What Netflix’s Unbelievable Gets Right About Rape Kits

PHoto: Courtesy of Netflix.
Graphic discussion of sexual assault evidence-collection process ahead.
In the first episode of Netflix’s Unbelievable, we see Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) go through the harrowing process of getting a rape kit, immediately after reporting her rape. She has to take off her underwear and hand it over as evidence, stand naked as a nurse takes photos of her body, have her vagina and rectum swabbed, and have dye applied to her genitals to show injured tissue. She also has to recount the rape in detail, even though, as she says, “I already told the cop. Two cops.”
After the exam, Marie rubs off the dye in the bathroom and walks out of the hospital with a morning-after pill, four prescriptions to prevent any STDs, and a phone number to call if she experiences any bleeding, hives, excessive discharge, or suicidal ideation. Then, she heads to the police station to give yet another testimony. The process of getting a rape kit and recounting the rape over and over, Unbelievable makes clear, is another trauma in itself.

What is a rape kit?

According to RAINN, the process of getting a rape kit, also called a sexual assault forensic exam or a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK), varies from state to state. But there are many commonalities. Rape kits are usually taken soon after the assault — the sooner they occur, the more evidence can be collected.

What's in a rape kit?

Rape kits contain materials used to gather DNA and other evidence, including swabs, bags, and tubes for blood samples. The exact makeup of a rape kit will vary between jurisdiction. They commonly include:
• Bags
• Paper sheets
• Envelopes
• Materials for blood samples
• Swabs
• Comb
• Documentation forms

How do you prepare for a rape exam?

In order to avoid damaging evidence, survivors should try to avoid showering, using the restroom, changing their clothes, or combing their hair until after the kit has been collected. However, even if they have done one or more of these things, the exam can still be performed. Survivors also may want to bring a change of clothes with them to the hospital or health facility, in case their examiner asks to keep their clothes as evidence.
The process of getting a rape kit can be incredibly difficult. "It is terribly traumatic to have to seek out any assistance after rape. As a victim, your body has been violated and the victim then has to go to a hospital, where they are photographing and prodding the same areas you were just violated in," one survivor previously told Refinery29. "The damage that this does to a victim is hard to explain in words."
Survivors may find it helpful to have a trained advocate or a loved one with them, though RAINN notes, “Be aware that if you invite someone other than an advocate into the exam room, they could be called as a witness if you decide to report the crime.” The National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or a local crisis center can connect you with a trained advocate.

What happens during a rape exam?

A rape kit will usually begin with treating any injuries that need immediate care. Then, a survivor will be asked about their medical history, including current medications, pre-existing conditions, and recent consensual sexual activity. (These questions are designed to make sure that evidence from the perpetrator doesn’t get confused with evidence from consensual partners.) The survivor will also be asked to share details of what happened, including identifying places on their body or clothes that may show evidence.
Next, the medical professional may give a head-to-toe examination, which may include internal examinations of the mouth, vagina, and anus. Blood, urine, body, and hair samples may also be taken, and the survivor may be asked to comb their pubic hair to dislodge evidence. The healthcare provider may also take photos of the survivor’s body in order to document injuries. The survivor may also be offered STD prevention treatment. Additionally, if the survivor thinks they may have been drugged, the healthcare provider may conduct a drug-facilitated kit, which involves taking blood and urine samples for testing.

How long does it take?

The time a rape exam takes will vary, but according to RAINN, it should take a few hours. However, some survivors have reported experiences that went on for considerably longer.

Who performs a rape exam?

Rape kits are conducted by a trained healthcare professional. They will have a title such as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs), or Sexual Assault Examiners (SAEs).
Many hospitals and healthcare facilities do not have anyone on staff who is trained to conduct a rape kit — something activists are trying to change — so survivors are sometimes asked to go to another hospital for the exam. Survivors can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) for help finding a facility that has trained staff members.

How much does it cost?

The Violence Against Women Act prohibits states from charging people of any gender for a sexual assault forensic exam if the sate wants to remain eligible for anti-crime grant funding. Despite this, many survivors report receiving a heavy bill anyway. RAINN notes that if you do receive a bill, you should contact a local sexual assault service provider for help. 

How do the results of a rape kit impact sexual assault cases?

If the person getting the rape kit is a minor, the healthcare provider may be obligated to report it to law enforcement, depending on the state. If the person is an adult, the healthcare provider may share information about how to report the assault to law enforcement. Adults (and minors in some states) will not be required to report the assault or to press charges — that will be their choice. 
The presence of DNA evidence increases the likelihood of identifying the perpetrator, as well as the likelihood of the perpetrator being prosecuted. However, there is currently a nation-wide backlog of untested rape kits, and many have even been destroyed without being tested. That’s something politicians and activists are pushing to change. Because survivors deserve better.
"The experience of collecting a rape kit is invasive and especially so right after a victim has been traumatically assaulted," Rachel Lovell, co-leader of a research project that tested a backlog of almost 5,000 rape kits in a county in Ohio, said in a statement in 2016. "These victims did what they have been asked to do to preserve evidence — but that evidence just sat, untested. The new processes we hope will emerge from our effort will better honor victims."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). 

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series