Pagan Kennedy’s New York Times feature “The Rape Kit’s Secret History,” about the invention of the rape kit, also serves as an incredibly moving historiography of the struggle to criminalize rape. At the center of Kennedy’s story is a woman named Marty Goddard, who first conceptualized the idea of the rape kit, though credit has long been given to police sergeant Louis Vitullo.
Goddard first began working with teenagers experiencing homelessness in 1970s Chicago and quickly realized that many of those teenagers were also victims of sexual violence, which started a lifetime of advocating for survivors of sexual assault. She also realized that many of the barriers to convicting rapists or even investigating rape often stemmed from mishandled or uncollected evidence. She correctly believed that more rapists could be brought to justice if there were some procedures in place for collecting evidence at the hospital, where items such blood-stained clothing were often thrown away and nurses routinely washed victims as part of their treatment without first collecting evidence samples. However, when she approached Vitullo, a “cop-scientist” who worked in a Chicago crime lab, about developing an evidence-collection kit for hospitals, he originally berated her:
“He screamed at her,” a confidant of Goddard’s told the Times. “He told her she had no business getting involved with this and that what she was talking about was crazy. She was wasting his time. He didn’t want to hear about this anymore.”
But Vitullo originally came around, according to the report, and put together what’s now known as a rape kit, allegedly taking full credit for its invention along the way. In Vitullo’s obituary from 2006, he is hailed as the “Man Who Invented the Rape Kit” with no mention of Goddard, though it was Goddard who devoted her life to creating, distributing, and educating law enforcement along with hospital personnel with around correctly using them, including negotiating a donation from Hugh Hefner to put together the very first kits.
The rest of the incredibly compelling feature follows the author’s search for Goddard, who seemingly disappeared from public record in the late 1980s alongside telling the story of how police departments resisted the idea of rape kits before finally embracing them only to let the untested kits pile up in warehouses due to processing costs. To say more would be to ruin the poignant, powerful conclusion of Kennedy’s remarkable investigation. Just read it.