First the Rape, Then the Rape Kit

Why forensics won’t solve what’s wrong with our handling of sexual assault

(Michael Duva/Getty Images)

By Anna Altman

To collect a rape kit, a woman has to proceed deliberately. She undresses slowly. Anything that her attacker may have left behind — a ripped fingernail, a piece of torn clothing — will fall onto a sterile sheet, spread out to collect evidence that loosens itself from the victim’s body. A doctor or nurse will look inside her vagina for evidence of trauma. Her buttocks, armpits, breasts, and mouth will be wiped and swabbed in the hope that a strand of hair, a bit of dried blood, or a drop of semen or spit might be uncovered.

None of Cosby’s alleged victims had a rape kit collected. (When some of his accusers were allegedly attacked, rape kits couldn’t even target the kind of forensic evidence they can today.) Neither did Jackie, the young woman in Rolling Stone who was allegedly gang-raped by seven fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia. If only they’d gathered evidence when they had the chance, some say, we wouldn’t find ourselves once again in this terrible mess of he-said, she-said. The rape kit is forensic evidence: it can make an allegation concrete, perhaps provable. It’s the ultimate weapon in the hands of a rape victim, a way to disrupt power dynamics.

If she is telling the truth, why would a woman choose not to secure proof?

A rape kit is elective, and advocates for sexual assault frame this as putting the procedure in the victim’s control. But it also places the onus on a woman to prove her case, and leaves her choices vulnerable to criticism. After all, it requires forethought and decision. A victim must avoid obvious behaviors following a rape — taking a shower, for one, or even going to the bathroom — for her kit to offer accurate forensic evidence.

After having her body violated without her consent, an examination can redouble the feeling of invasion and powerlessness. It requires that she submit herself to unprecedented scrutiny, that she forfeit her privacy. The victim gives a medical history, telling a doctor or nurse — likely a complete stranger — about any consensual sex she has had in the preceding days.

The problem doesn’t end with this intrusive and humiliating procedure. The 2005 Violence Against Women Act mandates that victims must have access to rape kits and that the state must pay for them, whether or not the victim intends to prosecute. And yet rape kits still aren’t widely available: Of the top 100 colleges ranked by U.S. News and World report, only four college health facilities offer them in the first place. (Don’t count on nearby hospitals, either.)

Even if one is taken and the victim chooses not to press charges, the police, who routinely ignore charges of sex crimes, don’t systematically test them for evidence of repeat offenders. As a result, there is currently backlog of more than 400,000 untested rape kits around the country.

A rape kit is only a tool to gather evidence. It might lead to a conviction. But for many, that doesn’t assuage guilt or ease pain. In most cases — when a victim knows her attacker, can point him out in broad daylight — a rape kit only serves to verify what a woman already knows: that she was overpowered, tricked, manipulated, maybe drugged. For a woman emerging from that traumatic moment, confirming that what she says happened to her did, in fact, happen, might not be the most pressing concern. Maybe feeling safe or seeking comfort is. And maybe the question is not whether a woman takes the right steps to document her abuse, but whether what’s required of a woman to prosecute her attacker allows us to further ignore, silence, or blame her.

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