The first and to date only woman to win the 1,000-mile, Yukon-Quest International Sled Dog Race, arguably Alaska’s toughest ultramarathon, and a three-time runner-up in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Aliy Zirkle is one tough woman.
And yet she was emotionally shaken to her core after coming under attack on the Yukon River during the 2016 Iditarod.
Because Zirkle had always lived in the belief that the Iditarod bubble would protect her, always thought her Iditarod fame a safeguard against the violence against women that pervades the 49th state, always trusted that she was an untouchable.
All it took was one nightmarish night on a wilderness river to shatter those beliefs.
All it took was the fear a man was going to kill her simply because she was a woman to make her recognize the world much of her Alaska sisterhood inhabits. Today, Zirkle works with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault to try slow a plague of sexual violence and abuse that is bad everywhere in Alaska and worse in the rural areas.
“….Male perpetrators have a sense of entitlement due to their privileged status as men in our culture,” Judy Gette, a professor at the Matanuska-Susitna College wrote in 2014 after a University of Alaska study revealed that 53 percent of Mat-Su Valley women reported being sexually abused or physically assaulted or both. “This comes across in the form of misogyny: a hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women. Perpetrators of interpersonal violence will make statements supporting their violence in terms of women ‘deserving’ such treatment.”
There appears something of a view among some Alaska men that women, like sled dogs, are on earth to be used.
Changing such a culture is a daunting task as now clearly evidenced by two state lawmakers – one an Alaska Native and one a white – standing accused of sexually assaulting women in the state capital.
That disgraced and now former Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, and accused Rep. Zack Fansler, D-Bethel, come from Western Alaska only underlines the problems that region faces.
Westlake resigned earlier this month after being accused of making unwanted sexual advances on women working in the state capital. That sparked an investigation by Anchorage TV station KTUU that revealed Westlake in 1988 impregnated a 15-year-old girl. He was at the time a 28-year-old Kotzebue police officer, KTUU reported.
Then the Juneau Empire last week reported that Fansler hit a woman so hard he ruptured her eardrum because she didn’t want to have sex with him. His attorney says he is innocent. Fellow lawmakers have asked him to resign.
Fansler and Westlake come from a part of Alaska where women appear to be sometimes viewed as chattel, not that other parts of the 49th state are all that much better.
Still, Western Alaska is arguably the rape capital of the world.
A 2016 state examination of “Felony Level Sex Offenses” (the 2017 report is not yet available) put the reported rape rate there at 446.4 women per 100,000 residents.
Alaska is the U.S. leader in grim rape statistics with 141.9 rapes per 100,000 residents statewide. Nationally, the District of Columbia is a distance second at 78.1 per 100,000. The national average is 29.6 per 100,000.
Anchorage has in recent year been regularly identified as the most dangerous city for women in the U.S. Along with a high rate of violence, the city, according to the 2016 state report, has a rape rate at 262.2 per 100,000, up slightly from the year before.
All of these numbers are bad, but none come close to those of Western Alaska,which has problems no one wants to address. Some villages in that part of the state appear to be literally warehousing registered sex offenders.
A 2013 AlaskaDispatch.com analysis of the state’s sex-offender database found that in some villages, one in every 30 men is a registered sex offender. Native women who live in rural Alaska, nearly all of whom are afraid to talk on the record, say sexual assault is a problem for which the men in their communities seem unwilling to take responsibility.
“It’s still really hard for some communities to talk about abuse,” Pam Karalunas of the Alaska Children’s Alliance told the website, “and, in some cases, children who are willing to disclose have had to leave a community because they’re shamed and blamed and ostracized.”
The state report on sex crimes documents a startling difference between rape victims and rape suspects in Anchorage and those in Western Alaska, the two worst places for sexual assault in Alaska. In both cases, the victims and their attackers are young.
But in Anchorage, the difference between the two is only five years. The most common victim in Anchorage was age 16, according to the report; the age of her attacker 21.
The age of victims in Western Alaska fell to age 14, while the age of their attackers rose to 27 – a 13-year difference.
There are same-sex rapes in Alaska, but the vast majority, according to the state report (about 90 percent) involve men attacking women, and almost always women they know. Statewide, only 4 percent of rapes are reported to involve strangers.
Sixty-eight percent of attackers are acquaintances or friends of some sort; 28 percent are family members.
Of the victims of rape, more than 55 percent are Native women, but that figure is heavily weighted by the rate of rape in Western Alaskan where the population is almost wholly Native.
Ninety-two percent of the women raped in Western Alaska are Native. Nearly all of their attackers are Native as well.
Statewide, the data indicates that attacks by Native men on women of other races are rare. Eighty-six percent of their victims are Native women, 9 percent Caucasian and the rest a variety of races.
