Why is there still a rape kit backlog?
There are very few (if any) women who haven’t thought about it. We think about it as we walk to our cars after a night out, as we jog around the block after the sun’s been down for hours, as we watch our little sisters leave home. We clutch our keys between our fingers and tense our muscles.
One in six women has been raped, as have 1 in 33 men. The numbers are even more depressing for transgender, genderqueer, or non-conforming individuals. We tell ourselves that our friends and family could never be rapists, but studies show that rapists are much more likely to admit their crimes as long as the word “rape” is never used; they will admit to forcing their partner to have sex, but not to rape itself. And, in any case, the majority of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
Yet despite the prevalence of rape, our culture still understands little about what survivors go through, why they make the choices they do in the aftermath. We may have watched Law & Order: SVU and thought to ourselves, Why do these women rarely report it? Why don’t they want to testify? Don’t they see that if he remains free he’ll just do it again?
Those who ask this probably don’t know that 99.4 percent of rape cases end in a perpetrator walking away. Even when a rapist does get convicted, they frequently get minimum sentences if they get prison time at all. In order for victims to come forward, to sit through the ordeal of a trial, it’s reasonable that they would have to hold some faith in the possibility that they will get justice in return—that their actions will protect others and that people will recognize their story.
And while the experience of reporting rape is already hard enough, should everyone involved with the report treat it with the respect they should, it’s frequently made even harder by the police. While those who report robberies or break-ins are rarely personally interrogated, that’s frequently not the case for those who report rape. Many survivors have spoken out about how the police officers to whom they reported their assaults often spend their effort questioning them instead of investigating their claims.
But perhaps even worse than this discrediting treatment are the cases in which these survivors are flat-out ignored. Even when survivors complete rape kits, many prosecutors never even push for them to be tested. There are an estimated 175,000 untested rape kits (which notably cost anywhere between $400 and $1,200 to process) across the US, and some estimates place that number even higher. It’s one thing to acknowledge that low report rates lead to many rapists getting away, but when even those who do come forward are ignored, there’s clearly a much bigger problem.
Completing a rape kit and using the results in court is a hugely significant factor in helping survivors achieve justice, and yet it is also an oft-neglected one. Evidence gathered from rape kits is useful to rape investigations in multiple ways. If the rapist was a stranger, for example, DNA collected from rape kits can be compared against existing DNA from potential perpetrators and potentially pinpoint the attacker. This evidence can also help prosecutors defend survivors. Yet these kits often sit in warehouses, gathering dust, untested. We let statutes of limitation expire and let rapists go free.
So why is this happening? Government agencies often claim they struggle to secure enough funding for all of their programs. As important as justice for rape victims is, they argue, so is feeding underprivileged kids and funding educational programs. Government employees have to balance many issues, and each have their own complexities and struggles. And, unfortunately, rape kit testing doesn’t lend itself to PSAs or quippy posters in school hallways, so when it comes time to allocate budgets, issues like homelessness or providing quality education often just get more attention.
That’s not the whole story, based on what Professor Rebecca Campbell found when she investigated untested rape kits in Detroit, though. She reported that “law enforcement personnel regularly expressed negative, stereotyping beliefs about sexual assault victims… The fact that all of these victims endured a lengthy, invasive medical forensic exam seemed to carry little to no weight.”
So, yes, there probably isn’t enough funding available to local governments to support every issue that affects their communities, but it’s clear that there is a very real compounding factor that harms survivors of rape: misogyny. It’s no coincidence that the process of reporting a type of trauma that disproportionately affects women results in months of time and energy locked in a judicial process. What’s more, this process often blames survivors for the crime committed against them, dehumanizes them, and leaves their perpetrators generally no worse for wear in a way other people who have experienced and report other, less-gendered crimes are not.
There is hope for improving rape kit testing, however. For example, Mariska Hargitay, the lead actress of Law and Order: SVU, founded a nonprofit to fight this problem, and Texas is considering a bill that would let state drivers donate money towards rape kit testing whenever they go to the DMV, similar to how organ donors are currently instated.
But until we both stop victim blaming and take the process of adjudicating sexual assault seriously—including testing rape kits and attending to every other detail that can contribute to justice for survivors—report rates will remain low. Our inability to do this is stalling progress—progress like creating a future in which women can walk alone at night without clutching our keys between our fingers or feel our hearts race whenever we pass a group of strangers — or when someone we know turns violent. Maybe one day our stories will be heard, our pain will be recognized, and justice will finally be possible.
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