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Q&A: Congressman Ro Khanna on Stealthing, Sexual Assault and Post-Weinstein Reckoning

November 28, 2017
In The News

When Heather Purcell urged her boss, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), to address an insidious form of sexual assault called stealthing, the term for non-consensual condom removal had yet to become part of the popular lexicon. Though the congressional aide only learned the word from research published in April by Yale Law grad Alexandra Brodsky, she was already painfully aware of what it meant.

“I read that study and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this stealthing thing has happened to me,’” Purcell tells San Jose Inside. “I found out there were other victims, there were other survivors and that I wasn’t completely alone.”

The epiphany came months before reporters outed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator and before survivors turned #MeToo into a viral hashtag, galvanizing a movement to expose abusers and give their victims the benefit of the doubt.

When Khanna and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) penned a letter in early October calling on Congress to reclassify stealthing as rape, and to study the practice and its effects, Silicon Valley’s freshman congressman had no idea that the Weinstein story was days away from breaking. Nor did Khanna anticipate that the reckoning would ripple out from Hollywood to the California Legislature and Capitol Hill—and the halls of power in between. And not until weeks later did he realize that Purcell’s policy idea stemmed from such a personal place.

In her early 20s, Purcell says she verbally consented to have sex with a man she was dating—as long as he wore protection. After some initial objection, the man complied.

“I saw him put the condom on,” Purcell recounts in a phone call, “but at the end, it wasn’t there anymore.”

The sense of violation was immediate.

“I felt betrayed, I felt objectified, I felt taken advantage of for someone else’s pleasure,” Purcell says. “I felt scared.”

Her partner downplayed the incident.

“To him it wasn’t a big deal,” Purcell says. “To him, it was a casual choice that he made. But I had a lot of anxiety about it. I remember all these racing thoughts, thinking, ‘Am I pregnant? Did I get an STD?’”

While instinctively understanding that she’d been victimized, Purcell questioned whether she could have been more assertive, whether she sent some kind of signal that let him think he could get away with it.

“For the longest time I blamed myself,” she says. “I had no legal recourse, no friends who had been through something like this, no idea what to even call this type of violation.”

Years later, while serving as Khanna’s press secretary, Purcell—who at 28 years old has since been promoted to communications director—came upon that landmark report on stealthing. She asked the congressman to consider tackling the issue, seeing it as a chance to offset the injustice done to her and others.

Khanna says the way in which the stealthing proposal came about speaks to the importance of having a diverse team and promoting women to positions of leadership.

“I would never have known about stealthing had it not been for Heather,” he says, sitting in his field office in Santa Clara. “I’m far more aware about issues of women’s rights, and issues of consent and issues of stealthing and campus assault, because of having her as my communications director—someone who understands these issues.”

San Jose Inside: What was your reaction to Heather sharing her personal story with you? And what other conversations and events led up to you writing that letter to Congress about stealthing?  

Ro Khanna: She did it just a few days before she was going to go public to you, actually. I was very surprised. I didn’t know that this was something that was so personal to her. I now realize why every week she would ask, “Have you talked to Carolyn Maloney yet? Have you made any progress on this?” I understand now that it came from such a place of personal passion.

I have great admiration for Heather, for her courage in sharing her personal story, as I have for the courage of so many women who have come forward with their stories, many in the #MeToo movement who have not named names but have said, “Look, this has happened to me, and we’ve got to do something.” It’s just amazing to me, the level of vulnerability that it takes, because you’re putting yourself out there to unjustified criticism. I really respect that.

I’m particularly grateful to Heather for her interest in using that experience to do something constructive, and not having a sense of anger or vengeance but a sense of how to make society better. That’s what makes it so powerful. Because of that, those of us in positions of power are thinking, “OK, what can we do to help change the culture? What can we do to make reporting easier? What could we do to make sure that people aren’t taking advantage of their powers going forward? What could we do to change culture in college campuses? What could we do to be part of the solution?”

