Sexual assault is a heinous and traumatizing crime, made worse by the fact that far too few victims are believed, allowing their perpetrators to escape punishment.
As we near the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, many of the statistics around the crime are familiar. One in five American women will be raped at some point during their lifetimes. Nearly all sexual violence is perpetrated by someone who is known to the victim.
College students are particularly at risk, with nearly a quarter of college-aged women experiencing sexual abuse during their time on campus. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
Despite these well-documented — and shocking — numbers, rape is the most under-reported crime. Out of every 1,000 rapes, only 310 are reported to police and, of these, only 57 lead to arrests, according to Department of Justice figures. Eleven of these cases will be referred to prosecutors, and there will be felony convictions in seven of them. Six perpetrators will serve time in jail.
When simple math shows that if 99 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence will not be prosecuted, victims are often left wondering why they should bother reporting the crime at all.
Beyond math, there are vast — and horrifying — reasons that survivors (who are predominantly female) do not report their assaults. Shame. Threats. Fear. Survival. There are myriad reasons for not reporting their assaults.
This silence and our collective failure to believe and support survivors or to prosecute perpetrators comes at a high cost. While it is impossible to tally the full cost of the toll that silence and fear takes on survivors, recent research has put a price tag on some of the consequences of this violence.
“Although placing a dollar value on the suffering resulting from violent crime may seem cold and impersonal, such information is useful in the public policy arena. Without a common metric to compare various crimes, it is difficult to assess the merits of criminal justice or victim assistance programs,” the National Institute of Justice wrote in a report on the costs of crime in the U.S.
Rape costs the U.S. more than any other crime, according to data from the institute, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice. These costs include medical care, counseling and diminished quality of life.
These costs are individual and societal. For individuals, the costs include diminished health and lost productivity, which can reduce their earnings. Societal costs similarly include lost productivity, plus spending on criminal justice and incarceration. Recent research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that these costs totaled more than $122,000 per victim over their lifetime. This added up to a total economic burden of more than $3 trillion. About a third of these costs are borne by the government, which has a large role in reducing these costs.
Legislation, like LD 1171 in Maine — which would increase state funding for sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and victim support, and was passed by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee — is a small step in this direction.
Preventing sexual violence and assisting its survivors, of course, is not just about saving money. It is first and foremost about protecting the health and wellbeing of all Americans. Yet, avoiding unnecessary expenses and losses should be another motivation for policymakers and others to take these crimes — and their consequences — more seriously.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.