Why Do Rape Kits Sit Around Untested?

Nicholas Kristof writes an op-ed for the NYTimes about the appalling amount of time it takes for rape kits to actually be tested and how sometimes they are not even tested. It is something that as feminists we have talked about extensively and sexual assault survivor advocates have organized around. The lackadaisical nature of rape kit testing and the general nonchalance or downright ignorance with which police do not investigate rape cases, it becomes damn near impossible to prove someone has been raped. Unless of course, it is to disprove it to save someone’s reputation, but I digress.
In discussing the evasive procedure of “testing” for rape he writes,

It’s a grueling and invasive process that can last four to six hours and produces a “rape kit” — which, it turns out, often sits around for months or years, unopened and untested.
Stunningly often, the rape kit isn’t tested at all because it’s not deemed a priority. If it is tested, this happens at such a lackadaisical pace that it may be a year or more before there are results (if expedited, results are technically possible in a week).
So while we have breakthrough DNA technologies to find culprits and exculpate innocent suspects, we aren’t using them properly — and those who work in this field believe the reason is an underlying doubt about the seriousness of some rape cases. In short, this isn’t justice; it’s indifference.

True. Disgusting. Telling. Unjust.
UPDATE: Courtney wrote a column on this very subject this week.

Join the Conversation

  • Creighton Hogg

    Seems worse than indifference.
    Isn’t it really just a form of slut-shaming? “You were raped, you probably deserved it?” or something even more outlandish? These women are like “candy in the street”*, after all.
    *Yeah, I’m still not letting that one go.

  • EGhead

    I generally love Nick Kristof, and I’ll agree that this article does a pretty good job of addressing the issue, but… (always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?) there were two problems I had with this column. Firstly, what the fuck was with the title: “Is Rape Serious?” I know authors don’t get to decide on the titles, so I’m not calling Kristof out for this, but someone needs a good smack upside the head. You’re not supposed to be calling into question the seriousness of rape, you’re supposed to be calling into question how seriously law enforcement takes rape. Major headline FAIL.
    Secondly, (and this IS on Kristof) why end the piece like this: “It’s what we might expect in Afghanistan, not the United States.”
    Why pick on Afghanistan? Why pick on any other country at all? Anyone who’s paying attention knows we DO expect this in the U.S.

  • Dor

    I think a huge part of the problem is that society has, in a way, normalized the victimzation of women and consequently the concept of rape. The existence of statistics such as “1 in 4 women will be raped in their life time” compounded with the sheer number of rape kits that need to be tested seems to destroy the hope of ever solving the problem. It’s fucked up, because a lot of people think there are more pressing issues (e.g. homicide) that take priority over rape. We should be trying to solve crimes no matter their ‘status'; the fact of the matter is that the law has been breached and that a victim has been affected in so many ways.

  • Dor

    I think a huge part of the problem is that society has, in a way, normalized the victimzation of women and consequently the concept of rape. The existence of statistics such as “1 in 4 women will be raped in their life time” compounded with the sheer number of rape kits that need to be tested seems to destroy the hope of ever solving the problem. It’s fucked up, because a lot of people think there are more pressing issues (e.g. homicide) that take priority over rape. We should be trying to solve crimes no matter their ‘status'; the fact of the matter is that the law has been breached and that a victim has been affected in so many ways.

  • everybodyever

    I agree, EGhead, with regard to the end of the column. As with most of Kristof’s pieces, I thought this one was right on — up to that end, which is baffling and which if it weren’t such a major columnist’s work I would ascribe to some sticky-fingered editor wanting a kicker. When I got to that line, I was like, “What the hell? That doesn’t sound like Kristof.” What a cheap, xenophobic shot. Plus, his experience and writings should indicate that, yeah, we should expect this kind of thing from the U.S.
    The Times ought to cut that last sentence. With the exception of it, the column was excellent, and I really appreciate Kristof for what seem like his thorough good-heartedness and his willingness to use his power and voice to trumpet issues like this that otherwise get ignored.

