Special Victims

SVU Rape Kits

Despite illusory notions of “law and order,” the criminal justice system has failed to truly help survivors of rape and abuse. Will we ever effect lasting change?



was stuck in traffic on Route 16 when the interview came on the radio. Rachel Dissell, a newspaper reporter in Cleveland, described her investigation of Ohio’s failure to analyze DNA evidence collected from the bodies of women who’d been raped. Close to four thousand rape kits sat on shelves in police department warehouses, sometimes for so long that the statute of limitations to prosecute their cases ran out. Almost three hundred men whose DNA had been captured and ignored had gone on to rape again.

Most of the survivors were poor women of color. I imagined these women whose bodies were swabbed and scraped and photographed, and I wondered if they would have taken showers and hidden under the covers instead of going to the hospital if they’d known the police would do almost nothing to solve their cases.

When the interview began, I was driving back from a high school where I’d taught self-defense to teenage girls. That day we’d focused on a home invasion scenario. The girls took turns lying on a gym floor, pretending to be asleep in their beds. My co-instructor, a man dressed in fifty pounds of protective padding and trained to portray a realistic assailant, pinned each girl’s arms to the floor. With some he pretended to be an ex-boyfriend who insisted they owed him sex. With others, a stranger who said he’d kill them if they saw his face.

I knelt at each girl’s head. I talked over the verbal threats my co-instructor made. I encouraged each girl to breathe and focus on what she could do. Some girls bit their lips and tried not to cry. Others laughed. But each girl found the strength to throw a 200-pound man off her body, to yell, “NO!” and kick him hard until he was no longer a threat.

Rachel Dissell and her fellow Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters discovered the rape kit backlog in Ohio while reporting on Anthony Sowell, a man who murdered eleven women and buried their bodies in and around his home. Two women escaped, reported the assaults, and submitted to rape kits. If crime labs had analyzed those kits they would have identified Sowell’s DNA before five of the eleven women were killed. Instead, detectives dismissed the women, including one who they arrested on an old warrant for an open container violation. The police officers laughed at her, the 36-year-old Cleveland woman later told detectives.

“Almost three hundred men whose DNA had been captured and ignored had gone on to rape again.” Click To Tweet

Rachel Dissell discovered a pattern: Detectives closed cases when victims’ lives got inconvenient. Women who used drugs or sold sex were rarely believed. Sometimes women didn’t return phone calls. Other times they were told to get to a police station downtown a day or two after the rape. If they didn’t show up, police called them uncooperative. It made no difference to detectives that they were poor, might not have transportation, or that their life experiences had taught them not to trust the police.

• • •

When I hear stories like these I feel an urgent desire to escape them. And the first place I turn is to reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. There’s a fantasy I nurture when I watch, a way I let myself believe that police departments dedicate armies of scientists to solving rapes. Rape kits on SVU come back from the lab in an hour. No fiber or hair follicle is left unanalyzed. Residue found under a victim’s nails is linked to a Romanian trafficking ring or a ten-year-old cold case. But nothing makes me more addicted to SVU than the squad room scenes, where they sit behind steel grey desks, drinking coffee out of cardboard Greek diner cups and shoe-horning facts about rape into the dialogue.

The statute of limitations on a sex abuse case runs out five years after a victim’s eighteenth birthday, Detective Benson says. And I don’t care how stiff the conversation sounds. I cheer the way sports fans do when their team scores a touchdown because I am that desperate for someone to give the TV-viewing public accurate information about rape.

I loved the SVU detectives like the kind of friends you forgive no matter what. I smiled at Munch’s conspiracy theories and cried when Fin reconciled with his estranged gay son. I forgave Elliot Stabler for punching suspects and neglecting his wife. I overlooked how rageful and violent he became when his zeal got the best of him because at least he had some zeal.

“I fantasize that police departments dedicate armies of scientists to solving rapes.” Click To Tweet

But in my infatuation with SVU there was nobody I loved as much as Olivia Benson. I wanted to be as driven and kind as she was. I wanted to be the kind of detective that a rape survivor could visit at three in the morning, the kind of person who would leave a first date to chase a suspect, climbing over fences in a dress and high heels. Even when my friends who work at rape crisis centers criticized Olivia for coercing survivors to testify in court, I forgave her. Even when she told a child that nobody would ever hurt her again, a promise no responsible person should make.

