The really screwed up thing is, to put it totally honestly, I am one of the “lucky” ones.
While I’ve unfortunately experienced sexual assault nearly 10 times in my life, ranging from technically “less severe” experiences to full-on molestation or rape, I’ve never gone to the hospital for it. I’ve never taken legal action against any of my perpetrators. I’ve had to quit a job early due to my PTSD, anxiety, and depression from an assault, but unlike many survivors, I’ve never lost a job and spent weeks or months in the hospital or house-ridden because of the trauma or physical injuries due to assault.
When I say that I’m lucky, I mean there’s a nuanced and complex list of reasons and implications for exactly why. Survivors of sexual assault have had their trauma and experiences splashed through the headlines, their lives put through hell, and their stories questioned and character guillotined for simply telling their truths. I’ve experienced this too, but on a smaller scale, trying to speak about my experiences with people I know. Unlike many survivors, I have only narrowly escaped many of the medical and legal fees that often come along with being a survivor of sexual assault, due to the very fucked up fact that I felt I had to be “strong” and push through my trauma in order to continue living a “normal” life.
The same can be said for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who recently testified against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who essentially had no choice but to portray the “perfect survivor” and be polite, calm, and strategic in order to gain people’s sympathy, all while not being afforded the actual benefit of a doubt from the law or the systems that should protect them. Survivors, including Ford and Anita Hill who testified against Clarence Thomas in 1991, deserve restorative justice, and more than that, they deserve reparations and money for the ways they’ve suffered at the hands of uncaring systems and a society steeped in rape culture and misogyny.
If you want to know what it costs, physically, emotionally, mentally, and for many survivors, monetarily and economically, to be a survivor of sexual assault, this is it:
Doctors and clinical psychologists have noted that, for many survivors of sexual assault and abuse, the most common diagnoses are depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects of these mental health conditions are lasting, and they can even translate into physical illness. For myself and the aftermath of my experiences with being sexually assaulted, the costs have been largely related to my mental health, and have then manifested as physical later. As I said, I’ve been lucky to not have experienced anything so physically violent or traumatic that I absolutely needed to go to a hospital, which could have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills from treatments. But aside from medical treatment, whether mental or physical, sexual assault often leaves a lasting emotional scar, the wounds of which often demand attention at a moment’s notice — and that often means money. In fact, in 2017, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine released research on the cost of rape, which came out to a horrifying lifetime total of $122,461.
In the last several years, I myself have spent hundreds of dollars on various legal weapons — including knives, special devices and tools that sit on keys or as rings, and pepper sprays — in order to feel safe simply existing and walking around in the world. I’d estimate I’ve spent about $500 minimum. I’ve also had to take at least ten days off of work in my life due to sexual assault and trauma from it, which has cost me roughly $2,000 in lost wages, if not more. (And the upsetting thing is, that’s almost nothing compared to survivors who must take months to years off work, either bedridden or emotionally spent, to recover from trauma, which can leave people totally bankrupt or otherwise financially out-of-luck, if not homeless or dead. The closest I’ve ever gotten to that was when I was 19 and narrowly escaped being raped while walking home in the middle of the night after a long shift at the fast food place I was working at over the summer. I had to quit the job early because my PTSD, anxiety, and depression was so bad I couldn’t function. Had one thing been different, any one of my sexual assaults could have cost me my life.
I’ve also had to put away thousands of dollars for health insurance and therapy. If I had to estimate what that’s cost me over the last five years that I’ve actively worked on this trauma and gone to groups for survivors and therapy, it would likely be around $2,000, which is, again, incredibly cheap compared to recovery processes of some survivors. In addition to other traumatic life events and mental health issues that I need to go to therapy to work through, my experiences with being a sexual assault survivor have caused me so much additional hardship. That’s plain to see in the sheer amount of therapy I require, and plain to see in my bills.
As for the costs beyond preventative measures and medical bills, being a survivor of sexual assault often costs so much both monetarily and emotionally from the way trauma alters you. During a time in college when I was trying to recover from constant flashbacks of sexual assault, and in living circumstances that made me feel unsafe and in danger of experiencing something similar again, I took up a bad habit of constantly drinking. Over the course of three months, I quickly became an alcoholic to numb the difficulty of simply existing, which cost me about $1,000 total. At one point, it could have cost me my entire college education and life; I had spent so much money on alcohol that I nearly missed an important payment. Thanks to therapy and support from people in my life, I was able to recover, stop drinking, and stop coping in such an unhealthy and costly way.
But that didn’t mean I stopped paying for my trauma in other ways. Any time I’m not in the confines of my room, I feel generally skittish, rightly paranoid that at any moment, someone I trust could turn on me and put me in a traumatic, unwanted sexual situation, or that when I’m walking around, especially at night, I could be attacked. This has also led me to, at times, spend unreasonable amounts of money to calm myself down and feel safe. Panic attacks triggered by PTSD flashbacks, episodes where I physically relive an assault, and anxiety surrounding sexual assaults on a smaller scale have cost me hundreds if not thousands of dollars in stress eating and binging foods. I’ve also invested a lot of money in making myself feel safer in my own room at night. I’ve taken up being a Candle Connoisseur, and have probably spent close to $500 on candles in the last few years. I’ve also purchased different kinds of pillows and blankets that make me feel better. Most recently, I’m thinking of investing in a weighted blanket, which will be about $100 and will likely help with my severe insomnia.
