December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 9 min read
If you’ve just been sexually assaulted, deciding whether or not to have a rape kit done can feel daunting and overwhelming. While some people might decide that this step is unnecessary in their personal process, others will want to prioritize completing a rape kit as soon as possible.
Below, we’ll go over the pros and cons of pursuing this type of exam to help make this decision a little easier.
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Generally speaking, rape kit exams are worth it if there’s any chance you might want to pursue legal measures against your perpetrator(s) at any point (within legally allotted timeframes). These forensic exams are specifically designed to gather critical evidence that can be used in the prosecution of sex offenders. Without the evidence collected through a rape kit, pursuing legal action against a perpetrator is very difficult.
Something that might stop some people from pursuing a rape kit exam is the idea that you have to know ahead of time that you want to report your assault. Thankfully, this is a misconception.
Anyone can receive a rape kit exam regardless of whether or not they’ve decided to report their assault or pursue a legal course of action.
In most cases in Canada and the US, having a rape kit done does not require you to engage with any legal authorities*, and it is absolutely fine to have a rape kit done even if you decide never to report. Regardless of what you decide, having a rape kit done as soon as possible after an assault will give you the time and space you need to make the bigger legal decisions later on.
(*There are two exceptions to this. First, if you are a minor, doctors and nurses have a duty to report all sexual abuse of anyone under the legal age of consent. Second, if the hospital where you have your exam done is not equipped to store rape kits on site, your rape kit will need to be sent to a crime lab which, in most cases, requires reporting the assault.)
Rape kit exams are extremely detailed and thorough. The downside of this is that they can feel invasive or even re-traumatizing, as they involve both external and internal examination and evidence collection.
However, this also means that your nurse examiner can locate and identify any injuries you might have as a result of your assault that you might not be able to see or feel otherwise.
Rape kit exams also offer victims an opportunity to receive basic emergency medical care as well as follow-up care if needed, but these things can also happen outside of the context of a rape kit exam.
Although the following points shouldn’t dissuade anyone from pursuing a rape kit exam, it’s important to be aware of a few things when making your decision.
In an ideal world, sexual assault victims wouldn’t have to be poked, prodded, and questioned just to receive the care and support they need after an assault. However, in reality, the process of having a rape kit exam done can feel very invasive. Because the nurse examiner will need to examine the parts of your body that were involved in the assault, this process can bring up traumatic memories and unpleasant emotions. Although this should not be taken as a reason to avoid having a rape kit exam, it’s still important to be as emotionally prepared as possible before you go (and to make time for self care and rest once you’re done).
While this isn’t a reason to avoid having a rape kit done, it’s worth mentioning that these exams are infamous for taking a while. Estimates range from about two hours to as long as six hours, depending on wait times and the extent of your injuries and emergency medical needs. It’s best to avoid making any other plans on the day of your rape kit exam if possible.
Another unfortunate truth about rape kit exams is that they’re not always as easy to access as they should be. For example, only 59% of hospitals in Canada definitively offer rape kit exams according to a 2021 study. In the US, just 10-20% offer these important forensic exams.
To learn more about these disparities or to find a rape kit exam location near you, check out our article “Where to Go for a Rape Kit Exam.”
Known simply as “the backlog,” a persistent problem plagues the world of sexual assault forensic evidence and the victims who rely on it. Despite thousands of rape kit exams being completed each year, many evidence kits are never tested, even if criminal charges are pursued against the perpetrator.
Research organizations in the US estimate that anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 untested rape kits remain at crime labs and storage facilities across the country. While this problem doesn’t appear to be as pronounced in Canada, it’s unfortunately a persistent issue in the UK as well, according to reports released over the past decade.
However, this should not be viewed as a reason to forego a rape kit exam altogether. Forensic evidence can be tested at any point, even if years have passed, as long as the kits are stored properly.
The only situation in which pursuing a rape kit exam might be unnecessary is if you feel certain that you’re never going to pursue legal action against your perpetrator(s). However, if there’s any chance that you might change your mind and decide to press charges in the future, completing a rape kit exam as soon as possible after an assault is extremely important.
If you have been sexually assaulted and require medical assistance, emergency contraception, or any other form of urgent care, you can visit your nearest hospital to receive the care you need even if you don’t pursue a rape kit exam. While nurse examiners can and do administer necessary medical care to victims during rape kit exams, this is not the only way to receive medical assistance in the wake of an assault.
However, keep in mind that depending on where you live, the type of care you receive as a victim of sexual assault will vary due to the inconsistency of laws governing contraception and reproductive healthcare. One of the key things that will differ based on your location is whether or not you will be offered emergency contraception by your care provider.
In Canada, it’s likely that you will be offered emergency contraception if you need it. However, emergency contraceptive pills such as Plan B are also highly accessible at pharmacies across Canada, and anyone can buy this medication over the counter without the need for a prescription or ID.
In the US, however, emergency contraception laws vary dramatically from state to state, and not all hospitals are as willing to administer this type of medication as others. Even in states that legally allow the distribution of emergency contraception to assault victims at hospitals, the majority of victims pursuing emergency care are not offered these medications.
According to the ACLU, “fewer than 40 percent of emergency care facilities in eight of eleven states surveyed provide [emergency contraception] on-site to rape victims.” That said, 10 of the 50 US states now require emergency care facilities to offer emergency contraception to rape victims seeking treatment.
If you are not offered emergency contraception by your care provider during a rape kit exam or any other emergency medical exam following a sexual assault, ask your provider directly if they can offer you the medication you need.
Because rape kit exams should be completed within just a few days of an assault, it’s a good idea to have one of these exams done regardless of whether or not you’ve decided to press charges against your perpetrator. Making such a big personal and legal decision after experiencing something so traumatic is a lot to expect from ourselves. So, getting the rape kit out of the way first will allow you the time and space you need to make legal decisions later. Remember that even if you do not wish to pursue a rape kit exam, you can still visit your nearest hospital to receive the emergency medical care you need following an assault.
Rape kit exams are extremely important for victims who plan to pursue legal action against perpetrator(s). Because they need to be completed as soon as possible after an assault, it’s a good idea to have a rape kit exam done even if you haven’t decided whether to press charges. In most cases, having a rape kit done does not require the victim to report their assault (unless the victim is a minor or the hospital cannot store rape kits on site). Although these factors should not be taken as reasons not to pursue a rape kit exam, it’s important to be aware that these exams can be highly invasive and time consuming and may require travel and planning, as not all hospitals offer rape kit exams.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work.