Discussed in this essay:
I Am Evidence, directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir. HBO, 2018. 86 minutes.
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay. Harper Perennial. 368 pages. $16.99.
Querying Consent: Beyond Permission and Refusal, edited by Jordana Greenblatt and Keja Valens. Rutgers University Press. 270 pages. $34.95.
all this can be yours, by Isobel O’Hare. University of Hell Press. 190 pages. $30.
The most clarifying moment in I Am Evidence, HBO’s new documentary about how rape is investigated in the United States, occurs when a woman, Helena Lazaro, says that she harbors more bitterness toward the justice system than she does toward the stranger who raped her when she was seventeen. In spite of a DNA match from her rape kit, Lazaro’s case languished for more than a decade, during which her rapist sexually assaulted at least two other women. By the time Lazaro, now a survivors’ advocate in her thirties, managed to revive her case, the statute of limitations on her rape had come into effect; her assailant was prosecuted only for abducting her and taking twenty dollars from her wallet. But she is no longer angry at him; she says she has long since “moved past that feeling,” and that
terrible things happen to people. Violence is learned, and I have compassion for him. I don’t have compassion for the system that made this okay. Because the system should be more accountable. The system should be better than a criminal.
This insight—that the system is worse than the criminal—motivated feminists in the late Sixties and early Seventies, who had seen state forces abuse and murder those protesting segregation and the Vietnam War, and were thus predisposed to distrust the authorities. Their suspicions were justified: the police interrogation required to file a report was so humiliating and cruelly administered that it became known as “the second rape.” Activists sometimes encouraged women not to turn to law enforcement at all.
Though feminist activism has led to some changes—for instance, marital rape is no longer precluded from prosecution—I Am Evidence makes clear that law enforcement is still saturated with misogyny. Los Angeles County, for instance, wouldn’t prioritize the testing of an estimated 12,000 unprocessed rape kits, but by 2002 law enforcement had managed to find the time and resources to destroy more than 1,000 kits alleged to be beyond the statute of limitations. (The district attorney’s office did not agree that the kits were necessarily beyond the statute of limitations.) In Cleveland, where tested rape kits yielded a total of 1,935 potential matches in the FBI’s DNA database, prosecutors obtained only 284 convictions. In Detroit, where 2,616 hits came up, a mere 101 convictions followed. And in Los Angeles, an astonishing six convictions were secured from 1,684 DNA leads: roughly one conviction for every 280 kits tested.