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The sad truth is that rape kits tell us nothing about consent

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

New sperm-detecting cotton swabs only reveal so much about rape

The backlog of untested rape kits in our country is a travesty and a problem everyone should be working to fix. One group of college grads has come up with an ingenious invention to help with this situation: A cotton swab that changes color in the presence of semen. Only problem? I don't know that it will help.

Rape is a unique crime. In the aftermath, there is nothing a victim can do to regain what they've lost and very little they can do to get justice for the crime committed against them. The one thing they can do, however, is have a rape kit done to collect all the evidence while it's still fresh. But there's one major problem: Thousands of untested rape kits are sitting in police stations all over the United States. Each kit takes four to six hours to complete, and the process is so excruciating that each one represents an extreme act of bravery by each victim. Yet despite the sacrifice made in completing them and the fact that the kits can be one of the most powerful pieces of evidence used in rape trials, an embarrassing number never even get processed.

What gives? This failure is likely a combination of funding (it can cost up to $1,000 to process one kit) and societal apathy about rape. But many people are working to reduce this problem, and a pair of students has come up with a new invention to help police process evidence of rape more quickly. Bella Okiddy and Richard Park have made a cotton swab that immediately changes color when exposed to semen. They compare the swab to a pregnancy test and say they hope it will help police get evidence and victims get justice a lot faster. And a lot of people seem to agree with them — the pair launched a company called Technologies Against Assault with nearly $26,000 from Indiegogo and a matching $25,000 from a Brown postgrad fellowship.

Call me a cynic, but I have serious doubts as to how merely acknowledging the presence of semen will help in any real, practical way. As a survivor of sexual assault myself — and one who did take my attacker to court — I understand deeply the need for real, documented evidence. Unfortunately in the majority of rape cases, the main defense of the perpetrator is that the sex was consensual, not that it didn't happen.

Too many cases devolve into a sordid back-and-forth of "he said, she said," and a color-changing semen swab wouldn't do anything to change that. I know it wouldn't have made a difference in my situation. I won my case only because there were so many victims with identical stories that we were able to show a pattern; any one of us alone likely wouldn't have gotten a conviction despite the fact that there was plenty of semen. In addition, the swab wouldn't have helped in the now-infamous Stanford rape case against Brock Turner, as he claimed his victim was a willing participant even though two other men caught him in the act and saw she was unconscious. Not to mention the new swab would be of no use if a condom was used.

At best, it seems like this invention would be helpful in only a minority of cases, and at worst, it seems like a way to discount victims' testimonies — "Oh look, the swab didn't change color! Guess you weren't raped after all!"

More: What it's like going to the gynecologist after you've been raped

I know this isn't the intent of the inventors. And doing something is always better than doing nothing. But this seems like just one more example of focusing money and resources on the wrong aspects when it comes to rape prevention and prosecution. We women have been given so much advice (don't drink, ever!) and so many techniques (kick 'em in the balls!) and even fancy gadgets like rape whistles and alarm necklaces to ward off the unthinkable. And yet we still get raped. So it's time we start really thinking about the unthinkable and recognize that the source of rape isn't the victim's failure to prevent it, but the perpetrator's failure to not rape people.

More: Teen fights back after her rape goes viral

Sadly we live in a world where rape is a reality, and so I will never fault people or criticize them for looking for bigger, better ways to prevent and treat rape. Women need to protect themselves even if we shouldn't have to. But at the same time, I will never stop hoping for more people to come up with ways to help that don't add more burden on the victim and instead place the onus back on the one committing the heinous crime in the first place. Where's the crowdfunding campaign for that?

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