Heather came to me because she knew that I, at Stanford, was an advocate on the [Brock] Turner case and the recall of Judge [Aaron] Persky, and worked with Michele Dauber on issues of sexual assault on campus. So she knew it was an issue I cared about as a lecturer there, and she said, “Look, this is something that you may not know, but stealthing is one of the big issues going on at [college campuses].”

Now, honestly, I didn’t know about that. When I was in college, I hadn’t heard about it, but apparently it’s become a much bigger phenomenon. So I went to Carolyn Maloney, who is the leader on these issues in Congress, and she said, “OK, let’s write a letter to the judiciary committee, at least have this become part of the dialogue, let’s see what legislation we could get.” Because everyone agrees that consent is at the heart of relations between men and women, and anything that violates consent is wrong.

Specifically active, affirmative consent.

Yes. I mean active, affirmative consent for the whole process. The appalling situations that we’ve seen in the media are [instances] where people have felt violated by lack of consent. Whether it’s giving someone a kiss that’s unwanted, whether it’s trying to have sexual relations with them when it’s unwanted—at the heart of what’s so offensive is this idea of violating a person without their active, affirmative consent.

Stealthing is the same thing. Stealthing, in my view, should be sexual assault. What’s so important to understand is that these aren’t gray areas. These aren’t cases of people asking someone out or being flirtatious and being rejected and misreading signals. These are cases of men touching women, or deceiving women, and touching their bodies without their active consent. This is something that we know is wrong.

We did this [stealthing] work before the Weinstein story broke, and now with the greater emphasis on it, we’re going to pursue it after the Christmas break to see if we can get a hearing, to see if we could get some Republican co-sponsors, to at least have a conversation about campus sexual assault and this practice of stealthing. And we want to make sure that there’s a survey on campus that accurately measures how much sexual assault there is on campuses. I have seen the average to be about 20 percent, based on reporting and according to some surveys. But some universities are reporting 2 or 3 percent—that strikes me as hard to believe. I would like to see a uniform sexual assault survey on campuses to tackle this issue.

It’s important to realize that the purpose of this conversation is not, in my view, it’s not out of vengeance, it’s not out of a desire to shame individual perpetrators; it’s a desire to change the culture, it’s a desire to bring a sea change in the culture. That’s what makes me hopeful. For the first time, it seems, there’s this conversation about how do we really change what is considered appropriate.

Why do you think we’re having this moment of reckoning right now? Do you think it’s a kind of backlash to the fact that someone who bragged about groping women was elected president?

Well, it’s a sea change, and it has to provoke two conversations. One, a clear reckoning of sexual assault that is still such an epidemic in our country, and an accountability for people—regardless of the industry—if they have engaged in sexual assault or sexual harassment. That type of behavior has no place in our society.

But then there’s a broader conversation about the objectification of women in our culture that most of us grew up with, about the implicit bias that comes with gender and how all of us have to be introspective about overcoming the implicit biases. That conversation goes beyond just the incidents of condemning assaults or sexual harassment. That conversation goes to: How do we build a culture for our kids that will not objectify women in the ways that they have been?

You mentioned how you endorsed the recall of Santa Clara County judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Stanford rapist Brock Turner to a controversially brief jail stay last year. In light of the realities that our criminal justice system largely fails to rehabilitate offenders, and that the nature of sexual assault makes it all but impossible to make the victims whole again, how do you think we should balance justice for survivors with punishment for offenders?

That’s a great question. I believe we need to recognize that sexual assault is a very, very serious crime, that this is not an insignificant offense. It’s not like shoplifting. It is a violation of the dignity of an individual and often leaves people with scars for their lifetime. It leaves people angry for their lifetime. It makes people unable to have intimate relationships often afterwards. It makes them often unable to have any kind of relationship. It often leaves them angry about the opposite gender, or it leaves them angry—it makes them cynical about humanity.

The extraordinary harm that’s done has to be factored into the justice system. That’s why it was so upsetting to people when Brock Turner got three months, because it was a signal. It was basically saying it was like shoplifting candy out of a store. Well, no, it’s not like a petty crime. It is an awful crime to forcefully push a woman down and sexually assault her while she has no consciousness. Just thinking about it is pretty gruesome. So I do think that the sentence should have been longer, because that is society’s way of saying that this is a grievous offense, a grievous crime.

