Misusing DNA From Rape Kits is a Violation of Survivors’ Privacy


The SFPD used rape kits to identify sexual assault victims as suspects in crimes. (Courtesy of Twitter)

CONTENT WARNING: Graphic description of rape kit usage.

The San Francisco Police Department recently came under fire for using DNA samples from sexual assault victims for potential suspect identification in other crimes. District Attorney Chesa Boudin immediately pushed back against the practice, calling it “legally and ethically wrong.” Boudin is entirely correct in calling for legislators to end this reprehensible procedure for a host of reasons.

First and foremost, this practice will likely prevent sexual assault victims from coming forward. More than two out of three sexual assaults go unreported as is. Additionally, a 2018 study published in the Emergency Medicine Journal revealed that only a small percentage of survivors choose to release rape kits to police. Head researcher Dr. Katherine Muldoon commented, “What can be inferred from our results is that a large number of women don’t want to engage with the justice system.”

Many sexual assault victims experience feelings of mistrust towards law enforcement. According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free. This wide lack of prosecution, combined with often insensitive (to say the least) police responses, makes survivors hesitant to come forward. Why would these victims want to further their pain after an already traumatizing ordeal? Knowing that their bravery in opening up about their assaults could potentially be used against them in the future only dissuades victims from opening up about the crimes committed against them.

It’s critical to acknowledge just how serious these forensic examinations are. This type of procedure is incredibly taxing and often frightening for the survivor to undergo. Rape kit exams are extensive, typically lasting from four to six hours. The examinations involve taking thorough documentation such as head-to-toe photographs of the victim’s body and swabs of orifices and any other body parts which may contain biological evidence of the perpetrator. Sexual assault victims who elect to have rape kit exams are nothing short of courageous. Collecting DNA from a highly invasive procedure like this with even the slightest intent of using it against patients in the future is dehumanizing, disgusting and a slap in the face to survivors.

Boudin made the right decision to drop the property crime charges against the woman who was arrested based on the DNA collected from the rape kit examination. Legislation against this practice, such as the bill newly proposed by New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, is a step in the right direction. But there is another element to rape kit misuse: the rape kit backlog

There are an estimated 100,000 rape kits across the United States that have gone untested. 

There are two primary ways that this occurs. First, “unsubmitted” kits were collected by law enforcement but never sent to crime labs and therefore have been sitting in evidence rooms for indefinite amounts of time. Second, kits arrive at crime labs but cannot be processed in a timely manner due to the volume of untested material exceeding the resources needed to analyze the evidence. Luckily, assistance from the government has somewhat alleviated the latter issue. However, the former raises some questions.

The point of gathering evidence from rape kits is to identify and catch perpetrators, which brings justice to victims and keeps society safe from offenders. If the police fail to submit kits to crime labs, they are failing to meet this goal. That alone is not a good look, and the whole situation is even more alarming when you consider the fact that the kits that are analyzed could potentially be used against sexual assault survivors.

After consulting with the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab director, Kate Chatfield, Boudin’s chief of staff, stated that the policy is “a standard operating procedure in the field” and not “necessarily limited to San Francisco.” So as it stands now, and as horrible as it is, the true frequency of law enforcement agencies using DNA from rape kits to identify victims as potential suspects in other crimes is unknown. 

This practice is disgraceful beyond words. Using sexual assault victims’ DNA for anything beyond the purpose of putting rapists behind bars is an unacceptable violation of privacy. Inexplicably failing to submit rape kits for testing is suspicious at best. 

“Why don’t people report sexual assault?” is a question that gets thrown around continuously when the answer is clear: survivors don’t come forward because they won’t get justice more often than they will. When they try to get justice, they’re subjected to victim-blaming or even the possibility that they’ll be charged in unrelated cases years down the line. Law enforcement agencies misusing victims’ DNA will only exacerbate the problem, so officials must unequivocally speak up against the practice, and legislators must act to prevent it from continuing.

Daniella Terilli, GSB ’24, is a marketing major from Westchester, N.Y.