A Culture of Violence Against Women: More Than Rape Kits

Amie Newman

If rape victims have been charged for rape kits in Wasilla, Alaska, under Sarah Palin's leadership, we deserve to know why. But we deserve to know a lot more than that. Which set of candidates will pro-actively create policies that address the root causes of rape and sexual assault?

Americans have recently learned that during the 1990s, Wasilla, Alaska,
then under the mayoralty of Sarah Palin, charged
victims of sexual assault for the rape kits
used for evidence collection.

Attacks from progressives have been swift and harsh. There
is good reason to hunt down the facts about the rape kits.  But the larger issue – of rape, sexual
assault and how we deal with violence against women in this country – has been

First the facts:

Last week new evidence arose revealing that under Palin’s
administration, Wasilla cut funds
that paid for the rape kits and shifted the burden onto the victims
themselves  or their insurance companies
(kits generally cost between $500-$1200). Under Wasilla Police Chief Irl
Stambaugh, the town had included the cost of rape kits in the budget. But Palin
fired Stambaugh and replaced him with Charlie Fannon, who then took the money out of the budget – a budget Palin
approved. Fannon evidently did not have a problem with billing victims, though
he admitted that he would rather see the perpetrator pay for the rape kits
(without elaborating on how that realistically or successfully might occur).

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The town law did not change until Alaska state legislators
got wind of what was happening (in Wasilla and other small towns) and
introduced a bill, signed into law in 2000, making it illegal for "any law
enforcement agency to bill victims or victims insurance companies for the costs
of examinations that take place to collect evidence of a sexual assault or
determine if a sexual assault did occur."

Fannon immediately objected, stating in an article on
May 23, 2000 that "…the law will require the city and communities to come up
with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams…I just don’t want to
see any more burdens on the tax payer." Fannon did not explain why rape victims
should pay for their evidence collection kits while victims of burglary, for
example, would not.

Since the story broke, Sarah Palin has been taken to task by
progressives and rape victim advocates who are furious about the policy and
demanding an explanation as to why Palin not only allowed this practice under
her leadership, she oversaw its institution. Thus far, Palin’s response to the issue has been denial.
Said a spokesperson for her campaign:

"[Sarah Palin] does not believe, nor has she ever
believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering
test…To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment
to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice"


Though no one, as far as I’ve read, has been able to
successfully explain Wasilla’s detrimental policy, conservatives have fought
back, raising the fact that other states, towns and municipalities have charged
rape victims for their kits as well. The National Review Online called
out Illinois
for "charging some rape victims." The practice of charging
rape victims for evidence collection still occurs more often around the country
than it should. US News & World Report recently reported on the problem:

In order to qualify for federal grants under the Violence
Against Women Act, states have to assume the full out-of-pocket costs for
forensic medical exams, as the rape kits are called. But according to a 2004
bulletin published by the NCVC [National Center for Victims of Crime], "[F]eedback from the field indicates
that sexual assault victims are still being billed." [emphasis mine]


And while a policy charging sexual assault victims for any
kind of evidence collection, treatment or care is heinous, there is a larger
issue at play. It’s easy to get caught up in the partisan anger – the volleying
of stories back and forth that "prove" the deceitful intent of one campaign or
another, the information that will surely reveal how evil one or another
candidate truly is. But the media has been missing the most important part of
the story.

To discuss the rape kit story without addressing what kinds
of policies, as a nation, we must put forward in order to address violence
against women – the causes of violence, the symptoms and how it can be curbed –
does nothing to further the dialogue, find solutions and heal some of our most
gaping wounds.

Bigger Questions About Rape and Sexual Violence in Alaska

According to Amnesty International, one out of every three
women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her
lifetime. In the United
States, a woman is raped every 6 minutes. In
global conflicts and wars, rape is widespread – a tool of war.

Instead of hashing and re-hashing a budget line under Sarah
Palin’s mayoralty, we need to put forward questions to be asked about and of
the candidates that will allow us to understand what they have done or will do,
concretely, to reduce violence against women, at home and abroad.

