December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 9 min read
“Rape kit” is a term most have us have heard but far fewer could actually define. So, what exactly is a rape kit? What does it entail, and who should get one?
Keep reading to find answers to these important questions plus other critical information for anyone considering pursuing a rape kit exam.
A sexual assault evidence kit, or “rape kit,” is an evidence-collection kit used during a specialized medical exam designed to gather forensic information in the direct aftermath of a sexual assault.
These exams are administered at certain hospitals by trained professionals and used in the prosecution of criminal sexual assault. Tailored to the needs and circumstances of each patient, rape kit exams can take anywhere from two to four hours to complete.
Despite some common misconceptions, receiving a rape kit exam and reporting a sexual assault are not the same thing and do not happen at the same time.
Although rape kits are used in the prosecution of sexual assault perpetrators, reporting your assault is not a requirement for receiving an exam unless you are a minor. In most places, medical care providers are subject to mandated reporting or “duty-to-report” laws, which require them to report child abuse to the authorities.
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Depending on where you live, rape kits must be completed within a certain time frame, ranging from 24 hours up to 12 days after an assault. The sooner you have your exam done, the more accurate and relevant it will be.
Depending on whether or not a victim chooses to report an assault, rape kits are either stored at hospitals and then destroyed if not used within a certain period of time, or they’re sent to the relevant authorities who catalogue and test them in the event that a criminal case is pursued.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Advocates have been shining a light in recent years on the troubling fact that many rape kits sit at crime labs indefinitely without ever being tested. This problem has been deemed “the backlog,” and many dedicated advocates and professionals are working diligently to ensure that all rape kits be tested within 30 days of arrival at a crime lab.
Rape kits get their name from the actual “kit” that’s used to conduct a sexual assault forensic exam. These kits, also known as sexual assault evidence kits (SAEK), contain bags, combs, and swabs for evidence collection, as well as forms, documents, and instructions for carrying out an exam.
The three main goals of a sexual assault forensic exam are…
1) identify any injuries that require care or treatment
2) gather as much potential DNA evidence of the perpetrator as possible
3) create ample documentation of the assault in the event that a criminal case against the perpetrator is pursued
To accomplish these goals, the care provider administering an exam will carry out the following steps…
When you arrive at the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam, your care provider will first be concerned with whether or not you have any injuries that require immediate attention. If so, you will receive any necessary care first before receiving your forensic exam.
As with any medical exam, your care provider will ask you some questions about your medical history, medications, and pre-existing conditions. You will likely also be asked a few questions about your current consensual sexual partners, which can help your care provider determine whom the DNA evidence gathered throughout the exam is linked to.
You do not need to provide any information you don’t feel comfortable sharing. However, the more accurate and complete the information is, the more relevant and ultimately helpful your rape kit will be.
Once your care provider has a basic sense of your relevant medical history, you will be asked to recount what happened during your assault. You do not have to go into vivid detail beyond what feels relevant, but you will be asked to provide information related to all areas of injury or potential injury, as well as all areas of your body or clothing where DNA evidence might be located.
While this process might feel scary or emotionally painful, explaining to your care provider what happened to you is an important and necessary part of a sexual assault forensic exam. This will help them determine how to carry out the exam, what to look for, and how best to provide care.
After getting a sense for what has happened, your care provider will carry out the physical portion of the exam.
Some things that might happen during the physical portion of your exam include:
You are not required to consent to any aspect of the exam that you do not feel comfortable with. However, the more evidence gathered through the exam, the stronger your case will be should you decide to press charges.
Depending on your situation, you might also be offered follow-up care during your exam, such as STI prevention treatment or emergency contraception. You might also be asked to return for a follow-up appointment to receive further care if you incurred any serious injuries during your assault.
Once your rape kit exam is complete, the hospital will store your rape kit for up to 6 months until you decide to report (timeframes may vary by location). If you do not report your assault during that time, your evidence kit will be destroyed. Unfortunately, some hospitals are not equipped to store rape kits on site, and victims may be required to report their assault to authorities in order to have the kit sent to a crime lab immediately.
If you choose, you can decide to report your assault to the authorities before or after your forensic exam, but this is not a requirement. Your rape kit will only be tested at a crime lab if you decide to report your assault. In some places, rape kits can be sent to crime labs anonymously and stored there for up to five years regardless of whether or not the victim chooses to report.
However, if you are below the age of consent, your care provider will likely be required to report your assault to the authorities depending on the mandated reporting laws in your area. In Canada, for example, all medical professionals have the duty to report any and all confirmed or suspected child abuse.
For those who intend to report a sexual assault to the authorities, a rape kit exam is a critical step in building a strong case against your perpetrator. These exams are designed to collect DNA evidence of those who commit sexual assault and can also be used to help authorities track repeat offenders. However, it’s important to be aware that the process of receiving one of these exams can feel invasive, re-traumatizing, and emotionally and physically draining. Receiving a sexual assault forensic exam is not a requirement, and even if you pursue one, you do not have to report your assault if you don’t want to.
A “rape kit,” also known as a sexual assault evidence kit (SAEK), is an evidence-collection kit used during a specialized medical exam designed to gather forensic information in the direct aftermath of a sexual assault. Collection measures involve a detailed physical examination of a victim’s body and clothing, including swabbing, combing, photographing, and internal examination. Sexual assault forensic kits are used in the prosecution of sexual assault perpetrators and can also help authorities track repeat offenders. While rape kits are extremely helpful to those who plan on reporting instances of sexual assault to the authorities, they are not a requirement. Receiving a rape kit exam does not mean that a victim must report their assault. Rape kits are only given to authorities and/or tested at crime labs in the event that criminal charges are pursued.
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.
“Everything You Need to Know About Sexual Assault Evidence Kits” – https://www.missinformed.ca/post/everything-you-need-to-know-about-saeks#:~:text=See%20local%20numbers%20by%20clicking%20here.&text=Executive%20Summary%3A%20This%20post%20 outlines,are%20different%20for%20each%20individual
Your Choice Toronto – https://yourchoice.to/evidence-kit.php
Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal – https://cwrp.ca/frequently-asked-questions-faqs#:~:text=Everyone%20has%20a%20duty%20to,the%20’duty%20to%20report‘.
Helping Survivors of Sexual Abuse & Assault – https://helpingsurvivors.org/how-to-report-sexual-assault-abuse/
The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center – http://stacarecenter.org/hospital