Mila was in the prime of her Master of Fine Arts programme at the University of Southern California in November 2014 when she says an adjunct professor sexually assaulted her. The assault resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, which she terminated.
“My assailant harassed me while I faced that abortion,” she said.
Six weeks later, Mila did exactly what victims are told to do: went to the university’s Title IX office, the campus institution tasked with investigating any gender discrimination and sexual misconduct, to explain that she was experiencing a hostile environment on campus as a result of the incident. At this time Mila did not tell campus officials that she had been sexually assaulted ― as is the case with many victims, she says she didn’t yet have the language to describe the severity of what had occurred. What she recalls telling the then-executive director of the Title IX office was that she “had dated a faculty member, that one night he ejaculated inside of me despite me telling him not to, that I got pregnant and recently had an abortion.” Mila says that the director told her that the university administration could not prevent students and faculty from sleeping together, but that they could try to help her switch classes so that she would not have to see him on campus. But the adjunct professor remained on campus, teaching in her MFA program. Mila dropped the classes she had on the days she knew he would be on campus, which made her a part-time student and therefore disqualified her from financial aid. She reported the incident again in October 2016 ― this time as a sexual assault. The Title IX office investigated and concluded, over a year later, that the adjunct professor’s conduct had violated the university’s sexual assault policies. USC’s policy dictates that investigations must be completed within 60 to 90 days, or otherwise provide an explanation as to why it’s not complete. Mila says she received no such explanation.
“Title IX investigations should typically last around 60 days,” Sage Carson, manager at the advocacy group Know Your IX, told HuffPost.
“Under the [Obama] administration’s Title IX guidance, which was in place during [Mila’s] investigation, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said schools should be taking about 60 calendar days to investigate a case following the receipt of a complaint,” she said.
“When schools force survivors through unnecessarily lengthy and traumatising investigations survivors often drop out of the investigation, or out of school entirely. No one should be put through a lengthy investigation that disrupts their education.”
Mila told HuffPost that she suffered tremendously before, during, and after the investigation.
She dropped out of classes at USC for a brief period, first to avoid the professor and later because ― like many who have experienced sexual trauma ― she struggled to concentrate on her studies. Mila was a victim of “stealthing” ― a term used to describe forced unprotected penetration or ejaculation, often (but not in her case) via nonconsensual condom removal. Victims of stealthing ― some of whom have gotten pregnant, like Mila, or contracted STIs as a result ― have described feeling “violated,” “betrayed,” and “abused.” After HuffPost wrote about stealthing in 2017, some lawmakers began working to include it in their states’ legal definitions of rape or sexual assault.
“I had deep depression, and anxiety and panic attacks,” Mila wrote in her 2016 report.
“Something I had never experienced before because I have no history of depression or anxiety … I kept waking up in a pool of sweat almost every night for several months.”
She was unable to spend the holidays with her family because she was recovering from her abortion procedure. Eventually she was prescribed antidepressants. She spent more than $1,000 on therapeutic, psychiatric and medical costs. In her 2016 report to USC, she described being re-traumatised after seeing her assaulter use the hashtag “#onlygobareback” on social media ― a nod to the carelessness with which Mila said he ejaculated inside her without her consent ― and continue to host house parties with young women despite his being twice their age. She finished at USC a year and a half behind her classmates, and instead of finishing her PhD at Berkeley ― which she was pursuing concurrently ― she moved back to the East Coast and tried to put the entire experience behind her.
“The trauma I experienced due to this assault took away two years of my life,” she said.
But Mila also lost something else: $43,960, mostly in academic costs, as a result of that sexual assault.
And she’s one of many survivors taking on both the legal system and a culture that stigmatises victims’ rights to civil justice and financial restitution.
“The university failed to remedy a hostile educational environment I faced,” Mila told HuffPost, “thereby robbing me of an education that is expensive and that I was paying for.” (USC contends that complaints are resolved in a “timely manner.”)
Now she’s ready for USC to pay her back.
Financial Justice: ‘The Most Important Thing’
Mila is far from the only victim to suffer economic consequences of sexual assault. Beyond the emotional ramifications, sexual assault is also painfully expensive ― something I know from personal experience.
Last fall, a couple weeks ahead of the anniversary of my own assault, I experienced an “anniversary reaction.” I didn’t know this was a phenomenon until I sat in the chair of a psychiatrist’s office and she told me what it was and what was happening to me. That appointment cost me $300 ― a real bargain for New York City. Because I was on the brink of irreparable self-harm, I sat in that office once a week for five weeks straight to manage my response to new medication, with thrice weekly visits to my therapist, too. My mother flew out from California to spend the anniversary of the incident with me, spending hundreds of dollars on a somewhat last-minute flight to be nearer to her daughter mid-crisis. I took a short-term leave of absence from my job. At the recommendation of several experts on trauma and the human body, I enrolled in a month of unlimited yoga and attended classes almost daily. I kept my gym membership at my local YMCA, hoping the slow, rhythmic repetition of freestyle and backstroke lap swimming could soothe my neverending brain static. I made small purchases ― sheet masks and bath salts, essential oils and soy wax candles, green juices and ginger shots, vegan and organic goods ― banking on the wellness industry’s as-advertised promise to make me love myself, bring me back myself, make me shiny and new like a snake shedding its dry, traumatized skin. All of this considered, the anniversary of the assault alone cost upward of $3,000. I don’t come from a particularly stable financial background; it was all of the money I had and then some.
