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Alaska Man's Revelation Shine A Light On Sex Abuse In The State


Rick Martin of Haines, Alaska, revealed a horrifying secret just before he took his life last month. Mr. Martin, who was 60 years old and suffering from liver disease, recorded a cellphone video in which he recounted how he had been sexually abused decades earlier when he was a student by a school superintendent. Subsequently, several other men came forward who had similar stories. Mr. Martin's revelation shines a light on some startling statistics. According to the FBI, Alaska's sex crime rate is three times that of the national average, and child sexual assault in the state is six times the national number. Alexander Keller Hirsch has written about this. He is director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He joins us from member station KUAC in Fairbanks.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXANDER KELLER HIRSCH: Thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: What should we make of these shocking statistics?

HIRSCH: I think to most Alaskans, these statistics aren't surprising. Anyone who lives here knows someone or is themselves a victim of sexual violence. And so this is a reality that Alaskan residents are constantly made aware of.

SIMON: You say in an opinion piece you wrote for the Anchorage Daily News that 59 percent of women in Alaska say they've been sexually assaulted.

HIRSCH: That's right. And it should be noted that, though that number is remarkable, it is likely that that number is also conservative. And we should also note that amongst the 59 percent of Alaska women, 61 percent are Alaska Native, which makes Alaska Native women almost 10 times more likely than other Alaskans to be victims.

SIMON: Professor Hirsch, I'm horrified and stumped. I mean, that's well over half. How does this happen?

HIRSCH: In western Alaska, one of the causes has to do with the remoteness of local communities, rural communities and villages where criminalization of sexual assault is difficult by virtue of the fact that we don't have police presence. There's also significant intergenerational trauma and a pattern of previous victims tragically becoming perpetrators themselves later on. There's also widespread substance abuse. That's undeniably part of the problem. And finally, I would highlight the legacy of settler colonialism, which has upended traditional subsistence lifestyles and disrupted norms in ways that have made this kind of sexual violence more likely to take place.

SIMON: You've suggested that Alaska declare a sexual assault state of emergency. What would that do?

HIRSCH: The governor could direct the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to establish funding for more emergency protective measures. The declaration would also allow the governor potentially to establish an emergency management team that could create a sexual violence commission that could work closely with the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. But I think above all else, I think the state needs to do something that is proportionate to the urgency of the problem and send a signal to Alaska's residents that the state is taking the issue very seriously. And I think the state should set a precedent for other states to follow suit. I also think that there's a danger in not declaring a sexual assault state of disaster in that by doing not enough, the state might send the signal that there's something inevitable about this kind of violence. And I don't think that that's true.

SIMON: Alexander Keller Hirsch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, thanks so much for being with us.

HIRSCH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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