communication is most important when it comes to raising awareness about the issue. More and more share their personal experiences with sexual and intimate partner violence.

“As it becomes more mainstream to speak about it, the stigma and blame will dissipate. If everyone would express belief and offer support to those impacted, rather than laying blame, or making excuses, it would make a world of difference,” Olson said.

UAA has also launched several efforts to increase awareness about sexual violence and intimate partner violence such as the mandatory Title IX training and the Take Back the Night March in September.

Mariah Burroughs, a social work major at UAA, believes that these efforts are successful.

“I think UAA is already doing a pretty good job with raising awareness the students’ awareness about this. Especially now that everyone is required to complete the Haven Training and that some are also doing the bystander training, they’re actually forced to think about the issue,” Burroughs said.

Nurse practitioner Betty Bang from the Student Health and Counseling Center, is one of the leaders for the bystander training at UAA. This semester, they have already done 21 presentations.

“We’re trying to get students involved in intervening and we also help with the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition for Change,” Bang said.

In cooperation with the DVSA coalition, they are working on getting staff, faculty, students and departments together to plan more events highlighting sexual assault and domestic violence in the community.