Afterward, there was the hospital: the waiting room and the forms, endless questions, swabbing, testing, examining. When Amanda Nguyen left, she had a new label ("rape survivor") and a few pamphlets. She could have tipped them into the trash on the way out or simply used them as a makeshift coaster on her desk until water rendered them illegible. Instead, she read them thoroughly and noticed a disturbing fact. Her rape kit would be destroyed in six months unless she filed to extend it; when she tried to extend, she found the process to be nearly impossible. As she fought to protect her own rape kit, Nguyen began to learn about the horrific experiences of other rape survivors navigating the criminal-justice system.
Her experience led her to create Rise, a civil-rights nonprofit working to implement a Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights on both federal and state levels; in September it finally passed through Congress, and in October it was signed into law. The bill mandates a standardized procedure so that survivors will be informed of their rights — rights that aren't contingent on pursuing legal action. The legislation also provides access to sexual-assault counselors for every survivor and rape-kit testing that's both faster and fairer.
Other survivors keep Nguyen going in the face of horrible Internet trolls, indifferent politicians, and long days. A self-described "pathological optimist," she works a full-time job with Secretary John Kerry at the State Department, runs Rise before and after work (plus on her lunch break), and also happens to be an astronaut in training. In her extremely limited spare time, she builds model rockets.
We spoke while the bill was still pending Senate approval about Nguyen's seemingly endless journey to protect her rape kit, getting Rise off the ground, why survivors don't want to engage with the criminal-justice system, and, of course, going to outer space.
Alex Ronan: A lot of rape survivors come forward and say that their experience with the criminal-justice system was more damaging or upsetting for them than being raped. How does that idea resonate with you?
Amanda Nguyen: I 100 percent understand what you just described. There's this pressure on survivors to report and seek out justice through the police and court system. For me, how the criminal-justice system treated me was worse than the rape itself. I was met with a system that was broken not only when it comes to accessing resources and information, but the whole thing felt systematically stacked against the survivor. It took an immense amount of effort, time, resources, and re-traumatization to protect my rights. I even had one of my professors from Harvard helping me, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, if this is what I'm going through, what are other survivors dealing with?
AR: Can you give me some examples of what you went through?
AN: After I was raped, I talked to a legal-advocacy center about the process of criminal investigation and prosecution, and they said that this process is extremely time-consuming and that I needed to be prepared for this to occupy two years of my life. I remember I had to hang up the phone. I just cried, thinking, Are you kidding me? My choice is between justice or my professional career?
At the hospital, they gave me a bunch of pamphlets, and one of the pamphlets said that kits are stored at the Massachusetts police lab for six months and "at the end of six months it will be destroyed unless you file an extension request." There's no information given on how to file that extension request.