The Fem Spot

Untested rape kits in America

Posted in News, Politics by femspotter on December 20, 2009

December 20, 2009

** To support the nonpartisan Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009, visit http://www.hrw.kintera.org/rape-kits. **

According to a recent 5-month CBS News investigation exclusive, at least 20,000 rape kits have gone untested in the United States. To put this figure in context, the investigation revealed some startling facts and figures about rape in the U.S. at large:

  • nearly 90,000 women reported they were raped in the U.S. during 2008; an additional 75,000 rapes are estimated to have gone unreported
  • the arrest rate for the same period was only 25%, less than the 79% for murder and 51% for accusations of aggravated assault
  • according to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail
  • when an alleged victim contacts law enforcement claiming to have been raped, she or he generally receives a test (a rape kit) that will help prove that the rape did in fact occur and, with DNA evidence gathered from both the test and the suspect, that the suspect did commit said rape; but the investigation revealed that at least 20,000 of those tests administered in America have gone untested, making it impossible for the legal system to potentially punish at least 20,000 rapists
  • many states have revealed that they have unanalyzed rape kits collecting dust on shelves: CBS provides a state by state breakdown
  • in addition, officials from at least 12 major cities (Anchorage, Baltimore, Birmingham, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Oakland, Phoenix and San Diego) said they have no idea how many of rape kits in storage are untested
  • according to law enforcement officials, rape kits don’t get fully tested because of cost (up to $1,500 each) or because victims sometimes recant their accusations
  • New York City purports to test every single rape kit it executes – over 1,300 in 2008 – and its arrest rate is 70%

This information may provide answers to some of the big questions about our human inability to eradicate rape that feminists tackle on a daily basis. Clearly, in a judicial system with a goal of discouraging rape crimes by harshly punishing rapists, that goal cannot be realized when so few rapists are punished. But the information forces us to ask additional questions. Why are roughly 75,000 women silent about rape? Why isn’t it policy, at the state or federal level, to complete the rape investigation promptly? Why has insufficient money been allocated to these investigations, making $1,500 per rape accusation unfeasible for local law enforcement? Why do some rape victims claim that they have been raped only to revoke the accusation later?

I wish I had answers to these questions, but I only have speculation. I suspect that many women don’t value themselves enough to feel they deserve American “justice.” I suspect that many of them are afraid to cry out for help and, in doing so, help protect others from violent offenders. I only know that I want them to feel empowered enough to do so.

Much of the mystique around rape exists because our society still disagrees amongst itself on the nature of rape: is it sex or is it violence? The legal definition of “forcible sexual relations” does not coincide with many philosophical definitions that account for sex that occurs when one party is unconscious or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Does date rape or rape in circumstances where alcohol is present mean that a rapist is a corrupt individual who will always pose a threat to other people? Can rapists be rehabilitated? Is rape as damaging a crime as other forms of assault or even murder? I just don’t know. Does anybody?

If rape is a byproduct of misogyny, then the sooner we eradicate gender expectations from our culture (i.e. women are supposed to be meek and sexually accommodating and men are supposed to take what they want, by force when necessary) the better for all potential rape victims. If you have to hate someone in order to rape them, then let’s work to eliminate the source of hatred: misunderstandings of who we are and how we think we each should behave. But this theoretical notion may not be possible to implement at all, and certainly not right away: it will happen generationally if it can.