A long sentence doesn’t mean that it has to be vengeful. Parts of it could be rehabilitative, and maybe part of it could be having people learn about gender equity and respect for the opposite gender. But when people serve their time, we should give them a chance to become part of society again and show some sense of forgiveness. I mean, I do think that the quality of mercy should not be strained, to quote the Merchant of Venice. If someone does their time, they should find a way to be reintegrated into society. All of our penal processes should be towards that hope of rehabilitation, whether it’s for murder, whether it’s for robbery or whether it’s for sexual assault. But rehabilitation is not inconsistent with people serving the time appropriate for the level of offense.

Sexual abuse is so pervasive that the perpetrators are people we work with, people we work for and people in our own families. The sheer magnitude of the problem begs the question: How should a perpetrator move forward after they admit guilt?

It’s a matter of judgment. First, it’s a matter of the degree of the offense. Obviously in a case where there is a crime committed, we need to make it easy for that to be reported—whether it’s to the employer, to law enforcement or to a religious community. And if there is a crime, it ought to be dealt with very swiftly, and with the full force of the law.

In the case of things coming out about people’s past, we have to judge the gravity of the offense and the sincerity of the person’s remorse. It’s a contextual decision.

We recently interviewed Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who touted Sen. Al Franken as a possible Democratic presidential nominee. Did you feel that way about him before learning these new allegations?

Al Franken was a terrific voice for progressive values, and that’s why I was saddened by what came out. But, you know, that picture was really upsetting. And what signal is that sending when you have a progressive icon who engaged in that behavior—probably not maliciously, but because that was part of our culture? What does that say about us and how much that we still have to work toward reform?

I do believe Franken’s apology seemed sincere. It seems that Leeann Tweeden accepted it as sincere. Now it’s for the judgment of the ethics committee, and the judgment for the people of Minnesota to see whether he has a redemptive ability or not. But I don’t think he could run for president. I don’t think that would be in the cards at this point.

Speaking of the presidency, would you call for a congressional inquiry into the sexual assaults that Donald Trump has been accused of?

Absolutely. I think that we need to. [The allegations against Trump], in order of magnitude, are far more than the accusations against Franken. We want to have a sense of proportion on this, so that more people come out and tell their stories.

People may be reluctant to tell their stories if they feel that any one story is going to mean the end of the career of the person who was implicated. That may not be their goal. They may think that they want these stories out there to change the culture and for people to recognize that they may have made mistakes, and what may be appropriate going forward. But they may not want every story to be a career-ender. There’s a huge difference between serial abuse like Weinstein or [accused pedophile and Alabama Senate candidate] Roy Moore and other cases.

What underlying issues do you think cause men to sexually offend, and what are some ways we could guarantee meaningful change going forward?

We need to have these conversations from junior high onto high school and college about what it means to have respect across gender, what implicit biases we have about gender, and how we overcome those perceptions. Until we start having that conversation, the underlying culture is not going to change.

Of course, there are the more immediate things—the very egregious cases we read in the news about Weinstein and Franken with the picture of groping, the abuse that Moore has engaged in and the Trump groping allegations—those need to be condemned clearly, without equivocation.

I don’t think there’s anyone ever who has believed that touching women without their consent is permissible. I mean, it’s against the law—it’s a crime. But beyond that, once we acknowledge those crimes, then we need to have the broader conversation about how we overcome this culture of objectification.

Anything else you’d like to add?

What all this underscores is the need for more women in representation. It would really change the culture of Congress if we had more women. I’ve been so impressed by the tone of the national conversation. It seems to me that for many of the women that I’ve talked to that have come forward with their stories, it’s not out of a sense of getting back at someone, it’s not out of a sense of vengeance. It’s really a cry for a change of culture, a change in how we do things.

The silver lining of this really painful moment for so many is a hope that our society is really going to change. I hope that people who made those mistakes in the past will reflect on what they could do to help empower a better culture going forward. I hope they come to an understanding that what may have been the norm in the past is certainly not acceptable in the future.