The Women Behind Controversial At-Home Rape Kits Speak Out

Products like the MeToo Kit generated a media firestorm, but founders say they can empower victims

A mockup of what the Me Too Kit could look like, according to a previous version of the company’s website. Credit: MeToo Kit

TTwo startups have pulled back on marketing at-home sexual assault evidence collection kits after being hit with legal threats. The companies’ founders maintain that the at-home tests could provide an alternative to sexual assault forensic exams given in hospitals and other health facilities in cases where victims don’t feel comfortable going to a health care provider or can’t immediately reach one.

“We believe that it should be a survivor’s right to capture this evidence in the comfort of their own home,” Madison Campbell, founder of the New York–based MeToo Kit, told OneZero in an interview. “We believe this product has the potential to empower survivors.”

Critics, however, say evidence from commercial at-home rape kits are unlikely to be acceptable in court and could even deter sexual assault victims from seeking proper medical care. The DIY rape kits are just the latest in a wave of at-home tests, from tests for urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted infections to consumer DNA tests. The explosion of offerings isn’t surprising: At-home testing offers affordability, convenience, and privacy and avoids the embarrassment that might come with seeing a health care provider. For victims of sexual assault, the appeal of privacy in the wake of a horrendous violation is even more obvious.

“We were thrilled at the potential to be helping people.”

Campbell’s company, MeToo Kit, came under fire when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a statement at the end of August blasting the product. “There is absolutely no benefit here for victims,” Nessel said. Attorneys general from other states followed, some with cease-and-desist letters. They argue that the kits would not provide the necessary chain of custody, a legal term that refers to the paper trail of how, when, and where evidence was received or collected. Prosecutors must establish an unbroken chain of custody for evidence to be legally considered in court, and it’s far from clear that courts would accept evidence of sexual assault from an at-home kit.

The MeToo Kit isn’t available for purchase yet, but another company, Preserve Group, began offering a similar product, called Preserve Kit, for $29.95 on Amazon in August. “We were thrilled at the potential to be helping people,” Jane Mason, Preserve Group’s founder and a former FBI agent, told OneZero. But she has since taken down the kit in the midst of the controversy. Both companies have also removed information from their websites.

Campbell, 23, says that she and her co-founder were still ironing out the details and design of the test when the letters started arriving from state attorneys general. They had not yet decided on a price point but wanted to make sure victims wouldn’t need to pay for the kits. Campbell says she was hoping to set up partnerships with universities, which would buy the kits and make them available to students.

In most cases, DNA needs to be collected within 72 hours in order to be analyzed in a crime lab. An exam at a hospital or health clinic may take a few hours and includes more than just a DNA swab. A sexual assault forensic exam also looks for lacerations and bruising and may include photographs to document any injuries. Examiners might also collect clothing and hair from victims. Any or all parts of an examination can be declined, and victims are under no obligation to make a police report. Most states offer free exams to sexual assault victims.

“While a kit is critical for collecting evidence, it’s one small part of a comprehensive sexual assault medical forensic exam that looks at a patient’s total, overall healthcare needs following a sexual assault,” according to a statement released by the International Association of Forensic Nurses, a Maryland-based organization, in response to the at-home kits.

Rachel Lovell, a researcher at Case Western University who studies sexual assault and violence prevention, says she can understand why a victim would not want or be unable to report a sexual assault, but she worries that an at-home kit could offer false promise to victims hoping to eventually pursue their case through the legal system. For one, a person at home might not know how to swab correctly to get enough DNA, or they could accidentally contaminate a sample, which in turn could complicate any attempt at prosecution. “That’s a big onus to put on somebody, especially soon after they’ve been sexually assaulted,” Lovell says.

Mason acknowledges that a sexual assault exam by a trained nurse is optimal for victims, but in lieu of that, she says evidence collected with the Preserve Kit could be given to law enforcement. “In this scenario and in a perfect world, the police have any evidence analyzed to identify the perpetrator and conduct an investigation to substantiate the allegations,” Mason says. “I have never heard, ever, of a member of law enforcement refusing evidence from a victim.”

And DNA collected by a victim has been used successfully before, she adds. In perhaps the most famous instance, Monica Lewinsky saved the blue dress that bore a semen stain from a sexual encounter with President Bill Clinton. The dress was later used as evidence in the investigation that led to the president’s impeachment.

“I get why people might not what to get an exam, but I’m not sure this product solves the problem.”

Beyond the legal questions surrounding the at-home kits, critics like Nessel have assailed Campbell’s company for supposedly capitalizing on the #MeToo movement. The company has also suggested that people have a kit on hand before a sexual assault occurs. A previous version of the MeToo Kit’s website compared its hypothetical product to a fire alarm, saying, “You do not buy a fire alarm for the 364 days you do not have a fire, you buy it for the one day you do.”

There are many barriers that keep victims from seeking medical care after an assault, including fear of judgment, loss of anonymity, and discrimination. Nor does it help that convictions in sexual assault cases are incredibly rare — by one count, fewer than 1% of rape cases result in a felony conviction. Case Western’s Lovell says it’s important to have conversations around how the sexual assault exam and reporting process can be improved.

“I get why people might not want to get an exam, but I’m not sure this product solves the problem,” Lovell says.

In a statement on its website, the Preserve Group says it will be “back as soon as possible,” and Campbell too still hopes to put out a product. Just as doctors are grappling with patients who come in with results from at-home tests, the justice system may soon have to contend with more victims who collect their own DNA evidence.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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