I wanted to make the solution to rape as simple as they did. Catch the bad guy. Put him away. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

• • •

Rachel’s reporting in Ohio uncovered warehoused rape kits dating back to 1993. That was the year I began working as a victim advocate. I was young and passionate then, feeling useful for the first time in my life. I helped women who were sometimes twice my age get orders of protection, which meant sorting through months of abuses and rapes to find the most compelling incidents. Yes, the one where he threw the hot water at you is good. Use that. No, don’t include the time he told you not to wear your hair down because it made you look like a slut. Insults like that aren’t technically illegal and judges don’t always understand emotional abuse.

There was something unnerving, or at least there should have been, about helping a woman rearrange her husband’s violence until it read like a crime drama. Start with the time he threw the chair across the living room. Then build to the night he pushed you down the stairs.

But that’s what happens when you involve judges and police officers in the most intimate forms of violence. You have to explain and convince. You have to turn yourself into a deserving victim, which means not telling anyone about the times you were drunk and consented to sex with an ex-husband who’d raped you.

There’s a way a woman’s breathing gets shallow when she holds the order of protection petition. Descriptions of the violence and humiliation she once tried to hide are staring back at her from an official looking form. There’s a way her eyes lose their ability to focus; a way she walks from the intake department to the courthouse, slow and weaving, trying not to look up so she won’t risk making eye contact with someone she knows from the grocery store or her children’s school.

I was incapable of soothing my own anxiety in those years, so I became adept at helping women stay calm while they waited to see a judge. I kept up a steady stream of conversation about traffic and cooking and the view of the Mid-Hudson Bridge from the waiting room window. Sometimes we laughed so much that it was possible to forget we were sitting in a courthouse waiting for an order of protection hearing.

“You have to explain and convince. You have to turn yourself into a deserving victim.” Click To Tweet

I believed in the law. I had this idea that something important would change if rape and abuse were decisively punished by the institutions that upheld our country’s shared morals. Of course, I pretended to be cynical. I had a feminist, anti-establishment reputation to protect. But I wanted to believe the law would right the wrongs of abuse, an optimism that’s maybe only possible if you’re white.

• • •

On Cleveland’s East Side, the part of the city where poor people of color live, a man stalked teenage girls as they walked through an overgrown field to school. The man wore paint-splattered pants, which the girls reported. His face they couldn’t describe because he’d held a knife to each girl’s throat and told her he’d kill her if she saw him.

On SVU they’d call in the National Guard to catch this guy (or they’d fight with the feds — somehow always played by Marcia Gay Harden — to maintain jurisdiction over the case). Benson would show up at the home of each girl and promise nobody would hurt her ever again. Stabler would beat up a suspect, who would turn out to be the wrong guy, but at least he tried.

In Cleveland, detectives did so little investigating that they failed to link the cases, even though two of the rapes were perpetrated a city block and a month apart. Even though the perpetrator told both girls to look away and count while he escaped.

• • •

In a too-quiet counseling room at the crisis center where I worked, a woman who had survived a childhood of her stepfather’s rapes came to ask for my help to get an order of protection against her husband. She told me she drew pictures of angels as a kid. She made believe they could protect her. When her husband got worse she started drawing the angels again, some less-than-conscious part of her recognizing his actions as rape. She pulled the charcoal angel drawings out of a brown paper portfolio and placed them on the folding table in the counseling room. She pointed to each drawing, as if it was proof.

She told me her husband pinched and grabbed her, and I wonder now if “pinch” and “grab” were the only words she could bring herself to use with me, a fresh-faced twenty-year-old with nothing to offer but an intimate knowledge of the court system.

A few weeks later we went back to court to face her husband. He wore a neat button-down shirt and creased khakis. Like so many abusive husbands, he was polite and jovial with the bailiffs in the waiting room. He told the judge he was sorry. His eyes were teary when he turned to his wife and asked if she would please let him move back in. The woman’s eyes were fixed and vacant, her breath shallow. She nodded.

The judge, from his seat above us, said something about how pleased he was that their story would have a happy ending. On the way out of the courthouse she took her husband’s arm and wouldn’t look at me the whole way down the stairs. What’s worse than the woman having to live with the man who was probably raping her was that the judge interpreted her nodding as consent. I was just as stunned. As an advocate, I wasn’t allowed to speak directly to a judge, but I was also immobilized by the authority and certainty of the judge’s tone.

“The judge said something about how pleased he was that their story would have a happy ending.” Click To Tweet

I didn’t stop believing in the law. The flaw was not justice, but the way it was administered. And when I became a lawyer I was going change all that. So I moved to Boston and went to work for the Women’s Law Collective and never took the LSAT. Instead, I saturated myself with other women’s emergencies because they had incidents while I had only suspicions. I felt energized, almost happy, when anyone talked about sexual abuse. A woman’s daughter would come home from a visit with her father rubbing her vulva or refusing to take a bath. And while my coworkers rushed around trying to get the right investigator from child protective services to interview the girl, I sat on the floor in the hallway feeling lighter than usual.