I am sure of several things:

  1. while New York City’s arrest rate is not good enough at 70%, it is better than the national average by far, proving that follow through on these rape kits will help to put more rapists behind bars
  2. the 51% arrest rate for aggravated assault, which is more than double that of rape, proves that rape is not taken as seriously by law enforcement at large as are other forms of violence
  3. a victim doesn’t get to decide when a crime against her/him is punishable or not; ergo recanted accusations should still be followed by fully executed rape tests in order to prevent a possible rapist from performing future violent acts on others
  4. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, but there are SOME things that people can do to protect themselves SOMETIMES (RAINN)

I do not subscribe to the notion that women are victims and men are rapists by default – that is to say that I think we can take steps to try and protect ourselves from rapists, and not all men are potential rapists. In the case of the CBS investigation’s rape victim Valerie Neumann, then 21, her alleged rape occurred after she and a “friend of a friend” spent hours drinking, she had thrown up and subsequently she had passed out. Why was she drinking to excess with a man she had just met? Had she stayed sober and stayed at the public place (a bowling alley) where she met this man, she might have removed herself from such a dangerous situation. Of course, that does not preclude an assailant from following her home or secluding her in a dark, private corner of the parking lot. No. The world is a dangerous place SOMETIMES. A rape is NEVER the fault of the victim, but Neumann could have taken better care. College age women are 4 times as likely to be sexually assaulted than others because of the drinking and the lack of security they endure. And 43% of rapes take place between 6 p.m. and midnight with an additional 24% before 6 a.m. (RAINN) Don’t walk home alone at night. Don’t go anywhere with a man you just met. Don’t drink from open containers. Don’t drink alcohol at all. (Is this fair? No.)

Neumann deserves “justice” for the crime that was committed against her. According to her preliminary examination, there was enough evidence to suggest forced penetration, and semen was found in her underwear. The suspect provided a DNA sample, but Neumann’s rape kit was never fully tested. The explanation: prosecutors did not think that they could win a case against the suspect.

It is my belief that rape has little or nothing to do with sex – sex is rape’s milieu – and almost everything to do with hatred and violence. In Neumann’s case, a date rape, alcohol played a significant role in her sexual experience. Whether the law considers it “rape” or not is irrelevant. It’s still wrong and painful for the victim. While a courtroom drama may not have ensued, a fully executed test confirming the suspect as the perpetrator would have at least resulted in an arrest: and an arrest would have sent a message that this type of violence will not be tolerated…at least to the lone perpetrator and maybe to some of his friends.

I pose a call to action with regard to getting the rape arrest rate to nationally meet and hopefully exceed that of New York City’s and one that would increase the sexual education of teenagers and young adults in high school and college. I ask the Federal Government to force state governments to force local law enforcement officials to fully examine ALL rape kits. Additionally, I ask that the Federal Government mandate that all high school seniors take and pass a responsible sex education class before graduating. The class would entail an understanding of sexuality, its consequences, both for violent sexuality and consensual sexuality, and a signed pledge from students (male and female) to be responsible sexual participants. While conservatives will note that this may cause a slight increase in tax rates nationwide, we cannot continue to be negligent and naive about sexuality and violence. (To you cheapskates, my response: Go back to kindergarten and learn how to share!) We need to teach boys how to control their bodies and respect human beings. We need to teach girls and boys how to protect themselves and make responsible choices. And most of all, we need to teach ourselves that one rape is too many; certainly, 20,000 or more unpunished is grotesque and inhumane.

If you agree, or if you are at least concerned, contact Attorney General Eric Holder, a public servant, at:

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue,
NW Washington, DC 20530-0001
phone: 202-353-1555
email: askdoj@usdoj.gov

Be sure to include a copy of the CBS news report with your letters and emails.

Think you can’t or aren’t making a difference by writing? Meet Florence Holway:

In 1991, Mrs. Holway, then 75, was brutally raped in her rural New Hampshire home by a 25-year-old intruder. There was nothing she did to deserve this attack. There was nothing she should have done to prevent it. But that didn’t stop her from working to correct it. Her indignation and 12 years of hard work inspired the state of New Hampshire to change its rape laws. While Holway’s rapist served a mere 12 years in prison for his crime, future rapists will serve 15 to 20 years for first offenses, 20-40 for second offenses and life in prison without parole for third offenses. HBO made a documentary about this struggle and accomplishment called Rape in a Small Town.

Anyone can and should make a difference. We have to start somewhere. So pick up your pens!

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