The New Trial by Ordeal: Rape Kits, Police Practices, and the Unintended Effects of Policy Innovation


  • The author gratefully acknowledges the support of a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women, which provided funding to carry out a substantial portion of this research. She also extends her gratitude to the reviewers whose helpful comments clarified and improved the article and to the members of the Comparative Analysis in Rape Research Network (CAiRRN) for ongoing discussion and feedback concerning this work. The research was approved by the IRBs of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (#6605) and Drexel University (Protocol #17720).


One of the most highly touted improvements in the criminal justice response to rape has been the wide-scale adoption of sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs that provide specialized medical care and forensic evidence collection to victims. Though previous studies have emphasized the benefits of SANE programs in improving criminal case outcomes, this study illustrates how the post-rape forensic examination can also discourage reporting, investigation, and prosecution. Interviews with local rape care advocates across the United States show how the increasing emphasis on forensic evidence collected through rape kits may provide an opportunity to reflect and enact persistent law enforcement stereotypes toward sexual assault complainants. Unless police resistance to taking rape seriously is confronted and addressed, even well-intentioned policy reforms such as SANE programs may end up undermining—rather than enhancing—fair and thorough investigation of sexual assault allegations.