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UOttawa lawsuit reminds us who pays the price of sexual violence

What is the cost of sexual violence? For players from the University of Ottawa men's varsity hockey team, it's about six million dollars. Sought through a class-action lawsuit against the university and its president, Allan Rock, the players are seeking damages, alleging that their reputations and athletic careers were harmed by the cancellation of this year’s hockey season.

The entire team was suspended in March of 2014, following allegations against two players (not included in the lawsuit) who have now been charged with the sexual assault of a young woman during a team trip to Thunder Bay. Claiming that the whole team has been forced to pay a steep price for the actions of just a few, the plaintiffs -- represented by lawyer Lawrence Greenspon -- allege that they have been unduly and unfairly punished for actions outside of their knowledge or control. This lawsuit echoes similar conversations that have been going on just a few provinces away, at Dalhousie University in Halifax. As identities of the 13 male dentistry students involved in the misogynistic Facebook group continue to be obscured, doubt continues to be cast on the male members of the class as a whole, a doubt that many say can be easily rectified by releasing the names of those responsible.

While it is clear that these men's lives have no doubt been impacted by the misogyny and the sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow students, I have noted a consistent lack of discourse around what the costs of these behaviours are to the most direct victims of these actions and crimes: in the case of the uOttawa hockey team, the young woman who had to experience a brutal gang-rape; in the case of Dalhousie's dentistry school, the female students who have dealt with being the targets of their classmates' violent jokes and objectification.

Though the impact of trauma often resists quantification, we nevertheless attempt to illustrate the impact of sexual violence in terms of its cost. But what does it mean to "pay a price" for actually having been sexually abused, harassed, or raped? We might talk about the immense psychological and emotional burden of such violence: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. We know about nightmares or panic attacks, about flashbacks or troubles with intimate relationships. We might talk about the social or cultural impacts of sexual crimes: the dissolution of community, ostracism from peer groups, slut-shaming. We know that when sexual violence intersects with imperialism as a tool of colonization and genocide, it leaves profound intergenerational, cultural, and spiritual wounds. Ultimately, we also know that many victims of sexual violence also pay with the ultimate price: their lives, whether at the hands of their assailants or by suicide. 

But what of the money? What of the economic impact of sexual violence? Clearly, the men on uOttawa's hockey team seem to have a clear sense of their alleged injuries because of sexual violence in their community, and have put a tentative dollar-figure on it, but what is the economic price paid by the those who have been directly harassed, abused, or assaulted?

Money and victimhood are two words that when used in conjunction, are much too often treated with suspicion. We need only to look at the recent accusations levelled against many of the women who have alleged assault at the hands of comedian Bill Cosby. Time and again -- particularly when the alleged assailant in question is wealthy -- victims are accused of fabricating claims for the sole purposes of extortion, as if victims would re-live and speak in detail about horrendous, humiliating experiences simply for the hopes of a payout.

Should victims want justice or healing, then, they are asked to be satisfied with either the catharsis of having told their stories, or relief, on the off-chance that their assailant is ever charged and convicted. And heaven forbid that a victim chooses to pursue civil litigation instead of first pursuing criminal charges, even though these cases are no less emotionally demanding on the victim than going to criminal court. 

Breaking Down the Costs 

Here's the thing: surviving sexual assault is incredibly costly. I don't only mean in terms of the various and numerous psychological, physical, or interpersonal effects, but in terms of the actual dollars-and-cents business of dealing with the aftermath of being violated. At times, these costs are hidden in the system: for instance, the cost of collecting evidence through a rape kit at a Canadian hospital is covered by our healthcare system, paid through taxpayer dollars. But most of the time, the bulk of the costs involved in getting help often fall to the victims themselves, or else, they face the incredible frustration of dealing with victims' services systems which are woefully underfunded. Here are just a few of the various economic burdens that can be incurred by sexual violence:

  • The physical and psychological aftermath of sexual violence can be profoundly disabling, rendering victims either partially or wholly unable to continue or pursue employment. This can not only affect future earnings, if the victim is forced to leave their chosen profession, but can affect all other areas of life, including basic needs such as housing and food.
  • If victims are enrolled in post-secondary programs and face difficulty completing their coursework, they will likely not be able to recover lost tuition dollars if they cannot withdraw before the required deadlines.
  • If victims continue to have concerns for their safety, costs of moving or upgrading security systems may fall to them.
  • Psychological treatment is incredibly costly when paid of out of pocket. While practitioners' rates may vary (particularly if they offer sliding-scale treatment) one session can range anywhere from $100-$180, depending on the practitioner’s qualification and registration.
  • If part of psychological and psychiatric treatment involves medication, this cost may not be partially or wholly covered by either the public system or by extended health insurance.
  • Accessing appropriate treatment can also involve travel costs or unpaid time away from work.
  • Unless part of a program affiliated with a hospital or public health authority, therapy is not covered by public healthcare. If victims are lucky enough to have extended health care, coverage for therapy often only covers a few hundred dollars’ worth (or 2-3 sessions’ worth) of care.
  • While victims of sexual assault can apply for coverage under Crime Victim Assistance programs at any time, given that there is no statute of limitations in Canada, these files are still adjudicated by a committee, who may decide that there is not sufficient evidence to support a claim. This process is also quite emotionally grueling, and can have a lengthy adjudication time.
  • While rape crisis centres provide no-cost group and individual counselling to victims, these programs are often severely underfunded, resulting in long wait times for access to therapy. Noting the impact that provincial defunding of sexual assault centres and domestic violence shelters has had on their services, Vancouver-based Women Against Violence Against Women reported to the Huffington Post in December 2014 that they currently had 130 women waiting for an appointment. Budgets for rape crisis centres now depend significantly on private donations or public grants.

These are just a few of the potential economic burdens that victims must face. For those who are economically vulnerable (which also means that they are often made more vulnerable to sexual assault in the first place), the ability to seek help after sexual assault is made incredibly difficult, if not impossible, by the cost-prohibitive nature of recovery. With regards to sexual assaults I suffered as a teenager, I applied for and was awarded a generous number of sessions through British Columbia’s Crime Victim Assistance program. Even so, I have still spent more than $7,000 on private therapy. It was undoubtedly worth every penny, but each time I sat at my desk, filling out yet another cheque, I could not help but seethe with anger and resentment that as a victim, it still fell to me to pay for the actions of just a few. 

Economic Justice

As I sit here, thinking about the six million dollars being asked for in the uOttawa men's lawsuit, I am thinking about what that money could do for the victims of sexual assault themselves, knowing that by large, most survivors will not ever see a single penny from their assailants, nor from institutions that may have been involved in or have covered up this violence. I am thinking about the incredible lack of empathy demonstrated by the men involved in this lawsuit, who thus far, have not made any comments about the impact on the victim herself, or even made comments to condone the actions of her assailants: their teammates. I am thinking about the fact that while the men are claiming that their careers and earning potential have been affected, that so have the careers and the financial situations of so many other victims, particularly those who are already marginalized. I am thinking that if men ostensibly affected by their teammates' actions and subsequent university sanctions believe they have the right to economic justice, than the survivors of sexual violence themselves certainly have the right to financial compensation, and for our societal support if and when they choose to seek it. I am thinking about the fact that for all the promises and claims that both provincial and federal governments have made regarding sexual violence, that services continue to be underfunded, letting victims simply fall through the cracks. 

Sexual violence is economic violence, not only because sexual violence has been (and continues to be) a tool whereby capitalism and imperialism seek to secure their economic interests, but because sexual assault almost inevitably impacts most victims financially. As such, economic justice is part of justice for sexual violence, not because we can put a price-tag on such experiences, but because while we live under capitalism, victims often still require (and deserve) financial support in order to heal. 

It still remains to be seen what will come of the uOttawa lawsuit (if anything at all), or of the charges filed against the two players who committed the assault that has clearly impacted the university community at large.

In the end, all I know this: in the broken system within which we operate -- a system in which a hockey team's lawsuit probably has a greater chance of success than the criminal conviction of perpetrators of sexual assault -- it'll be the survivor, as usual, that ends up footing the biggest bill.

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