Sexual assault in Alaska: A state disaster?
It's been described as a culture -- an epidemic -- but should sexual assault be labeled as a state disaster?
Alexander Keller Hirsch, director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, thinks so.
After Gov. Bill Walker declared the state's opioid epidemic a disaster in February, Hirsch published a piece in newspapers throughout the state suggesting sexual assault should get the same treatment.
"I'm emboldened to see that the governor is interested negotiating, reckoning with social problems as well as natural disasters, and to engage with them at the level of establishing a decree, an official state decree of a state of disaster. I think that's important and I think it opens the door really," Hirsch said. "Fifty-nine percent of Alaskan women report experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes."
Hirsch says he's seen too many of his students suffering from those experiences. Because Alaska is worst in the nation, he says it can also be first in the nation to call for a bolder solution.
"The first step to address the problem of sexual assault in the state, is to recognize what's going on, we have a crisis on our hands," Hirsch said.
Gov. Bill Walker says he's read Hirsch's piece.
"I really appreciated the article, I thought it was really well written," Walker said in an interview Tuesday.
But Walker says the opioid declaration served a different purpose.
"That set up a process, sort of, of an incident command system, which is already in place on the domestic violence sexual assault. So, that parts already there, already in place," Walker said.
One of the big pieces already in place is the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Leadership there agrees it's already doing a lot of what a disaster declaration calls for.
"We can look at the sexual assault response team. Right now, that core group is meeting to talk about what's working and what's not," said Carmen Lowry, executive director of the ANDVSA.
But the violence isn't easy to erase.
"Sexual violence is based on social and cultural norms, and to change those kind of norms, and to make sure that we provide assistance to people and support to people, takes a long time," Lowry said.
In the meantime, Hirsch says Governor Walker should use his position to elevate the issue.
"I've decided that it might actually be powerful for a man to stand up and say that sexual assault is wrong," Hirsch said.
Hirsch says a disaster declaration is a good way to get more men in leadership roles, like the governor, speaking out and condemning the violence in a big, public way.
Since publishing his article, Hirsch says he's received emails from dozens of victims in Alaska who were anxious to share their stories.