When municipalities settle sexual assault and harassment suits with taxpayers' money, Americans literally pay for the sexual predation we seem unwilling to confront.
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Earlier this month, the City of Chicago decided to settle a lawsuit brought by five female paramedics alleging sexual harassment at the hands of fellow members of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD). Rather than go to court, the city will cut checks to the tune of $1.825 million, an expensive but no doubt smart move—the city’s Inspector General recently found CFD’s rules for sexual harassment prevention to be “insufficient,” and a jury might have followed the lead of a similar case in nearby Country Club Hills, IL, in which a single plaintiff was awarded $11 million. Seen in that light, not-quite-$2 million seems like a deal!
But a deal for whom, exactly? The “City of Chicago” doesn’t pay for anything—taxpayers do. In a city in which kindergartners are sometimes stuffed 40-deep in their classrooms; in which potholes are so omnipresent as to inspire art; in which gun violence prevention programs beg for funding while the death toll climbs—might taxpayers not have better uses for that $1.825 million? Come to that, how happy were the residents of Country Club Hills with their $11 million payout?
In October 2017, Americans began an extraordinary and entirely unprecedented conversation about sexual assault and harassment. What started with the seeds of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall swiftly became what was called a movement but was really more of a collective howl, its requisite hashtag, first used by activist Tarana Burke, also a simple statement of fact: Me too.
On broadcast and social media, in our homes and workplaces, the reality of sexualized violence with which women and girls reckon every day was abruptly amplified from whisper to roar, its psychic burden sketched, its emotional toll weighed. What we forgot to talk about was money.
It is absolutely imperative to air and acknowledge individual stories, but even in the context of a vast national awakening, granular details can serve to obscure collective cost—even discussions of the broader impact of sexualized violence tend to focus on the sociological rather than the budgetary.
When Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice despite credible accusations of attempted rape, exactly one year and one day after Ashley Judd publicly accused Weinstein, America seemed to lose some of its nerve. What had been a roar became a mumbled undercurrent, no more so perhaps than in our ongoing response to the then-president’s sexual crimes.
Part of why sexual harassment and assault can disappear from daily conversation is, paradoxically, their ubiquity. As our attention has turned to each new crisis, the threat of sexualized violence has continued to beat its steady and familiar rhythm, every minute of every day, in every community, profession, and online gathering. We are inured, long habituated to treating crimes against women as an inevitability, the very literal expense a near-invisible line item in our budgets.
But invisible or not, as the Chicago case shows, Americans are literally paying for the sexual predation we seem unwilling to confront. In the decade prior to Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation, more than 400 cases of sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, and rape cost local municipalities more than $55 million in the Chicago area alone—though it’s not clear how much more, because many local governments refused to cooperate with a news outlet’s investigation. Now multiply that by every city, town, and hamlet across the country. Throw in the United States Department of Justice’s expenses in defending Donald Trump in the E. Jean Carroll case.
And as bad as that number is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even if we entirely disregard payouts for cases that are successfully brought to light (far and away a minority of such incidents – for just one example, see this report by Anastasia Selby for DAME about sexual harassment in the United States Fire Service), how much does it cost us in other terms to allow half the population to terrorize the other half, if it so chooses?
We regularly tally the economics of any number of social ills: tobacco use ($300 billion a year); heart disease ($444 billion annually); excessive drinking ($2.05 per drink). The dollar amounts represent not just threats to life or limb, but far-reaching losses for the entire economy. Every American carries some financial burden for the 14 percent of us who smoke; what burden do we carry for the 50 percent of us who live with an assumed risk of sexual assault?
There are several ways to consider the question, starting with the expense generated by the most commonly recognized form of sexual violence: rape. According to the CDC, “the estimated lifetime cost of rape [is] $122,461 per victim, or a population economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion over victims’ lifetimes.”
The CDC defines “rape” as “completed or attempted penetration of the victim through the use or threats of physical force or when the victim was… unable to consent.” The per-victim expense includes medical expenses, lost work productivity, “criminal justice activities,” and “other costs,” such as property loss or damage.
So we have a figure—$3.1 trillion—but it’s very narrowly focused on one kind of sexual violence, and the CDC itself acknowledges that it’s “the minimal identifiable cost.”
But rape is far from the only form of sexual violence visited on women. Non-penetrative assault also comes with a literal cost, as does groping, stalking, and the tearing off of clothes. Even those women who have never experienced any inappropriate touch know—are trained from birth to know—that they live in the shadow of male violence and must structure their lives around it. Women lose work hours, career opportunities, and their savings to recovering from or avoiding attack; whole industries and therapeutic practices are predicated on women’s safety and recovery needs.
This economic burden is carried by every single one of us, innocent or guilty, survivor or merely at-risk. It represents untold social and cultural goals that go unmet and unimagined. What might we be able to achieve if we could invest instead in projects and policies that advance us, rather than in the wholly inadequate management of violence and its consequences?
But that is, again, a sociological question, one we’ve found very difficult to answer. So let’s circle back to the dollars we can track directly, the ones that disappear from your paycheck into some governmental coffer, only to be spent not on potholes or education but on men who have never been called upon to respect women’s humanity.
There’s no quick fix to the broader expense, but there is a pretty easy way to at least slow the drain on local, state, and national budgets: Turf these guys out. Stop shifting the expense of toxic masculinity onto the shoulders of the public, and leave it squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the men who harass and assault women, heretofore with impunity.
If men begin to lose their jobs over these behaviors, find themselves iced out of their professional circles and unable to pay their bills, they may stop hurting women—and if not the ones who get sent home, then the guys watching them leave. The women they don’t harass or assault may never know how good they have it, but they’re likely to be able to better contribute to their communities, what with not being traumatized, and all. And over time, the body politic will find its money going to far better causes than allowing the almost unfettered terrorization of half the population, at taxpayer expense.
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