Before He Strikes Again

From encrypted sexual assault reporting to DNA testing, technology is being used to identify and prosecute serial sexual predators.

Five Figures to Consider

1% of rapes result in jail time for the perpetrator
201% increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline during the Ford-Kavanaugh testimony
77% of rapes and sexual assaults were unreported in 2016
1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been victims of rape or attempted rape
5X increased likelihood of survivors reporting a sexual assault using the Callisto app

Only 1% of sexual assaults result in any jail time for the perpetrator. Let that sink in. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred the bad guy (or sometimes girl) walks away. No wonder the Ford-Kavanaugh testimony stirred up so much pain across the country. Memories of unresolved assaults distressed people everywhere. The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported a 201% increase in calls. People who opted for the hotline’s chat option experienced unprecedented wait times in a national day of tearful storytelling.  One in six women and one in thirty-three men have been victims of rape or attempted rape, and a vast majority of them have a) kept it to themselves or b) reported the incident but received no justice. Can we do better by victims of sexual violence in the future?

While the rate of sexual violence has fallen 63% since 1993, it is still an under-reported and under-prosecuted crime. In 2016 just 23% of sexual assault victims reported the crime. Compare that to 80% of victims of motor vehicle theft. Consider the upside. Your car is stolen. You report it to the police, send the report to your insurance company and get a check in the mail. You are raped. You report it to the police, undergo a physically invasive collection of evidence for a rape kit in the hours following the trauma, answer questions about your dress and behavior, then watch your kit join more than 100,000 untested kits that sit on the shelves of police departments across the country. Where is the upside?

That is the question that troubled Jess Ladd, founder of Callisto, a non-profit provider of sexual assault reporting systems. Ladd is the survivor of a campus rape and describes her experience reporting the rape as more traumatizing than the rape itself. Among other slights, when the police officer learned that the fellow student who assaulted her had been a friend, he suggested couples counseling. Today Callisto Campus is available to students on 13 campuses including Stanford University, Pomona College and University of Denver. After an assault, a user can set up an account and be guided through the creation of a time-stamped, encrypted record of the assault, which remains private until the survivor chooses to share it either with the school’s Title IX coordinator or with the police.

In addition to helping survivors create timely records of their experience, Callisto offers them the opportunity to be alerted if another survivor names the same perpetrator. If a perpetrator is named twice, the school’s Title IX coordinator is alerted and separately contacts each survivor. This process is aimed at stopping serial predators, who are responsible for a large proportion of sexual assaults. A study by researchers at University of Massachusetts and Brown University School of Medicine found that more than half of rapists were repeat rapists, averaging six assaults each. (Preventing future assaults is THE most common reason students give for reporting.) In Callisto’s campus program, 15% of sexual assault survivors who chose the matching option have been assaulted by a perpetrator named by another survivor in the system. Overall, Callisto says that survivors who visit its website are five times more likely to report their assault and that assaults are reported within four months of the event compared with an eleven month average on college campuses. In 2018 Callisto began offering a similar product for workplaces.

In police departments, sexual assault survivors now often find trauma-informed practices that include victim advocates thanks in part to federal funds and support provided through the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and the work of the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN). According to law, rape kits are now available to anyone at no cost, and through the Debbie Smith Act, grants are ensured through 2019 to help police departments continue to address the huge backlog of untested rape kits. Testing these kits gets rapists off the streets. Since Detroit began testing the 11,341 rape kits it discovered in an abandoned storage facility in 2009, it has matched DNA using the CODIS database and identified 821 potential serial rapists linked to crimes in 40 states. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, 4,347 kits have been tested, and authorities are projecting 1,290 indictments as a result.

Although the cost of testing a kit is almost $1,000, the test may be one of the most cost-effective activities law enforcement can perform. Juries are 33 times more likely to convict in a rape case when there is DNA evidence. Like Callisto, DNA testing can help law enforcement bundle the claims of victims of the same perpetrator, increasing chances of a conviction in court and getting serial predators off the streets.

Reporting technology and DNA testing, however, won’t solve the he said-she said Gordian knot of so-called acquaintance rape. When there is no sign of physical trauma or a weapon and the two parties know one another, it is difficult for juries to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (Check out the recent case at Yale University.) Acquaintance rapes are a huge proportion of sexual assaults. Close to two-thirds of victims know their attackers. Communities have an important role in preventing this type of sexual assault by teaching consent, characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships and sexual assault resistance techniques.

Sexual violence has halved since the 1990s along with other violent crimes. Trauma-informed reporting processes, the testing of both the backlogged and incoming rape kits and community education efforts could lower it even further.


Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Callisto, Department of Justice, National Crime Victimization Survey, National Institute of Justice, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), Joyful Heart Foundation