By Lisa Demer
The first survey of Alaska women about sexual assault and domestic violence found that more than half had been victimized at some point in their life and about one in eight had been victimized in the year before the survey.
The University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center surveyed 871 Alaska adult women by telephone in May and June under a $280,000 state grant. Women were picked randomly. Researchers called cell phone and land line numbers from across the state.
For years, Alaska has struggled with high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, but those findings are most often based on crimes reported to law enforcement. The new survey found much higher rates:
* Overall, almost 59 percent of the women surveyed said they had experienced physical violence or threats of it from a partner, or sexual violence from anyone, at some point in their lives, the survey found. If that percentage holds true for the population as a whole, that means an estimated 145,000 Alaska women have been victimized, said Andre Rosay, Justice Center director and the lead researcher.
* Nearly 27 percent of the women said that over their lifetime they had had unwanted sex when they were drunk, high or passed out, and unable to consent. Almost as many had been sexually assaulted after being subjected to physical force or threats, the survey found.
* During the year previous to the survey, close to 12 percent of the women said that they had experienced sexual violence or domestic violence or threats of it. About 9 percent said they had suffered physical violence at the hands of a romantic or sexual partner including being slapped, kicked, pushed, beaten, burned or choked.
* Also in the past year, 2.5 percent said they had been sexually assaulted, which doesn't count those too disoriented to give consent because of drinking or drugs.
That means an estimated 6,181 Alaska women had been victims of sexual assaults in one year's time, Rosay said. Of those, maybe 3,700 had been forced into vaginal sex, meeting the FBI definition of forcible rape used in crime reporting.
In comparison, there were 503 forcible rapes reported to Alaska law enforcement in 2009, according to statistics collected by the state Department of Public Safety for the FBI uniform crime report.
'A SECRET EVIL'
Gov. Sean Parnell said the findings confirm that Alaska is in the midst of an epidemic of sexual and domestic violence.
"It really is the secret evil that is rotting us from the inside. It is something we don't talk about too much. It is done in the secrecy and privacy of homes," Parnell said Thursday.
He said his administration has been pushing to address the problem on several fronts including public education to prevent violence, tougher sentencing for abusers and more support for victim services such as shelters, he said. Some crime bills passed this year, and more work is needed, he said.
He said he's praying just for Alaska's rate of crimes like child sexual abuse -- which has been the highest in the nation -- to fall below the national average.
Parnell said he wants people to know that it's OK to talk about what's happened to them, wants them to have the courage to speak out.
The governor appeared earlier this year in public service ads urging Alaska men to "choose respect" -- and took some heat for it during the primary election. His grandfather was an abusive alcoholic, but his father chose a different way to raise him and his brother, he says in the ads. He said Thursday that his parents kept him away from his grandfather, and he only saw him a couple of times. The man died homeless, on Skid Row in Seattle, Parnell said.
Diane Benson, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor, said Thursday that the Republican Parnell administration hasn't done enough and that she and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ethan Berkowitz would push for dramatic change. She said that events like rallies, which Parnell has pushed, make a good show but don't fix the problem.
Their Democratic administration would work with tribes to prevent these serious social problems, and the Parnell administration isn't doing that, she said. There also needs to be a new way of dealing with perpetrators, she said. More arrests and harsher punishments aren't working. Too many Native Alaska men already have been ripped away from villages where their skills as hunters and fishermen are valued for survival, said Benson, who is Tlingit.
"Is it an agenda item or is it a political item? I mean, sometimes I can't tell," Benson said. She is a survivor of repeated sexual assaults who has spoken publicly about her own history. "If you don't make the full commitment, you kind of stir the pot rather than really clear up anything."
Parnell said he's committed.
"I'm beyond the numbers. I'm working to help people," he said. "I don't want people to get lost in the magnitude of the numbers so much as take action to reduce and stop this epidemic."
'INTO THE OPEN'
Still, Col. Audie Holloway, director of the Alaska State Troopers, said he found the numbers shocking. He said the study is important because it defines the scope of the problem. If more victims come forward, the data should help convince legislators why more investigators, prosecutors and services like shelters are needed, Holloway said.
"A lot of our effort will go toward trying to convince people this kind of behavior is not acceptable. It's intolerable. It gets it out into the open," Holloway said.
Rosay, of the Justice Center, said he hopes the study can be updated every few years, to see if government initiatives are effective in reducing the incidence of sexual and domestic violence. The number of reported crimes may go up if more women feel safe to come forward, even while the incidence of violence declines, he said.
The survey was modeled after one developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Defense. There should be national data to compare with the Alaska results next year, Rosay said.