The first six to ten weeks of the semester are referred to as the “red zone” for sexual assault, meaning that a large percentage of sexual assault on college campuses happens during this time. Understanding the inherent risks of your new environment can dramatically reduce the potential for dangerous situations to arise. It is important to be educated about what sexual assault is and the best ways to prevent harm to yourself or those around you.
Know the facts about consent and interpersonal violence. Consent is a verbal, sober, continuous, and positive yes. If they have to be convinced, it is not consent. If they are not sober, it is not consent. Consent is freely given and freely withdrawn. This means that consent one time or for one act does not mean consent for every time or for every act.
If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here.
In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.
Successes so Far
Fifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.
The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.
In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets. Continue reading “The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2”
Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.
What is a Rape Kit?
A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.
In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation. Continue reading “The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1”
“Sexual abuse is a crime, and should not be the punishment for a crime.” – US Department of Justice Letter to Governors, March 5, 2015
While this statement might seem obvious to those who work in sexual violence prevention and response, it represents a profound shift in how the wider public, and even those in corrections, view sexual assault in the context of prison. Rape and sexual harassment have long been considered an inevitable—or even deserved—part of the prison experience. Additionally, sexual violence is ingrained in the prison system, perpetrated (by inmates as well as guards) as a means of establishing and maintaining power dynamics and prison hierarchy.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 to address the epidemic of sexual assault in all corrections facilities, but comprehensive guidelines didn’t take effect until 2012, with the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape. Finally, just this month, May 2015, the Department of Justice will begin to enforce those guidelines by withholding funding from states that are not in compliance. The National Standards specify that any confinement facility (including prisons, jails, lock-ups, juvenile facilities, and community and immigrant detention centers) must:
Adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual assault and sexual harassment
Train both staff and inmates on sexual abuse
Train staff on effective and professional communication with LGBTQ and gender non-conforming inmates
Provide at least two internal and one external way for inmates to report abuse
Provide access to outside advocates for emotional support related to the abuse, and provide as much confidentiality as possible
Discipline perpetrators of sexual assault, both guards and inmates
Separate youth in adult correctional facilities and prevent unsupervised contact with adults
Provide access to support services for inmates with disabilities and limited English proficiency
Ensure inmates have timely access to appropriate medical and mental health services, on par with community level of care
While growing up in a rape culture, women are constantly told to follow the “rules” to ensure their safety. This list dictates what women should wear (nothing too short), what they consume (no drinks you didn’t prepare yourself), and even how they commute (never alone, never at night, and never in a “bad part of town”). Not only do these rules perpetuate a series of rape myths, they also result in victim-blaming.
Victim-blaming is a pervasive part of the trauma many survivors experience. Too often when survivors disclose, they are met with a checklist of questions, all centered on their actions instead of the perpetrator’s. Rather than focusing on the inappropriate and illegal conduct of the perpetrator, many will blame the victim for not adhering to the prescribed list of rules. The notion that any “disobedience” of the guidelines could result in or justify sexual assault is not only incorrect but it also discourages survivors from coming forward about their experience.
Victim-blaming occurs for many reasons. Some of it is rooted in notions around masculinity (“boys will be boys”), some of it in a general disregard for women’s bodies, and some of it comes from fear. Sometimes, people resort to victim-blaming to as an attempt to maintain an illusion of their own safety from sexual assault. In this case, it is easier to police the list of rules and insist that following them will prevent assault than to acknowledge the scary truth that rape can happen regardless of what the survivor does or does not do. But rape happens because of rapists—not the length of a hemline, or the amount of alcohol consumed. When people victim-blame, they distance themselves from the victim and keep alive the myth that the responsibility to prevent rape lies on the assaulted, not the perpetrator.
In addition to funding, the NFL is committing to host violence prevention education sessions for all 32 NFL teams. Players, coaches, staff, and executives will receive education about domestic and sexual violence as well as information about resources and organizations in their own communities.
Back-to-school carries with it a lot of expected stressors — upcoming exams, issues with roommates, cramped schedules. But these aren’t the only pressures college students face. With 1 in 4 college-aged women identifying as survivors of sexual assault, it is not uncommon to have a friend disclose an experience of sexual violence. Receiving a disclosure from a friend can be extremely disorienting, upsetting, and often overwhelming. This mix of emotions can make assisting a friend a confusing experience. What are the best ways to support a loved one in this situation?
