The Rape Kit Backlog Shows Exactly How We Regard Women In This Country

Mariska Hargitay’s new documentary “I Am Evidence” humanizes the rape kit crisis.
Actress Mariska Hargitay, left, with Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy, right.
Actress Mariska Hargitay, left, with Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy, right.

You don’t matter.

That’s the message every survivor hears loud and clear when a rape kit goes untested. Behind every kit is a person ― usually a woman ― who has been brutalized in the most intimate of ways. And yet there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits currently sitting in police storage across the country.

So, how did we get here?

That’s the question actress and activist Mariska Hargitay answers in her new HBO documentary “I Am Evidence,” set to air April 16. The film, produced by the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” star and Trish Adlesic, and co-directed by Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, takes a human approach to an epidemic that has reduced survivors, their stories and their trauma to a box of evidence.

“To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society,” Hargitay says in the film. “Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”

In a conversation with HuffPost, Hargitay and Adlesic laid out the herculean task they had in front of them four years ago when they began making this documentary.

“One of the things that was so difficult about making this movie is that there is just so much pain involved,” Hargitay said. She hopes the documentary “holds up a real hard mirror” to people who have turned a blind eye to this epidemic.

Watch the trailer for “I Am Evidence” below. Story continues below video.

And the film is a hard one to look away from. “I Am Evidence” features 14 courageous survivors telling their stories of assault and the subsequent poking and prodding that comes with enduring a rape kit.

“I am evidence that there is more to that box, there is a human being there. It is not just a kit. This is a person,” a survivor named Erica says in the film.

The women discuss the inevitable re-victimization of being questioned by law enforcement and the agonizing wait to get their kits tested ― a wait that often never ends.

“The fact of the matter is, if we have DNA testing, if we have the ability to fix this problem and we don’t test these kits, we’re saying that sexual assault is not important,” Hargitay said.

“Nobody gives a damn about women in this country.”

- Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy

Since the rape kit backlog hit the public consciousness nearly 10 years ago, 225,000 rape kits have been uncovered, according to a program called End The Backlog. That program is the work of anti-sexual violence nonprofit The Joyful Heart Foundation, which Hargitay founded after thousands of survivors shared their abuse stories with her after she began appearing as Detective Olivia Benson on “SVU.”

Testing rape kits is important for several reasons: It can identify an unknown perpetrator, it can confirm the presence of a known suspect, it can confirm a survivor’s account of an assault, it can help solve other cases that might not involve sexual violence, it can exonerate innocent people.

And it can connect a suspect to other crimes around the country.

Indeed, a disturbing takeaway from the film is just how common serial rapists are. One scene depicts law enforcement officials, who have finally begun testing old rape kits, linking one rapist to two women living in completely different parts of the country. By testing the kits, police are finally catching serial offenders.

A storage unit full of untested rape kits.
A storage unit full of untested rape kits.

“I Am Evidence” lays out the root causes of this countrywide backlog: misogyny and racism. The systemic lack of policies and protocols, of resources and funding, and ― most glaringly ― of training for first responders, reflects these prejudices. As with other systems that abuse and disregard marginalized people, poor black women get the worst of it.

“Nobody gives a damn about women in this country,” concludes Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy in the film. Worthy has been tackling the rape kit backlog head-on since 2009, when 11,000 untested rape kits were uncovered in her city.

Adlesic said it’s “absolutely necessary” for first responders to receive sexual assault training and recalled an “I Am Evidence” screening last year where a man made a powerful comment during the Q&A portion.

“He was quite emotional and spoke about being an emergency room doctor. He hadn’t had the training to conduct a sexual assault kit, and he was so afraid he was going to get it wrong, or make someone feel awful for not knowing how to do it,” she said. “It helped us understand that we really need to advocate for a curriculum in medical schools and law enforcement agencies so that people learn how to do this.”

All too often, police officers learn the law, but no one teaches them the varying ways victims respond to trauma. Along with bringing their own prejudices to the job, officers often don’t know what trauma looks like or how trauma affects memory. They also might not realize how often sexual violence triggers involuntary paralysis in a victim ― an often-forgotten “freeze” component of the fight-or-flight reflex ― in order to get them out of the situation alive.

“I want survivors to feel heard and know that they matter, and that violence against women matters.”

- Trish Adlesic, "I Am Evidence" co-producer and co-director

Hargitay described the lack of resources to investigate these crimes, as well as cultural misunderstandings surrounding sexual violence, as a “microcosm” of how we as a country regard women.

“Trish and I, we wanted to make a hard-hitting film,” she said. “It is a painful movie to watch, and it’s the facts. And it’s time that we take a look at not sweeping this under the carpet, that we treat women, and treat our society, and all survivors with the humanity, the empathy that they deserve.”

Adlesic told HuffPost she hopes this documentary forces people to care about this issue and creates change. Most of all, she hopes this film shows survivors that they’re not alone.

“I want them to know that we understand, and that we care and that we want to help give them the support they need and deserve,” she said. “I want survivors to feel heard and know that they matter, and that violence against women matters, and that we walk in hand with you to a better way of life for everyone.”

“I Am Evidence” will air on HBO on Monday, April 16, at 8 p.m. Eastern.


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