News Violence

John Koster and “The Rape Thing:” Right-Wingers Simply Can’t Stop Minimizing Rape [TRIGGER]

Jodi Jacobson

It seems they can't help themselves. One after another, not inconsequentially right-wing, white, male politicians continue to pontificate on the choices women should, and should not, be able to make in the aftermath of a rape. For John Koster, that is in the aftermath of "the rape thing."

TRIGGER WARNING: This article addresses rape and incest.

It seems they can’t help themselves. One after another, not inconsequentially right-wing, white, male politicians, continue to pontificate on the choices women should, and should not, be able to make in the aftermath of a rape. Specifically, now, in the aftermath of “the rape thing.”

The latest in the line of so-called pro-life candidates for office to expound on rape is John Koster, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress in Washington State. Speaking on tape to an activist, according to the Seattle Times, “Koster is asked whether there is any situation in which he would “agree” with abortion. He responds that he would make an exception for the life of the mother, but not for rape or incest, and describes his thinking in detail, using the phrase, “the rape thing” twice.

“Incest is so rare, I mean it’s so rare. But the rape thing, you know, I know a woman who was raped and kept the child, gave it up for adoption and doesn’t regret it. In fact, she’s a big pro-life proponent. But, on the rape thing it’s like, how does putting more violence onto a woman’s body and taking the life of an innocent child that’s a consequence of this crime, how does that make it better?”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The activist says, “Yeah, but she has to live with the consequences of that crime.”

And Koster responds, “Yeah, I know. I know crime has consequences, but how does it make it better by killing a child?”

First let me say how breathtaking is this man’s statement that “incest is so rare.” While statistics are indeed difficult to gather, because of the kind of dismissive attitude and stigma so inherent in Koster’s statement, The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Abuse underscores that incest is far from rare.

One of the nation’s leading researchers on child sexual abuse, David Finkelhor, estimates that 1,000,000 Americans are victims of father-daughter incest, and 16,000 new cases occur annually (Finkelhor, 1983). However, Finkelhor’s statistics may be significantly low because they are based primarily on accounts of white, middle-class women and may not adequately represent low-income and minority women (Matsakis, 1991).

On rape, he is equally out of touch with reality. Innumerable rape victims have come forward to speak about their experiences dealing with the trauma of rape, which at times also resulted in a pregnancy. Each of these women describes the process of healing, if any is found, including the ability to regain personal agency, personal control, over their own bodies, decisions, and lives. Agency means deciding, for yourself, what to do; it means having control over the decision as to whether or not to carry to term a pregnancy resulting from rape.

It does not mean having a politician decide for you what violence is or how you should experience it.

I celebrate the decision of any woman who, faced with any pregnancy she did not intend, makes her own decision on how to proceed. I celebrate a woman facing a pregnancy resulting from rape who decides to terminate that pregnancy. I celebrate the woman who decides, on her own, without coercion, to bring the pregnancy to term. It is not the outcome I celebrate; it is the choice and agency owned and made by that woman, who in taking back control of her life decides what is best for her. I celebrate the woman.

Because as Melissa Harris Perry has so eloquently said in response to Richard Mourdock:

“You see, Mr. Mourdock, the violation of rape is more than physical. Rapists strip women of our right to choose, of our right to say no, of our right to control what is happening to our bodies. Most assailants tell us it is our fault. They tell us to be silent. Sometimes they even tell us it’s God’s will,” she said. “That is the core violation of rape– it takes away choice. Richard, you believe it is fine to ignore a women’s right to choose because of your interpretation of divinity. Sound familiar?”

In deeply personal language, she touched on the challenges of being a sexual assault survivor. “When we survive sexual assault, we are the gift. When we survive, when we go on to love, to work, to speak out, to have fun, to laugh, to dance, to cry, to live, when we do that, we defeat our attackers,” she said. “For a moment, they strip us of our choices. As we heal, we take our choices back. We are the gift to ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation when we survive.”

The secondary violence and degradation of rape victims comes when politicians so nullify women as human beings with rights and agency that they feel compelled to speak at all on an issue about which they know nothing at all.

News Abortion

This Democratic-Dominated Legislature Won’t Stop Attacking Abortion Access

Teddy Wilson

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others.

You might not expect anti-choice measures to churn through a legislature in which Republicans hold 15 percent of the seats.

But it’s in Rhode Island that Democrats, not GOP lawmakers, have introduced every anti-choice measure in 2016.

Reproductive rights are under threat in states dominated by GOP legislators as well as states with Democratic legislative majorities, and laws attacking abortion access that have been passed in recent years have received at least some Democratic support.

