In the final installment of my series on rural Oregon, I’d like to shift focus to an issue that is much harder to discuss in numbers: crime. The crimes to which rural women so often fall victim, like domestic violence and acquaintance rape, are the most difficult to gather statistics on because of pervasive underreporting. And in many rural areas, young women, especially poor young women, sometimes find themselves caught up in the manufacture and sale of street drugs. These themes are true in many rural communities across America, and they are no less true in big, blue, pine-tree laden, hippy infested Oregon.
As a general note, in my research for this post I found an interesting, though not surprising, correlation between the economic recession of the last decade and an increase in rural crime. This same pattern seems to be true in Oregon, as well as other states. When you think about it, it really makes sense: rural communities are often hit hardest by economic downturns, and the lack of public funds can result in reduced resources for law enforcement and general community policing. More specifically, in the context of intimate partner violence, studies have shown that a leading cause of violence in the home is financial stress.
Economic disadvantage is not the only risk factor that threatens rural women with violent crime. As discussed in Part I, rural communities, including many rural parts of Oregon, are appropriately characterized as “conservative.” Conservative and rural usually means “traditional,” especially when we’re talking about gender norms. Outdated stereotypes concerning gendered hierarchies are extremely dangerous, especially in communities that regard family issues as private (see Professor Pruitt’s pertinent article on this very topic). And though hard numbers are scarce on this topic, these are the very reasons why Oregon researchers presume that domestic violence and other forms of intimate assault are occurring in rural settings far more often than anyone knows.
Finally, when talking about women and crime in rural Oregon, I cannot conclude the conversation without mentioning the drug crisis in my home state. What I have to say is mostly anecdotal, but the numbers back it up. Oregon is in the midst of a serious methamphetamine and heroin epidemic. In a survey last summer, 62% of police departments around the state said that meth was their number one problem, and another 24% said that heroin was the number one threat. Not their number one drug problem, but their number one PROBLEM. Period.
I certainly can’t say that the drug crisis has affected rural women at a greater rate than rural men, but I can tell you from experience that I’ve seen way more women from my community struggle with addiction, and get caught up in the sale and manufacture of street drugs, than I ever expected. Just a few weeks ago, news broke of a major drug bust in Toledo, OR, the town that neighbors my small hometown on the Oregon Coast. This wasn’t particularly shocking; drug busts like this happen all the time in my county. But when I opened the link to the article, the first photo I saw was of a women that I went to elementary school with. I haven’t seen her in years, and I hardly recognized her (presumably from the heavy meth use), but when I read her name, I just shook my head in pity and continued to read on.
From time to time I will check the roster at the county jail, just to see which of my childhood friends are in on drug charges. There are always at least a handful of women that I know who are behind bars, their faces warped into unrecognizable mug shots, and all I can think is, “Thank god that’s not me.”