My experience is still one of privilege ― I have health insurance and a salary, live in a city with accessible yoga studios and gyms and Whole Foods and access to all kinds of “healthy” things. Many survivors don’t. But all survivors can attest to the myriad ways that the costs add up. Some have suffered extreme physical violence. Some, like Mila, have had to deal with the costs of college classes or unforeseen medical procedures.
Beyond individual experiences, there is no shortage of research that shows how devastating sexual assault and sexual violence can be for a person’s finances, and yet financial restitution has yet to be incorporated into the discourse of victim’s rights and recovery ― and if anything, remains highly stigmatized as victims are immediately painted as motivated by personal and financial gain.
“I think it’s important that sexual assaulters and institutions are financially responsible.”
A 2017 Center for Disease Control study found that the average lifetime cost of rape for the survivor is $122,461, which includes health care, criminal justice costs and loss of productivity ― and that at a societal level, the endemic of sexual violence is costing trillions of dollars every year. Similarly, a 2014 Obama-era White House report highlighted the economic burdens of sexual assault and violence on both individuals and society at large, and estimated that a victim will pay between $87,000 and $240,776 per assault.
But these are conservative estimates, according to lawyer and epidemiologist Liz Karns, who teaches on this very subject at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Karns estimates that a victim of sexual violence and assault will lose $3 million over their lifetime.
Karns charts the financial toll of sexual violence and misconduct through different phases of recovery for a theoretical college student: the immediate aftermath, the semester, the year, and the lifetime, calculating everything from an emergency room visit and rape kit to a replacement of clothes the day of or after the assault, to the larger ramifications like chronic diseases, behavioral health issues and subsequent insurance use. Victims of sexual violence are more likely to suffer from asthma and arthritis, PTSD and addiction, ulcers and chronic pain. They are twice as likely to be smokers. All of these expensive afflictions can be traced back to one act of violence, one crime, one incident. And yet the victims of this crime are treated differently than any other crime in the legal system, which Karms soon picked up on when she began representing these victims.
“What I saw there was there was a real lack of standard approaches to compensation and damages, unlike other areas of legal practice,” she said.
Karns compares sexual violence and assault to any other kind of damage: medical malpractice, environmental contamination, car accidents.
“It surprised me,” Karns said. “The court system has figured out how to get those people money. So I said, ‘I’m going to use the same approach.’ There’s no reason for this to be different.”
Some victim’s rights advocates are picking up the torch from academic research and encouraging survivors to seek financial restitution.
Financial justice for victims is “the most important thing,” said Lauren Chief Elk, legal consultant and co-creator of the #GiveYourMoneyToWomen campaign, which encourages direct financial redistribution to women.
“Sexual violence in particular is so expensive,” she said. “Especially for women, as it is a gendered crime, generally speaking. Between schooling, jobs and having to move and uproot our lives, sometimes not being able to work again because of the physical and emotional damage that this all causes. I think it’s important that sexual assaulters and institutions are financially responsible.”
Victims Fight Back
When Kristin Nagle was 14 years old, she was transitioning from Catholic girls school to a public high school in a suburban Michigan town, dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence the way we all do ― new boys, new friends, new hobbies, awkward moments. But one thing about Kristin was the opposite of average: her undeniable and elite athleticism.
A competitive gymnast from a young age, Kristin had her sights set on a spot on the University of Michigan gymnastics team, one of the best in the country. But at 14, she sustained an injury. Her parents took her to a trusted, well-known doctor of some renown in the gymnastics world. She had three visits with this doctor, alone in the room with him, her mother waiting for her outside.
That doctor told her that her dream of competing at Michigan was unrealistic.
He also molested her.
Now 28, she can see how that trauma manifested in her adolescent life, years before she understood the calamity of what had happened to her, the scope of that doctor’s abuse.
“I was performance-based,” she told me. Kristin became an overperformer, a perfectionist, living and breathing gymnastics and doing what she had to do to maintain a veneer of excellence. She strived for straight As, received them, admitting to me that she’d cheated to get them.
“Looking back, I have a lot of things that I never really thought were wrong.”
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s, when she was sent a link to one of the original stories about allegations against Larry Nassar, that Kristin began to understand what he had done to her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
“I defended him … but I started hearing about the child pornography stuff and thought, ‘Maybe this is real.’ That’s when I started remembering my experience with him.”
Kristin is now part of a lawsuit brought forth by 167 victims of Nassar, who was employed by Michigan State University. These 167 victims spoke out after more than 330 victims first came forward; the university settled with them last year with a $425 million payout. The second wave of victims are demanding that MSU settle with them in the same way it did with the original cohort ― with a lump sum to be dispersed amongst victims.
