What Happens During a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (Rape Kit)?

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You may be familiar with the term “rape kit” without knowing precisely what it entails. A rape kit as another term for a sexual assault forensic exam. This exam, performed at no cost to you, involves important medical treatment as well as the collection of evidence.

The exam, which can take a few hours, can be difficult to endure after such a traumatic event, said Cheryl Iglesia, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., director of MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Section of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery and a professor of gynecology and urology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

But Dr. Iglesia said she encourages patients who have been sexually assaulted to get the exam even if they are unsure whether they want to prosecute their attacker.

“I think it’s important in case you change your mind,” she said. “So let’s collect it, we’ll have it, […] and we’ll be able to do what you want with it. It’s your choice.”

If you choose to have a rape kit collected, it’s best to do so as soon as possible after the assault, Dr. Iglesia said.

“You get the best evidence and better prevention the sooner you come in,” she said — this is also why it is important to try to avoid cleaning up or changing your clothes before the exam.

Additionally, if you do decide to prosecute, there may be limits on when evidence must be collected depending on where you live. In some parts of the country, evidence of a sexual assault must be collected within 72 hours of the assault. In other areas, evidence can be collected as much as 5 days or 1 week afterward.

During the exam, you can choose to take a break, skip a step, or stop the exam at any time, according to RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organization. The steps of the exam include the following:

  1. Receive care for injuries: The first thing a health care professional will do will be to make sure you have no life-threatening injuries and to treat and serious injuries you do have, Dr. Iglesia said.

  2. Gather information: A health care professional will gather information about your health history, such as information about your current medications and medical conditions. You also will be asked about the details of the assault in order to get the best care and collect the most evidence.

  3. Full-body exam: A health care professional will conduct a head-to-toe exam, depending on the details of your assault. This may include internal exams of your mouth, vagina, and anus. Pictures may be taken to document injuries and the exam, Dr. Iglesia said. They may take samples of blood, urine, or hair and collect items of clothing. Take a clean change of clothes with you to change into afterward.

  4. Follow-up care and preventive treatments: Sexual assault also may put you at risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Based on what happened, your health care professional may offer specific STD tests, vaccines, antibiotics, and information about necessary follow-ups, Dr. Iglesia said. You also may be offered medication that can prevent you from contracting STDs, including HIV, after the fact (called a “prophylactic”). You also can be tested for date rape drugs, Dr. Iglesia said. And, depending on your risk, you also may be offered emergency contraception like Plan B One-Step or ella to prevent unplanned pregnancy.

Your health care professional will also be able to tell you about helpful resources for sexual assault survivors, including resources for mental health care, and give you information about your reporting options. For example, they may offer to call the police for you.

You are not required to report your assault to law enforcement just because you get a rape kit. Reporting is up to you. However, if you are a minor, your examiner may be required by law to report it. Information about state laws on mandatory reporting can be found here.

After a rape kit is collected, the evidence will be stored for a period of time determined by the laws where you live, according to RAINN.

You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4653) to be connected with a trained local provider and to locate the nearest health facility that offers sexual assault forensic exams. They also may be able to send an advocate to accompany you to the hospital and provide support throughout the process.

For more information on getting health care after sexual assault, see the following articles: