Standing on a large white sheet of paper, she starts to remove her clothing, dropping her shirt, bra, jeans, and underwear into a brown paper bag, one by one. The sheet is there to catch anything that falls: any loose hair, fiber, or flake that may contain DNA. A sexual assault nurse examiner scans her body with an ultraviolet light, methodically swabbing for biological evidence, then photographing signs of injury. The woman moves onto a table, placing her feet in stirrups. As the exam drags into its sixth hour, she tells herself that each prod, comb, and scrape brings her one step closer to a much-needed shower.
Finally, the sexual assault evidence collection kit—more commonly known as a rape kit—is complete. The examiner seals the small cardboard box and, with it, all of the woman’s hope for answers, for closure, for justice.
If this were an episode of Law & Order: SVU, we know what would happen next. Olivia Benson, the sex crimes detective whom I’ve played for nearly 20 years, and her relentless team of investigators would immediately test the evidence and run it through the CODIS database for DNA matches, working deep into the night and across state lines to catch the assailant.
I’m well aware that we solve and adjudicate cases more quickly on television than as happens in the real world, and that in reality, far too many sexual assault cases are never fully investigated. But in 2009, nearly a decade after I began playing Olivia Benson, a Human Rights Watch report revealed that the reality is even more devastating: A staggering number of cases are never even opened.
The report found a backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits in the city of Los Angeles—my hometown. I read the report with my head in my hands, lost for words, except for, “Oh, my God. Oh my GOD.” Soon we started seeing reports of similar backlogs around the U.S., adding up to hundreds of thousands of untested kits, of discarded victims, of perpetrators walking free, of wrongfully convicted people sitting in jail. I felt as if my head were going to explode.
TO YOU MATTERS.
YOUR CASE MATTERS.
As this story unfolded, I couldn’t stop thinking about the letters I’d received in my years as Olivia Benson. Within months of starting the role, I received a letter on lined notebook paper, the handwriting that of a child. It was from a 12-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by her father. “I’ve never told this to anyone before,” she wrote. At the time, I felt shock, outrage, and the kind of slack-jawed sorrow that’s hard to put into words. And I felt an urgent and overwhelming need to respond. But letters from survivors continued to arrive, and I became determined to do more than respond to individuals. That determination grew into the Joyful Heart Foundation, which I started in 2004 to help survivors heal and to shed light into the persistent darkness surrounding these issues.
And yet, after so many years and so many letters, the rape kit backlog marked the first time we could measure, with actual numbers, how the criminal justice system openly discriminates against rape survivors, treating them as second-class citizens whose criminal complaints somehow don’t meet the same level of outrage, concern, and follow-through extended to virtually any other felony.
In the backlog, I saw one of the clearest and most shocking microcosms of how sexual assault victims are treated not only in our criminal justice system but in our society as a whole. It is a system that places shame on victims instead of on assailants, where it belongs. It is a system that puts women on trial for the crimes against them (“What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?”). It is a system that tells women that their crimes are not worth investigating unless they are so-called “righteous victims”—a term used by some detectives to describe victims of stranger rape, who are jumped and assaulted at gunpoint. But a system is made of individual people making decisions about who and what to prioritize. And by allowing this to persist or by turning a blind eye, we are all at fault.
BY ALLOWING THIS TO
PERSIST OR BY TURNING
A BLIND EYE, WE ARE
ALL AT FAULT.
Through the END THE BACKLOG initiative and by using I Am Evidence to accelerate reform, we hope to pass comprehensive legislation in all 50 states and to ensure that no rape kit gathers dust on a shelf again. Testing rape kits is not only about the number of perpetrators caught or number of cases closed (though testing rape kits does lead to convictions and presents a windfall for police, according to a recent study from the Journal of Forensic Sciences). As I’ve testified in front of Congress and as Olivia has told her colleagues at the fictional 16th Precinct, testing rape kits is about telling survivors, “You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.” Not testing rape kits says exactly the opposite.
Fighting the backlog is my way of telling all those who have written to me for the past 19 years; all those who shared their stories in our film; all those who suffered re-victimization after reporting the crimes committed against them; all those who have not—and might never—find the words to talk about their trauma; all those for whom a real-world Olivia Benson never showed up: You all matter. You are all brave. And you are all righteous.