One of the tricks to being a good scientist is keeping an open mind and suppressing preconceived notions and biases to the best of your ability. With that in mind, since I first heard of the development of at-home, do-it-yourself kits to collect evidence of rape, I have tried to imagine a scenario in which the kits would help victims of sexual assault. So far, I have come up empty, and must now conclude that these are a very bad idea.
The Brooklyn-based founder of the metoo Sexual Assault Evidence Kit has said it is designed to restore dignity and bodily autonomy for victims and allow them to collect evidence of a crime in the comfort and safety of their homes. However, as laudable as that goal is, the kits can potentially do great harm to the fight against sexual assault without any conceivable benefits, especially to victims.
With the life and liberty of citizens in jeopardy, the criminal justice system rightly places arduous demands on the collection, handling, documentation and custody of forensic evidence. Doing this properly requires great care and precision that can be gained only through years of rigorous training. Just six years ago, more than 800 sexual assault cases had to be re-examined in New York City in light of the mishandling of evidence. The details of that mishandling seem minuscule to all but the most experienced forensic scientists, and the technician involved was highly trained with years of experience. The dramatic increase in sensitivity of DNA tests has substantially increased the ease with which evidence can be compromised. The notion that a layperson could collect evidence that would survive scrutiny in a court of law is not reasonable.
State Attorney General Letitia James has correctly said it is troubling that the marketing rhetoric from two startup companies behind the kits seems designed to discourage victims from seeking proper examination from licensed, qualified and trained professionals. This could easily result in a scenario in which evidence of sexual assault is irreversibly compromised even if the victim later goes to a hospital after having attempted to collect evidence at home.
In our justice system, the burden of proof lies with the accuser, and many defense attorneys are experts at highlighting the chance of potential problems with forensic evidence. I believe it is far more likely that the use of DIY rape kits will result in rapists going free than being charged. Even worse, anything that discourages victims from coming forward also places more distance between them and the psychological help they crucially need after a sexual assault.
To be sure, a sexual assault examination is invasive, impersonal and even violating, and we all wish there were a better way. Maybe one day there will be, but these DIY kits are not it. Professional examinations are confidential and free of charge in most jurisdictions, including New York. Victims of sexual assault are cared for by trained specialists and retain full control over whether to pursue justice against their attackers, a decision that need not be made immediately. The last thing we should do is discourage victims from seeking the professional care they need.
On behalf of victims of sexual assault, I urge the makers of these DIY rape kits to heed the cease-and-desist orders from the attorneys general in New York and Michigan and turn their attention toward aiding victims in seeking professional care.
Nathan H. Lents is professor of biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.