A few months into her first year of college, K stumbled back to her dorm after the spending the night with a man she’d met at a bar. She was no stranger to partying—like most college kids, she’d experimented with drugs and alcohol—but she’d never come home feeling quite this disoriented before. Once she made it back to her room, she started to feel even worse, breaking down when she couldn’t find her purse. “I went down to the security guard,” K tells me. “And he was like, ‘I knew something was wrong.’”
Really wrong: As she began to piece things together, K realized she had been sexually assaulted. With the help of the security guard, she contacted her campus rape crisis center; shortly after, she was on her way to the emergency room, where she connected with a team specially trained to address the needs of victims of sexual assault. Less than 24 hours after her assault, K received a forensic examination specifically designed to document the aftermath of her assault. The result, commonly referred to as a rape kit, collected evidence of her injuries alongside any DNA her assailant may have left behind on her body.
In the ideal version of this story—the kind you might see on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—this examination would be the first step on K’s path to recovery and justice, with the kit providing incontrovertible evidence that would lead to her assailant getting locked away. But that wasn’t what happened.
“It was one of the worst parts of my whole ordeal,” she says. In spite of the care and consideration K received from the rape crisis center and hospital staff, the forensic examination left her feeling newly traumatized. “The act of recreating [the experience of] objects entering you unwillingly is inherently traumatic,” she tells me, adding that even with an incredibly sympathetic examiner, she still left the ER feeling violated.
To make matters worse, K doesn’t feel like her exam actually collected any useful evidence, nor does she feel like it provided any essential post-assault care. She knew her assailant, so DNA evidence wasn’t necessary to make an identification. The assault had left her vagina bloody and injured, but since she was a virgin, the line between “normal” first-time bleeding and “abnormal” injury from a rough assault felt blurry and unclear. And because her sexual assault hadn’t involved penile penetration, she wasn’t at risk for pregnancy and at only minimal risk for STIs, so the tests the examiner recommended felt intrusive and unnecessary.
While K doesn’t feel that she was forced into receiving the examination, she didn’t realize she had the option of refusing it, either. She figured a rape kit was “just standard procedure,” she says.
More than a decade after her assault, K still feels angry about her post-assault examination. “One of the damaging parts about me getting one done unnecessarily, or in a traumatizing way, is that it’s made me so cynical about [rape kits].” If a friend who’d been sexually assaulted asked her whether or not to seek out a post-assault examination, she tells me, “I would advise against it unless absolutely necessary.”
In the popular narrative about sexual assault, we envision rape kits as a way to render the nebulous, often abstract experience of violation into a concrete physical object. Rape kits, it’s assumed, are able to provide proof of forced sex through documentation of injury, with the added bonus of collecting DNA evidence to connect the assault to one specific attacker. But as K’s experience shows, it’s not always that simple. The DNA evidence that rape kits are best known for can’t always be found in the wake of an assault—and the injuries that provide “proof” of force aren’t necessarily easy to distinguish from those that result from rough, but consensual, sex.
While some assault survivors find rape kits to be tremendously useful to their recovery, others find that they do more harm than good. As the national conversation around rape and sexual assault evolves and becomes more sophisticated, it’s worth asking: Where did rape kits come from? What benefit do they have for survivors—and what do they tell us about how we understand rape?
A rape kit was originally known as The Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit, which first debuted in the late 1970s after a swell of anti-rape activism highlighted the need for a standardized way to collect and preserve physical evidence in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Although the Vitullo kits didn’t invent the post-assault forensic exam—that concept dates back to at least the 1950s—they offered hospital staff a standardized way to collect and process evidence of assault, establishing best practices in a field that had previously left every decision up to individual practitioners.
In the 40 years since the Vitullo kit debuted in the hospitals of Cook County, Illinois, they’ve found their way into hospitals around the nation, picking up a variety of new monikers along the way. Depending on the city, state, or hospital you end up at, you might end up getting a sexual assault kit (SAK), a sexual assault forensic evidence (SAFE) kit, a sexual assault evidence collection kit (SAECK), a sexual offense evidence collection (SOEC) kit, or a physical evidence recovery kit (PERK). But the contents of the kits, and the mechanism of the exam, haven’t changed much over the years, even as the way that we think and talk about sexual assault has dramatically shifted.
The original brilliance of the rape kit stemmed from the then-novel realization that the body of “a survivor of rape is a crime scene and there’s valuable evidence there,” says Ilse Knecht, policy and advocacy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit devote to the support of sexual assault survivors. The advent of DNA testing dramatically increased the efficacy of rape kits, upping the chance that a semen sample, stray pubic hair, or even traces of saliva might lead police to the identity of a rapist.
And with the creation of the national DNA database, the value of that DNA evidence increased even further. “We know by testing rape kits that we can link [multiple cases] together,” Knecht tells me, noting that information from one assault can be used to strengthen another victim’s case. Evidence that an accused rapist’s DNA was found on the bodies of multiple accusers, presented alongside multiple accusations of assault, builds a case that is more difficult to refute.
But the notion that a perpetrator’s identity must be pieced together through bits of physical evidence points to a rape kit’s implicit assumption: that anyone who gets one done either doesn’t know who their assailant is, or assumes that assailant will deny that sexual contact occured.
