Trigger warning: This piece talks about different aspects of sexual assault and sexual violence.
400,000. Does that number have meaning to you? 400,000. When you see that number what do you think of? 400,000. Do you think of money? 400,000. Do you think of that number in terms of people? 400,000. When I see that number, I think of how much hasn’t been done. 400,000. That’s the number of rape kits in the United States that haven’t been processed. 400,000 rape kits that sit on a shelf. That’s 400,000 times a human being had to be photographed and probed and swabbed and relive being violated only for their pain to be put on a shelf.
One of those 400,000 tests belongs to Heather Marlowe, a woman who was attacked at a party that she had been attending. She was drugged and raped. She immediately filed a report with the police, and with completing a rape kit, had hopes her rapist would be caught.
But a year went by and Heather heard nothing. She kept checking in with the cops and nothing, until one day a cop finally provided her with answers. Her rape kit was never processed and instead was sitting on the self at a local storage facility. Heather asked why, and an officer explained that her rape “was not a good enough rape. It will probably never make it out of there because our lab is just too backed up processing more important crimes” (Huffington Post, “How Many of the Hundreds of Thousands of Untested Rape Kits in the US Are in Your City?” 9.19.14).
One woman was raped and no one cares. Two women were raped and no one cared. 400,000 women and men are raped and apparently no one cares. How many people have to be attacked for someone to care? More specifically, how many people need to be attacked for a cop, a district attorney, a senator, someone who can immediately make action happen to care; someone who take Heather off the shelf.
Well, I can take a breath, for someone finally cares. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has stepped up and said enough is enough. Earlier this month, Vance has announced a program in which $35,000,000 in civil forfeiture assets will be used not only in New York City, but also in many cities nationally. Vance hopes to unite our country in this movement of taking victims off the shelf. He stated, “Rape kits that are untested are not just going to solve crimes in the jurisdictions where they are, but because some of these people are serial offenders, this could lead to solutions of crimes all over the country.”
Rape victims nationwide deserve to know that the invasive examination they underwent had a purpose, and the resulting kit was not left to gather dust on a forgotten shelf” (NYTimes, “New York Initiative to Help Other Cities Clear Rape-Kit Backlogs,” 11.12.14; CBSNY, “Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance’s Office To Fund Rape Kit Testing Nationally,” 11.12.14).
Rape kits around the nation range from $500 to $1000 to process. An organization that is hoping to help with these fees is the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded in 2004 by Mariska Hargitay, best known for her role as Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Hargitay has strong words regarding the vast backlog of rape kits stating that it is a “brutal and clear demonstration of how crimes of sexual violence are regarded in our society.
The rape kit backlog sends two terrible messages. To victims, it says, “you don’t matter. What happened to you doesn’t matter.” And to criminals, it says, “what you did doesn’t matter.” Regarding the new program Vance has introduced, Hargitay stood by his side with pride at the program announcement, giving her full support.
She said, “At long last, survivors hear the message: You do matter. What happened to you matters. Your cases matter” (New York Observer, “Cyrus Vance and Mariska Hargitay Announce $35 Million to Test Rape Kits Nationwide,” 11.12.14). 400,000 people coming off the shelf. 400,000 victims who can hopefully feel relief and possibly justice.
I read all about Vance’s plan the day he announced it. I was stunned with a sense of relief that someone was finally caring about victims and at the same time amazed with sadness that so many of them had been forgotten about and pushed aside. With so many recent events in our country, in the world, I ask myself: What is important and what is justice? This program Vance has created is important to me, but is it important to you? Is there something more important to focus on?
I suppose it depends on one’s perspective. Yet, in my eyes there doesn’t have to be a “this issue is more important than that issue” argument. There simply has be change for this issue just as there should be change for other issues in our nation. The reason I was so animated when reading about this program is because change is occurring. This isn’t just talk, this is action.
This is not me saying I hope 400,000 people will be taken off the shelf someday because that hope is now happening after so many years. Instead of simply being angry, upset, and frustrated with the system regarding how rape kits are handled, Cyrus Vance is taking action. He is making a change. This isn’t a dance around a problem. It’s a “there’s a huge mess and no one else is going to clean it up, so I will do my best.” This is action with purpose.
I was disappointed when I brought this program up with friends and not one person knew about it. No one read any articles about it. No one knew it was happening. It was in headlines on multiple news sites, in multiple newspapers, but no one knew about it.
To me, this is a big deal. Change is happening, and for once in what seems like forever, it is change for the better. Progress in the right direction. Slowly but surely, our nation will take 400,000 people off the shelf, and I think that’s something worth recognizing.
—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.