Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Blame rapists for rape ... obviously

By John D. Sutter, CNN
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
Ati Nasiah at a December
Ati Nasiah at a December "Girls on the Run" event in Juneau, Alaska.
  • Alaska has the highest rate of reported rape in the nation
  • John Sutter: Efforts to prevent rape should focus more on men
  • "Victims aren't to blame for rape and domestic violence; offenders are," he writes
  • Sutter visited Alaska as part of CNN's Change the List project

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at

(CNN) -- I spent a recent Saturday morning at a field house in Juneau, Alaska, where girls with pink hair and stars and rainbows drawn on their cheeks run 27 laps around a gymnasium track. That may not seem like international news, but it should be. Their race was part of the international "Girls on the Run" program, which is amazingly effective at empowering young women.

I watched most of the race from the sidelines with Andrew, a grandpa wearing a driver's cap, and Jennifer, the mother of one of the young runners.

"Good job! Keep going! Love you! You're awesome!"

"Remember to breathe!"

Encouragement is the hallmark of the program, which pairs girls with adult mentors who help train them to run a 5K -- and, more importantly, talk to them about what it means to be women in modern America. "You have to set a goal to become a powerful girl on the run," Ati Nasiah, the local organizer, with a feather stuck in her hair, told the girls before the race. "Each of us is unique, and that is what makes us so powerful. With every heartbeat and every breath, we are changing the world."

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

These girls are changing the world and Alaska, the state FBI crime estimates rank as having the highest rate of reported rape in the country. Teaching young women that they can be whoever and whatever they want to be is an important part of preventing rape and abuse. I visited Alaska in December because you voted for me to cover rape in the United States as part of CNN's Change the List project, which focuses on bottom-of-the-list places like Alaska.

Jennifer, the mom I watched the race with, and whose last name I'm not using to protect her privacy, was a victim of domestic violence. Her husband beat her, she told me, and she got together with him when she was 13 and he 22. One reason Jennifer brought her daughter to Girls on the Run, with the help of a scholarship and free sneakers, is that she doesn't want her daughter to accept violence against women. "Instead of me just sitting back and taking it, (my kids) see me standing up," she said. "And that's what they need. Otherwise, they will grow up and think it's OK."

That's hugely important. But the largely unspoken reality also remains: Victims aren't to blame for rape and domestic violence; offenders are. So, while they are essential, programs like Girls on the Run aren't enough to end what Alaska's governor has termed its "epidemic" of rape and violence against women.

To stop the violence, men have to stop raping and battering.

That seems like common sense. But it's still controversial.

For evidence, look no further than Zerlina Maxwell, an attorney and rape survivor who went on Fox News last year to make that very point. Other pundits argued that women should carry weapons to protect themselves. No, Maxwell said. Men should stop raping, and that would solve it. For those remarks, she received death threats. On Twitter, one person wrote, according to a news report, "I hope you get raped and your throat slit."

This same pro-gun sentiment came up in the comments sections of other Change the List stories published earlier this month about rape in Alaska. "Time to arm and train the women to defend themselves," one person wrote on my op-ed about a lawless village at the far edge of the state, where troopers fly in by plane. That's wrong-headed. Instead of putting the burden on women to defend themselves, the state should continue to expand its Village Public Safety Officer program. I hope it soon will include that village.

"What we have been doing for the past 100 years hasn't been working," Maxwell told me by phone from New York. "Focusing on women's behavior isn't working."

Andrew, the adoptive grandpa who I spoke with during the race in Juneau, gets it, too. "They need a program for boys, that's for sure," he told me. "They've got this program to rebuild the confidence and self esteem in the girls, and keep them going. But where is the support structure to stop it in the boys? You know, break the cycle."

Alaska has more of a jump-start on that than some states. It was encouraging to see members of a local men's high school basketball team acting as cheerleaders for the Girls on the Run event. Those players, from Juneau's Thunder Mountain High School, are participating in a program called Coaching Boys into Men. It's designed to teach young men about safe relationships and respect for women. Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, has requested $12.4 million to fund his "Choose Respect" initiative, which also is aimed at preventing violence and helping survivors.

That's progress. But such programs should be expanded.

We have to keep encouraging girls, but always remember offenders are to blame.

Some of that should happen through formal training and programs. It's also on all of us to call out inappropriate behavior when we see it.

The family I sat with as we watched the girls sprint by understood this. When Jennifer's son reached out to give his sister a whopping high-five, his mom told him that he had to remember to be gentle -- to support her, not hit her.

"Hands are for high-fives and hugs, not hitting," she said.

The next time his 9-year-old sister came around, he gave her the softest of bear hugs.

"Good job!"

The young runner seemed grateful for his support.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John D. Sutter.

Part of complete coverage on
Change the List
June 11, 2013 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Readers voted for the five social justice issues John D. Sutter is covering for this project. The goal is for you to help create change.
John Sutter goes undercover in Southeast Asia to learn why a bizarre, scale-covered mammal is trafficked by the ton.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
This animal might be hunted to extinction before you've even heard of it. CNN investigate the illegal wildlife trade.
April 6, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
A group in Vietnam wants to create a PSA to help curb the demand for the world's most trafficked mammal -- but it could use some help.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
What kind of name is P26? Help CNN name this awkward underdog.
John D. Sutter meets with politicians, victims -- and rapists -- to learn why Alaska has the highest rate of rape in America.
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
Seventy-five villages in Alaska have no local law enforcement presence. Visit Nunam Iqua, which means "end of the land."
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Join brave Alaskans in efforts to raise awareness and stop violence against women.
Nearly six in 10 women in Alaska face sexual or intimate partner violence. Share your story in solidarity with them.
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
Alaska has the highest rape rate in the country. Where does your state rank?
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
John D. Sutter interviews Alaska's governor, Sean Parnell, about the state's "epidemic" of rape and violence against women.
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Caren Robinson started sheltering women in her Juneau houseboat in the 1970s.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Rape and violence against women can become normal when cops are a plane flight away.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT)
Delores Gilmore used to have a dream.
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
One reader called me in tears. Dozens sent e-mails. The overwhelming message: What can we do to help?
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 0220 GMT (1020 HKT)
Meet a storeowner, a nun and a missionary who are trying to bring people together in the most unequal place in America.
August 23, 2013 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
John Sutter asked readers of his column to submit ideas for a list of "99 must-reads on income inequality." Here's the list.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2143 GMT (0543 HKT)
"You have to sit back and think why is God keeping this town alive?
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2306 GMT (0706 HKT)
Meet the man who wanders Lake Providence carrying an American flag.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 2342 GMT (0742 HKT)
Income inequality is going up, up, up in America. In Brazil, meanwhile, it's been dropping for years.