Swabs for wiping the lips, face, thighs, vagina and anus. A comb to collect fibers and hair. A pick for scraping debris from under fingernails. A blood sampling device and microscope slides. Baggies for underwear. Documentation forms and labels.
These are just some of the items in the standard sexual assault evidence collection kit or rape kit used by American hospitals and police departments. Sexual assault turns the victim’s body into a crime scene and the process of evidence gathering—prodding, swabbing, and questioning—can take hours. Victims who subject themselves to this ordeal do so in the hope of justice and the hope that the perpetrator will be stopped from hurting anyone else. But over the last 30 years as many as 400,000 rape kits have piled up, untested, in back rooms and storage lockers across the country. Stacked together they would fill a warehouse the size of a football field and three stories tall.
The failure to test this evidence leaves victims waiting for closure that may never come and serial rapists free to roam. In 2009, a Detroit assistant prosecutor discovered over 10,000 kits gathering dust in a police warehouse. Many of the cases had been abandoned, with female victims dismissed as prostitutes or teens dismissed as attention seekers. Public outcry led to testing—and shocking results. A quarter of the kits contained evidence associated with criminal cases in other states—35 different states and Washington D.C., to be precise.
Julie Smolyansky—CEO of Lifeway Foods, philanthropist, activist, and an executive producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground—gets outraged when she thinks about mountains of evidence gathering dust while perpetrators move across the country leaving a trail of suffering and harm. She aims to do something about it.
Smolyansky, together with her husband Jason Burdeen, has launched an advocacy campaign called Test400K. In April they convened elected officials, technologists, DNA experts, activists, and survivors to identify a set of best practices for processing rape evidence. The group issued a call to action around a new standard: Every kit should be tested within 15-30 days and every criminal justice system should implement a transparent tracking system so that survivors know the status of their case. New technologies can and must be deployed to make this possible.
In the following interview Smolyansky discusses Test400K, The Hunting Ground, and her broader passion for empowering young women.
Tarico: At one time, people knew you as the youngest female CEO of a publically-traded US company. Now many probably know you best because of your association with The Hunting Ground. How does Test400K fit into the other parts of your life?
Smolyansky: My core passion is creating a healthier, safer, peaceful world and that includes justice and empowerment of girls and women. I spend a lot of time speaking about these issues and trying to elevate the issue of violence against women—and how society fails to respond. So, once I learned about the untested rape kits, I couldn’t just let it go. Fewer than 20 percent of the rape kits completed in the last 30 years have been analyzed. In Cook County, where I live, my sheriff found kits going back to 1978. The problem has gotten media attention in Detroit, Memphis and New York, but it is not unique to any city. Rape evidence has been disregarded and deprioritized, and it’s a symptom of discrimination, a symptom of the low status of women in our communities and our culture.
Tarico: What got you focused on rape kits specifically?
Smolyansky: Before I was the CEO of Lifeway, I was a rape crisis counselor. I always assumed there would be an investigation and that those victims would get some kind of justice. Then, in 2010, an acquaintance from Human Rights Watch sent me a book about violations that women face around the world. The Afghanistan chapter focused on child brides. Another chapter focused on female genital mutilation. And the US chapter focused on these rape kits. I was appalled. That’s when we launched Test400K.
We advocate for the testing of the old rape kits but also for new technologies that would help communities speed up investigations. Robotics, for example, are being used in California. Louisiana and California are analyzing within 30 days. My home state of Illinois isn’t doing as well. Right now we have 1600 kits that are backlogged about a year, and some survivors were told that it would be two years before theirs were analyzed. In many states there are statutes of limitations on rape and in Illinois it was 10 years, so last year we lobbied to halt the clock until a kit is tested. Now, even if it takes them over 10 years to analyze a kit, the case is still viable.
Tarico: That’s quite a coup. I know that survivors of religious sex abuse have tried to get statutes of limitations extended—not for the same reason, but because it can take a while for survivors to come to terms with what happened to them. But the Catholic bishops have managed to defeat that. So far, the biggest win for the victims may be Spotlight—which millions of people have now seen because it won an Oscar. Thanks to Lady Gaga’s song, “Till It Happens to You,” the Oscars also brought real attention to The Hunting Ground—which is stunning, by the way—and to campus rape more broadly.
