April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), and with its arrival, we are currently looking at the future with a heavy sense of uncertainty because of COVID-19. Will things ever go back to the way they were? How will our social and dating lives be impacted? Can you even conjure up the idea of being within 6 feet of someone? Feeling these uncertainties can cause crippling anxiety, worry, and stress — and that’s perfectly okay because these are scary, far-from-normal times.
This is a tandem experience that many sexual assault survivors have to endure with their own experiences. The overwhelming uncertainty and lack of resources when it comes to what happens when you’ve been victim to sexual assault are catastrophic for millions of men and women, as every 73 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Most alarmingly, in the last ten years, hundreds of thousands of rape kits, which contain physical and DNA evidence gathered from rape victims, have gone ignored and untested because law enforcement agencies in the United States are not prioritizing their testing or do not have the resources to do so.
In times where you feel powerless and out of control, it’s imperative to find empowerment through education, communication, and community. So, to lift ourselves up and out of shakey times, we want to welcome April’s SAAM with an insightful look into why everyone should know what a rape kit is, how they work, and arm you with the knowledge and resources to feel empowered, thus in control, this month.
So what is a rape kit?
For starters, the term “rape kit” is referring to the actual physical kit itself — a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelopes and containers to package any specimens collected during the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (the legit name for it).
Getting a rape kit collected is no walk in the park. You are poked, prodded, swabbed and examined in the exact places you have felt violated. The invasive exam is usually performed in a hospital by a professional and takes anywhere from 4–6 hours in order to collect sufficient evidence. This evidence ranges from blood and urine samples to being photographed from head to toe for any injuries. There is a thorough body comb to capture any hair or skin fibers. Finally, when a rape kit is complete, it is sent forward to the police for their investigation. The DNA from the kit is entered into the national FBI database that helps law enforcement track down sexual offenders across the country.
The Achilles heel with this process is that when a person is sexually assaulted, making the decision to go to the hospital to endure 5 hours of feeling like a lab rat is NOT on their agenda. The physical trauma is met with psychological trauma, often inspiring the need to go hide, shower, clean, scrub away the ordeal to the point of non-existence.
Although it’s a painful decision, seeking a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam immediately after you’ve been assaulted is imperative because it is the surefire way to gather sufficient evidence against your assailant, determine their criminal record, and alert law enforcement to make sure this individual doesn’t harm any others. Additionally, sexual assault survivors should remember that health care professionals specific in the area of rape, trauma, and assault are noble veterans and hold confidential relationships with their clients. They are specifically trained to help and protect you during this very particular event.
This wouldn’t be an easy task for anyone.
But here’s why rape kits matter:
- They hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and bring them to justice
- Violent offenders get arrested and prosecuted
- The DNA of attackers is permanently logged into the database in order to prevent serial attacks
- Victims and their families are able to feel some sense of control and security
As DNA evidence is the most critical element of successfully achieving justice for sexual assault survivors, you can see how if this information is lost, misrepresented, or not correctly captured it could put people’s lives in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, we run into two roadblocks in championing a consistent sexual assault exam process. On the survivor side, many of those who go through this experience are not aware of the choices available to seek the right course of action to get forensic testing. Thousands and thousands of sexual assault cases go unreported because of societal, religious, or gender confines that promote feelings of shame. Some simply don’t have the health insurance to even walk into a hospital without the anxiety of receiving an astronomical bill. Many individuals don’t feel that law enforcement would care enough to find and convict their assailant. Some simply just want to forget that it ever happened.
On the law enforcement side, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untouched and untested in police department and crime lab storage facilities across the United States in what is commonly referred to as the “rape kit backlog”. Each untested kit represents a missed opportunity to provide healing justice to the survivor of sexual violence and safety to civilians.
The good news.
Individuals and organizations alike are rallying together and finding empowerment by raising awareness of the missteps of this sensitive process. Mariska Hargitay, the SVU patron saint of televised crime-fighting, busts her ass off-screen to seek justice, too. Hargitay is the founder of END THE BACKLOG, a non-profit organization focused on educating Americans on our rape kit backlog dilemma and has been conducting groundbreaking research in order to raise awareness, advocating for comprehensive legislation, and providing survivors the support they need to heal despite socio-economic class or geographical location.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) leads campaigns to educate lawmakers, the media, and the public about the backlog of unanalyzed DNA as well as hosting a resource center on their website — providing ways to take action, policy and regulation advocacy, reputable organizations to donate to, and online safety tips for students and parents.
Although times may seem bleak, just knowing there are advocates and organizations working around the clock to seek the repair of these broken systems is exactly the kind of faith in humanity we need. Hell, we should strive to become those champions ourselves. After all, we are at a time where country, ethnicity, gender, or background no longer separates us. We are one, collective human race facing an unprecedented phenomenon. We need to protect each other in order to survive.
Let’s keep advocating for causes we’re passionate about.
Let’s keep educating on important health and safety matters society has deemed “taboo”, therefore leaving us ill-equipped.
Let’s keep supporting disenfranchised voices that get silenced because of social and economic injustices.
Let’s keep surviving by staying inside and using this time to learn, rest, love, and grow.
And we will come out of this better than before.
For more information on rape kits and where to report a harassment incident, click here.
To donate to END THE BACKLOG, click here.