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

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.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

19 Comments

  1. > RK: 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.

    Ro;

    Look between your legs. What do you see there?

    It it’s not a vagina, you’re part of the problem.

    If you SERIOUSLY wanted to “really change the culture of Congress” then STOP YOUR STUPID VIRTUE SIGNALING, RESIGN and get your skinny hypocritical butt out of Congress.

    • Booble,your inane mean-spirited attacks on Democrats are getting more idiotic & irrational every day. Rumor has it that you have a brain tumor,but I discounted those rumors because that would require you to actually have a brain. Make women happy by purchasing an extra-large condom & pull it down snuggly over your skull. Whether the ribs are on the inside or outside will be the last choice you ever make !

      • > Booble,your inane mean-spirited attacks on Democrats are getting more idiotic & irrational every day.

        Waxy:

        OK. Got it. I’ll work on offering up wiser and more rational inane mean-spirited attacks on Democrats.

        > Rumor has it that you have a brain tumor,but I discounted those rumors because that would require you to actually have a brain.

        Checked on the brain situation. It’s still there. And — so far — no tumor.

        > Make women happy by purchasing an extra-large condom & pull it down snuggly over your skull. Whether the ribs are on the inside or outside will be the last choice you ever make !

        Now you’re just being silly. Head sized condoms don’t come with ribs. Everybody knows that.

      • > Booble,your inane mean-spirited attacks on Democrats are getting more idiotic & irrational every day.

        Oh if only I could ascend to SJO’s level. He draws so much ire it’s admirable. Watching you and the rest of the dum dums fall for it every time is oddly satisfying. The thought of you all madly hitting refresh on this page… “WHAT WILL HE SAY NEXT? WHAT DID HE SAY THIS TIME? OMG I GOTTA INSULT HIM!!” clickety clickety clack goes your keyboard as you venture to write the next drol drivel of written diarrhea in an attempt to get to him.

        You never do get to him. You never do change him. You know you won’t change him, yet you keep trying with the same method over and over. Isn’t that insane? Mentally.. You’re like an animal doing circles in a cage for comfort. You’ve lost any and all reasoning and intellect, devolving discussion again and again.

        At this rate, he will devolve you into a monkey in a year. Hide your bananas folks, Herbie here will steal them.

        • I just try to give the readers a counter-point to the handful of irrational right-wing bigots who attempt to monopolize the conversation here. Bubbles,EG,FF,etc. only represent a laughable marginalized lunatic fringe in South Bay politics. Their constant pissing & moaning to impress one another on this forum is the only place they have left to vent their pent up rage & anger. You Robert Michael Cortese on the other hand actually had the courage (or gall) to run for the District 9 Seat on the San Jose City Council in 2010. Of course you finished 4th out of the 6 candidates who ran,receiving a paltry 7.28% of the votes cast. Out of a total of 17,376 votes cast you received 1,265 votes meaning that you were rejected by 16,111 voters. Not only did this smackdown dissuade you from pursuing office again,it also brought shame to your families rich political heritage. You were so embarrassed that you quit using your first name Robert & started using your middle name Michael in an attempt to disassociate yourself from the humiliating debacle. When I recently said that maybe you just weren’t liked very much,it would appear that at least 16,111 of your neighbors would wholeheartedly agree with my assessment. You ought to worry less about the Booble’s buffoonish blathering & think twice before making your own crass & cartoonish comments.

          • > meaning that you were rejected by 16,111 voters.

            I spent $0, and came in fourth out of a field of 7. My cost per vote was the LOWEST of all the candidates. I’ll admit, I had no idea what I was doing but if armed then with the knowledge I had today, I have no doubt I would have made the runoff.

            What is it I know today? I know that politics makes you go bald. Dave and Don Rocha both seem to have lost a substantial amount of hair. Neither come from a family with histories of male pattern baldness. In some regards, I consider myself lucky to have dodged that bullet. See, it’s not that was dissuaded from running again because of my last performance, I just don’t want to be bald like those gentlemen.

            Politicians, like actors, are constant performers. They constantly have to watch what they say, pandering to the audience, less be pelted by rotten vegetables. I find being an audience member to be much more empowering, in the peanut gallery, throwing rotten tomatoes, than someone on stage getting pelted by them.

            How much hair do you have left Waxie?

          • > Their constant pissing & moaning to impress one another on this forum is the only place they have left to vent their pent up rage & anger.

            Waxy:

            You are correct. I have been banned from MoveOn.org and the DailyKos, and The Left Hook won’t allow me to subscribe.

            I have never been allowed to speak at Berkeley.

            I don’t use Twitter because as soon as Twitter oligarchs find out about me, they will block my account.

            SJI is the ONLY place I can vent my pent up rage & anger..

            I’m a victim of progressive oppression.

