The True Cost of Women’s Silence

The culture that discouraged Christine Blasey Ford from speaking out punishes women throughout their careers.

By Rebecca Greenfield and Janet Paskin

“Almost exactly a year after revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein kick-started the #MeToo movement, another hashtag is taking off: #WhyIDidntReport. This one refers to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that District of Columbia Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, some 35 years ago.

The vast majority of people who experience rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment—which are all illegal, for the record—don’t make an official complaint. Blasey Ford didn’t either, until Kavanaugh was nominated for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. The hashtag started trending after President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend his nominee, saying that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says” he was certain charges would have been filed.

As with #MeToo, women responded with their personal stories of staying silent. Some of their reasons included: “Because I thought it wasn’t rape if you were dating,” “because I thought everyone would say it was my fault,” “because I didn’t want my mom to know I was drinking,” “because he was in my friend group.”

Women with higher profiles chose more public venues to come forward. Cookbook author and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi wrote in the New York Times that she’d been raped by a boyfriend when she was 16 and feared being cast out by her family if they knew. Rosario Marin, Treasurer of the U.S. under President George W. Bush, wrote on BuzzFeed about waiting 44 years to go public with the sexual abuse she’d experienced at the age of 5. “Kavanaugh could have done what Ford has accused him of back when he was 17 and gone on to be a remarkable student, father, husband, and judge; those two behaviors are not mutually exclusive. So the question is,” Marin wrote, “who is telling the truth regarding what happened on that day more than three decades ago? I believe her.”

It’s an undisputed fact that women often don’t report sexual violence; the Department of Justice estimates that two out of every three sexual assaults aren’t reported to the police. That makes it hard to understand the full toll of these events on individuals and on society as a whole. Using data on crime victims, several studies put the cost of rape and sexual violence somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 per victim. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2016 that the national economic burden is $263 billion a year. More than half is attributed to a general loss of workplace productivity, with medical costs, criminal justice fees, and property loss and damage each accounting for a portion. About one-third of the cost is borne by taxpayers.

“These types of events definitely cause both psychological and physiological harm. People may not sleep well. They may have more depression and anxiety. They may get headaches,” says Lisa Kath, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies workplace harassment. “And it’s all intertwined: If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not thinking well.”

The effects can show up right away, in medical bills and sick days. Or they can manifest years later. In a study of more than 3,000 women, researchers found that those who said they’d experienced childhood or adolescent sexual violence had health-care costs 16 percent higher than women who didn’t have that experience—decades after the event occurred. (Sexual violence includes coerced sex and attempted sexual abuse, not just forcible rape and ongoing predation.)

In her testimony Thursday, Blasey Ford described the legacy of her experience in her own life. She’s dealt with anxiety, claustrophobia, and post-traumatic stress-type symptoms, some of which interfered with her academics as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. More recently, when she and her husband remodeled their house, she insisted they install a second front door. “Our house does not look aesthetically pleasing from the curb,” she said.

The point is not that sexual violence, abuse, and harassment are expensive, although they are. It’s that they do damage in life-altering ways we rarely consider. For example, three-quarters of employees who experience harassment never tell their managers or HR, according to a January survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. But they do quit. In one of the only studies that looked at the effects of sexual harassment on women’s careers over time, published in June 2017 in the journal Gender & Society, researchers found that women who’ve been sexually harassed at work are six-and-a-half times more likely to leave their jobs than women who haven’t.

The same researchers also asked about 1,000 men and women if they had experienced unwanted touching, offensive jokes, or other behaviors that could be considered workplace harassment. Among the female respondents who said they’d experienced unwanted touching or at least two other, nonphysical behaviors, 80 percent said they left their jobs within two years.

When women do leave, they tend to land in positions that pay less, not more. The occupations with the highest rates of harassment also happen to be the most male-dominated, highest-paying fields. Looking for safety, women seek out spaces where they’re less likely to get harassed, which means they land in less lucrative fields or positions—a negative economic impact that persists through the rest of their working years.