I saw a way I could stop shoving the truth into the back corner of my psyche, a way I could stop exhausting myself with efforts to suppress my own story. The relief I felt was so powerful that I drowned out the way I should have felt about the child’s circumstances. I probably asked the mother too many questions. I was probably so desperate to understand myself that I forgot I was supposed to be helping someone else.

Still, I organized protests and spoke out against sexual violence instead of asking why my whole body shook every time I tried to have sex. I remember laughing, almost, when I told a coworker that abuse work had ruined my ability to date. Someone kisses me, I feel raped. Someone gives me flowers, I feel manipulated and controlled. Love is frivolous. Court hearings are not. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop loving Olivia. I was like her once.

• • •

In 1998 Ohio started using DNA testing to solve crimes. But the state lab was quickly overrun and began discouraging police departments from sending rape kits. I had left the law by then. I was tired from too many court hearings and sleep-deprived from too many night shifts. Olivia could stay up all night working a case and then get a cup of coffee and work through the day. But I was human.

So while semen and urine taken from the bodies of poor women of color piled up in police department warehouses, I taught myself how to paint. Floating a wet brush across thick white paper soothed me. Wordless arts like painting let me express feelings without committing to a version of events that could have been my life and could just as easily have belonged to someone I tried to help.

I started eating dinner at home. Dinner was nothing more than pasta with store-bought tomato sauce, but I made it, and it was still light outside when I sat down at the kitchen table. No more night shifts. No more burning the roof of my mouth with a slice of pizza while I rushed to another urgent problem.

• • •

In 2002 — the year Rachel Dissell joined the staff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer — I took a self-defense class. I remember lying on a mat in a gym waiting for a simulated rape scenario. The male instructor, playing the role of a perpetrator, pinned my arms to the mat and made threats that felt real. Instead of freezing in response to those threats, I struck his eyes. I kicked his head and his groin, the most vulnerable parts of his body.

My body, and my whole mentality, changed when I learned to defend myself. There were beliefs I’d espoused: It’s okay to say ‘no’ when you don’t want sex. Everyone’s body deserves respect. And there’s a way I didn’t fully believe what I was saying until I had the visceral, physical experience of protecting my body.

I began teaching self-defense and have not been inside a courtroom since. I stopped believing in the law. Now I believe in the body. I have this faith (as close to religion as I’ll ever get) that if enough people change their automatic, visceral responses to sexual abuse attempts, then we can end it for good.

And yes, I mean fighting off a person who tries to attack us, but also more. If more people have the tools to keep from being immobilized by our physiological fear responses, then a critical mass would be available to challenge a teacher who makes too many comments about a teenager’s developing body or interrupt a person who is dragging a passed-out woman into a van or upstairs to a bedroom.

“My body, and my whole mentality, changed when I learned to defend myself.” Click To Tweet

Sometimes I don’t recognize this gym teacher I’ve become, this person who sees rape as a series of bluffs that can be called by strategic uses of physical power. When I read articles about Nathan Ford, a former probation officer who forced women into choke holds to abduct and rape them, I think, If he grabs your neck with both hands, remember the rest of your body is free. Grab his hands to keep him from tightening the grip on your neck. Kick the groin. Strike the eyes. Cause him enough pain that he can’t maintain the choke hold.

This psychological shift is revolutionary. There’s power in seeing how every act of violence can be stopped by ordinary strength. It’s also a form of denial. It’s a way I shield myself from the horror of feeling frozen or helpless. I can only face the magnitude of rape if it comes with a triumphant ending. Also, hurting another person to keep them from hurting you is a lot more viable for middle-class white women than it is for women of color. Juanita Thomas was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who was physically and sexually attacking her. Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault after she fired a warning shot into a wall because her abusive ex-husband was threatening her. Four Black lesbians spent time in prison for fighting a homophobic attack.

• • •

By 2011, after years of Rachel’s calm, relentless reporting, it became impossible for Ohio to continue ignoring the untested rape kits. Attorney General Mike DeWine, who had made mismanagement of the state crime lab an issue in his campaign, directed all police departments to send rape kits for testing. It was a guideline, the Plain Dealer reported, not a law. DeWine announced that his office would hire four people to analyze the kits, and the money to pay them would come from reallocating his budget. Embarrass the right politician and suddenly there’s money.

