FACED WITH THE TRAUMATIC TASK of fighting Massachusetts officials every six months to prevent her rape kit — the physical evidence and other materials collected after a sexual assault — from being destroyed, Amanda Nguyen is trying to empower millions of sexual assault survivors like her across the country by changing the law.
The 24-year-old Harvard graduate helped draft a Massachusetts measure introduced last year that would outline a “bill of rights” for survivors. She worked with the US Senate to introduce similar federal legislation in February. The House of Representatives is crafting a companion bill. And half a dozen other state houses are considering their own versions.
Nguyen, deputy White House liaison for the State Department and an aspiring astronaut, founded Rise, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that advocates for basic civil rights for sexual assault survivors. I sat down with Nguyen in her Washington apartment to talk about her work.
Jan How did you become moved to take this on?
Nguyen Right now the status of sexual assault civil rights in the United States is deplorable. There are a patchwork of rights across the US, and our goal is to fix that patchwork. It stems from my personal experience with a broken criminal justice system. I did not know how broken the system was until I became a survivor.
For instance, evidence in some states is being destroyed before the statute of limitations expires. In Massachusetts, there is a six-month deadline to report the crime before one’s untested rape kit can be removed from the forensic lab and destroyed, even if the statute of limitations is 15 years.
In different parts of the country they have civil rights protections that prevent this. Either they say that these kits must be tested in a prompt manner, or they must be accounted for and tracked, or they just don’t destroy the evidence before the statute of limitations. California, Colorado, Illinois, and Texas have civil rights provisions in place.
Jan So that justice completely depends on geography?
Nguyen Two different survivors in two different states shouldn’t have two completely different sets of rights. In New Hampshire, it’s two months before the untested kits might be destroyed. I can’t even imagine what it would be like as a survivor to have to fight this every two months.
Jan What is it like for you personally, emotionally to have to fight to preserve your rape kit every six months?
Nguyen The very same month that my first federal resolution was introduced, I found out that against an extension put into place, my kit was removed from the forensics lab and almost destroyed. Twice a year, I’m reminded about my rape. This six-month deadline reorients my life to the date of the rape.
Jan What are your thoughts about this issue of college rape, especially as schools are accused of not doing enough to address it?
Nguyen Every single school needs to do better. In this situation, my only recourse was the criminal justice system. It is so critical that people take this issue seriously — and they need to not participate in rape culture and blame the victim.
Jan How do you help people understand why a survivor may not want to report a rape right away, if ever?
Nguyen I remember one of the first things that I did after the rape was getting resources and calling legal advocacy centers. There was one advocate who said, “Just to be honest with you, you deserve and should have every right to justice. I just want to let you know that it’s a long process. It takes at least two years, on average. Be ready for it to consume your life.”
I had to hang up the phone at that point, because as a young person starting a career — and having to pause that potentially for a trial that the odds are so high against — faced with that decision, I chose to go with my career. It’s an intensely personal decision to make. That’s why a statute of limitations exists. For people to revisit it at a time and point in their lives where they are able to, and they want to.
I remember when I got out of the hospital. First of all, I wrote a sign — it says “Never, never, never give up” — and stuck it on my computer. Whenever I wanted to throw up from the HIV prophylactics, I would look at that sign and I would try to remember I have these goals and I’m not going to let my rapist get in the way of me graduating college.
Jan Please walk me through the key points in the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.
Nguyen Notification of what your rights are. That sounds really basic, but a rape is very time sensitive. The crime scene is your body. So especially in cases of drugged rape where the drug can run out of your system, it is crucial that there are standard operating procedures that ensure, when a survivor chooses to touch the criminal justice system, that things are done in a timely and prompt manner.
Having the rape kit evidence not be destroyed before the statute of limitations expires. Having access to your own medical information from the rape kit. For instance, right now if you were drugged and you want to know if you were drugged, it can be very difficult to get that information. What we are fighting for is a person’s own biological evidence. How badly was my body damaged? These rights should not be contingent upon legal action. We’re hearing of survivors being denied a copy of their own police report.
And, by the way, these rights will help not only the survivor but everyone involved. It is a bad idea for the accused to have evidence thrown away, because DNA can exonerate the accused.
Jan Tell me about the founding of Rise and how you mustered the hope that you could change the law.
Nguyen It was literally from one e-mail. I want people to understand that you can make a difference from something as simple as just speaking up. I sent out one mass e-mail on November 1, 2014, and on that e-mail I cc’d everyone I knew. It was my own personal networks, my professors, my friends, my work colleagues, and listservs. I asked people to metaphorically walk with me in a vision to write this bill. The response was enormous. People wrote back and said, “Hey, I’m a coder but how can I help?” “I work on Wall Street and I’m a financial analyst. How can I help?” The financial analysts became our economic analysis team. Our attorneys helped draft the bill.
It is so important to me that people can see from the story of Rise’s founding that a group of millennials has been able to draft this bill and introduce it in multiple state houses and the United States Congress in a matter of months. It is so doable to change our nation into a fairer place.
Social media has lowered the barrier to enter into advocacy. A hashtag that goes viral can start from one person’s Tweet.
Jan What’s your hashtag?
Jan What has been the toughest part of this?
Nguyen Convincing politicians to care. More times than I can count politicians would tell me we just don’t have time for this, or my constituents just don’t know me for this, or I have a reelection to run. But at the same token we found our champions. [Representative] Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Senator Jeanne Shaheen are two people who listened to the voices of ordinary citizens, and I’m so grateful for that.
Jan How did you get politicians on board?
Nguyen January 2015 was my first time talking to state legislators in Boston. It was six, seven hours of me telling people something very personal. I flew back from Massachusetts to D.C. and I broke down crying. I remember praying to God. I said I just need one person to tell me that they love me.
The next day, as the pathological optimist that I am, I got up and did the same thing, but this time in the US Senate. On my way to the Senate, the ride was with an Uber driver who was a very stoic, intimidating man. He saw that I was going to the Senate, so he asked me why, and I told him. And this man started crying. He turned to me and he said, “My daughter is a rape survivor, and when she went to get help, the criminal justice system was so broken.” When he stopped the car, he said: “Can I shake your hand? Thank you so much for fighting for my daughter. Has anyone told you that they loved you today? I love you.”
Every time that it gets hard, every time that there’s a roadblock, I think about these people. The statistic is 25 million people in the United States who are rape survivors. That’s almost the size of Texas’ population. Or Afghanistan’s population.
Jan I’m looking around your apartment and loving this enormous painting of Frida Kahlo dominating the dining room wall, next to the framed meteorites.
Nguyen Frida took her pain and transformed it into these beautiful works of art that you cannot look away from. It’s at times both challenging and beautiful, often horrific, because she went through a lot of trauma. I really connect with her because she is a woman who overcame on her own terms. Everybody heals in their own way.
My apartment represents a little bit of the kaleidoscope that I am. There’s the Saturn 5 unfinished model which I’m working on. There’s the House Resolution. There’s my collection of meteorites.
Jan So what does it mean to be an astronaut in training?
Nguyen I researched astrophysics and I worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, specifically analyzing the Kepler mission, which is why you see exoplanet posters all around my apartment. I also worked at NASA. I worked in three different capacities. One in the legislative affairs office, which gave me my first glimpse into Congress. I learned how to ask Congress for money for NASA.
Jan In a sense, NASA’s helped prepare you for your lobbying work now. What’s next for you?
Nguyen I would like to see this bill passed in all 50 states and in the United States Congress. And then I want to discover an exoplanet and be on my way to becoming a mission specialist astronaut.
This interview has been edited and condensed.