In 2003, while working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, Sarah Schacht says a fellow campaign worker attempted to assault her sexually. She reported the incident to the campaign, but her assailant kept his job. By 2005, she’d left her chosen field, political technology, to pursue a path that felt safer. From the sidelines, she watched as her attacker grew increasingly successful. “These career investments you make as a young woman get destroyed,” she says. “It’s like putting a down payment on a home that the moment you buy it is blown away in a hurricane.” (Dean says he wasn’t aware of the incident. “If I’d known about it, I would’ve fired [the alleged assailant] immediately.”)

This logic may seem not to apply to what allegedly happened between Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford. They were teenagers, after all—effectively classmates, not co-workers. Some of the consequences of assaults within that age group, though, are remarkably similar. Elite colleges and prep schools are designed to foster the kinds of connections that propel their alumni’s careers. Kavanaugh attested to this at a Sept. 6 confirmation hearing, calling his high school years “very formative.” Some of his high school classmates were in attendance, he noted.

Victims are also put into the position of having to protect their future reputations. Speaking up can be “career-trajectory altering,” says Joni Hersch, an economist at Vanderbilt University who studies employment discrimination. “If you are known as that girl who complains, even informally, about ‘boys will be boys’ behavior, will you have the same opportunities to form connections that will eventually be valuable in the workplace?” Or, when your résumé crosses the desk of a former classmate in the future, do they remember hearing about “something that happened” in high school?

None of us want to be judged as adults for the worst decisions of our youth. During the teen years, the part of the brain that responds to rewards is incredibly sensitive, says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University who studies adolescence, risk-taking, and decision-making. At the same time, the part that’s responsible for self-control is still catching up. “It’s like having a car with an accelerator pressed to the floor and not a very good braking system,” says Steinberg. With age, the reward response blunts, and our self-control gets better.

This is one reason people can be convinced to forgive past misdeeds, especially if it looks like their perpetrator has changed for the better. At 30, George W. Bush was arrested for driving while intoxicated, an offense that contributes to 10,000 deaths every year. “I used to drink too much in the past,” he told reporters on the campaign trail in 2000. Five days later, Americans voted in the election that gave him the presidency.

Time, though, is often kinder to the perpetrators than it is to the victims. That 2003 campaign incident followed Schacht through a decade of her career, she says. Schacht, who now does consulting work, still worries that people who learned about the incident thought she was unprofessional. She wonders how many panels she didn’t get invited to speak on or which fellowships turned her down. “You can’t put a specific dollar amount on missed opportunities,” she says.

To some, Kavanaugh’s insistence that he has “never done anything like what the accuser describes—to her or anyone,” as he said in response to Blasey Ford’s allegation, seems, at best, politically imprudent. Why not, like Bush, acknowledge that he drank a lot—maybe too much—in his younger days, and that there are parts he can’t remember. “I don’t think I did these things,” he could say. “If I did, I’m horrified and ashamed, because that’s not who I am today.”

Since Blasey Ford came forward, more allegations have surfaced: that Kavanaugh exposed himself to Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez while they were both undergraduates; and that he and Mark Judge, a close friend during his high school days at Georgetown Prep, were present while fellow Maryland-area high school student Julie Swetnick was gang-raped at a house party in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh’s continued denials are as troubling to some as what may or may not have happened more than 35 years ago. “A single event from your teenage years doesn’t tell us much about you as an adult,” says Steinberg, the adolescent researcher. “But if it happened and he’s denying it, that tells us something about who he is today: He’s a liar, and we don’t want liars on the Supreme Court.”

The cruel twist is that it’s women who have historically been accused of lying. Many women say they don’t report sexual assault or harassment because they’re afraid no one will believe them. There’s a long-standing myth that women make false reports in order to hurt men. It’s a weird lie: Like voter fraud, false crime reports of all kinds are by all measures basically nonexistent. We certainly don’t subject victims of other crimes to the same kind of doubt.

As a result, we’ve been loath to hold men of any age accountable—until recently. As Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford prepared to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to 3 to 10 years in prison for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. She waited a year to tell anyone about it, and it took an additional 10 before he was charged with a crime.

This year, sexual harassment and assault abruptly shifted from something men could reliably get away with to something they maybe can’t. For teenagers today who aspire to the judiciary or the corner office, that’s a very different message than “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.” —With Dune Lawrence and Josh Eidelson”

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