In a meeting with the MSU Board of Trustees last month, Kristin minced no words about the financial toll Nassar’s abuse took on her life. Chief Elk helped Kristin draft her statement.
“His terrorism was an all-encompassing sabotage of my life,” Kristin said at the meeting.
“Because of my inability to work this has negatively hurt my earning capacity and will for the rest of my life. I do not have the luxury of a savings account and I have jumped from one low-paying job to the next doing my absolute best to make it through the world despite everything.”
Mila shares similar frustrations about how her experience with USC has affected her financial security.
By the time USC’s Title IX office found the adjunct professor had acted in violation of university policies by sexually assaulting Mila, the professor had already left USC. But in March of 2018, he appealed USC’s decision, claiming that the incident was accidental. The Title IX office investigator updated the findings, writing in a letter to Mila that the incident occurred “during consensual, unprotected sexual intercourse,” but maintained that the incident was a sexual assault prohibited by university policies.
What Mila says she wants at this point ― after more than three years of dealing with the double whammy of sexual trauma and what she views as a hostile environment at USC after having to share the campus with the man who assaulted her ― is the financial recovery. Her lawyer in New York, where she currently lives, sent USC a demand letter notifying them that a lawsuit was imminent last August, and Mila said she is currently looking for legal representation in California to represent her in a civil suit against the university. The statute of limitations for a civil suit against a university is only two years, but Mila thinks she still has a valid case, considering how long it took USC to investigate her assault in the first place.
While USC said it could not comment directly on Mila’s case, a spokesperson for the university said they are “unequivocal in our commitment to fostering a safe learning environment for all of our students.”
“USC takes complaints of sexual misconduct extremely seriously and investigates them carefully,” a representative said. “The university follows its published processes, which are designed to resolve complaints in an impartial, thorough, and timely manner.”
‘Why Should You Feel Guilty? You’re the Victim’
In the comments section or Twitter thread of any article about a person making an accusation of sexual violence against a powerful individual ― think Michael Jackson, Harvey Weinsten, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby or the president of the United States ― there are, without fail, assumptions that the accuser is out to get money.
“I think it’s really hard on top of being assaulted for women to talk about the money that they’re owed,” Chief Elk said. “Anytime women talk about money they’re owed, it’s something that’s very demonized, and kind of taboo.”
Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have long deferred to the lazy trope of money and fame driving allegations, despite all the many valid reasons women have to not come forward. President Donald Trump, a man accused of sexual misconduct and assault by 23 women, said some of those women “got paid a lot of money” to do so. At the time of that statement, Trump was defending Brett Kavanaugh ― whose own accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, was treated to the same mistrust as Trump’s.
“Women are socialized to either have their principles or their money ― but they can’t have both,” Gloria Allred, who’s represented hundreds of sexual assault and harassment victims in her four-decade career (including those claiming to be victims of the aforementioned powerful men), told HuffPost.
“Women say, ‘I don’t want people to think I’m doing this for money.’ They want justice. But justice can take many forms.”
Allred said that filing a civil suit is something that victims don’t even know they have a right to do. In fact, before she became a lawyer, she didn’t know either.
“When I explain [civil suits] to victims who contact me, they say, ‘Oh! That’s a good idea, I never knew that a victim could do that.’ And then they start to understand that they don’t need to be defensive in seeking compensation.”
For both Mila and Kristin, a civil suit is certainly daunting — but not as daunting as it is empowering.
“There are no words to describe how empowered I feel,” Kristin said. “I feel genuinely like I have this new worth and value for my own personhood, more than I’ve ever had before. I feel it deep in my soul.”
‘I Am Owed This. This Is Justice I’m Entitled To.’
In the criminal justice system, sexual assault and violence is rarely taken seriously enough for perpetrators to be prosecuted. When they are prosecuted, it’s even more rare that those perpetrators will see the inside of prison. And for the victims, they have no true advocate in the process. Allred pointed out that prosecutors are not serving the victim of the assault but “the people” at large ― and victims can sometimes feel lost in that process. In civil justice cases, though, the victim has the support of and access to their lawyer.
This relationship dynamic and the civil justice approach can “transform” victims, she said.
“Because now they have been on the offensive, not just the defensive,” Allred said.
Educating victims on their right to a civil lawsuit is a hugely important step in destigmatizing and normalizing this process, both Allred and Karns said.
And once that starts to happen, more and more victims may begin to hold their assaulters financially accountable. This serves not just victims, but also serves as a prevention mechanism for future instances.
“When we attach a price tag, people become more accountable,” Karns said.
Ultimately, advocates and lawyers envision a world where victims can, without shame, assert their right to a civil suit and financial restitution for the crimes committed against them, whether by suing their perpetrator or an institution that they believe enabled, or mishandled the aftermath of, their assaults.
“I just think it’s really important for victims to feel good about themselves and confident to say, ‘I am owed this,’” Chief Elk said.
“‘This is the justice that I’m entitled to.’”