By Tina Scruggs – firstname.lastname@example.org – Staff Writer
Students packed into the Laurel Forum last week to listen to Natasha Alexenko, founder of Natasha’s Justice Project and a sexual assault survivor.
Alexenko said she started Natasha’s Justice Project to empower survivors of sex
ual assault. As a survivor herself, she said she wants to encourage people to step up. The movie Sex Crimes Unit, by HBO featured her story. Alexenko showed a clip of the film at her presentation.
“Sexual assault is so underreported. Reporting it was my choice, and I didn’t make it lightly,” Alexenko said. “I talked about it openly in the hopes that others would be able to, because guess what – it wasn’t my fault.”
According to Alexenko, only 20 percent of sexual assault cases are reported. That leaves 80 percent of victims not coming forward and not saying they were assaulted.
“One in 4 girls will be sexually assaulted while in college. That’s a staggering amount. Twenty-five percent is pretty scary,” Alexenko said.
When a rape occurs, the victim goes to the emergency room where they undergo an invasive gynecological procedure. This can be especially scary for girls who have not had sexual experiences. They take DNA from the victim’s clothes and body and save it in a rape kit. They put the DNA into a system called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. If the DNA matches with someone who committed a crime, they can figure out who the attacker was, Alexenko said.
“DNA never forgets. The mission of Natasha’s Justice Project is to end the backlog of rape kits. Often they sit around in warehouses in police custody or county storage. They have not even made it to the lab for testing,” Alexenko said.
The vague definition of backlog causes uncertainty, but Alexenko said she estimates there are 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide. Fifteen out of 16 rapists get away with their violent crime.
“It costs 1,000 to 1,500 dollars to test one rape kit. In a situation in Detroit, they tested 200 rape kits and found 80 matches in CODIS. In that case, they solved 2,000 crimes,” Alexenko said.
According to Alexenko, rapists’ crimes are not isolated to rape. They go on to commit other crimes, so eventually they will make it into CODIS and can be identified. Alexenko’s own rapist was found when he got caught jaywalking in Vegas, about 14 years after he attacked her,
“Our attitudes are slowly changing, but not quickly enough. It’s a public safety issue. We’re letting them do these crimes over and over again,” Alexenko said.
Peyton Kennedy, an anthropology student and co-leader of Our Voice, also emphasized current technology and its ability to identify attackers.
“We have this incredible technology to be able to lift DNA out of a washed pair of underwear. That’s incredible. And we’re not using it, because they are all sitting in these warehouses and are not being tested at all. Usually, the statistics say that those sort of anonymous rape actions are serial rapists and happen over and over again, so often times, there will be the same DNA in multiple different kits,” Kennedy said.
Alexenko said New York worked to eliminate their rape kit backlog. While the percentage of arrests per assaults in the nation is only 30 percent, in New York, the arrest rate is 70 percent.
“What she does is, she actually goes and pays for places to test the kits because it’s so expensive. I think we’re going to try and open a chapter of Natasha’s Justice Project at UNC Asheville so that we can raise awareness, raise some funding for it,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said she, along with the other co-leader of Our Voice, went through training to become advocates. This means they go to the hospital to meet clients and go through the sexual assault examination with them.
“We hold their hand through the process,” Kennedy said. “I have my own personal history and I know many people who have dealt with this and what really helps me is to know I’m not alone, that others are not alone, and we really need to build a community around these people. Because often times it doesn’t go well for us and a lot of really harmful things happen: depression, suicide. It’s something that can easily be fixed if we rally together and kind of foster an understanding of what this is.”
Kennedy said she believes rape and sexual assault come in many different forms, and although the hazy definition of rape and sexual assault may make the situation unclear, it is always important to believe the victim.
“It’s our job to believe them where they’re at no matter what. It’s not our job to question what was she wearing, was she drunk – that has nothing to do with it. Because regardless of whatever we were doing, only rapists cause rape: not what I’m wearing, not if I’m wrestling in Jell-O,” Kennedy said.
According to Kennedy, instead of teaching girls to restrict what they’re wearing, their habits and whether or not they drink, the importance should be shifted to teaching men and boys about consent, and what healthy relationships are.
“Teach them not to subjectify a woman. Teach your boys not to rape, not teach your girls how to not get raped,” Kennedy said.
Alexenko’s speech was beneficial for people, especially because she told her own personal story. Sharing personal stories really connects people. Kennedy said. Hearing statistics and numbers shocks people, but according to Kennedy, it does not mean much.
“Seeing her face in the documentary, seeing her rapist’s face and hearing her speak; hearing her being so collected and how positive she was, that was incredible. She was incredible,” Kennedy said.
According to Alexenko, people do not give men enough credit when they say men get riled up or reach the point of no return. Rape is not a result of passion. It is about violence b and control over another person. There is a difference between rape and sex, Alexenko said.
“You have the power in you to change the world. The world is yours to shape if you want to,” Alexenko said.