  • Creighton Hogg

    I still worry that there’s more to it than just normalizing the concept of rape. I just have a hard time picturing that if we had a statistic of “1 in 3 people will be stabbed in the face” that cops wouldn’t still be prosecuting the stab-ists.

  • Laura Lilly

    You have to wonder how many rapes could have been prevented had those kits been processed. It’s just awful.

  • achildnamedX

    Part of this is the victim’s choice. Women who aren’t sure if they want to report the rape, can still have an exam done. Then, if down the road they decide they want to report the crime, the kit will be tested.

  • http://f-words.blogspot.com saraeanderson

    The kits usually don’t tell anyone anything that’s in question. A defendant in a rape case usually doesn’t contest the fact of sexual contact with the victim, but whether or not he or she consented to it. Sometimes, it’s important evidence and needs to be collected soon after the event, but most of the time, I would say not worth the effort.
    Pushing the idea that these kits desperately need to be tested perpetuates dangerous misconceptions about rape.

  • hugsy

    i was about to comment on the same thing. this article failed to mention the victim’s privacy and choice as to whether or not they want law enforcement to get involved. that very well may be the case here.

  • hellotwin

    Given that it is a victim’s choice, what does the sheer number of untested or disposed of kits tell us about the difficulty of going forward legally with a sexual assault case? There is so much that holds people back from pursuing their legal options, including simply reporting to the police and we need to consider these obstacles as well.

  • hellotwin

    I’m wondering what misconceptions you’re referring to…I know the first one that pops into my head is the myth that rapists are strangers who jump out of bushes.

  • Ivory

    There is also a profound shortage of lab workers to test those kits. Until we pony up the money for more staff in our forensic labs, they will prioritize other evidence ahead of these rape kits. There simply isn’t enough staff or equipment to keep up.


    But really, how much of it is REALLY the victim’s “choice”?
    Especially since I would hope we all know that the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s office treat rape survivors in Beverly Hills way differently than they do survivors in Watts.
    A friend of mine was raped by a guy she was on a date with in Los Angeles about 10 years ago – she happens to be African American, the attacker was White – and, according to her, the sergeant at the LAPD division told her “don’t bother to report it – he’s not going to be convicted anyway, just go home and try to forget about it”.
    I’m sure she wasn’t the only woman of color who got similar treatment from the LAPD.
    Considering the fact that LA County is majority people of color, I wonder how many of those untested rape kits came from women of color who – like my friend, had their “choice” made for them by racist LA cops who don’t care about the rights or safety of women of color?
    So let’s not be so quick to go with the “choice” narrative here – it’s bad enough when it’s applied to other areas of feminism, and it’s really out of place here.


    Sorry, not buying the whole “we can’t afford it” story.
    The government ALWAYS says ‘we can’t afford it’ when they don’t want to do something.
    The State of California has plenty of money to run one of the largest prison systems on the planet, so I think they can pony up a measly $ 1,500 to process a rape kit IF THEY WANTED TO.
    It’s not a question of alleged “profound shortages of lab workers” it’s a question of what do the powers that be think is important, and what do they think is not important!

  • englishteacher

    After seeing this post yesterday, I was watching Southland and saw that they are beginning a storyline about the backlog of rape kits. I’m interested to see if they are able to convey anything to the public about it, and maybe see some real-life changes?

  • llevinso

    I agree with what you’ve said here but I’d also like to point out that it isn’t only WOC that get unfair and crappy treatment from police when reporting their rape.
    Unfortunately many police tell victims not to bother pursuing prosecution or what have you because they think there’s no chance in hell of convicting the guy or they don’t believe the victim. So the victims are just told to move on. Rape isn’t taken seriously enough by many police and their attitude about it is clear as day to the victims. Who’d want to continue with your prosecution after dealing with police that very obviously don’t want to help you? I wouldn’t call that a choice.

  • 76cents

    could the Sixth Amendment be applied to this in some way? Inversely, conversly???