While there are a variety of factors that contribute to the prevalence of anti-choice Democrats in Rhode Island, the lawmakers who are proponents of these bills look very much like the proponents of these bills in red states.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Rewire analysis of legislation introduced in state legislatures during the first three months of 2016 found that 60 percent of the 311 anti-choice bills introduced were sponsored by white male Republicans. Male lawmakers introduced about seven out of every ten anti-choice bills during that time. 

White male Democrats sponsored nine of the 14 anti-choice bills this year in the Rhode Island state legislature. 

Rhode Island’s Democratic legislators hold a 63-11 majority in the house and a 32-6 state senate majority. But that doesn’t translate to a legislative body supportive of maintaining and expanding abortion access and reproductive health services. 

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others. 

Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, told the Providence Journal that there is a “big information gap” between the perception and reality of abortion politics in Rhode Island.

“People assume Rhode Island is going in the right direction when it comes to rights—it’s a blue state,” Yolen said.

Amy Retsinas Romero, president of Women’s Health and Education Fund, spoke during a March conference on reproductive rights at Rhode Island College about the challenges people face when seeking reproductive health care in the state.

“In Rhode Island we are an F. We are not that far from Texas,” Romero said, reported the Brown Daily Herald. “We should all be ashamed of ourselves.”

Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) told Rewire that Rhode Island is in “pretty good shape” in ensuring access to abortion care and reproductive health care. She said there remain legislative issues that need to be addressed.

“We have laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional. For instance, the spousal notice regarding abortion,” Ajello said, referring to the state’s requirement of notice to an abortion patient’s husband before the procedure. “It would be good to get rid of those and we have legislation in place to do that, but it has yet to pass.”

Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) sponsored legislation this year that would repeal the so-called spousal notice law. HB 7612 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee.

Ajello sponsored HB 7444, which would prohibit the state from interfering with a person’s decision to prevent, commence, continue, or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability. Ajello said that the bill would codify into law protections for reproductive rights.

There have, however, been far more bills introduced to restrict reproductive rights, all of which have been introduced by Ajello’s fellow Democrats.

There have been 14 anti-choice bills introduced this year in the Rhode Island legislation. This collection of bills would restrict reproductive rights in a number of ways, including restricting funding for abortion care for low-income people in the state. It’s an issue that has been debated in the state for the last few years.

It’s not only Rhode Island Democrats in the house and state senate that back measures designed to chip away at abortion access.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) last year signed a budget that left nearly 9,000 residents without comprehensive abortion coverage through their insurance plans. The budget included a requirement that health insurers who offer plans on Rhode Island’s health insurance exchange to also offer plans that exclude coverage for elective abortion care.

The contingent of anti-choice Democrats and the few Republicans lawmakers does not appear to have enough political power to move most anti-choice bills through the legislature. Since the legislature is and has been dominated by one party for so long, policy disagreements have developed along ideological rather than partisan lines, political observers told Rewire

Ajello said in an interview with Rewire that there are members of the legislature who are anti-choice but are also “quite progressive” on other issues, such as marriage equality. 

“In the way that I see social conservatives in Texas, I don’t see those differences [in Rhode Island lawmakers],” Ajello. “We work together, cooperating on issues that we agree about and being respectful on issues that we don’t.”

H 7760, sponsored by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly), would prohibit health plan coverage purchased in whole or in part with any state or federal funds through the Rhode Island health benefits exchange from providing coverage for induced abortions, unless it was to save the life of the pregnant person or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Azzinaro has long advocated prohibiting health-care coverage of abortion care. Azzinaro said during a debate in 2013 about the state’s health-care exchange that tax dollars should not be used to fund abortion care.

“You want choice?” Azzinaro said, reported the Providence Journal. “We talk about choice, what choice do you have if you only have a plan that says we’re going to fund abortions.”

The house judiciary committee recommended in March that H 7760 be held for further study. State Sen. Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket) sponsored a companion bill pending in the senate judiciary committee.

A number of other bills designed to restrict abortion and reproductive health care have been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. Many of the proposed measures create the same rhetoric surrounding anti-choice bills in state legislatures held by GOP majorities. 

H 7764, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston), would prohibit a person from performing or attempting to perform an abortion with the knowledge that the pregnant person is seeking the abortion solely on account of the sex of the fetus. 

The bill charges that any physician who intentionally violates this provision would be considered to have engaged in unprofessional conduct, and their license would be subject to suspension or revocation by the State Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline.

