In September, as the Senate Judiciary Committee moved toward approving the Supreme Court nomination of an accused sexual abuser, Congress quietly failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which funds critical social and legal services for domestic and sexual violence cases. The law itself hobbled on, with a temporary extension funding; Brett Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court as the surrounding scandal receded from the media spotlight; and business as usual resumed in Washington.
The silencing of survivors, both on the Senate floor and in Capitol Hill's legislative churn, spoke to the hushed efficiency with which the cost of abuse is filed into the shadows of the public consciousness. And that's the social burden survivors bare every day at work, in school, and in their communities.
The social and economic impacts of intimate partner violence cost an estimated $8.3 billion nationwide each year — $6.2 billion for physical assault alone, along with other financial impacts from stalking and sexual abuse.
But individual survivors pay a substantive price for their survival over a lifetime, according to a new survey by Institute for Women’s Policy and Research which details the quiet ways in which intimate partner abuse bleeds into victims’ public lives.
Based on surveys and interviews with more than 140 racially and economically diverse survivors — the vast majority women, with a median age of about 38 — the study revealed that, for more than eight in 10 respondents, abuse had “disrupted their ability to work.” About half reported having lost a job as a result of their abuse, and of those, more than a third remained out of work for at least a year.
Nearly three-quarters of the survivors reported suffering some form of financial abuse, including abusers stealing from their paychecks or skimming their public benefits. Nearly a quarter reported a total loss over the course of the relationship of at least $10,000. Many had spent thousands during and after the relationships to treat abuse-related injury and psychological trauma—in addition to dealing with the chronic trauma of sexual coercion, including unplanned pregnancy.
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Other studies put the costs of having been abused at more than $100,000 for women, and $23,000 for men.
Other studies put the costs of having been abused — including losses in health, work productivity and criminal justice involvement — at more than $100,000 for women, and $23,000 for men.
Real restitution for survivors requires more than just assuring their physical safety, or even legal punishment for abusers. They need justice in every aspect of their lives, from attorneys for family court, to paid leave at work to recover from trauma, to long-term psychotherapy. But today, the collateral damage that besieges survivors’ health, careers and family lives reflects the social deficits that women face throughout society.
Every blow an abuser lands on a victim is freighted with society’s indifference. Employers, courts, and welfare systems all have a stake in maintaining that silence — out of shame, or for profit — and survivors are left burdened by the debt no one else is willing to carry.
Our “lean in” culture encourages women to be bolder at work, to advocate fiercely for raises and promotions. But how many women's career prospects are dimmed by an abuser's shadow? The woman who never talks at meetings; the trainee who keeps her mouth shut when her supervisor gropes her: How much of that reticence in their work performance is enforced at home, under a partner’s fist?
For many, the pain of survival can come at the cost of a career. Among survey respondents, about 20 percent said they had missed out on a promotion and 40 percent said they had lost other job opportunities because of their abuse — underscoring the overlap between the burden of domestic violence and the gender pay gap in the workforce. One survivor recalled, “I never felt worthy enough to try for a promotion.” Another interviewee described the humiliation of having her identity stolen and finding her name and personal information registered on thousands of porn websites: “I was scared that’s why I wasn’t being hired.”
Or, occasionally, the worlds of home and work life collide: One interviewee recalled that her partner “would show up and harass the staff...yelling at all the men that worked there or asking all the men if I was sleeping with any of them,” with predictable effects.
The collateral damage that besieges survivors’ health, careers and family lives reflects the social deficits that women face throughout society.
For the two-thirds of respondents whose educations had been disrupted, abusers not only often blocked them from attending class, but also destroyed their self-confidence in their schooling. One survivor recalled her partner telling her that she “would never pass...was worthless, and could never handle a career.”
And while economic independence is critical for recovery, sexual oppression and violence on the job form yet another barrier to escaping domestic abuse. About 40 percent those who were first victimized by domestic violence reported additionally suffering “harassment at work from an owner, manager, or co-worker,” typically through unwanted touching or sexual comments. One in seven survivors said they had been sexually assaulted at work.
Many might ultimately escape abuse only through a courtroom: About a quarter of respondents reported being “encouraged, pressured or forced by their partner to engage in an illegal activity,” which could range from drug trafficking to coerced sex work. Over three-quarters of women in prison are estimated to have suffered past physical or sexual violence.
And immigrant women could be trapped on three sides: a violent home, a brutal immigration detention system, or deportation to a violent or unstable homeland — especially now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared that domestic violence is not grounds for immigrant women to claim asylum. And the same Republican lawmakers who are stifling federal anti-domestic violence protections are inflicting a double-blow to migrant survivors, besieging their communities with not only deportation campaigns, but also systematic denial of special legal relief for immigrant victims of violence.
The Violence Against Women Act already suffered from massive underfunding before its current temporary extension. Meanwhile, the Trump administration seeks to slash legal aid and public benefits programs that survivors rely on; the “savings” politicians boast about with every round of budget cuts are actually meted out on the backs of survivors.
Long after the bruises fade, the trauma of domestic abuse continues to take its toll — not just in a survivor’s body and mind, but in their wages and our public coffers. Although the physical wounds are the most visible in the public discourse, across women’s lives, subtler scars remain, as reflections of our dual crisis of public health and social inequity.