And while Cuyahuga County prosecutor Tim McGinty called the DNA evidence from old rape kits a “gold mine for law enforcement,” Rachel saw the emotional cost of reopening twenty-year-old traumas. She interviewed more survivors and victim advocates than police officers, and her writing gave voice to the excruciating ambivalence of women who got a shred of respect from police and district attorneys decades after they needed it.

At the time of her rape, police officers called Jennifer Moore a runaway, though she was walking her dog a few blocks from her apartment when the men grabbed her. The men locked her in a house for days and at least seven raped her. The trauma she endured left her in need of psychiatric hospitalization. While she was in the hospital, police detectives closed her case.

Jennifer grew up, went to college, got a good job, and became a mother who never lets her children sleep at other people’s houses. The men who raped her went on to assault and rape and rob other people. In an interview, she told Rachel she felt responsible for the violence other women endured. If the police had believed her, the men would not have been free. During a recent court hearing, Jennifer shuddered when she heard the men’s names for the first time. At their sentencing hearing, she told the judge that participating in the court proceedings had forced her to relive the rapes.

I used to think it was a figure of speech, re-living the rape. An artful, dramatic wording intended to impress the seriousness of sexual violence on those who haven’t lived it. But brain research has documented what rape survivors have always known — traumas are not remembered like ordinary events. Experiences like rape activate the part of the brain that governs fear responses while suppressing the parts that organize and evaluate information. Instead of cohesive memories that fade as time passes, some people live with intrusive emotions and overpowering physical sensations.

Stomachs turn at the smell of a man’s sweat. A doctor visit feels like a violation. A crowded subway car becomes an intolerable experience of being trapped. Even hearing an account of the traumatic experience read by a research assistant while they lie in an MRI machine can cause survivors’ heart rates and blood pressure to increase while the part of the brain that governs speech becomes almost completely inactive.

“She told the judge that participating in the court proceedings had forced her to relive the rapes.” Click To Tweet

This is the inclination I fight. The desire to deny the timelessness of traumatic experiences or at least to pretend the evidence doesn’t apply to me. I do this despite the reality that my history is a string of uncontained sensations — sadness, fear, disgust — with only shards of linear memory to explain them. These feelings hit me sometimes while I’m running on a treadmill or standing in line at the grocery store. I see images of fat, hairy hands caressing my child body. I banish them from my mind as soon as I can, and feel instead an urgent anger toward all men or a deep longing for love and safety in the embrace of a hairy body. This is what drew me to the law, and later the body. Both tempt me with the possibility of turning rape into a discrete event we can end with the power of our advocacy.

That’s why Rachel Dissell’s reporting is so beautiful. She refuses to make any part of the story too simple. She doesn’t rant about the police and she doesn’t excuse them. She doesn’t pretend that prosecuting twenty-year-old cases is going to give anyone easy closure, nor does she discount the progress Ohio has made. She doesn’t pretend the attorney general solved rape by hiring a few more technicians. When describing an independent review of Cleveland’s sexual assault detectives, which concluded that the city should add an overnight shift since most rapes are reported at night, Rachel simply reported: “The city rejected adding an overnight shift.”

• • •

In 2013, Police Lieutenant Jim McPike, head of the Cleveland Special Victims Section, tried to convince Rachel of how much the department had changed since the 1990s. Detectives, who could once make unilateral decisions to close cases, now have to convince a city prosecutor that there is no reasonable chance of completing an investigation. Rachel’s research found that when DNA testing initiatives began yielding matches, Cleveland police claimed they couldn’t find the victims. But when the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor wrestled the cases away from Cleveland, they found the victims, almost all of whom gave statements and agreed to pursue their cases.

I should admire Rachel Dissell for her steady, persistent reporting, for reminding her readers that reinvestigating rape is opening a timeless wound. Rachel should be my hero, but sometimes Olivia Benson still is. I’m ashamed of how much I still want to believe in the law. How badly I want a god-like authority to condemn sexual violence with enough severity to make it stop.

I don’t want to believe that people who rape are wholly bad. I want to embrace practices known as restorative or transformative justice, in which communities come together to fairly and constructively hold abusers accountable. I want to believe in neighborhoods and faith communities so tightly connected and nuanced in their thinking that they can succeed at ensuring that a person who has abused gets counseling or doesn’t spend time alone with young women. I want to believe there are communities that have the fortitude to reflect on the ways their beliefs or silences made that act possible. On my best days I try to make the world around me resilient and connected enough to take to task a person who has abused, and on my worst days I curl up with a marathon of SVU.

