I recently did a straw poll of the women in my life and realised that I know more survivors of sexual assault than I do mothers.
The national statistics are staggering – according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “one in three women … in the US have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.” US Department of Justice data shows that only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. That means two out of every three incidents go unreported. Often times, even when these incidents are reported, they’re not taken seriously.
I still can’t believe that this is the reality of most of the women I know. The sun will rise in the east, the sun will set in the west, you’ll get your period, and you’ll probably be sexually assaulted at some point in your life. That’s a raw deal.
But as I watched Dr Christine Blasey Ford give testimony about how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her – a moment of reluctant unity for at least one third of women in the US – my mind was focused on the economic cost of sexual assault on women.
I asked myself: Is there a causal relationship between experiencing the event and aftermath of assault, and the lack of economic parity that exists between genders in the US and abroad? In addition to everything else that holds women back financially and professionally, could the prevalence of assault also help explain why women make up an infinitesimal margin of the ruling class and power elite? How do the long-term effects of surviving assault continue to impact survivors in every way, including achievement?
Let us take the case of Dr Ford, who had to put her mental, emotional, and physical safety on the line to report the sexual assault she suffered. During her testimony she was asked to discuss the short and long-term impacts of being a survivor. Dr Ford mentioned her first two “disastrous” years as an undergrad at University of North Carolina. Although she went on to earn a PhD, those disastrous times could have cost her academic career.
Imagine all the women who experienced life-long economic disadvantage from the devastating trauma brought on by assault. Perhaps due to the resulting anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they are unable to go back to work or complete college, or even if they do, they subsequently struggle financially or are unable to advance in their careers.
In the simplest of terms, survivors and the subsequent decrease in accumulation of wealth they experience is lost human capital. As has been proven time and time again, the more capital that’s funneled into an economy, the more robust that economy. By allowing “boys to be boys” with impunity, we’re not only compromising on a social contract of civility, we’re actually preventing a third of the female population from fulfilling their economic potential, which is handicapping the American economy, plain and simple.
The research findings that are offered about the costs of sexual assault are in no way exhaustive, but they do offer a slice of the pie. For example, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total cost survivors incurred as a result of sexual assault was $18m in 2002. Adjusted to today, that number would probably be significantly higher.
The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence states “survivors who were sexually assaulted during adolescence have been found to have reduced income as adults, with an estimated lifetime income loss of $241,600.”
One study by the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault indicates that “one cause of reduced lifetime income is related to reduced education.” They contend that women who have survived sexual abuse are three times more likely not to complete high school, compared to women reporting no sexual abuse. But even if one graduates from high school and gets higher education, the financial burden of being a survivor remains significant.
Take me, for example. I – an upper middle-class coastal dweller and a woman of colour – am a two-time survivor. My first experience was when I was 9 or 10, I don’t recall. Yes, there is a journal with tearful scribblings, exact dates, and shameful admissions of something just not being right – I just can’t offer those details at present because I’m rage-writing this piece from an airplane on my way to a work trip. But it did happen. When I decided to confront this reality at 18, I was told I could either sweep it under the rug, I could come forth and shame my family and myself, or I could try therapy and hope for the best.
I paid a dear price for waiting so long to address my past – I paid in the form of PTSD, anxiety, and serious panic attacks. One statistic from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 81 percent of women are impacted by PTSD, post-incident. According to the same organisation, health care costs are 16 percent higher for women who were sexually abused as children. To sum it up, therapy costs money, and so does anxiety medication. It doesn’t end there.
I also pay a price for taking time off of work to attend these appointments, not to mention the time it takes to recover after a panic attack. That is time during which I’m not working and earning. For those of you who have experienced an authentic panic attack, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, it really does feel like you’re dying. And it’s hard to revive yourself afterwards – sometimes it takes days. And in this economy, time is money.
My second experience was later in life and did include an all-too-common mix of alcohol, drugs, and a romantic entanglement which make it harder for some to label the incident as rape. But when a woman says no (physically or verbally) and the incident happens anyway, the psychological toll is the same. Once again, I am paying a price – but there’s an economic angle to this too. Since the incident, I had upped my therapy to twice a week and was thinking of seeing someone for additional mental health assistance in the form of a psychiatrist. That all costs money.
After this incident occurred, I felt the same feelings I did as a child. I felt vulnerable, unsafe, confused, and a little less courageous. In turn, I felt slightly less emboldened to go after the things I want, the things I am interested in, the things I need to do to fulfill my life’s intention – and that includes my professional path.
I do think that as a result of what I went through, I was more compelled to go into non-profit work – to spend my days working towards a more equal world – as opposed to going into finance or consulting, paths that were also offered to me as a result of where I’m from and how much schooling I have been lucky enough to have.
I’ve learned through years of therapy that I have a deleterious tendency to help others before helping myself. And I am learning that the reason I’m like that is because this thing happened when I was younger; this thing that I couldn’t control, I’m now trying to “fix” it by working in non-profit and social justice.
Professional trajectories matter and going into social work or the non-profit sector oftentimes requires a secondary degree. Now on top of costs for therapy, costs for meds, you likely add on student debt. That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of toll to pay forward for situations that you couldn’t control.
For the last ten plus years I’ve been threading the needle between advocacy and media, lending my voice to the voiceless, offering my time and intellect to somewhat intractable goals like achieving equality, liberty, and justice for all. I don’t do this because I’m a good person. I do it because it’s compulsive. I have to do it because of two reasons: If I don’t, then I am complicit in a system that is inherently and systematically unequal in relation to my gender and I do it because no one did this for me.
Which leads me to circle back to my thesis. Would it be better for me and maybe the economy if I worked in the for-profit sector? If I was in finance, consulting, or some other more lucrative field? If I made more money and didn’t have to account for the cost of being a survivor?
Why are women not running the world? Or at the very least occupying more positions of power and control? After witnessing this circus of a confirmation hearing, I am now convinced that the prevalence of assault could be a contributing factor.
Once again, not only is there a significant psychological and emotional toll to sexual assault, but there’s a literal economic toll. Being a survivor has hindered my economic growth, potential, and in turn, my economic health, and I’m pissed about it.
As I crest on my 34th turn around the sun, I’m reconsidering this path and I’m starting to adjust my professional trajectory for purely economic reasons. Only I have the agency to change my professional trajectory and become financially sound, but not everyone can do that. Plenty of more disadvantaged women struggle with the trauma, often cannot afford therapy or proper health care, and as a result are unable to emerge from the cycle of poverty they have been living in.
And in particular, women of colour survivors, living within a capitalist framework where most of us are statistically likely to make less than many of our white counterparts, suffer financially that much more.
If there’s something we should come away with from this hellish and insane news coverage of the Kavanaugh accusations, it is that sexual assault exacts a heavy toll not only on the women who have gone through it, but on our society as a whole. And it is time this becomes part of our national conversation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.