Governor: 'Alaska has an epidemic'

Alaska hosts "Choose Respect" rallies across the state in the spring.

Story highlights

  • Alaska is estimated to have the highest rape rate in the country
  • John Sutter talks with Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell
  • Parnell calls rape Alaska's "resident evil" and an "epidemic"
  • The governor's "Choose Respect" campaign aims to change that
Quick: Name the governor of Alaska.
Nope, not Sarah Palin.
He's no reality TV star. Isn't on anyone's list of 2016 presidential candidates. And the local press thinks he's so bland they call him the "Oatmeal Governor."
But Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell deserves national name-recognition for one reason: He's taking on one of the most important issues of our time.
He's trying to get Alaska to talk about the "resident evil" of rape.
"It's culturally permissible to be silent about it," and that must change, Parnell told me in a recent interview at the governor's office in Juneau. (You commissioned that trip, by the way, as part of CNN's Change the List project. More on that here.)
John D. Sutter
For years, this state -- which has the highest reported rate of rape in the country, according to 2012 FBI crime estimates -- denied it had a problem. Politicos and advocates said maybe Alaskans reported rape more often than people in other states -- but, gosh, it couldn't be a bigger problem here than elsewhere, could it?
Parnell has helped end that era of senseless denial.
In our interview, he called violence against women an "epidemic." Like an alcoholic must admit he has a problem in order to face it, he told me, the governor of the state with the highest rape rate must, too, fess up to the problem in order to solve it.
"I can't wave a wand and solve alcoholism, I can't wave a wand and solve domestic violence, but I can work to create a climate where it's culturally permissible to speak about these things with our family and friends, get people to help who cross our paths, to stand up for those who are being abused and hurt," he said.
"To me that's a win in the end."
True enough.
The cornerstone of Parnell's campaign is his "Choose Respect" initiative, which he announced in late 2009 after assuming the office from Palin. Now nearing the end of his first full term and seeking re-election in 2014, Parnell, a Republican, oversees a state that has increased spending on sexual violence treatment and prevention at a time when the overall state budget is shrinking. The "Choose Respect" program would receive $12.4 million in fiscal year 2015 if the governor's proposed budget were approved. That's only 0.1% of the total proposed budget, but it's still considerable.
The laid-back 51-year-old governor, who looks like a kinder version of Sean Hannity plus Vladimir Putin, was born in California but moved to Anchorage at age 10, according to a biography on the Republican Governors Association website. His dad was in the Army and later served in the state legislature.
Parnell, an attorney, once worked as a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips and other oil and gas interests. He served in the state legislature and then as lieutenant governor to Palin. Even liberals in the state, like Caren Robinson, who started the first women's shelter in Juneau, praise the fact that he has supported addressing domestic violence and rape since the 1990s as a member of the legislature.
I disagree with some of Parnell's policies -- he's not giving enough autonomy to Native Alaskan communities and courts, for instance, which may be well poised in some cases to handle cases of sexual and gender-based violence; his decision to block part of Obamacare is unwise; and, despite substantial efforts to change things, parts of the state is so remote they're almost totally lawless, which leads people to rape and abuse with a sense of near-impunity.
But the governor's efforts to get Alaska to talk about rape and violence against women are laudable in and of themselves. No policy will be able to fix this problem as long as silence and shame surround rape and abuse.
Someone's got to speak up.
I saw some results of the "Choose Respect" program firsthand:
John Blasco coaches the Thunder Mountain High School basketball team.
• In Juneau, I met members of the Thunder Mountain High School basketball team, which participates in a program called Coaching Boys into Men. The team's coach, John Blasco, talks with his players regularly about healthy dating relationships and respect for women. A star shooting guard, Matt Seymour, 18, told me there have been instances when he's told teammates not to use demeaning language about women because of what he learned as part of the program.
• In one small town in southwest Alaska, I met young people who are learning about the Yupik Eskimo culture in after-school programs at the Tundra Women's Coalition, which receives funding from the state. The idea is that traditional culture can strengthen society and, ultimately, reduce rates of sexual assault. I also met women who were flown into a shelter run by the coalition from outlying villages that are not connected to road systems.
• Across Alaska, I saw the power of a statewide survey analyzed by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, and funded by the state. The survey effectively ended debate about whether Alaska has a problem with domestic violence and sexual assault, said Andre Rosay, director of the center. The 2010 survey of 871 adult women found 37% had suffered sexual violence and 59% had been the victim of sexual violence and/or intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.
"It was shocking and distressing for many people" to see how common violence against women really was in Alaska, said Lauree Morton, executive director of the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a state-funded agency.
That survey also has spurred change.
Alaska shouldn't have needed those shocking numbers in order to act, but they do underscore the need for urgent action, and tha