Expert Commentary

The multi-trillion-dollar cost of sexual violence: Research roundup

Estimates put the the economic cost of sexual violence in the United States in the trillions of dollars.

(Photo by Fibonacci Blue licensed under Creative Commons.)

The U.S. has a sexual violence problem. Look at the numbers:

  • More than one-third of women and one-quarter of men in the U.S. will experience sexual violence during their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • More than one-third of women in the U.S. frequently or occasionally worry about becoming a victim of sexual assault, according to Gallup’s 2018 Crime Poll.
  • The U.S. and the Syrian Arab Republic tied for third-worst for perceived threat of sexual violence against women – out of United Nations member states – in a recent Thomson Reuters poll of 548 experts on women’s issues.
  • The U.S. falls roughly in the top quarter globally for the percentage of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sexual violence perpetrators often leave victims and survivors with a raft of physical and mental health consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual violence survivors, victims and society also face economic costs. Rape and attempted rape can cost survivors more than $120,000 over their lifetimes, according to CDC research explained below. Society loses out in the form of lost productivity and through criminal justice and medical costs. More than 25 million adults have been raped in the U.S. and the crime carries a total economic burden of almost $3.1 trillion, according to the CDC research.

“Reasons one, two and three why one should look at the economics: money matters,” says Liz Karns, a senior lecturer at Cornell University who integrates research on the economic consequences of sexual violence into legal arguments. “Once we attach a financial cost to any kind of wrong or injury we can start discussing who should pay for that.”

Below is some of the most recent research on the economic costs of sexual violence – but first, a quick note: In this article, JR follows recommendations from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network on whether to use sexual violence “victim” or “survivor.” RAINN uses “victim” to refer to people recently affected by sexual violence, and “survivor” after a victim has gone through recovery.

Recently, people affected by sexual violence have written about their experiences, while #MeToo has heightened public awareness of sexual violence and harassment. Some prefer “victim.” The choice is the individual’s. When covering someone affected by sexual violence, “the best way to be respectful is to ask for their preference,” according to RAINN’s website.

Now, the research:

Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape Among U.S. Adults

Peterson, Cora; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. June 2017.

This landmark CDC study is among the first to include a range of long-term economic consequences of rape beyond criminal justice costs, according to the authors. They find that individuals and taxpayers bear massive lifetime economic costs that total more than the annual Gross Domestic Product of all but four of the world’s largest economies.

  • Individual rape victims encounter an estimated lifetime economic cost of $122,461.
  • The lifetime economic cost of rape across all U.S. victims is nearly $3.1 trillion.
  • “This value represents costs already incurred (for example, among older adults who were victimized in their youth) and costs yet to come (for example, among younger adults with recent victimization) across the U.S. adult population,” author Cora Peterson explains in an email.
  • It includes $1.2 trillion in medical costs, $1.6 trillion in lost productivity at work for victims and perpetrators, and $234 billion in criminal justice costs.
  • Governments pay about $1 trillion of the lifetime economic burden of rape. Government spending includes criminal justice, adoption and medical costs. The authors cite a small sample of 34 rape-related pregnancies that found about 6% of women placed the baby for adoption.

Short-term Lost Productivity per Victim: Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, or Stalking

Peterson, Cora; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. July 2018.

A follow-up to the previous CDC study, this research quantifies the number of productive days people lose when they experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence or stalking. In this research, productive days lost means lost school or work days.

  • Each victim was victimized by an average of 2.5 perpetrators, and victims lost 741 million productive days with nearly five days lost per victim, on average.
  • Each victim, on average, lost the equivalent of $730 in short-term productivity, and there was $110 billion in lost short-term productivity across all victims’ lifetimes.
  • Most victims — 79 percent of women, 90 percent of men — reported no lost days.
  • The authors calculated short-term lost productivity as the number of days lost multiplied by daily production value estimates from other academic research and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The Economic Burden of Child Sexual Abuse in the United States

Letourneau, Elizabeth J.; et al. Child Abuse & Neglect. May 2018.

The researchers tabulate the economic costs of child sexual abuse nationally, including costs related to health care, productivity loss, child welfare, violence and crime, special education and suicide. For this research, productivity loss means a victim or survivor’s potential loss of earnings stemming from sexual abuse that occurred during childhood.