Do assess safety: The first concern when dealing with a sexual assault is the physical and mental well-being of the survivor. Without pressuring the survivor for any specific details, try to gently ask them if they feel safe in their home or workplace, or if they feel like they need medical attention of any sort. During your initial conversation with a survivor, it’s important to remember to pay attention to any clues of mental distress. Depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts are common issues for survivors of trauma, especially in the weeks and months immediately following an assault. If you notice signs of any of these issues, offer resources on both national (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, RAINN) and local (OCRCC, UNC Counseling & Wellness Services) levels.
Do respect the survivor’s choices: Sexual assault is a crime that specifically attacks a person’s autonomy and right to make decisions about their bodies. By listening carefully to the needs of the survivor rather than making suggestions or decisions for them, you are giving power and authority back to the survivor. This is an excellent way to help them feel that they’ve regained some control and normality.
Do appreciate the disclosure: Telling others, especially loved ones, about an experience with sexual assault is one of the most difficult things for a survivor to do. The decision to disclose is fraught with many unpleasant considerations: the possibility of reliving the experience during the disclosure, the chance of being blamed or belittled, the worry that they will be disbelieved or excessively questioned. All of these are very real possibilities being faced by a survivor who has decided to disclose. Respect all of these anxieties, and keep them in mind during your discussions. Thank the survivor for the trust they’ve placed in you, and reassure them that you believe them and would never blame them for what happened.
Don’t get emotional: An emotional response to a disclosure of this magnitude is completely understandable and normal. However, it is best to focus on the needs of the survivor, especially in the moments immediately following their disclosure. An overly emotional reaction such as anger or extreme sadness may be very alarming to a survivor and can make it difficult for them to remain calm. It is also important to keep in mind that the survivor is likely worried about your response and well-being, even in light of their own trauma. Keeping your emotions in check will be one less thing for the survivor to concern themselves with.
Don’t push for details: When tragedy strikes a loved one, it’s normal to want to understand as much of what happened as you can. While it may feel like it will communicate concern, asking a lot of questions could negatively affect the survivor and your conversation with them. Not only will probing questions serve to make a survivor relive their assault, some questions may even sound to the survivor like blame, even if they were not meant as such. Questions like “How much did you have to drink?” and “Why were you walking home alone?” have the potential to sound more accusatory than caring.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself: Although the safety and feelings of the survivor should be a main concern, it’s important to remember that you can’t help anybody without first caring for yourself. Secondary survivorship can be incredibly emotionally taxing, especially if the survivor is someone very close to you. Make sure to check in with yourself regularly, and don’t get lost in the support you’re offering to your friend. You can also access support for yourself from the OCRCC by calling our 24-Hour Help Line or participating in a support group for family and friends of survivors of sexual violence.
While these are all helpful suggestions, remember that what a friend needs most after a disclosure is for you to LISTEN. They won’t expect you to have all (or any) of the answers. The most beneficial thing you can do is to offer them your non-judgmental and open-minded support and concern.
Camille Zimmerman has been a Companion since 2013. She provides support and resources for survivors of sexual violence and is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.
At the start of 2013, staff at the Center fielded many questions about potential repercussions when the 112th Congress did not reauthorize VAWA. Just one month later, we find the 113th Congress committed to action. Last week, Senate Bill 47 passed to reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Michael Crapo (R-ID). And now, this bill is once again in the hands of the House of Representatives.
The Senate-approved bill is very similar to the bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Leahy and Crapo last Congress and would improve VAWA programs and strengthen protections for all victims of violence. It includes many important improvements, such as addressing the criminal justice response to sexual assault, domestic violence homicides, housing needs, and campus victimization, all of which were included in legislation last year.
The current Senate bill also includes enhanced protections for tribal, LGBT, and immigrant victims. These extra provisions were identified as critical priorities by advocates across the country and received bipartisan support both last year and this year in the Senate.
Congress has just a few days to get to work on the Violence Against Women Act before they leave for the entire month of August – and then only a few short days in session before the congressional session ends on October 1. Please take 5 minutes to call or write to your own Representative and both Senators in your state!
Since the April passage of a Senate version and a May House-passed version of VAWA, Congress has still not signed the act into law. Congress will go home the first of October and may not come back until after the elections. We have no time to lose!
Call your legislators and write letters to the editor, especially if you are in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin. Let them hear what you have to say before they go on vacation!
Everyone loses if VAWA isn’t finished— all victims need the many improvements in this version of VAWA. What can you do to help?