According to the National
Coalition Against Domestic Violence
, Alaska’s
rape rate is 2.5 times the national average. Alaska also has the highest rate per capita
of men murdering women. Ninety percent of Alaskans would vote to increase
funding for victim service programs because, according to the coalition,
"programs are in dire need of more funding in order to serve the sheer volume
of victims." Seventy-five percent of Alaskans have been or know someone who has
been the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. Alaska’s domestic violence shelters, sexual
assault services and programs for survivors have seen a relatively small
increase in funding. In 2008, the state
included an additional $300,000 in funding for victims services
programs. In 2009, according to Alaska’s Council
on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
, Governor Palin’s budget
includes an increase in funds to help shelters offset the higher costs of fuel,
utilities and insurance.

But the extraordinary levels of violence against women in the
state of Alaska
and the underlying causes still require a much greater level of state-level
funding and oversight.  According to the Alliance for Reproductive Justice, who
lobbied to address Alaska’s
rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, when explicitly asked to address
these issues in 2007, the Governor did not respond. The Alliance has this to say on their web site:

Governor Palin did not deliver and did not take a
leadership role on any of these issues. In fact, this year, when there was a 7
billion dollar state surplus she did not step up to the plate for the women and
children of Alaska…we
were truly disappointed with her lack of action on this critical public health


Most of Alaska’s
funding for sexual assault and violence against women programs comes from the federal

Pro-Active Policy Addressing Violence Against Women

What does
responsible policy look like for dealing with violence against women?

In Illinois
one out of every seven adult women are the victims of forcible rape. This
number does not include women who have been the victims of attempted rape,
young women and men – including children – under the age of 18 years old, or
male victims of rape.

In Illinois
an amendment
to the Crime Victims Compensation Act was passed in 2001, co-sponsored by
Sen. Barack Obama, to ensure that sexual assault victims (or victims
of other violent crimes) can be reimbursed
for expenses
they may incur. In addition, Illinois has on the books the Sexual
Assault Emergency Treatment Act
, which mandates reimbursement for (among other services) STI testing, emergency contraception
and rape kits if Illinoians don’t have public aid or private health insurance.

legislators considered sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and other
violent crimes where women make up the majority of the victims important
enough an issue to address it pro-actively and with conviction. Illinois has enacted a range of legislation that seeks to
address the multiple layers of responses needed to adequately address sexual
assault including the Violent Crimes Victime Assistance Program, The Sexual
Assault Nurse Examiner Program, and the Illinois Victims
Assistance Academy.

And while it is true that only three out of every 10 rapes go
reported to law enforcement, Illinois
saw a decline in the
number of reported rapes and sexual assault from 1998 to 2006; from 6,146 in
1998 to 5,646 in 2006.

Candidates Take Stands on VAWA

The mother of all legislation dealing with violence against
women is the Violence
Against Women Act
(VAWA), spearheaded by Sen. Joe Biden and after years of
lobbying, passed in 1994. VAWA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton,
renewed in 2000 and expanded in 2005 (signed by President George W. Bush).

VAWA’s intent is to improve the national response to
domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA combines a series of federal
sanctions and initiatives as well as national, state, and local resources to
improve the response to crimes against women. These funds are committed to four
specific areas: prosecution, law enforcement, victim service, and courts.

Sen. Biden foresaw the need for such legislation to,
among many other things, infuse crucial funds into state systems to fight
violence against women.  In fact, Alaska’s Council on
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault relies on monies from this act. The act requires
federal fund grantees (states, Indian tribal governments or local governments)
to cover the costs associated with forensic medical exams (including rape kits) in
order to receive any VAWA funds. In order to receive these funds, therefore, Alaska state legislators
in 2000, under Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, instituted the state law banning
law enforcement departments from charging rape victims for their rape

Curiously, while Alaska
receives crucial funds from the VAWA act in order to administer its sexual
assault programs, Sen. John McCain voted against VAWA twice.

Sexual Violence Against Military Women, Native Women

There’s another layer of complexity to any story about the
candidates and sexual violence. John McCain’s military service to this country
is well known; his experience as a POW is a narrative he uses to explain how he
has and will prioritize our military should he become president.

It is worth asking, then, how a leader for whom a soldier’s
life is so important will deal with the rates of sexual assault against women
in the military. One in three women are sexually assaulted in the military.
Women serving in the U.S.
military are more
likely to be raped
by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.  The situation is so dire Congress called a
hearing this summer specifically to examine sexual assault in the military.

What about Barack Obama? In the wake of the congressional
hearings, will he take a lead in examining what the Pentagon could and should
do to deal with this issue?

These are not the only stories of rape and violence against
women in this country. One in three Native women will
be raped
in her lifetime. Many of those women live on reservations where it
is often the case that, because of bureaucratic confusion over just whose
domain they fall under – Bureau of Indian Affairs, state government or federal
government – perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.

What steps would Senators Obama and McCain take to address
the devastating "maze
of injustice"
that Native women on reservations face when dealing with
protection from or prosecutions for rape and sexual assault?

These are the questions to which I want answers. These are
the central issues of a campaign, of an election to which Americans must pay
attention.  If rape victims have been
charged for rape kits in municipalities, towns, cities and states around this
country, we deserve to know why. But let’s not sell ourselves short. We deserve
to know a lot more than that. The system is broken. Revealing a hole here and a
scratch there unearths some superficial problems. If women are going to decide
this election, we should do so based on the policies that impact women most,
and which candidates will actually help women outside of politics. We can do
this by asking the important questions:

Which set of candidates understands best how to remedy the
culture of violence perpetuated against women in this nation and globally?
Which set of candidates pro-actively creates policies that address the root
causes of rape and sexual assault? Which set of candidates do we trust to raise
the status of women in this country and work internationally to do the same?
Which set of candidates’ legislative and leadership records reveal genuine
attempts at fixing the problems their various constituents face when it comes
to rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women? 

Asserting these questions in media coverage and exploring
the answers requires a deeper investigation. But the process will bring us
closer to what we really need to know about how our candidates prioritize
violence against women and the kinds of policies they would or wouldn’t

Rape kits are but one part of the story.

Analysis Abortion

Legislators Have Introduced 445 Provisions to Restrict Abortion So Far This Year

Elizabeth Nash & Rachel Benson Gold

So far this year, legislators have introduced 1,256 provisions relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, states have also enacted 22 measures this year designed to expand access to reproductive health services or protect reproductive rights.

So far this year, legislators have introduced 1,256 provisions relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Of these, 35 percent (445 provisions) sought to restrict access to abortion services. By midyear, 17 states had passed 46 new abortion restrictions.

Including these new restrictions, states have adopted 334 abortion restrictions since 2010, constituting 30 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, states have also enacted 22 measures this year designed to expand access to reproductive health services or protect reproductive rights.

Mid year state restrictions


Signs of Progress

The first half of the year ended on a high note, with the U.S. Supreme Court handing down the most significant abortion decision in a generation. The Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt struck down abortion restrictions in Texas requiring abortion facilities in the state to convert to the equivalent of ambulatory surgical centers and mandating that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a local hospital; these two restrictions had greatly diminished access to services throughout the state (see Lessons from Texas: Widespread Consequences of Assaults on Abortion Access). Five other states (Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia) have similar facility requirements, and the Texas decision makes it less likely that these laws would be able to withstand judicial scrutiny (see Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). Nineteen other states have abortion facility requirements that are less onerous than the ones in Texas; the fate of these laws in the wake of the Court’s decision remains unclear. 

Ten states in addition to Texas had adopted hospital admitting privileges requirements. The day after handing down the Texas decision, the Court declined to review lower court decisions that have kept such requirements in Mississippi and Wisconsin from going into effect, and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) announced that he would not enforce the state’s law. As a result of separate litigation, enforcement of admitting privileges requirements in Kansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma is currently blocked. That leaves admitting privileges in effect in Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah; as with facility requirements, the Texas decision will clearly make it harder for these laws to survive if challenged.

More broadly, the Court’s decision clarified the legal standard for evaluating abortion restrictions. In its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court had said that abortion restrictions could not impose an undue burden on a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy. In Whole Woman’s Health, the Court stressed the importance of using evidence to evaluate the extent to which an abortion restriction imposes a burden on women, and made clear that a restriction’s burdens cannot outweigh its benefits, an analysis that will give the Texas decision a reach well beyond the specific restrictions at issue in the case.