• • •

In December 2014, Ohio passed a law that required all police departments to test rape kits. Yet the legislation came with no penalty for not complying. By March 2015, just a fraction of police departments had sent rape kits to the state lab. Attorney General Mike DeWine fought back by sending delinquent departments a form letter. A year and several form letters later, his office was still waiting for kits. Still, he declares Ohio a national leader, and in some ways it is. But political will is sluggish, especially when rape survivors are poor and Black. Nobody — not law-and-order Republicans, not fight-for-the-victim liberals — can really cut through our collective need to deny the magnitude of rape.

• • •

Too enthralled with Rachel Dissell to turn off the radio, I sat in the parking lot outside my office. “It would have been a lot easier to write the stories if the answers were just they didn’t do their job,” she said when asked her opinion of the police. I realized then how much I wanted to make the officers the bad guys in my story of what had gone wrong in Ohio.

But I can’t pretend I have nothing in common with the officers who abandoned rape cases. I know what it’s like to be relieved when the voicemail picks up or the number is disconnected. I know how it feels to pray that someone doesn’t call back. Especially someone who speaks incoherently or swears at me. I’ve resented helping people who don’t cooperate, and by “cooperate” I mean do what I think is best in a way that makes me feel comfortable. I’ve doubted the honesty of women who are drunk or have psychiatric conditions. I’ve favored women who speak softly and thank me for all my help, women whose children all have the same father. I’ve made these ugly choices because I didn’t have the fortitude to help a situation I couldn’t fix.

“Nobody can really cut through our collective need to deny the magnitude of rape.” Click To Tweet

I’ve done all of this and I’ve never worked in an environment as inhospitable to expressing emotions as a police department. I could always cry after a tough day and none of my coworkers would worry I was too soft to do my job. If you work in a police environment, how do you keep from shutting off so much of yourself that it becomes impossible to be kind? So you blame the sex work or the drug addiction. Or you close the case to make the uncomfortable feelings go away.

• • •

In a part of Boston that is like Cleveland’s east side, an organization that provides shelter to poor and homeless women invites us to teach self-defense classes. A woman came to class with the stench of alcohol on her breath. Her eyes were vacant and she walked into furniture and walls. It was the second time she’d come to class drunk and we’d already decided to ask her to leave if she did it again.

I rushed through my planned confrontation speech so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. “I’m concerned about you,” I said, and I’m sure it rang false. I withheld the kindest, most vulnerable parts of myself because I didn’t have the time or fortitude to figure out what was just. The shelter is dry and it is their policy, I told myself.

A friend of hers had been murdered a week before. I’ve gone to the liquor store for less. But somehow in that moment the rules were more important. Or maybe it was the safety of other women in the class, deep in their struggles to maintain their sobriety. When I discussed it later with the caseworker, I used nicer words like, I’d love to see her when she’s more ‘ready’ for the class, when it’s the ‘right time’ for her.

Maybe you’d say I was helping her by challenging her. And maybe you’d say I was taking advantage of the unequal power I held. And however anyone interprets my decision, the reality is that it was more quick than thoughtful. I felt uncomfortable in the presence of her intoxication and I wanted that intolerable feeling over. I wanted to get back to my regularly scheduled program, to the people who were easier to help. There’s no reason to assume I would not have done the same to a rape survivor in Cleveland who was drunk.

The next week the woman came back sober. She looked away when I talked to her and stood as far from me as she could when she was practicing the physical techniques. There was urgency, I guess, to her need to know what to do if someone tried to assault her.

• • •

In the rape scenarios I teach, the moment the coercion begins is the hardest. My co-instructor says, “Be quiet and you won’t have to die,” just like Derrick Lartdale did in Cleveland. “Open your eyes,” I say. “Stay ready.” There are times I feel an urgent need to think about my parking job or the grant application that’s due in a week because staying in that moment makes me feel something I can’t tolerate. But lately it’s becoming more possible to stay connected to every student in every scenario they practice. I believe this is because I’m learning to embrace uncomfortable feelings even when I don’t understand them. And the more I let myself grieve the violations that were visited on my child body the less I will need television fictions that promise harsh and simple justice. Only then will I be at peace with my own beautiful, selfish, complicated reasons for believing I can stop rape.
Photo: Screen shot from Law & Order: SVU; “Pattern Seventeen,” S16 E9, aired on NBC 12/10/14

Meg Stone

Meg Stone is the Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, an abuse prevention and empowerment self-defense program that is part of Triangle, Inc. Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, Ms., Bitch, Cognoscenti, Hippocampus, and the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity. Follow her on Twitter.


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