Additionally, I’ve spent money on all kinds of things that I thought would either make me feel safer, or help me to repress the pain and trauma — the creeping memories of a hand on my skin, of being held down, or feeling so physically trapped and at a loss that I can’t breathe or think straight. I’m beginning to dabble in trying CBD products for my insomnia, which I’ve experienced since I was about 8 years old, and which started because of extreme nightmares about sexual assault due to experiences early on in my life. For most of my life, I’ve tried numerous kinds of over-the-counter and homeopathic sleep remedies and pills, which have likely totaled $500 or more as well, but I’ve yet to try something prescribed and not over-the-counter. I’m afraid of medication and changing my brain chemistry, even after all these years.
All in all, I’d say it’s accurate to estimate that I’ve spent at least $6,000 in my life trying to recover. That’s equivalent to at least six months of rent in New York City, or a few years of being able to afford better health insurance. That’s equivalent to a cheap move. That’s equivalent to two vacations. That’s equivalent to a whole lot I could have had in savings by now, that I will never, ever get back.
The cost of trauma is so high, financially, mentally, and emotionally. No one chooses to go through trauma. It is not survivors’ burden to bear all of the costs, and yet we bear them anyway. We are tasked with making it through our own lives, often with little help from systems and people who could and should be doing more, and then given the responsibility of being kind and calm enough to people, never too demanding or angry or hurt or exhausted, so that we can gain sympathy from the right people in order to be given the support we need to simply exist. And that alone, totally separate from the trauma we’ve already experienced and are often made to relive with each news cycle, is exhausting as is.
I won’t try to speak for all survivors because I can’t, for many reasons. I am a white, straight-passing woman who has been lucky and privileged enough to surpass some of the awful disadvantages and experiences that other survivors have been burdened with. But from my own experiences, and from the conversations I’ve had with other survivors, I can speak for myself in saying that, as a survivor, I want you to care about us, and support us, sure. However, more than that, I want people to fight for survivors in turning every damn system inside out, so that they stop screwing us over.
We need consequences for perpetrators, especially the white men who so easily get away with the violence they impose. And most of all, we need more than one-page ads, social media fodder, sexual assault survivor-themed cupcakes, or empty words. We need your money. We need your involvement in protests, campaigns, voting — all of the civic engagement you can muster. We need you to hold corporations, governments, and systems accountable for the policies they may or may not have that prohibit survivors from justice, that allow perpetrators to get away without consequence. We need your action. That action can start with simply educating yourself about what survivors go through and might have faced in their lives, and then lead to actual advocacy on behalf of survivors.
Stop laughing at rape jokes. Call them out for what they are, which is a way to undermine and discredit survivors. Make a pledge to believe people who come forward with their stories. If you have time, lend it to survivors. If you have money, give it to survivors. If you speak to people who seem to have internalized such an unhealthy understanding of sex or consent that you think they might be a danger to someone else, talk to them. Learn about bystander intervention. The truth is, many people could be doing more for survivors, especially those most marginalized and abused by systems — native women, black women, women of color across a spectrum of backgrounds and identities, immigrant women, transgender people, homeless people, incarcerated people, minors… the list goes on and on. And it shouldn’t be on survivors’ shoulders to be the only ones fighting for themselves and for restorative justice.
While I’ve detailed some of the costs of having experienced sexual assault, I want to make it crystal clear that no bill or bank statement can outweigh the root of the monetary or economic costs, which is the trauma that requires years of undoing. Those years, those lifetimes, cost survivors not just in what we must literally pay to try to take care of ourselves and recover, but also often our livelihood, our friends and families, our partners, ourselves — the simple dreams of the lives we wanted to live or thought we were going to live before our bodily autonomy, and thus control over our lives, was stripped from us.
Unfortunately, while I’d love to give a final number for what being a survivor of sexual assault has actually, literally cost me so far in my life, I can’t. There is no completely accurate number that I can give. It is always increasing. It is always stretching. Changing. But I can say that the cost is too damn high. And it shouldn’t be survivors’ price to pay.
In terms of giving your money and time to survivors, here are some great organizations and causes you can donate to:
- Time’s Up
- Safe Horizon
- Collective Action for Safe Spaces
- National Women’s Law Center
- Ending Violence Against Native Women
- Stop Violence Against Women
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
And if you know or love a survivor in your life, Venmo them $10 for coffee or take them for a treat. They might be going through hell… and survivors need any kind of support they can get.
Elly is a New York-based writer and communications strategist who works very hard to feel worthy of eating lox bagels for breakfast. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here, or follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash