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Are women real citizens or not? Not if we have no control over our own bodies.

CBS News graphic

I came across a shocking story a few days ago, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. The story is about a young college student who was raped at a party, after apparently being drugged. How many times have we heard this story? Well, it happened to “Hannah” in December of 2006. Here’s Hannah’s story, magnificently told by Amanda Hess at the Washington City Paper.

The story is long, but I hope you can take the time to read the whole thing.

The gist of it is that Hannah was dancing with Bilal, another Howard University student whom she knew slightly. This is her last memory of that night:

“He was getting a little rough, and I remember trying to kind of just get away from him,” she recalled in the deposition. “I remember I tried to stop dancing with him.…[There was] a little too much of sexual suggestion.…just touching me too much.” She started to feel blurry, woozy, dizzy, “and then nothing.”

The young men who threw the party supposedly had a rule that no one was allowed upstairs. They even had a furniture barricade and a bouncer guarding the staircase. But somehow Hannah ended up in the upstairs bathroom anyway. The next morning, Hannah

woke up in her Howard University dorm room with a piece of her life missing. Hannah, a 19-year-old sophomore, had unexplained pain in her rectum and hip. Her panty liner, which she had worn the night before, was missing. Vomit dotted her gloves and coat. Her friend Kerston lay beside her in the skinny dorm room bed. Kerston told Hannah not to shower—they had to go back to the hospital to secure a rape kit.

Hannah had been fortunate in that her girlfriends stuck by her. They demanded to be allowed upstairs to look for her and kept insisting they wouldn’t leave with out her even when the bouncer and the young men who lived in the house tried to make them leave. Hannah was finally allowed to come downstairs, and one of her friends stayed with her all night to make sure she didn’t shower or do anything else to prevent evidence from being collected.

Hannah was so ill that she couldn’t stop vomiting, even the next morning. She was in pain in her rectum and her hip and leg hurt so much she was limping. When her friends got her to the hospital, she was terribly sick and incoherent from whatever drug she had been given.

You’d think a doctor or nurse would realize that this young woman had been hurt and probably given a date rape drug, and would at least treat her injuries. But that isn’t what happened to Hannah, because in Washington D.C., only the police can determine whether someone was raped. The hospital refused to give Hannah a rape kit because the police determined that, since she couldn’t remember the last name of the young man she was dancing with and since she had been drinking and “must have blacked out,” she couldn’t be given official rape victim status.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the LAPD’s shameful backlog on analyzing rape kits. But until now, I had no idea that hospitals didn’t routinely collect rape kits–evidence that could be used in a prosecution of the crime.

Hannah was drugged and raped, and the next day she was re-traumatized by having to deal with two misogynistic bureaucracies–the DC police and the Howard University Hospital. According to Amanda Hess, a program called SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) was in effect in DC area hospitals at the time of Hannah’s rape. This program was supposed to prevent rape victims from having to sit in emergency rooms for 12 hours waiting to be seen. But it wasn’t easy to find a hospital that would participate in the program.

“One hospital’s response literally was, ‘We don’t want to be the rape hospital,’” [a sane spokewoman said]. Finally, Howard University Hospital agreed to host the program, providing local rape victims a greater chance of seeking justice from their attackers. But once the program was established at Howard, rape victims encountered another problem: All victims would have to receive police authorization before receiving an examination.

That was the Catch-22. The police had to authorize a rape kit, and the police decided Hannah couldn’t have one. Therefore, no police report was taken, no charges were filed, and no one went to the scene of the crime to collect evidence!
Continue reading

“It’s what we might expect in Afghanistan, not in the United States.”

DNA under microscope

DNA under microscope

That is how Nicholas Kristof ended his column yesterday about the low priority law enforcment has been putting on testing for DNA in open rape cases. Kristof writes:

When a woman reports a rape, her body is a crime scene. She is typically asked to undress over a large sheet of white paper to collect hairs or fibers, and then her body is examined with an ultraviolet light, photographed and thoroughly swabbed for the rapist’s DNA.

It’s a grueling and invasive process that can last four to six hours and produces a “rape kit” — which, it turns out, often sits around for months or years, unopened and untested.

Stunningly often, the rape kit isn’t tested at all because it’s not deemed a priority. If it is tested, this happens at such a lackadaisical pace that it may be a year or more before there are results (if expedited, results are technically possible in a week).

I was shocked to read that rape kits are not routinely and promptly processed so that perpetrators’ DNA can be checked against DNA databases, although I probably shouldn’t have been. This is just another sign of the low value put on women’s lives in American culture. But thanks to a March 31, 2009 report from Human Rights Watch on the backlog of unprocessed rape kids in Los Angeles County (linked in the Kristof op-ed), this outrageous situation is getting some much needed attention in the media. Perhaps some other police departments can be shamed into changing their attitudes toward investigating rapes and tracking down the perpetrators. Continue reading