  • tiggrrl.livejournal.com

    When New York cleared out its rape kit backlog, it solved 154 “cold” rape cases.
    There are also cases, (like this one that Cara wrote about at The Curvature: http://thecurvature.com/2009/04/28/accused-serial-rapist-finally-convicted-of-felony-rape/) where the physical evidence from a rape kit is absolutely essential in getting a mass rapist behind bars.
    Analyzing these rape kits matters, pure and simple. If you’re in California, here area couple of online actions you can take to help on the issue: http://capwiz.com/canow/state/main/?state=CA

  • hellotwin

    It’s still the victim/survivor’s choice to pursue legal options. Whether they’re encouraged or believed is another issue, one that is very serious. If you get a SARS exam and don’t want to go forward with the case after, I’m assuming the police will not test the kit.

  • Lisa

    I think the “stranger’s in the bushes” misconception is exactly what she’s referring to. Because most rape is acquaintance rape rather than stranger rape, consent is the contested issue not the fact that sexual contact occurred. If John and Jane go on a date and he rapes her, he’s likely to say that the sex was consensual. Finding his DNA on or in her body will prove nothing because he’s not denying that sex occurred, he’s denying that it was non consensual.

  • Lisa

    Just to clarify, my point was not that there isn’t a problem with letting these rape kits go untested. But rape kits are rarely the linchpin in cases outside of stranger rape.

  • ladylicious

    What’s even more sick is what they do prioritize over processing the kits and solving these crimes. Going after peaceful protesters, excessive wiretapping, and warrantless surveillance is a bigger priority to our government than allocating the funding to process rape kits.

  • queenb

    If you reread the comment, you will see that the question isn’t the money to test the kit, but the amount of personnel. Yes, they can afford the $1500 for the kit. But if their tech are processing rapes, murders, assaults, etc. there is going to be a backlog on all types of cases. Having money to test a few kits and having money for salaries for more people plus benefits is a whole different story.

  • era4allNOW

    Maybe it’s your use of “usually” that might qualify your statement, but rape kits can tell ways in which the victim may not have consented – bruises, tears, etc that show any kind of forced entry. Obviously not in all cases, and I don’t even know if it would be most, but I do know these rape kits can still be quite valuable, even if the question was only consent or not. Just wanted to add that.

  • Lisa

    Bruises and tearing are noted during the exam so that information would be available to investigators/prosecuters. The backlog is on DNA testing.


    Actually, it’s the police and the district attorney’s choice.
    If they REALLY wanted to prosecute a case, they could, no matter what the survivor wants.
    It’s harder to get a conviction, but it CAN be done – especially with poor defendants who have public defenders and no money for bail.
    The technique is simple – they get the judge to set a bail that’s too low for the bail bondsmen to write a bond for, but too high for the person to pay.
    The magic number in New York used to be $ 1,000 – because bail bondsmen here won’t post a bond less than $ 2,000.
    As a practical matter, that meant that a person with $ 2,000 bail only had to come up with $ 200 bucks to pay the bondsmen to write the bail bond – but a person with $ 1,000 bail had to come up with the whole $ 1,000.
    In a city where 80% of the population are renters, and therefore do not own homes that can be used as collateral for bail, this means that a lot of folks end up sitting on Rikers Island for a year awaiting trial.
    The prosecutors will wait a couple of weeks, and then they’ll play “let’s make a deal” with the defendant and their public defender.
    Take a plea on the lesser inclusive charge, and definitely get out of jail in 3 years – or, sit on Rikers for a year, go to trial, almost certainly get convicted, and then do 10 years in prison on top of the 1 year you spent on the rock.
    Lots of folks plead guilty just to get a definite release date.
    So, who the cops and DA’s prosecute and don’t prosecute is entirely up to them – that whole “victim’s choice” thing is a myth.

  • twowings2fly

    It is great to see this coverage in the mainstream media. Also see npr weekend edition (5/3/09) for this story: “Lawmakers Move To Curb Rape On Native Lands” by Laura Sullivan. It involves the lack of rape kits and even more outrageous obstacles to prosecuting rapists on Native Lands.