The Cost Of Rape: Survivors Of Sexual Assault Are Paying Billions

Rape is a uniquely horrific crime, and the trauma continues long after the initial incident. It's also expensive, and survivors often end up paying the cost.

ER room after a trauma. Wikimedia Commons: Jacob Windham from Mobile, USA

$122,461. That's enough to pay for a college degree, to buy a house (depending on where you live), and to travel the world and enjoy life for awhile. It's also the average lifetime economic burden for a survivor of rape, according to a 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, rape is the costliest crime for victims in the United States. Survivors spend an estimated total of $127 billion annually and this does not even include child sexual abuse, which is estimated to cost families a total of $71 billion a year. 

The study divided the costs for survivors of rape is into four categories:

  • Short and long-term physical and mental health treatment
  • Lost work productivity 
  • Criminal justice
  • Property loss or damage

Researchers were careful to note that these categories only took into account the "attributable impaired health, lost productivity, and criminal justice costs from a societal perspective," but did not cover a "monetized version of [the] victim's pain and suffering."

The CDC stands apart from previous studies, as it factored long-term recovery into its calculations by evaluating the physical and mental impact of rape on a survivor. This is crucial, as rape is unique among crimes in that it is an amalgamation of things that are individually horrific and together impact the survivor in devastating, often permanent ways.

"It's kind of a perfect storm," Seth J. Gillihan told USA Today for the publication's report for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. "If you're trying to design a traumatic experience that would really stick with a person, it's hard to think of a worse one than sexual violence. It's the most potent traumatic event in terms of leading to PTSD and long-term disruptions. It has all the ingredients."

Gillihan explains that the lack of control, young age of many victims, and social stigma all contribute to the lasting consequences of rape. Additionally, rape is an interpersonal crime and most often committed by someone the victim already knows; it is betrayal at its most intimate.

"It's one of the most traumatic things that can happen to somebody," said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, to USA Today, "and most people will recover from that but the speed at which they do ... vary from person to person."

There are two things that are crucial for a survivor of rape to understand as early on as possible: It is not their fault and there is help. 

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) ensures that survivors of sexual assault cannot be charged upfront for medical forensic exams, commonly referred to as "rape kits." As NPR reports, the cost of a rape kit is covered by the government and state crime victim compensation programs funded by penalties for convicted offenders.

However, VAWA does not require that pregnancy tests, HIV tests, and other STD tests be covered, so the cost of ensuring a survivor receives proper treatment without racking up a sizable bill is left up to their insurance and the laws of the state they live in. If they are uninsured, states with more progressive protections against victims of sexual assault will ensure Crime Victim Compensation (CVC) helps cover the cost. CVC programs, while incredibly beneficial, do unfortunately have limits on amounts survivors can reimburse, and the process of submitting a claim is usually complex.

According to NPR, many hospitals will forgive whatever costs are leftover, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Even in states like Illinois, where all tests are covered, survivors can be wrongly billed. Thankfully, with the help of medical and legal advocacy organizations, these bills are redirected to collections. Illinois has even gone one step further and begun fining hospitals $500 for every unpaid bill, but mistakes continue.

"It is very common for a survivor to get a bill," said Sarah Layden, director of Advocacy Services at Rape Victims Advocates (RVA) in Chicago to CBS in 2014. "We have a full time staff advocate who spends the bulk of their time helping clients resolve bills."

That was three years ago and today RVA still helps many survivors who are billed incorrectly. 

This is where legal and medical advocates come in swinging. One of the best things a rape survivor can do is find a local sexual assault and rape advocacy organization and take full advantage of their resources and expertise. Many, like RVA, offer services that are entirely free, including legal guidance, counseling, and helping a survivor sort out whatever costs have been mistakenly incurred.

In some cities, organizations partner with local hospitals to send advocates as first responders when a victim of sexual assault comes to the emergency room. They serve as liaisons between the victim, doctors, and police while ensuring that the victim not only leaves the hospital with valuable information regarding support networks, but that they are treated with the dignity they deserve.

There is consistent movement forward to make sure that local and national resources are available and policies are in place to offer survivors the full spectrum of support, but there is still vast room for improvement. While work needs to be done to ensure that survivors are not footing the bill for their rape, the CDC study points to an additional solution that has broader, more enduring implications.

The lifetime cost for a survivor of rape can also be interpreted as "the cost averted" when a rape is prevented, the CDC's research notes. Sexual violence is preventable. Period.

Programs that focus on rape prevention have been proven successful, but they have not yet been given the greater platform needed to have wider-reaching results. Effective prevention programs start early and focus on instilling social morals that combat those dangerous values that lead to sexual assault.

Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr, Richard Potts

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