“Every rape has three crime scenes,” Detective Karen Duval (Merritt Wever) says in Netflix's new drama series Unbelievable. “The location of the assault, the body of the attacker, and the body of the victim.”
A sexual assault forensic exam, commonly referred to as a “rape kit,” is the best method we have for gathering evidence of assault that appears on the body. But despite its importance in sexual assault investigations, it is rarely something we see depicted on screen.
Over the course of eight episodes, we follow the story of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) in the wake of sexual trauma. Based on the ProPublica and The Marshall Project article, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," the show dives headfirst into the grim realities of reporting a sexual assault. It's a nuanced portrayal of the ways the criminal justice system fails survivors that educates audiences about the bureaucracy of reporting a sexual assault, from the witness statements to the hospital examinations.
The exam is undoubtedly difficult to endure after a recent trauma, but there are medical professionals whose job is to make it a tad easier. Rape kits can be collected either by SANEs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) or SAFEs (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners) and patients can request a victim advocate stay with them the entire time to ensure they feel safe.
“[A sexual assault forensic exam] is very invasive,” victim advocate and survivor Michelle Corrao tells Bustle. “You’ve just had your body taken over by somebody and now they are pulling evidence from it and it just doesn't feel like your own.”
In the show we watch Marie get swabbed, poked, prodded, and stripped naked for photographs. These scenes are drawn out to the point of discomfort to emphasize the realities of this process. From the clicks of the speculum to the close-up shots of Marie wringing her hands, the show paints a chillingly realistic portrait of everything that happens in the time directly after reporting an assault.
Before the examination — which can take three to four hours, according to Corrao — survivors are discouraged from going to the bathroom, showering, changing their clothes or combing their hair so as not to tamper with possible evidence. In the exam room, they first make sure to treat any injuries that need immediate care. From there they move on to a head-to-toe examination, doing blood work and internal examinations of the mouth, vagina and/or anus, according to RAINN. Then they assess follow-up care. This can mean preventative treatments for STIs and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy.
"Not only do we treat the result of any injuries of the assault along with any incidental injuries, but we actually talk to the patient about a plan of care," says Barbara Bachmeier, who works as a SANE in Indiana. "We make sure to ask: Where are you going to go after here? Do you have a safe place to go? Who do you want to be here with you? Can we call an advocate on your behalf or get family or friends here?"
Marie's exam is trying. By the time she gets to the hospital, she has not slept all night. She is shuffled into a room with her foster mom and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.
"When you are in that trauma, you often don't hear or know what is going on," says Corrao. "Nurses will tell survivors at least three times [what they're doing] so they can hear it and absorb it; the nurse will provide as much information on what is happening next so that they have a choice. We want to put that control into a survivor's hands."
This re-traumatization Marie goes through, of being asked to re-live her experience over and over again while sitting through a stream of medical tests, is all so that she may receive a kit in the end that hopefully has enough DNA evidence to find her attacker.
"Regardless of whether or not they decide to go through criminal justice system, the important thing, I feel, is that [survivors] don't have to do anything they don't want to," Bachmeier says. "This is about them, about how they want to proceed. If [patients] are unsure about how they want to go about this this criminal justice process, at least you can preserve the evidence."
Usually DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours in order to be analyzed by a crime lab, but even if a survivor does everything right and submits this test in time, they are not completely in the clear.
Across the country, there are an estimated hundreds of thousands of rape kits that have gone untested, according to The Atlantic. The first issue is that when a rape kit like Marie’s is collected and entered into an evidence folder, some detectives do not request a DNA analysis and then the kit goes untested. The second issue happens in the crime labs when rape kits are not tested in a timely manner, resulting in a backlog.
"It's important that when we talk about rape kits, what we need to make clear is that a rape kit is somebody's life and I don’t think we treat it like that," Corrao says. With every rape kit that goes untested, the odds of locating a perpetrator go way down, and survivors are the ones who suffer. In the case of a serial rapist like the one in Unbelievable, these untested rape kits could hold the key to keeping others safe down the line.
From the moment Marie reports her assault, she is questioned, prodded, and disbelieved. She gets shuffled through the police station and hospital without being given much of an explanation about what is happening. This is starkly contrasted to the experience Amber (Danielle Macdonald) has in her case. From the moment Detective Duval steps on to the crime scene, Amber's account is immediately validated; she is comforted and taken through what is going to happen next gently.
Throughout Unbelievable, Detective Duval and Detective Rasmussen (Toni Collette) are beacons of hope that inadvertently illuminate the nauseating ways Marie was mistreated throughout her entire investigation. Unfortunately, her experience of being disbelieved and mistreated by law enforcement isn't entirely uncommon. “After I was rescued, that is where the nightmare really began for me,” says Corrao. “I had to learn how to live life, a life I was unsure of. Am I even going to be believed? It seemed so far-fetched that I didn't even believe it happened to me.”
The terror of trauma is that it stays with you long after the event itself. But thankfully Unbelievable doesn't shy away from these uncomfortable truths.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.