Lessons from testing decades of forgotten rape kits: serial rapists are common, they don't follow a pattern, they're not very bright, and they're often the same men who commit acquaintance rape

America has an epidemic of untested rape kits, thanks to the institutional misogyny of police departments and prosecutors, especially when it comes to rapes committed against poor and racialized women.

An Obama-era subsidy for clearing rape kit backlogs, combined with DNA testing, has completely upended the conventional wisdom on rapists and how they commit their crimes.

The first insight is that serial rapists are very common and very prolific. Police departments had assumed that rapes with different types of victims and different techniques were committed by different men, but it turns out that serial rapists aren't meticulous and careful repeaters of patterns: they're chaotic and impatient and even if they're looking for a specific kind of woman to attack, if they can't find someone who matches their desires, they'll just attack any handy woman.

So rapists also aren't very smart about their crimes: their poor impulse control leaves behind plenty of physical evidence that can be used to convict them (Former Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty: "These are not the Napoleons of crime. They're morons. We were letting morons beat us"). They get away with it because the cops don't investigate rapes.

They're also not discriminating as to the kind of crimes they commit: as the old rape kits are subjected to DNA tests, we're learning that many men who've been committed for petty property crimes or non-sexual assaults have also committed strings of rapes. Frequently, these men start with vulnerable women (poor women, sex workers, women with disabilities, women who are addicted) and then rape women with more privilege, which sometimes leads to the police taking action. But the lack of action on rape kits meant that even when a rapist was convicted for an assault on a wealthy white woman, we didn't know about the string of rapes on less-privileged women in his past.

Finally, though stranger rape is very rare (most rape survivors are assaulted by acquaintances), these rapists also frequently assault strangers: "When Cleveland investigators uploaded the DNA from the acquaintance-rape kits, they were surprised by how often the results also matched DNA from unsolved stranger rapes."

The upshot of all this is not merely a better understanding of the crime of rape, but also a revelation about the consequences of official inaction on rape. By ignoring the rapes of sex workers, poor women, women of color, addicted women and disabled women, cops allowed men who were also committing property crimes and crimes of violence go free; and by not bothering to DNA-test rape kits from acquaintance-rapes, cops allowed strings of stranger rapes to go unsolved.

Unfortunately, even as these backlogged rape kits are being processed, there is still notable disinterest from local cops in chasing up the leads from them.

What struck her first was the sheer number of repeat offenders: Of the rape kits containing DNA that generated a CODIS hit, nearly one in five pointed to a serial rapist—giving the Cleveland investigators leads on some 480 serial predators to date. On a practical level, this suggested that every allegation of rape should be investigated as if it might have been committed by a repeat offender. "The way we've traditionally thought of sexual assault is this 'he said, she said' situation, where they investigate the sexual assault in isolation," Lovell told me. Instead, detectives should search for other victims or other violent crimes committed nearby, always presuming that a rapist might have attacked before. "We make those assumptions with burglary, with murder, with almost any other crime," Lovell said, "but not a sexual assault of an adult."

Another surprise for police and prosecutors involved profiling. All but the most specialized criminologists had assumed that serial rapists have a signature, a certain style and preference. Gun or knife? Alley or car? Were their victims white, black, or Hispanic? Investigators even named them: the ponytail rapist, the early-morning rapist, the preacher rapist.

But Lovell recalled sitting in Cleveland's weekly task-force meeting, listening to the investigators describe cases. They would say: This guy approached two of his victims on a bicycle, but there was this other attack that didn't fit the pattern. Or: This guy assaulted his stepdaughter, but he also raped two strangers. "I was always like, 'This seems so very different,' " Lovell said. "This is not what we think about a serial offender. Usually we think of serial offenders as particularly methodical, organized, structured—the ones that make TV."

Eric Beauregard, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who has interviewed 1,200 sexual offenders, says profiling may fail because a predator's reality falls short of his fantasy. Most offenders tell him that they do hunt for a certain type of victim, but "what they had in mind and what they selected did not match at all," he says. "If they are looking for a tall blonde with big breasts, at the end of the day, it was: She was there, she was available, she was alone. Those were the criteria." Nathan Ford's victims, for example, were black, white, Hispanic, and Asian; 13 years old and 55; on the west side of the city and on the east.

An Epidemic of Disbelief [Barbara Bradley Hagerty/The Atlantic]

(Image: Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit, Victim, Safariland)