The LA Times op-ed page, of Heather MacDonald “What Campus Rape Crisis?” (actual title) notoriety, has actually published a responsible piece about rape. It’s called “Lost Promise for Rape Victims” by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch, and is about the infuriating and heartbreaking fact that hundreds of thousands of rape kits in America are not being tested. And she exemplifies the injustice by describing the grueling process that is rape kit collection.
The process — which can last more than four hours — begins in a private interview room, separate from the hospital emergency room, where a counselor asks in detail what happened during the rape. The counselor is there throughout the subsequent examination.
If I were a rape victim, I would next be led into the exam room and asked to undress while standing on a large sheet of butcher paper so that anything that falls from my clothing or body that may provide links to a perpetrator or a crime scene (hairs and carpet or clothing fibers) can be carefully collected and placed in the rape kit.
I would be examined on a gynecological table with stirrups. My body would be scanned with an ultraviolet light to find otherwise undetectable semen or saliva that might contain the assailant’s DNA.
[. . .]
If I were a rape victim, the police officer on duty at the center might drive me home with the rape kit in the patrol car. I might imagine that the police were taking it directly to the crime lab to test the samples for DNA that could identify my assailant or provide evidence against an already identified suspect.
The part that really got to me is the image of the ultraviolet light. Of course, I absolutely understand the necessity of it, and how it would be an outrageously useful tool. But as I generally come at these things, I can’t help but look at this from the standpoint of the survivor. And (as a survivor who did not report) the thought of seeing my rapist’s bodily fluids on me under that light sends chills up my spine.
And after going through all that? Forget the relatively low chances of the kit turning up useful evidence, resulting in an arrest, a court date and then a conviction. The kit most likely won’t even be cracked open.
This isn’t exactly news to those of us who do anti-rape advocacy work. But it tugs at me every time I hear the horrible fact repeated. Clearly, it’s not being repeated enough because the problem isn’t being solved. People still either don’t know, or just don’t care.
The National Institute of Justice estimates that at least 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested in police stations and crime labs across the country. In the city of Los Angeles alone, more than 7,000 sit in refrigerated storage in a city warehouse facility and a trailer behind police headquarters. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department likely has its own backlog, but the sheriff has never disclosed its size.
Law enforcement officials blame a lack of resources — for starters, they need more crime lab staff. But it’s hard not to surmise that the problem is, in reality, a matter of priorities. Among L.A. City Council members, only Jack Weiss has insisted on budget increases to address the rape kit backlog. This year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the LAPD’s funding request to hire more crime lab staff.
If I were a rape victim, I might never know whether my rape kit was opened. I might assume that silence from the police meant that the crime lab just didn’t find any DNA, or none that identified my assailant. Although not every tested rape kit yields a database match, when New York City processed all its backlogged rape kits in 2003, the effort led to about 2,000 hits.
Tofte is absolutely right, and good on her for speaking the truth — this is a question of priorities. Rape which fails to involve a stranger, weapon and a beating just isn’t seen as a crime that’s “bad enough.” It isn’t seen as a crime — and perhaps rightfully so — that is likely to result in a conviction. Far too many people (indeed, a troll I had this morning) still think that women who claim rape are very likely to be making shit up, and that includes those in law enforcement. In fact, anecdotal evidence shared with me on a regular basis tells me that cops can be some of the worst “bitch is lying” offenders.
The op-ed ends this way:
The morning I visited the Rape Treatment Center, three women came to report that they had been raped and to get care. They consented to the extensive, lengthy exam because they had entered into a pact with the police: We will submit to this collection of evidence, and you will submit our rape kits for testing.
I wish I hadn’t known the likely fate of their rape kits — to sit on a shelf, frozen and unexamined. If I were a rape victim, that news would be devastating.
Yet again, Tofte is right, and she makes an important point. When a victim officially files a criminal report with the police, they are doing it under an implicit contract that the police will do something about it. When submitting to a rape kit collection, women are working under the assumption that their kit will go somewhere and will work towards prosecuting their rapist. It’s unrealistic to expect that undergoing rape kit collection will necessarily result in a conviction — but it’s entirely valid to expect that police will do the best they can with the evidence they have. It’s nothing new for police to violate the trust of those they’re most supposed to protect. But it’s still unforgivably wrong.
One argument which pops into my mind is that articles such as these will only deter rape victims from making reports, and are therefore irresponsible. In a general sense, I would agree that less reporting is a bad thing — but I would argue that those who have been raped have already been violated enough. And they deserve to be told the truth and to make an informed decision about the stressful and emotionally difficult process of evidence collection. Why put survivors through that while giving them false hope, knowing their evidence will most likely remain untouched for years or perhaps forever? Why, other than for our own moral satisfaction and better data collection? There is no good reason. I’m not discouraging those who have been raped from reporting. I’m not encouraging anyone else to discourage, either. But it’s wrong to encourage reporting by encouraging lies.
cross-posted at The Curvature
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