Trigger warning: Rape, forensic exams, assault.
Law and Order SVU was a staple in my parent’s household. Growing up, I can’t remember a single week where at some point that show wasn’t on in the Balcom livingroom. While I don’t remember being scared by any of the violence the show portrays, I do remember a statement my mother made:
“The worst thing you can do is take a bath or shower.”
At the time I didn’t know how bathing had anything to do with the show or why it was a “bad thing,” and even later on, high school Susie didn’t give it any thought.
Although research suggests that 17% of American women and 3% of American men will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, little is known about rape kits and the concepts that surround them. And so, that is where we will begin.
What is a rape kit?
Rape kits, or sexual assault forensic exams, can be conducted when an individual has experienced sexual assault or abuse, and wishes to do so for a variety of reasons. It’s received the nickname “kit” because it literally looks like a kit: it’s a white box, with different envelopes, containers, and instructions to collect evidence.
Materials in the kit can vary from state to state but a lot of them have items such as:
- Bags and envelopes for evidence
- A check list
- Cotton swabs
Why would/should someone consider completing an exam?
An individual such as this may want to receive an exam:
- For evidence such as DNA to be safely collected and stored should the individual ever choose to report, possibly increasing the likelihood of prosecution.
- To check on their physical well-being after abuse or assault through medical care. This can include a regular examination and prescriptions for follow up medications such as plan-B and anti-falcate antibiotics in case there was an exposure to HIV/STDs.
- It won’t cost you a dime– but if you are charged by mistake, contact your local sexual assault service provider.
Why the comment about not bathing or showering?
While it is suggested you should receive a exam immediately after an assault, not everyone’s abilities and needs are the same. Some professionals do report that its a good idea to receive an exam even up to ten days later. It is suggested, if possible, to avoid bathing, showering, changing clothes, using the bathroom, eat/drinking, brushing your teeth, or combing your hair prior to receiving a kit.
It is natural to want to go through comforting motions such as these after as assault, whether one realizes they are or not. It’s true that the sooner one completes a kit, the better one’s chances are at finding evidence should they ever decide to file a report to the police–but that’s not the only point of a kit. It is also important to be checked out by a medical professional, someone who can clear you physically and link you up with resources to help.
If you do change clothes, put the clothes you had on at the time of the assault in a paper bag to help preserve evidence. You can also bring a change of fresh clothes to the hospital.
Where can one get an kit completed?
You can call 911 and be transported to a local hospital to receive one, or travel to an emergency room yourself. A specially trained SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) or SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner) will complete the kit. Sometimes they are already on shift and sometimes they have to be called into the hospital after you arrive.
What will happen during an exam?
Exam lengths can vary a few hours depending on several factors, so it’s important to consider requesting an Advocate attend the exam with you. An advocate is a professional that can provide support through the entire process and answer any questions you may have. If you have a friend or loved one in the room with you during the exam, they could one day be called as a witness if you ever decide to report the crime– an Advocate can never be called as a witness.
First, you will receive immediate care to any injuries. This might include taking your temperature, blood pressure, and such.
Second, the medical professionals will ask you about your medical history. This will include current medications, pre-existing conditions, and recent consensual sexual activity. These questions will feel very personal but are all meant to ensure evidence is collected effective and efficiently.
Third, the SANE nurse will ask you what exactly happened and they will be taking notes on what you report. This is part of the paperwork of the exam. They may complete a fully handwritten account of the incident as you describe to them what you can. They may also as you very personal, sometimes difficult to answer, yes or no questions such as “did their tongue touch your vagina” or “did their penis enter into your vagina/mouth/anus.”
Fourth, you will begin the forensic examination. This is the physical part of the exam. This may be based on your specific assault or abuse, which is why it is important to explain as best you can what happened in the questions above. This may include a full body examination, including internal examinations of the mouth, vagina, and/or anus. It may also include taking samples of blood, urine, wet and dry swabs of body surface areas, hair samples, nail trimmings or nail scrapings.
Fifth, the SANE will ask to take pictures of any scrapes, cuts, or bruising’s of any kind they discovered on your body during your examination. They may hold up small sized rulers against the injuries while taking the pictures to correctly document the size.
Sixth, with your permission, they may also collect your clothing items including you undergarments. Any other items that may be evidence will also collected and stored for analysis such as the perpetrator’s clothing, hair, or any other debris.
Seventh, if you are a minor, the person completing the exam may be obligated to report the abuse or assault to local law enforcement.
Eighth and finally, you will be offered follow up care such as prevention treatments of any STD/STI/HIV that you might have been exposed to. All side effects and prescriptions options should be discussed with your prior to receiving any medication. A follow up appointment may be scheduled depending on the hospital.
How long can evidence be stored?
The amount of time a kit can be stored varies by state and police jurisdictions. Your examiner, Advocate, or police (if you choose to speak to them) should be able to inform you of the correct amount of time for your area.
It’s important to note that the amount of time a kit can be stored may not accurately represent the amount of time one has to take legal action against the perpetrator, also known as the statue of limitations.
What are one’s rights when completing an exam?
- You do not have to report or disclose anything you do not wish to disclose. You can report the crime at the time of the exam, or not.
- You can turn down, skip, or pause any part of the exam that you are uncomfortable with or do not wish to complete.
- You have the right to have an Advocate with you at the time of the exam.
- You or your insurance should not be charged for these services.
To find options near you for sexual assault forensic exams, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or find your local rape crisis center here.