Her name is Patricia Hjellen. (Say her name.) She is 74 years old and she is a sexual assault survivor. She is five-foot-one; she weighs 110 pounds.
“My generation doesn’t want to talk about what happened to me,” she said. “There are things that you just don’t talk about. Don’t embarrass your family. That is what I was told. But, this is the kind of thing that needs to be talked about. I want the public shame of what happened to me to be equal to a conviction in court.”
So, let’s talk about it. In counseling, I am learning there are three difficult conversations: 1) what happened, 2) feelings and 3) identity. For our purposes, identity is the easiest starting place.
Alaska is a haven for sexual assault.
Statistics on Alaska are hard to digest, and easily disputed because Hjellen is right, sexual assault is not something that we are taught to talk about, whether it is in the family or in society. The statistics promoted by STAR (Standing Together Against Rape) are the result of those women who are brave enough to talk about their assault. Men are being assaulted, also. Do we dare ourselves to discuss what is happening among sex workers or the LGBT community?
Here are the numbers that we have to work with. Between 2014 - 2015 the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA) Justice Center conducted a Victimization Survey. It focused on violence against women.
• 1 out of 3 women in Anchorage experience stalking.
• 1 out of 13 are experiencing violence, sexual and physical, or have in the past 12 months.
• Out of every 100 women, in their lifetime spent in Anchorage, 32 will experience sexual violence and 39 will experience physical assault.
That’s women, we have not explored the statistics for little girls, defined as under the age of 12.
Rape in Alaska is 2.5 times the national average. It is six times the national average if you are child — girl or boy.
Answering the question of why this is happening is complex. Some fingers point towards the high male-to-female ratio in Alaska. (Reminder, we are discussing this within the frame of ‘acceptable’ heterosexual behavior and is not taking into account the spectrum of sexual identity or practices.) Some fingers point at the long winters and physical isolation of individuals. Some fingers point towards patriarchy and capitalism, which objectifies and commodifies women as the property of men.
The search for the why, as a way to address the problem of rape, leads us into the difficult conversation of feelings. Sex is energetic. The human body is built for arousal. Both the male and female forms respond to touch, sound, smell against the individualized will of the personality inhabiting said form. The response to touch leads the victim and perpetrator to believe, in each of their realities, the murky arena of consent.
This is especially true since Alaska leads the country in drug consumption. Drunk and high here isn’t the standard definition of drunk and high by national standards. I know persons who consume six beers and all they report is feeling a buzz. Surely, they can verbalize yes or no to sexual activity. Right?
The culture of male/female relationships also contributes to the difficulty. Men (identity conversation) feel women owe them sexual favors in exchange for [insert faux reason]. Earning verbal consent is not celebrated, hence the need for the #MeToo movement which is taking down national personalities and receiving the pushback of “there’s a war on men.”
Entitlement is a heaven of a drug.
Lastly, let’s enter the “what happened” conversation. For Hjellen, it happened at 4 am on May 21, 2016. She was asleep inside Chugach Manor Senior Housing, a three-story building with 120 apartments. She keeps a television and fan on, providing background noise to block out her neighbors’ nighttime activities. She lives with two small dogs.
She did not hear the 60-year-old man take an outside facing window a part, use a couch to mask his entry and disrobe himself in her living room. He was atop her when she woke up, questioning if she was having a nightmare or experiencing real life. When it clicked, she was awake. She fought back, screaming at the top of her lungs and using leg strength developed from a lifetime of ballet practice. She managed to break free of his repeated attempts to subdue her and ran to neighbors.
He tried to put his clothes on and jumped back out of the window he entered. Fortunately for Hjellen, Anchorage Police Department believed her and immediately began searching the area with trained dogs. The perpetrator was caught within half an hour. When his name was run, it was discovered he has a history of sexual assault and failed to register as a repeat offender in Anchorage.
Her court case was heard from March 19 through 26. The trial ended in a hung jury and is scheduled for a retrial.
Anchorage, Alaska - we have got to do better.