Nothing bad happened to me. I wasn’t beaten, drugged, or coerced. And I wasn’t raped.
But as I sat in the waiting room of the Anderson Hospital emergency room at 7 a.m., waiting to undergo a mock rape examination, I was nervous. Even with the benefit of weeks of knowledge and preparation for the test, I still felt anxious.
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I spent the past year working on an investigative project about the prosecution of sex crimes in Southern Illinois. During the course of that reporting, I heard a lot about rape kits. I thought I knew about the process, but not the emotion that goes along with them.
Pam Phillips, Anderson Hospital’s nurse educator, is a sexual assault nurse examiner. She agreed to perform a rape examination on me. She was aware I am a reporter and had not been sexually assaulted. I wanted to see what other women went through after such a traumatic experience.
Phillips met me in the waiting room wearing blue scrubs and took me back to the examination room. She will be with me until I leave the emergency room.
After a brief introduction and required signatures on consent forms, she asked whether I wanted to call police or a rape crisis counselor. It was my decision, she told me. She then asked the questions she would ask a sex crime victim: the who, what, when, where and how of a rape.
The questions were general at first but turned more intimate. Did he penetrate you? Where? With his penis? Did he ejaculate? Where did it happen? Was he wearing a condom? Did he kiss you? Did he lick you? Where? Have you changed clothes? Have you showered? Have you urinated? Have you brushed your teeth?
The questions are designed to help Phillips find evidence that will help support the victim’s account, but I find myself blushing.
After the round of questions, I am asked to stand on a piece of paper and undress, piece by piece, while Phillips puts each item of clothing in a separate paper grocery sack. My underwear, the item most likely to contain DNA evidence left behind by an attacker, went into a smaller paper sack and was placed in a cardboard box marked “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit.”
Soon, I stand nearly naked in front of a stranger. True, the setting was clinical, but the methodical disrobing was unnerving. When I am wearing only a hospital gown and sitting on the examination table, Phillips folded the white paper I was standing on and put it into an evidence envelope, just in case I knocked off any trace evidence when I was undressing.
Phillips then asked me about injuries. I, of course, don’t have any injuries from an assault. She looked at my arms and legs and face for injuries, bruises, bite marks, cuts. She noted a burn on my right forearm. I told the truth, a cooking injury.
During a rape exam on a real victim, if Phillips found lacerations or bruises, she would photograph them, with color chart and ruler to document color and size. She would note the location on the victim’s body on forms that go into the rape kit.
Then the collection process began.
Phillips handed me a wooden stick to slide under my fingernails. I did this over a sheet of white paper. Then she handed me a wooden, cotton-tipped stick to swab one side of my cheek, from the top of my gums to the bottom. She handed me another swab to do the same to the other side. She placed each swab in separate boxes, marking each with the corresponding area of collection.
She then handed me a black plastic comb, told me to bend at my waist over a paper she held in front of me and comb my hair so she can find any foreign hairs. That process is repeated for pubic hair. Phillips will then take a dampened cotton swab and drag it across areas where she may expect to find DNA from semen or saliva.
Phillips told me then she would perform a pelvic exam, but the speculum — the tool inserted into the vagina to expose the cervix — normally wouldn’t be lubricated during this part of the exam because it could contaminate any evidence present. At this point, I pass.
If anal penetration was indicated, Phillips would examine and swab for evidence there, too. Real sexual assault victims would have any genital or anal injuries photographed.
If I had been a true sexual assault victim, the nurse would have given me a course of antibiotics to fend off sexually transmitted diseases, an emergency contraceptive and a test for HIV.
At this point, the examination, which generally lasts three hours, is over. The evidence is sealed and bagged and stored in a locked cabinet or handed off to a waiting police officer.
Phillips offered me food, drink and a shower, if I wanted it. The antibiotics can make you nauseous, she explained. I declined. I could dress now. In my case, Phillips handed me the bags that contained my clothes. Real sexual assault victims wear donated clothing brought to the emergency room by rape crisis counselors.
“Usually T-shirts, sweatpants and flip flops,” Phillips said.
For me, it was over. For real rape victims, they can expect a waiting police officer, called only with their consent, to once again ask them what happened.
Phillips said she has performed more than 25 rape examinations. She has never been called to testify at a trial. She doesn’t know how the cases come out. She doesn’t even know if she has collected any evidence during the exam. She doesn’t know whether the men who were accused were charged. She doesn’t know how the victims fare after they leave.
“My job is to collect and preserve the evidence that is there,” she said. “That evidence will support the victim’s account. That’s my role.”
The victims, usually girls or young women, exhibit a range of emotions during the exams, Phillips explained, usually tears, or sobs, and sometimes shock. They come to the hospital with friends, sisters, mothers. They endure the three-hour procedure, the questions, the examination, the photographs, then go on to the next part of their lives — the rape survivor part — in borrowed clothes.
I went to breakfast in my own clothes.