As important as the Whole Woman’s Health decision is and will be going forward, it is far from the only good news so far this year. Legislators in 19 states introduced a bevy of measures aimed at expanding insurance coverage for contraceptive services. In 13 of these states, the proposed measures seek to bolster the existing federal contraceptive coverage requirement by, for example, requiring coverage of all U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved methods and banning the use of techniques such as medical management and prior authorization, through which insurers may limit coverage. But some proposals go further and plow new ground by mandating coverage of sterilization (generally for both men and women), allowing a woman to obtain an extended supply of her contraceptive method (generally up to 12 months), and/or requiring that insurance cover over-the-counter contraceptive methods. By July 1, both Maryland and Vermont had enacted comprehensive measures, and similar legislation was pending before Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). And, in early July, Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) signed a measure into law allowing women to obtain a year’s supply of their contraceptive method.


But the Assault Continues

Even as these positive developments unfolded, the long-standing assault on sexual and reproductive health and rights continued apace. Much of this attention focused on the release a year ago of a string of deceptively edited videos designed to discredit Planned Parenthood. The campaign these videos spawned initially focused on defunding Planned Parenthood and has grown into an effort to defund family planning providers more broadly, especially those who have any connection to abortion services. Since last July, 24 states have moved to restrict eligibility for funding in several ways:

  • Seventeen states have moved to limit family planning providers’ eligibility for reimbursement under Medicaid, the program that accounts for about three-fourths of all public dollars spent on family planning. In some cases, states have tried to exclude Planned Parenthood entirely from such funding. These attacks have come via both administrative and legislative means. For instance, the Florida legislature included a defunding provision in an omnibus abortion bill passed in March. As the controversy grew, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers Medicaid, sent a letter to state officials reiterating that federal law prohibits them from discriminating against family planning providers because they either offer abortion services or are affiliated with an abortion provider (see CMS Provides New Clarity For Family Planning Under Medicaid). Most of these state attempts have been blocked through legal challenges. However, a funding ban went into effect in Mississippi on July 1, and similar measures are awaiting implementation in three other states.
  • Fourteen states have moved to restrict family planning funds controlled by the state, with laws enacted in four states. The law in Kansas limits funding to publicly run programs, while the law in Louisiana bars funding to providers who are associated with abortion services. A law enacted in Wisconsin directs the state to apply for federal Title X funding and specifies that if this funding is obtained, it may not be distributed to family planning providers affiliated with abortion services. (In 2015, New Hampshire moved to deny Title X funds to Planned Parenthood affiliates; the state reversed the decision in 2016.) Finally, the budget adopted in Michigan reenacts a provision that bars the allocation of family planning funds to organizations associated with abortion. Notably, however, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a similar measure.
  • Ten states have attempted to bar family planning providers’ eligibility for related funding, including monies for sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, prevention of interpersonal violence, and prevention of breast and cervical cancer. In three of these states, the bans are the result of legislative action; in Utah, the ban resulted from action by the governor. Such a ban is in effect in North Carolina; the Louisiana measure is set to go into effect in August. Implementation of bans in Ohio and Utah has been blocked as a result of legal action.


The first half of 2016 was also noteworthy for a raft of attempts to ban some or all abortions. These measures fell into four distinct categories:

  • By the end of June, four states enacted legislation to ban the most common method used to perform abortions during the second trimester. The Mississippi and West Virginia laws are in effect; the other two have been challenged in court. (Similar provisions enacted last year in Kansas and Oklahoma are also blocked pending legal action.)
  • South Carolina and North Dakota both enacted measures banning abortion at or beyond 20 weeks post-fertilization, which is equivalent to 22 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period. This brings to 16 the number of states with these laws in effect (see State Policies on Later Abortions).
  • Indiana and Louisiana adopted provisions banning abortions under specific circumstances. The Louisiana law banned abortions at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization in cases of diagnosed genetic anomaly; the law is slated to go into effect on August 1. Indiana adopted a groundbreaking measure to ban abortion for purposes of race or sex selection, in cases of a genetic anomaly, or because of the fetus’ “color, national origin, or ancestry”; enforcement of the measure is blocked pending the outcome of a legal challenge.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) vetoed a sweeping measure that would have banned all abortions except those necessary to protect the woman’s life.


In addition, 14 states (Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah) enacted other types of abortion restrictions during the first half of the year, including measures to impose or extend waiting periods, restrict access to medication abortion, and establish regulations on abortion clinics.

Zohra Ansari-Thomas, Olivia Cappello, and Lizamarie Mohammed all contributed to this analysis.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.