#MeToo: Sexual assault inflicts dire economic costs as well

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Earlier this month, a new hashtag — #MeToo — inundated U.S. social media. Spurred by shocking allegations of sexual violence committed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, untold numbers of Americans shared their disturbing experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

The Weinstein scandal reminded us, yet again, that these morally repugnant crimes are the source of deep-seated suffering, upheaval and emotional stress for millions of victims across the country. 

{mosads}While the social costs of domestic violence and sexual assault typically dominate the public conversation, now is a time to also question whether the appalling pervasiveness of these crimes pose a very real threat to our country’s economic well-being. 


National figures suggest that more than one-in-three women and one-in-four men have experienced violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, and nearly one-in-five women have been raped at some time in their lives. The prevalence of intimate partner violence and sexual violence is as high, or even higher, among LGBTQI individuals than the general population.

This means that tens of millions of survivors are impacted by sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. This causes disruptions in everything from workplace productivity to physical health to achievement in the classroom.

Economic research has shed some light on ways that domestic violence and sexual assault manifest in economic costs. To start, take additional spending on medical care, including mental health expenses. One study found that the average health bill for victims seeking treatment due to intimate partner violence (IPV) amounted to $2,665 in 1995, or over $4,000 today.

Workplace productivity can suffer. For those survivors with the fortitude to keep their jobs, lost productivity owing to absenteeism and distraction is steep. One study put the indirect costs of lost productivity due to IPV at about $1.8 billion in 1995 dollars, or almost $3 billion today.

The same study estimated that more than 13.5 million total days of both household and paid work are lost due to IPV. Other studies show that the burden of domestic violence is especially acute on the job stability of low-income women. All told, domestic violence costs the economy over 30,000 jobs a year

Then there is the higher cost of public services such as law enforcement, courts and housing support. The impact of domestic violence on police resources alone is immense. Even though many women subject to domestic abuse never report it, domestic violence constitutes the largest and most deadly category of calls to police.

A 2016 study by the Department of Justice found that when police officers were killed responding to a call, the most common cause was officers responding to reports of domestic violence.

Abuse has been proven to disrupt education. Studies show that children who witness domestic violence in a home are not the only ones affected; it also lowers achievement for other students in that child’s class at school.

The high frequency of sexual assault on college campuses — with female students facing a one-in-five chance of sexual assault and LGBTQ students facing even higher numbers — surely leads to lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

In one recent study, 22 percent of student victims considered transferring or dropping out of school altogether. These diminished educational outcomes can lower earnings for the entirely of an individual’s working life. 

Cumulatively, these crimes impose a staggering cost on society. For example, the World Bank found that IPV alone carries a cost of 1–2 percent of GDP across a range of countries. Extrapolating this to the U.S. would put the total cost of IPV at around $300 billion. Adding in other forms of sexual and domestic violence would push this estimate even higher.

The soaring economic cost of this epidemic suggests that we are investing too few public resources into prevention and services. Indeed, preventing these crimes can lead to marked payoffs down the road.

One study showed that the landmark Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) reduced medical and social service costs by an estimated $12.6 billion in its first six years alone — a statistic lawmakers should keep in mind when VAWA comes up for reauthorization next year.

Americans are right to be sickened by reports of widespread sexual assault and domestic violence. But this abuse is not just a moral concern; it carries economic costs, too.

Just as our nation readily responds to economic threats like hurricanes and the opioid epidemic with public resources, domestic and sexual violence prevention and response deserve the same consideration.

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez was the White House adviser on violence against women for the Obama administration and is a clinical law professor at University of Miami School of Law. Ben Harris was the chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and is a visiting associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Tags Domestic violence Intimate partner violence Joe Biden Sexual abuse Sexual assault Sexual violence Violence Violence Against Women Act

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