When the Vitullo kit debuted in 1978, there was no such thing as marital rape in the United States; it didn’t become a crime anywhere in the States until the following year (and wasn’t criminalized throughout the entire country until the 1990s). Date rape, acquaintance rape, and the idea of being too intoxicated to consent were similarly unfamiliar concepts, not gaining mainstream exposure until a few decades ago. If you were going to report a rape, chances were good it was a violent stranger rape—the kind of experience that would leave you with marks on your body and no idea who had harmed you.
But in 2018, our ideas about rape and sexual assault are significantly broader. A sexual assault survivor could be someone who’s habitually been forced into sex by a long term partner or a person who initially gave consent, but withdrew it once things took an uncomfortable turn—scenarios that don’t line up neatly with decades-old ideas about rape. When the dispute is not whether sex took place, but instead whether consent was given, a rape kit can seem unnecessary, unhelpful, and potentially harmful to a survivor’s emotional state.
“A SAFE kit can’t prove that rape occurred. It can’t prove whether consent happened or not,” says Maggie von Dolteren, a victim’s advocate at the West Virginia-based Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center. As part of her work, von Dolteren routinely accompanies rape victims to their forensic exams. She provides emotional support and guidance through what is often an incredibly taxing experience, and makes sure they know that every part in the post-assault process—from getting the rape kit to reporting the assault—is a choice they get to make.
While treating the body as a crime scene is helpful if you want to reconstruct the assault after the fact, it can also be incredibly dehumanizing and traumatic for sexual assault survivors. For the best evidence collection results, a crime scene should be completely undisturbed. When your body is the crime scene, that means you can’t shower, wash your clothes, eat, drink, or even go to the bathroom—a difficult ask for anyone, let alone someone who just experienced an extreme sexual violation. Von Dolteren’s job is to make sure the experience is as affirming and comfortable as possible.
If a rape kit doesn’t prove rape, what is its value for a survivor like K, one who is uninterested in the pregnancy and STI tests that come with the exam, and already knows the identity of their assailant? “Being willing to go and get a SAFE kit done increases someone’s credibility in court,” von Dolteren tells me. “They were willing to go straight to law enforcement. They were willing to have an invasive medical procedure done, willing to be photographed in a very sensitive manner.”
Yet even as she tells me this, von Dolteren appears to recognize that it’s problematic. After our interview, she messages me with further thoughts, saying that the idea that a willingness to be violated helps prove a previous experience of violation “plays into the Good Victim narrative [and] prejudices people have.”
So much of our understanding of sexual assault is built on a narrow perception of what it means to experience a deeply traumatic assault, of how the brain works in the wake of an extreme violation. This logic argues that anyone who has “really” experienced a rape will have the wherewithal to immediately run to the hospital (which could be hours away) and submit to an intense physical examination. It puts an unfair burden on survivors to perform in the midst of one of their most vulnerable moments.
But von Dolteren has another explanation for how a rape kit examination might benefit a survivor, one that takes me by surprise. Although it seems counterintuitive, a post-assault forensic examination can, in some cases, enable a survivor to reclaim a sense of bodily autonomy. The exam has to be done well, of course: The survivor has to know that it’s an option, not an obligation, and there has to be a real sense that they are calling the shots. But being able to revisit an experience of violation with the knowledge that you, and no one else, are in charge of your body can be therapeutic, as PTSD treatments like prolonged exposure have shown.
“We want [victims] to control the situation as much as they can,” von Dolteren tells me. “Because that’s what’s been taken away.”
If you’ve heard of rape kits, chances are you’re aware of the problem of backlog. The Joyful Heart Foundation’s initiative, End the Backlog, is an attempt to educate the public about the many, many rape kits that get indefinitely shelved by police departments. It’s also working to reform legislation and ensure that every past and future rape kit gets the legal attention and testing it deserves.
The problem, as Knecht sees it, is that all too often, the system isn’t working the way it should. Rape kits wind up sitting on shelves for years or even decades, abandoned and untested, and survivors have no way to access information about the status of their kit (a state of affairs Joyful Heart is actively working to remedy). Survivors who go to the police end up feeling disrespected and retraumatized by officers who don’t care about their cases, and drop out of the investigation process because they don’t feel heard. Or they show up for their post-assault exam and are forced to wait for hours, or pressured into undergoing a procedure they’re uncomfortable with, and leave the emergency room feeling even worse than they did when they went in.
In the best case scenario, a rape kit examination is a therapeutic experience that provides assault victims with necessary medical care while offering them a chance to reclaim their sense of bodily autonomy, all while collecting essential evidence that can be used to expand our collective knowledge of assailants and hold them accountable. Rape kits may not be useful to every survivor, but the infamous backlog is disturbing and speaks volumes about how we, as a society, treat rape.
“The way that rape victims are treated isn’t just about that individual person’s feelings or healing,” Knecht tells me. ”It’s also about how this affects the rest of society.”
The story that rape kits tell is that when it comes to sexual assault prevention and response, we as a society are failing. But—in the same way the introduction of that first Vitullo kit radically altered the landscape for criminal prosecution of rape—the more we truly understand rape kits and best practices for collecting them, the easier we can build a better world for sexual assault victims and survivors.