Cherry blossoms bloom in front of a building at the University of Washington

OPINION | UW’s Investigation Into DIY Sexual Assault Kits Shows How Companies Benefit From Real Inequities

by Megan Burbank

At the end of October, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a cease-and-desist letter to Leda Health, a company marketing DIY test kits to survivors of sexual assault. The cease-and-desist was prompted by a complaint filed by the Associated Students of the University of Washington after the student newspaper, The Daily, found that the test kits, which Leda Health had promoted through a partnership with a UW sorority, weren’t admissible in court.

Leda has denied these claims. But even if the tests were unambiguously admissible in a court of law, they weren’t really solving a problem: According to The Daily’s reporting, UW already provides free sexual assault exams, along with birth control and STI testing, through on-campus health and safety resources and UW Medicine. 

But what struck me most while reading The Daily’s reporting was this detail: The kits, which have also been met with cease-and-desist orders from attorneys general in Michigan and New York, were originally marketed under the name “MeToo Kits Company,” and they embody a troubling overlap between marketing and the language of social justice. When feminist concerns like gender-based violence dominate the news cycle — as they did during the kit’s original namesake, the #MeToo movement — efforts to profit from it follow.

The same holds true for reproductive health. The day before Roe v. Wade was overturned, I received a marketing pitch from a company called Stix offering interviews with its founders. When I clicked through the marketing copy, I found a website selling emergency contraception branded as Restart and a photo from the company’s campaign to place pro-choice billboards near crisis pregnancy centers — right-wing centers that attempt to dissuade people from having abortions — in states with abortion bans.

“In Ohio, a dog can get an abortion,” one billboard read. “But her owner is begging for reproductive rights. It’s time for a Restart.”

What was odd about all of this — in addition to comparing women to dogs in the name of feminism, a strange framing to say the least — is that while Stix tied its marketing directly to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, it didn’t actually seem to have any involvement with abortion care. Emergency contraception isn’t much of a “restart” if you need an abortion. And emergency contraception with a delay for shipping isn’t much help if you want to avoid an unplanned pregnancy in the first place — especially when you can get it sooner over the counter.

When I emailed the company asking about this, it never responded. I wasn’t surprised.

The same thing happened again in September, when another company, Wisp, reached out announcing that it was “launching the most affordable and secure medical abortion offering across Washington and 6 other states.” The cost? The “most affordable on the market at just $200.” This doesn’t pass the sniff test: In Washington, where state Medicaid dollars cover abortion, the most affordable medication abortion on the market is one that doesn’t cost anything.

I wrote the company back asking why it was framing its product as the most affordable option in light of that. It never wrote back.

But its existence says a lot on its own. When there are real gaps in access to health care and persistent inequities, companies embracing girlboss language and a tie-in to the news cycle stand to benefit greatly, even if they do little to meaningfully alleviate gaps in access to care, despite their claims.

On its website, Leda Health’s stated mission is “to better help survivors, their loved ones, and the communities in which they live” by “changing the landscape of sexual assault prevention, care and healing.”

The need to reimagine support for sexual assault survivors is real. It’s just not one the company seems to be addressing. In Washington, survivors of sexual assault do face major barriers to treatment, one of which is that there aren’t enough nurses trained to administer forensic exams, especially in rural communities. But DIY kits outside the medical system are not the solution, just as selling emergency contraception online doesn’t meaningfully expand abortion access.

Realities like these haven’t kept these services from getting breathless coverage. And maybe that’s understandable. Maybe it’s more appealing to believe in the potential of a disruptive startup than to face the long-game work of dismantling systemic barriers people face to health care, entrenched as they are by policy and geography.

But real solutions need to take into account this complexity. To truly serve survivors, forensic exams need to be administered by qualified health care providers who are specially trained to perform them. And if someone already needs an abortion, it’s too late for emergency contraception. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

📸 Featured image by Checubus/

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