There is no documentation that so-called sex-selective abortions are widespread in the United States. Proponents of the bans often justify the anti-choice measure by using cultural stereotypes that target immigrant people of color.

Bills to ban sex-selection abortion care have been introduced in several states this year. Fellela sponsored a similar bill in 2014.

H 7764 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee; the companion bill S 2612, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls), is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

H 7282 and S 2216, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) and Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), would prohibit a person from performing, or attempting to perform a “dismemberment abortion” on a fetus unless it is necessary to save the life of the patient or if the continued pregnancy would cause irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant patient.

State courts have blocked such measures passed by Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Kansas. West Virginia’s GOP-held legislature in March voted to override the veto of a similar bill.

H 7282 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee, and S 2216 is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

Culture & Conversation Media

What #CoverWithConsent Can Teach Reporters About Ending Rape Culture

Andy Kopsa

As reporters and members of the media, reaching out to possible victims of rape for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling.

Last year, a former communications staffer for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon found the details of her rape case made public in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The piece, written by then-staffer Virginia Young, used the woman’s police report, filed after her assault and filled with errors and inconsistencies, in an attempt to smear a former politician.  

The paper named the subject, Brittany Burke, without her consent. It gave her no chance to talk off the record and ran her photo side-by-side with that of the politician in question. That was almost a year ago. And yet in March, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial that doubled down on its actions. The paper’s editorial board renamed Burke, denying the Post-Dispatch‘s piece was an assault story but rather one about the “party atmosphere” in the state capitol. The editors have claimed naming Burke in the first place was vital to the public interest. It wasn’t.

I use Burke’s name because she gave me consent to use her name and to tell her side of this story—something the Post-Dispatch didn’t do.  

Burke’s outing inspired a wave of backlash and critique. Using her name and her assault report wasn’t just yellow journalism; it appeared to be a calculated and craven act to sell papers and drive clicks. Last month, partially inspired by Burke’s situation, the Missouri house held hearings on a bill that would require documents like police reports to redact the personal information of trauma victims prior to the document being released to the public. Missouri law currently restricts release of records if there is a danger posed to the subject by doing so. While concerns over restricting access to public records is valid—transparency in the world of journalism is paramount—it is clear that in certain cases, like those of rape and other traumas, further rules need to be established.  

The Post-Dispatch’s editorial was in response to this bill, which passed out of committee and is currently awaiting full floor debate; Burke testified in its favor. 

But Burke’s story stretches beyond Missouri—it can act as a lesson for reporters and members of the media in how to approach stories about victims of trauma.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

With that in mind, I stepped out of my reporter role briefly last year and launched an online petition demanding the Post-Dispatch issue an apology to Burke. Beyond the apology, the petition called on the paper to immediately implement transparent standards of dealing with potential victims of sexual assault and to adopt simple training that would create a trauma-informed newsroom. The petition was launched with the support of Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) under the hashtag #CoverWithConsent, referencing the broader need for reporters to obtain consent from possible victims before naming them, and to, whenever feasible and appropriate, contact them to get their sides of the story.

Newspapers aren’t legally bound to withhold the name of a possible rape victim, though it is common practice to do so. But it wasn’t just Burke’s name that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed. The story included details that suggested Burke was an unreliable witness to her own assault and that effectively put Burke’s personal and professional life in danger.

At the time of Burke’s assault, she had started her own public relations and communications company and many of her clients were in government-adjacent support fields, so she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The night of the incident, Burke went out for dinner and drinks with some friends. She ended up at a bar frequented by government officials, politicians, and lobbyists. She bought rounds of drinks. The next thing she remembers is showing up at a former fling’s apartment matted with blood and confused. Not able to recall what happened, she decided she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I had sex,” she says she told the nurse, along with the fact that she was a woman in politics and required discretion in the case.

She filed a police report. “I don’t know if I was raped,” she told the officer, meaning that she truly did not remember what happened to her that night. According to the report, the officer asked Burke, who was crying, that if the lab test from the hospital came back with a lead, what she would like to have happen to someone who assaulted her. Burke replied, the report said, “I want him to burn in hell.”

Young, now retired from the Post-Dispatch, based much of her story on the police report without giving Burke the opportunity to talk off the record about them or correct anything about the details. For example, police initially investigated Burke’s complaint under the outdated statute of “forcible rape.” Under current law, however, if a person is unable to consent to sex for any reason, that is rape in Missouri. Young did not note this inconsistency, simply writing that the case had been dropped.