Smolyansky: Film can be powerful in creating conversation! It brings people around collectively to a topic, even a topic that is very difficult. The Hunting Ground exposed the cover-ups of sexual assault on college campuses. One in five female students will be a victim of sexual assault by the time they graduate, but administrators cover for sports teams and fraternity houses and safeguard their own fundraising. They need a clear cut procedure, accountability for perpetrators and services for victims. These crimes have a high rate of recidivism, meaning one perpetrator will have many victims; it’s like the church abuse scandal or rape in the military.
Tarico: In the Iron Age view that got handed down through the Bible and other sacred texts, women and children are literally possessions of men. Verse after verse reinforces that view, as do the teachings of some religious leaders from ancient times to the present. I once wrote an article on what the Bible says about rape—and was horrified by what I found there. Some men still think they are entitled to take what they want—and our legal system protects them. Janet Heimlich, whose father invented the Heimlich manoeuver, has dedicated her life to fighting for children who get harmed by these attitudes.
Smolyansky: In our society there are all of these ways in which crimes against women and children are ignored. The financial costs alone are enormous, $20 billion annually in direct medical costs and missed work days from sexual assault. But even worse, we have a society of PTSD and after-effects of trauma on survivors and their communities.
As a result of The Hunting Ground and related exposure of campus sexual assault, there now are 228 open Title IX investigations at 181 universities. At the Oscars, I stood on stage with Lady Gaga along with other survivors. What Joe Biden said is that we have to change culture, and this is how we are doing it—through the activism of people, of students.
Tarico: I find that most activism, comes from something deep in a person’s identity, maybe even from a place that could be called spiritual, and often from personal experience. Would you say that is true for you?
Smolyansky: My family are holocaust survivors, which is why tolerance and learning from the past are so important to us, and confronting bullying and injustice is part of that. I’ve been doing this my whole life, speaking out against injustice and unfairness. Even in high school, I helped to create the first teen dating and violence curriculum in our community. It was just before the Nicole Brown Simpson murder.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve seen the impact of gender and power and the lack of power—how gender dynamics play out in our society, whether it’s a friend being cat-called on the street or mistreated in a relationship, or in my own relationships or work. When I came to Lifeway to step in as the CEO—I became the youngest female CEO of a publically traded company after my dad died—one of the men said, “There’s no way a 27-year-old girl could run the company.” Yes, “girl.” That’s how people view women. As I built up the company I promised myself that I would do something about that.
I’m also a rape survivor, and that’s part of how I learned to use my voice. Out of that survival was born the spirit of activism with a laser sharp focus on where I want to leave an impact on society. I have a platform, and I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. So I have decided to take on the most stigmatized issue in our society.
Tarico: I understand that you also have two daughters, as do I. That can make this all feel a little too close to home.
Smolyansky: Yes. I have two daughters, ages 7 ½ and 5 ½ . They don’t understand all of what I do, but they know that I’m a fierce activist for women and girls—for health and safety. They had the opportunity to meet Malala, and that was something they could understand. We try to teach them the need to be an upstander and not a bystander. We teach them that their rights are as important as the rights of boys.
So, yes, being a mother is part of what motivates me. My daughters going to college shouldn’t be a risk factor for sexual assault! And if they are assaulted, what’s the response going to be? That said, I feel hopeful. The Hunting Ground continues to do amazing things. Over 15 pieces of legislation have been proposed—making sure that there are surveys done on campuses, that there is transparency, that there is a response to each survivor, and that students have advocates. There are the Title IX investigations. But the biggest thing is that after the Oscars performance, we are seeing survivors coming forward. That is the most inspiring part of all of this. That’s why I got involved in film; a film lets us raise awareness at scale.
But the problem isn’t just violence. We have only 24 women running Fortune 500 companies—the companies with the most power, reach and scale—If only 24 women are running that kind of company and only 19 percent of congress is made up of women and only 6 states have women governors, women are under-represented and largely invisible. That means policies are going to be slanted. So, I’m passionate about women and girls being empowered more broadly.
I belong to the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council because entrepreneurship and girls in a position of leadership can drive change around the world, not just here. In Bangladesh I saw girls who were victims of acid violence. But one who was educated was able to write her story, and a politician saw it, and her perpetrator is now in jail. Education, empowerment, leadership, fighting back against gender violence—it’s all interconnected.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.