Every 98 seconds. Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Out of every 1,000 rapes – 310 are reported to police, 57 of those reports lead to an arrest, 11 of those cases are referred to prosecutors, 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction and 6 rapists will be incarcerated. A major influencing factor on whether or not sexual assaults can be prosecuted is if a rape kit is preformed and tested. The epidemic of the rape kit backlog is something that some of us are aware on the surface level as an issue, but the extent of this issue and how it affects sexual assault in America goes much deeper than we may realize.
Rape – Forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion as well as physical force. Forced sexual intercourse means penetration by the offender(s). Includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims, and both heterosexual and same sex rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape.
Sexual assault – A wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. It also includes verbal threats.
Sexual assault statistics are absolutely terrifying. For example, 54% of sexual assault victims are 18-34, but 15% of those victims are children (ages 12-17). One out of every six American women have been a victim of rape or attempted rape. College women ages 18-24 are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely. Sexual assault is not a “one gendered” issue; about 3% of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, resulting in 1 out of every 10 rapes having a male as the victim. At 21% reporting instances, transgender youth face the highest risk of sexual assault. Prisoners and military members are at risk of extreme pressure to not report due reputation and legality issues when it comes to sexual violence in prison or on active duty.
Here is a breakdown of who is victimized by rape each year.
In 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them. Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults and 88% of child sexual abuse are not reported to police. Individuals’ reasons for not reporting assault vary – one study found these common reasons: self-blame or guilt, shame, embarrassment, or desire to keep the assault a private matter, humiliation or fear of the perpetrator or other individual’s perceptions, fear of not being believed or of being accused of playing a role in the crime and lack of trust in the criminal justice system. These notions lead to an obscene number of rapists not to go free and add to the fallacy behind false accusations of sexual assault. Here is a graphic from Sarah Beaulieu about the truth behind sexual assaults, their reporting and false accusations.
With crimes of sexual assault, the victim’s body becomes part of the “crime scene” containing most evidence needed for a conviction. Victims can choose to have a certified medical professional photograph, swab and conduct an invasive examination of their entire body in hopes of finding DNA evidence left behind by their attacker(s). Preforming a rape kit takes between four to six hours to complete. The photographs and DNA collected and tested from this kit are often the key pieces of evidence in sexual assault convictions.
Each kit can cost between $500 and $2,000 to test. The high cost of chemicals needed along with the limited number of scientists qualified to process a kit create a slow processing rate of the evidence – creating the infamous rape kit backlog.
Here is an infographic detailing issues with the backlog and failure to test rape kits.
Many of the problems surrounding this epidemic are not only the immense number of backlogged completed kits, but problems people face attempting to get a rape kit performed in the first place. For example, Dinisha Ball had to wait 9 hours and go to 3 emergency rooms to get her rape kit performed. She faced issues with hospitals not accepting her due to her lack of insurance, hospitals not being able to perform rape kits and long waiting times – all things that make the daunting task of reporting a rape and having a kit performed even more horrendous. Hospitals need to have a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a registered nurse who receives specialized training on how to collect forensic evidence for rape kits and care for sexual assault survivors’ physical and emotional needs, on staff so they can appropriately perform rape kits.
A study in Ohio found “about a quarter of the serial offenders in [their test] sample had previously been arrested for sexual assault, 60 percent would have a subsequent sexual-assault arrest”. Ilse Knecht, who leads the national campaign End the Backlog stated, “Rapists are very often serial offenders. They commit all kinds of crime. They commit crimes against people they know and people they don’t know and they just don’t stop”. This is the main concern around these kits not being tested, aside from the increased trauma for victims, is it is allowing for more potential attacks and victims in the future.
Kentucky found that 3,354 rape kits were never sent for testing by various law enforcement agencies. Of the 50 tested so far, they have received 44 matches. In Florida, a rape kit tested 20 years later led to a conviction. Colorado committed to ending their rape kit backlog in 2013, since then, they collected 3,542 untested rape kits, identified 1,556 DNA profiles and had 691 of them generate investigative leads. In New Mexico (with over 5,000 untested kits), survivor Jessi Lail organized a dinner and concert to raise funds for victims to be able to petition the legislature directly to have their kits tested.
Part of what helps issues with sexual assault and rape kit backlogs gain traction and visibility is increased coverage in the news. Erykah Badu donated the proceeds from a Detroit concert to a nonprofit who tests the city’s backlog of rape kits. Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared on Law and Order SVU to bring awareness to the rape kit backlog epidemic. During the reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act Biden stated “If there’s a rape kit left sitting on a shelf, there’s a victim without justice. It is unconscionable that we have the ability to solve these crimes and hold the perpetrators responsible, but because of red tape and lack of funding, the criminals are free and their victims continue to live in fear”.
A group called Rise launched a national campaign to eliminate state laws that allow many cities to destroy rape kits before they’re tested, sometimes allowing kits to be destroyed in a matter of weeks. This group was partially responsible for getting the Bill Of Rights For Survivors Of Sexual Assault signed into law under the Obama administration. This legislation primarily addresses the treatment of rape kits requiring evidence gathered during the process to be preserved for 20 years. The bill also specifies survivors can not be prevented from receiving or charged for the kit and they must be informed of their test results. Although these public movements help tackle the issue, legislation is one of the only sure-fire ways to eradicate the issue.
Here is a map of the current US bills that pertain directly to rape kit testing:
Texas Rep. Victoria Neave introduced a bill aimed at funding rape kit testing. Under this bill, when Texans go to apply for a driver’s license, they’ll be asked if they’d like to help the state pay to test DNA evidence from sexual assault cases – similar to consenting to organ donation. This bill is essentially a crowdfunding campaign to help tackle the widespread problem of Texas’ 20,000 backlogged rape kits. Pennsylvania proposed a similar bill which would impose a $5-per-customer fee on sexual oriented businesses that will go toward a fund for rape victim services. Finally, California proposed a bill creating an option to make a donation while filing income taxes known as the Rape Kit Backlog Voluntary Tax Contribution Fund.
HB200 would give Utah’s law enforcement agencies 30 days to submit rape kits to the Utah Crime Lab and would require testing to be done by a to-be-determined deadline. The bill also creates a tracking system for rape kits and trauma-sensitivity training for Utah law enforcement. Washington proposed a bill to require sexual assault training for their law enforcement.
NV AB97 would require testing on all sexual assault forensic examination kits within 180 days, reimburse police departments for some of the costs of testing and require annual progress reports. Virginia passed SB1501 to ensure the rape kits that do have funding actually get tested by requiring law enforcement to inform victims of the results of those tests. Georgia passed SB304 which requires quicker processing of rape kits for sexual assault cases and California’s bill would require information on the rape kit evidence to be reported within 120 days of the collection.
After the Bill Cosby allegations surfaced in 2016, Colorado governor Hickenlooper signed CO HB1260 which doubled the statute of limitations on cases of rape and sexual assault from 10 to 20 years. Bills attempting to reduce the backlog have reached as far as Alaska, HB31 requires all 200 law enforcement agencies in Alaska to count and date their untested rape kits.
Rape culture in America has taken scary turns over the last few decades. Although the number of rapes has fallen since 1993, it is time for us to change our legislation to protect and support our people. It is time for us to teach that believing victims and teaching personal responsibility are some of the most important qualities we as Americans can instill in our people. We need to help women and men get access to the resources they need to combat sexual assault and to recover and fight for themselves after an incident. Part of the way we can start this is ensuring rape kits have appropriate funding so we can work on clearing one of America’s worst backlogs.