  • The authors estimate there were more than 40,000 new, nonfatal cases of child sexual abuse and 20 new fatal cases in 2015.
  • The average lifetime cost for female and male victims of nonfatal child sexual abuse tops $282,000 — though most of this total is due to productivity loss and information on productivity loss for males was insufficient, according to the authors.
  • The lifetime economic burden of fatal and nonfatal child sexual abuse is $9.3 billion.

Long-term Impacts of College Sexual Assaults on Women Survivors’ Educational and Career Attainments

Potter, Sharyn; et al. Journal of American College Health. March 2018.

In this exploratory study, 81 women who said they were sexually assaulted in college provide insight on how sexual violence affected their lifetime education trajectory and career attainment.

  • Two-thirds of participants reported a negative impact on their academic goals, while about 14 percent reported no impact.
  • One-third completed their college degree on schedule, while nearly a quarter did not complete their degree and were no longer enrolled.
  • Some reported their interrupted education path also hindered their career goals. Some also drew a direct line from the sexual violence they experienced to underemployment and workforce performance issues.

Economic Insecurity and Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Victimization

Breiding, Matthew J.; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. October 2017

People in poverty experience higher rates of intimate partner and sexual violence. The authors focus specifically on how food and housing insecurity relate to intimate partner and sexual violence rates.

  • Controlling for age, family income, race and ethnicity, education and marital status, this research finds strong associations between food and housing insecurity and intimate partner and sexual violence.
  • The researchers note that this work does not indicate whether violence leads to economic insecurity or vice versa — and there could be another variable that explains the association.

Rape as an Economic Crime: The Impact of Sexual Violence on Survivors’ Employment and Economic Well-Being

Loya, Rebecca M. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. November 2014.

The author conducted in-depth interviews with service providers from 18 rape crisis centers in two metropolitan areas in the Northeast, and 9 sexual violence survivors — 8 of whom had been raped at least once. In addition to the findings below, this research includes narratives on the economic costs survivors encountered.

  • Seven survivors needed to take time off work after violence occurred, while 15 providers reported their clients needed time off work during recovery.
  • Four survivors reported that their work suffered due to sexual violence — several were also fired or quit — and 13 providers reported their clients experienced declines in work performance.
  • Participants suggested that counseling and support services may help survivors reduce economic hardship.
  • “They are in jobs where if they don’t show up, they don’t get paid,” according to one provider speaking about her clients and quoted in this research. “Maybe they can take two weeks off, but that means they’re not going to get paid those two weeks. So that pretty quickly affects someone’s ability to pay their rent and pay their utility bills and buy food and take care of their kids. And then that also affects them emotionally and their ability to continue to function.”

Tips and ideas for journalists covering sexual violence

  • For reporters exploring solutions to stopping sexual violence, the CDC offers an extensive report on prevention strategies for communities and states. One angle to explore is the cost-effectiveness of prevention, according to Peterson, whereby the economic costs of preventing sexual violence may be well-offset by long-term economic societal savings.
  • Don’t overlook the opportunity to share the victim’s or survivor’s experience. “There tends to be this focus on the accused and his cost and how his life has changed and we need to stop saying the accused is the focus,” Karns says. “We need to continually go back to the victim and say, ‘We know this person has been injured, how does that play out?’”
  • Most lawyers are not trained to incorporate victims’ rights in their defense strategies — examine the effects that lack of training has on how lawyers represent sexual violence clients. “If they were to put questions on the bar exam about victims’ rights, we would start to see training around victims’ rights and better practice around victims’ rights,” Karns says. “Say there were another tort case, malpractice or a car accident, [lawyers] know exactly how to value that. They don’t do that in this area.”
  • The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and RAINN offer tips for journalists interviewing survivors and victims of sexual violence. The Society of Professional Journalists offers a case study on naming victims of sexual violence.

There are numerous legal and other support services for victims and survivors of sexual violence, including SurvJustice, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and RAINN.


For more information on covering sexual violence, read about a study that links journalists’ coverage of sexual assault with the prevalence of rape in society and how seriously police take reports when victims come forward.

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