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Nope, not too many men in Alaska

By John D. Sutter, CNN
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Rugged Alaska has the highest ratio of men to women in the United States.
Rugged Alaska has the highest ratio of men to women in the United States.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alaska has the highest men-to-women ratio in the country
  • John Sutter says the ratio doesn't explain high rates of violence against women
  • Alaska also has the nation's highest reported rape rate: three times the national average
  • Sutter: There are 107 men for every 100 women in Alaska; difference isn't extreme

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 ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Here's a factoid many people know but few seem to understand: Alaska has the highest ratio of men to women in the United States.

Several of you tweeted and e-mailed me that data point after I published a series of stories on the fact that Alaska also has the highest rate of reported rape in the country.

Maybe the superlatives are related? you wondered.

Here's a quick sample of comments I got on Twitter:

• "I lived in Anchorage. It was about 10 men to one woman per capita in the 80s, a lot of bars, partying. Last frontier mentality."

• "Highest male to female ratio, too. Very masculine culture. Needs to change male behavior there."

• "This is because there are about 12 men to every woman. Odds are good but the goods are odd! I lived there, I know!"

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

It's true there are more men in Alaska than women, but the situation isn't nearly as extreme in reality as it is in the popular imagination. There are 107 men in Alaska for every 100 women, according to 2013 estimates from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (Excel). That's an estimated 380,741 males and 355,658 females.

The difference: 25,083.

An imbalance, sure. But does it explain the high rape rate?

No way, said Andre Rosay, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. I invited Rosay to a live online chat with readers about this question and others.

"The Alaska rates of violence against women are much higher than they are elsewhere," he wrote. "The difference in the men to women ratio isn't big enough to account for the astoundingly high rates of violence that we see here in Alaska."

There remain some areas of the state, such as the Aleutian Islands, where only a third of the population is female, according to a 2012 research brief to the Alaska State Legislature (PDF). But the statewide ratio is shrinking toward insignificance.

"While the ratio of men to women in Alaska is still higher than any other state in the country, it is much smaller than a hundred years ago, when men outnumbered women nearly 2½ to one," the brief says. "The percentage of women in the population has grown over the past century, currently making up about 48% of the state's population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise 50.8% of the national population."

As I detailed in my series for the Change the List project (more at CNN.com/Change), there are a number of complicated reasons Alaska is dangerous for women, from its long, dark winters to high rates of alcohol abuse and, perhaps more important than either, an awful history of cultural trauma and colonial violence.

The ratio alone can't explain it.

And it's not the statistic we should be focusing on.

Alaska's reported rape rate is three times the national average. State surveys show that an estimated 37% of women in Alaska suffer from sexual violence -- and nearly six in 10 suffer from sexual and/or intimate partner violence, which includes threats of violence. The governor told me the situation is an "epidemic."

I'm open to the possibility that the men-to-women ratio may affect the odds that men in Alaska will be able to find lasting relationships. This has long been a favorite topic for newspaper reporters, who write about the ratio with a sort of faux-fascination.

"There they were," a New York Times reporter wrote of women in a Nome, Alaska, bar in 2004, "an oasis in the Arctic, shooting pool, giving out phone numbers, dashing off to the restroom to apply lipstick, coquettishly sipping drinks bought by their suitors, including a popular cocktail, 'Love Me Tender,' made with gin and peach vodka. ... Summer is a time of hope for the unattached men of Nome," the article continues, "a tough gold rush town of 3,500 people in Alaska's far western corner, where single men outnumber single women by almost two to one."

In 2012, the Washington Post sent two single female reporters to Alaska.

"The fishermen descend almost before we even make it through the door of the rattletrap bar. They beg us for a game of pool, conversation, anything."

These reporters didn't mean any harm, and I get that Alaska is rugged and strange. It really is the "Last Frontier" state, a remote place where plumbing isn't a given and people fend for themselves in extreme conditions.

Alaska is no mecca for single ladies, though.

Instead of gawking at the ratio, we should be talking about ending the violence.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

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