Young also detailed Burke’s bar tab, careful to catalog what Burke drank and bought right down to the last “Jagerbomb.” But the real push of the story was that Burke had had an affair with a married, former speaker of the Missouri house. That was revealed in the police report: His apartment is where she ended up the morning after the assault. He was otherwise not connected with the incident.

As reporters, it is our job to relay facts of a story that arm readers with information to come to their own conclusions. Compassion is not something typically associated with reporters, and in most cases we must be dispassionate to remain as unbiased as possible. But as a reporter who works with victims of trauma, the way I relay a person’s story is just as critical as making sure the facts are correct. In fact, the first often leads to the second.

After the story broke in the Post-Dispatch, I dug further into the story and filed my own account of what happened to Burke with the Riverfront Times, a regional independent weekly based in St. Louis. I did this in collaboration with Burke, meaning: I talked with her. I listened. She shared information with me on background that led me to seek further sources and lines of inquiry. Talking with Burke off the record led to a robust accounting of what happened to her that night. Listening to her and acknowledging trauma built trust. And trust led to Burke sharing the jarring findings from medical records that included a sexual assault nurse examiner finding suspected semen and vaginal abrasions “consistent with assault.” 

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also took issue with the Post-Dispatch’s handling of the story. In an article that was published after the Riverfront Times piece, Deron Lee argued that if the Post-Dispatch had allowed Burke to speak off the record instead of asking for an on-the-record comment, it may have convinced the paper to not run the article as it was published. “Insisting that sources and subjects be on the record is a way to hold accountable people who wield power. Talking to someone who is a possible sexual-assault victim presents a different set of considerations,” Lee wrote.

Reaching out to Burke—or any possible victim of rape—for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling. Moreover, getting consent prior to telling an apparent victim’s story could go a long way in punching back at the pervasive rape culture perpetuated all too often by the media. For example, in response to backlash to the story, Christopher Ave, Young’s editor on the piece, erroneously said in an interview“Not only was there no evidence of a sexual assault, no one was alleging a sexual [assault], the woman was not alleging a sexual assault.”

Rather than allowing Burke to tell her own story, Ave, Young, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board were her judge and jury—deciding she had not been assaulted based on an incomplete police report, no background from the victim, and no mention of physical evidence.

This, said Soraya Chemaly, feminist media critic, author, and director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, who coined the #CoverWithConsent hashtag, is an example of how the media puts rape victims on trial—something we seldom do with any other crime.

“Consent is such a vital issue,” said Chemaly in a phone interview. She pointed me to a recent study, released in December 2015 by the Women’s Media Center, which examined coverage of campus rape and sexualized violence at 12 major print outlets. Over the course of a year, it revealed that 55 percent of stories about sexual assault were covered by men and only 31 percent were covered by women. The gender divide goes deeper: Within those stories, 48 percent contained quotes from men while women made only 32 percent of quotes used.  

#CoverWithConsent is an effort to hold the establishment we are a part of accountable. The petition itself is less about getting an apology for Burke—she knows that will likely never happen. Rather, it is about how newsrooms should have reporters who are trained in dealing with possible victims of trauma, including sexual assault. Editorial standards should take victims’ needs into consideration, such as the option to speak on background. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, for a reporter working with a survivor of sexual assault, it is essential to treat their experience with compassion and sensitivity, to tell a subject’s whole story, and “to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress.”

“The #CoverWithConsent campaign holds media accountable for victim-blaming, shaming, and outing sexual assault survivors. The campaign condemns acts of insensitive and irresponsible journalism that results in shaming crime victims. It also illuminates the reality that this kind of unethical reporting perpetuates rape culture by re-victimizing survivors in the court of public opinion,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of WAM!, in an interview.

The original story nearly destroyed Burke. Her livelihood as a consultant was over—some clients terminated contracts or didn’t renew contracts, she said, specifically because of the Post-Dispatch story. Her personal information and address was posted online, and she faced an onslaught of harassing tweets and Facebook messages. When I approached Burke about signing onto the petition officially, she said yes. Looking back, she told me, she had nothing left to lose.

With her anonymity gone, Burke was thrust into a role she never would have imagined: that of a women’s and victim’s right advocate. The last year has been incredibly difficult for her and she still struggles. She has been asked to speak at a local university about her experience as a woman in public relations and politics and about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story and its aftermath. She told me she never thought she would be speaking to college classes about the shaming of a rape victim, let alone that the victim would be her.  

But, she said, she doesn’t have a choice. “I have to make sure I do whatever I can to make sure this never happens to any woman again.”