Native women, however, are victimized by men of all races. Thirty-six percent of the victims of Asian suspects are Native. Twenty-five percent of the victims of white suspects are Native. And 24 percent of the victims of black suspects are Native.
The study does not indicate how many of the suspects in Alaska rapes are people in positions of power or authority, such as local government or business leaders, teachers, law enforcement officials, politicians, tribal or religious leaders. But there are plenty of anecdotal indications people in power take advantage of that power.
Catholic priests have a sordid history of sexual abuse in rural Alaska. That appears to have been cleaned up, but over the years there have been suggestions that others in positions of power have moved in to take the place of priests.
Tony was five times reported to state officials as a sexual predator before a final, 1988 report led the state to revoked his family’s license to provide foster care, Eli Martin and Suzanna Caldwell wrote at AlaskaDispatch.com.
He was not prosecuted, however, and 15 years would pass before he was arrested and charged with abusing a 4-year old girl from 2011 to 2012. The girl was at a daycare facility Tony and his wife operated after losing their foster care license. Alaska Department of Health and Human Services told Martin that the Tonys were not licensed daycare providers but instead operated on an informal basis.
Authorities on sex crimes say the tolerance of sex abuse in Alaska has become self-perpetuating with victims of sex crimes later becoming perpetrators.
Among social researchers, there has also been an increasing discussion of “rape culture” in recent years. In a landmark, 2013 study published in the Lancet, a global health publication, scientists asked thousands of men in six Asian countries about uncooperative sex partners and found that rape might be significantly underreported.
About a quarter of men in that study reported forcing themselves on a woman disinterested in sex.
“All men who had raped were asked about the reasons for the most recent rape,” the researchers reported. “Of those who had raped a non-partner woman, the most common reason for the most recent rape expressed sexual entitlement (statements endorsed by 73 percent of men across the region), followed by entertainment seeking (59 percent), anger or punishment (38 percent), and alcohol or substance use (27 percent). When asked about what consequences they had ever experienced after rape, only 55 percent of men had felt guilty, and 23 percent had been sent to prison for rape of a partner or non-partner woman, or man, but this proportion varied from 2 percent (Sri Lanka) to 52 percent (Papua New Guinea), where traditional rape punishments are used.”
“Although this study focused on countries in Asia and the Pacific,” the study said, “the findings are of substantial global interest, partly because most of the world’s population lives in this region and the countries are very culturally diverse. Moreover, the high consistency between associated factors described in South Africa and North America and those from countries of this region is notable.”
There are a long list of studies documenting the ways in which abhorrent behaviors can become normalized.
Dani Bickford has argued some sexual harassment, if not assault, has been normalized in Alaska’s capital city. Bickford was a voice in the wilderness when she first suggested this idea. The recent cases involving Westlake and Fansler – who appears to have slugged a woman at a time when #metoo is actively looking for men on which to focus its anger – would cause any reasonable person to wonder if there isn’t some fire beneath the smoke Bickford put up.
Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell championed a public relations campaign called “Choose Respect” to try to break this cycle. Many scoffed at it as more image than substance. Choose Respect sprang from a program started in 2008 by the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the state Department of Public Safety.
The “Real Alaska Men Choose Respect”‘campaign was born in an effort to engage men in the work of ending domestic violence and sexual assault,” according to the state website. “In December of 2009, Gov. Parnell pledged that Alaska would take every step necessary to stop the epidemic of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse in Alaska, and began his statewide “Choose Respect Initiative.”
For a brief time, as Alaskans argued over whether the program would do anything, Choose Respect gained a pretty high-profile thanks to Alaska Dispatch News columnist Shannyn Moore, who went to great efforts to mock it.
“Maybe Parnell will get Joe (Hazelwood) to chair the Ship Passage Safety for Prince William Sound Review Board,” she wrote in the summer of 2014. “But why stop there? Maybe serial killer Robert Hansen could chair the Choose Respect Campaign. He knows a thing or two about women and violence. With this governor, don’t bet against it.”
Hazelwood was the skipper of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when it went aground in the Sound in 1989 and caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Robert Hansen was a baker who kidnapped, raped and then murdered 17 to more than 20 Anchorage women in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Hansen escaped detection for more than a decade because he preyed on the state’s most vulnerable women – strippers and prostitutes – and buried them in remote areas where many of the bodies were not found until Hansen confessed to some of the murders.
With opinion leaders like Moore mocking Choose Respect, the program wasn’t destined to stay in the public eye long Moore-favorite Bill Walker replaced Parnell as governor.
Choose Respect is officially still out there somewhere, but there are a lot of men in the 49th state who could care less.
The situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. If anything, it’s getting worse.
And, as with many problems in Alaska these days, nobody seems to have a good idea on how to make it get better.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on January 30, 2018 to fix a math error.