  2. RO – I really don’t see any concern on your part for the problem, just a lot of HOT AIR to stir up possible votes. 1st) AS long as we push a society where sex and lust are pushed as virtues to be pursued and are advertising staples you are going to see issues; particularly when it is so prevalent in movies and TV where teenagers are bombarded with it. 2nd) I don’t get any sense that you are actually going to do something about it other than push stealthing as rape. WOW, what a champion for women! 3rd) I don’t see you calling for an end to the practice of people in congress hiding behind a cloak that prevents Americans from knowing what losers are in Congress, but want us to pay to hid their crimes. You should be calling for an immediate release of the names of the accusers, the members of congress accused, what the accusations are, and how much they were paid to keep quiet. 4th) I see no call on your part to remove Franken from the Senate as being unfit to serve, nor a call to have the accusations turned into criminal charges. Oh, that’s right he’s a ‘d e m o c r a t’ so he gets a pass. Wink, wink, nod, nod!! What a complete waste of humanity, you’re nothing but a useless political opportunist with no guts, no intelligence, no sense of morality or outrage. I would rate you as about equal to what we find in Cess Pools!!!

    • Paul Hughes is a poor loser ! He’s a misogynistic right-wing conservative GOP (grand old pedophiles) stalwart whose views are summarily dismissed by the vast majority of South Bay voters ! He sounds pretty angry to me & of course his anger makes me laugh out loud,knowing that he’s incapable of doing anything other than whining & complaining. Paul you’d better get used to calling him Congressman Ro Khanna,because no Republican will ever represent this district again in your lifetime. Why don’t you just sail away in a wooden shoe like Wynken,Blynken & Nod,instead of bitching about all the things you’re so powerless to do anything about ? “Wink,wink,nod,nod” You sorely lack “guts,intelligence & humanity”,but you’ve got the moral “outrage” down pat. How about you go wave the flag & thump the bible somewhere else,where the low intellect of the voters is more commensurate with your own ? I would rate you much lower than pond scum & hold you in the utmost contempt. Your presence in our community lowers the quality of life for everybody,so goosestep away now & take your negative attitude & agenda with you. You’ll not be missed,or remembered for that matter by many ! Au revoir mi amigo,au revoir !!!

  3. Laws are meant to be applied equally, regardless of gender. If a woman tells a man, “I can’t get pregnant” and does, could a man use “stealthing” laws to get out of paying child support?

  4. The likes of Michele Dauber and Ms. Cindy Hendrickson are not decent women; They are Local-Thugs, i.e. thuggish local women (yeah, we are born equal; men can be thugs, so can women); How could we count on them to guard the fairness, justice and the living safety of our socity if they can not answer such serious questions in fighting against real anti-humanity crimes happening right here on land of Santa Clara County, which are directly addressed to them as listed in this public challenge?

  5. Three questions.

    1. As a longtime member of an institution known to be teeming with sexual predators, when is Zoe Lofgren going to find the personal courage to step forward and break her silence about the men who’ve sexually harassed her?
    2. Can anyone confirm the rumor that Stanford men are using photographs of Michele Dauber to both remind them of the potential for horrifying consequences and keep their libidos in check?
    3. Is it true Herb Waxman cited his own experiences when trying to convince Ro Khanna to make consent a mandatory component of a Cleveland Steamer?

  6. Frustrated Finfan apparently receives his sexual gratification wallowing in the human excrement of other people. Ironically he’s also a piece of human excrement. I looked up the term “Cleveland Steamer” & your vulgarity is only exceeded by your depravity. Not being familiar with the term myself,I can only imagine where you acquired such odious knowledge. Do you get an erection when you pass by a sewage treatment plant ? Did you study scatology or do/did you just bone up when exposed to the subject matter ? How long would somebody customarily have to wait to defecate on your chest ? What position do you prefer that your partner assumes,cowgirl or reverse cowgirl ? Would they need to make an appointment or do they just drop by your place when the urge strikes ? Are enemas or laxatives often a part of your foreplay ? Do you fully disrobe or do you just unbutton your blouse ? Does your mother know about this,or does she take an active role ? Is it true that you insist that your sexual partners gorge themselves on hard-boiled eggs & pinto beans two days before a you have a tryst ? Do you make videos of you & your partners to sell online ? Is it in fact your only means of support ? On second thought no one really wants your answer to any of my revealing questions. While I’ve always considered your comments to be illogical,I never would have guessed that they actually scatological instead. I always knew you were full of it,but I never even considered that you were regularly coated with it ! Get a real hobby !!!

    • It was a mere two days ago that, unprovoked, Waxman hurled this insult at me.

      “You & Putin have a lot in common,you’re both odorous pieces of fetid excrement,devoid of honor.morality,dignity & compassion !”

      And now look at him, Mr. Scatology himself, shocked to be treated in kind. Such is life in the up and down world of the schizophrenic.

      • Frustrated you provoke us everyday,that wasn’t an “insult hurled at you” it was the God awful truth. Admit it you & Putin are ‘butt buddies’ ! Refer to me as a “Commie” again & be prepared to incur my wrath every time you insult the intelligence of the readers (that’s every time you open your pie hole). Stay out of the kitchen if you can’t take the heat,otherwise you’ll just keep getting burned. You lack the requisite skills,intellect & prowess to prevail in a battle of wits with me. From now on you can refer to me as ‘Sir’ or ‘Master’,or just shut your festering gob. Do I make myself clear or do I need to type slower so you can keep up ? What a little crybaby !!!

  7. The media works on the premise of divide and conquer. No where else is it not more prevalent than in those posting insults here. Y’all are just playing into the nonsense that the media deems important to our attention of the day. Stupid encourages stupid! Good luck!

  8. Why would anyone pay attention to the musings of someone who describes themselves as nucking futs (or visa versa) ? Thanks for sharing !

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