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Can Abusers ‘Make It Right’ With Cash?

In the MeToo era, there’s been endless public discussion about how people who commit gender violence should be held accountable. One idea? They should literally pay up.

Lucy, a 30-year-old designer in Chicago, was in an abusive relationship with a man we’ll call Dave for nine months until 2018 (all names have been changed for privacy). Two years after they’d separated and ceased contact, Dave got back in touch with Lucy. He’d put himself through rehab and was doing what she describes as an “amends tour.” In the interest of healing, she agreed to have a conversation with him about the harm he’d caused her. 

“One of the main questions on his end was, ‘What can I do to make it right?’ — in any kind of amends conversation, that seems to be a key component,” she explains. “I didn’t directly ask for money but in detailing the harms that were done I definitely outlined how much money it cost me to move apartments, break a lease and upheave my life, as well as the intense therapy I had to undergo for years for PTSD, some of which was covered by insurance and a lot of which was not.”

Dave didn’t respond well — for him, even the faintest allusion to financial amends was beyond the pale. “He was like, ‘Are you serious!? What, do you want my money!?’” Lucy continues. The “implication that it was super crass” to invoke payment for abuse made her immediately back off. “That was it — I didn’t push it.”

But today, Lucy finds Dave’s obstinance frustrating and puzzling. “We live in a capitalistic society so I don’t understand why financial reparations aren’t a base offer, especially if you can prove really clear-cut ways [the abuse has cost you],” she says. “If you’re really sorry for abusing someone and they break a lease to get away from you, is it not the bare minimum to pay for the security deposit?” 

How abusers can “make it right” with their victims is an age-old question that’s receiving new life in the #MeToo era, which has involved an unprecedented level of public discussion about how people who commit gender violence should be held accountable. It’s surprising, then, that the topic of financial amends is still so underexplored; after all, as Lucy illustrates, the financial toll on victims is significant and can include lost income, moving costs and the cost of therapy for issues like PTSD, depression, panic attacks, dissociation and flashbacks, and medical bills for complications related to assault, like bodily injury, pregnancy and STIs. That’s without even touching more indirect costs like stunted career progression and reputational damage. 

But there are signs that these attitudes are shifting, especially within progressive, feminist organizations and spaces. Colin Hagendorf, a trans woman and writer who ran sexual assault accountability processes with the now-defunct Support New York collective and who still consults other groups running similar restorative or transformative justice processes, says she’s hearing requests for financial amends come up “more and more lately.” “No one has ever put a dollar amount on their pain,” Hagendorf explains. “But like, ‘I need to go to therapy and I need this person to Venmo me $15 a week for my [health insurance] co-pays’ — that’s the kind of thing that I’ve seen in practice. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘I was traumatized and couldn’t work for two months and I need you to pay my rent.’ I could see someone asking for that and I think that’s a reasonable thing to ask for, but I’ve never witnessed that.” 

Financial compensation for gender violence isn’t a niche idea, and the legal system provides multiple options for survivors to seek it. Perhaps most obviously, sexual assault and intimate partner violence are crimes, and survivors who report these to the police are also able to pursuing victim compensation: Each state offers a program that allocates funds to survivors of sexual assault and other violent crimes. Federal law requires these programs to cover the cost of lost wages, medical costs and mental health counseling, and individual programs may cover other costs, such as moving expenses, crime-scene cleanup and attorney fees. 

There are also civil options: Sexual assault is a tort as well as a crime, meaning a survivor can sue a rapist much like a person in a car accident can sue the driver. Victims of sex-based discrimination or sexual harassment also have remedies under the Civil Rights Act, as do people who face discrimination on the basis of their race, religion or national origin. Civil remedies appear to be on the uptick, too, although the trend is probably modest. Julie Goldscheid, a law professor at CUNY Law School who studies gender violence and civil rights, told the New York Times there’s been a slight increase in civil claims for gender violence since the #MeToo movement began. A recent, high-profile example is FKA twigs’ tort case against Shia LaBeouf for “relentless abuse” during their year-long relationship.

The media response to FKA twigs was mostly laudatory, which is notable because it’s a new development. Victims of gender violence who seek financial compensation — either through the legal system or more informal channels — are routinely treated as conniving and untrustworthy “gold diggers,” especially if they’re women. This trope arises whether or not the abuser has money or fame, as Lucy’s example attests, but public examples abound. In 2003, when a woman sued Kobe Bryant for raping her, she was widely reviled and branded a “whorish opportunist,” and last year, when Migos rapper Takeoff was sued for rape, his attorney told the press he was “a target of an obvious exploitative money grab.” 

Because this knee-jerk aversion is usually absent when victims of other kinds of harm like non-sexual assault or car accident injury seek compensation — and because victims of gender violence are mostly women and perpetrators mostly men — feminists have long highlighted this as a sexist double standard.

It’s also easy, when you consider only the black and white letter of the law, to overstate how straightforward it is for victims to receive this kind of compensation. In reality, there are significant downsides to seeking financial compensation for gender violence, whether you take the criminal or civil route. On the criminal side, survivors are required to report their assaults to law enforcement, which is a stressful, potentially retraumatizing process that rarely results in arrest or conviction. Those who do report face maximum award limits that vary from state to state but which are as low as $10,000 in places like Nebraska, Arkansas and Louisiana and apportioned per cost (a $2,000 maximum for counseling, a $600 weekly maximum for wages and so on). 

There are sometimes strict eligibility requirements as well, e.g., the victim must report the crime within 48 hours and demonstrate that they’re in financial need. Often, too, victims don’t know about the funds and law enforcement and court personnel don’t encourage them to seek it out.

Because of these and other limitations, evaluations of victim compensation programs have concluded that “victims face a huge hurdle in receiving compensation,” “very small percentages of victims are actually eligible” and “no appreciable, positive impact on victims seems to occur” — hardly a ringing endorsement.  

So, a victim might opt instead to sue in civil law, with good reason: Tom Lininger, a law professor at the University of Oregon, has identified several advantages to this approach, including higher financial compensation, more control of the process, better odds of success, a lower burden of proof and the ability to sue third-party defendants who may have deeper pockets, such as an employer or landlord who failed to take the required steps to prevent the assault from occurring. 

But, again, there are downsides. Suing a rapist may prejudice a parallel or subsequent criminal case; Lininger writes that “the criminal justice system is surprisingly hostile to civil suits by rape survivors.” He also notes that the victim needs enough money to hire a lawyer, and points out that the offender might lack resources — there’s little point asking for money from someone who doesn’t have any. Lininger adds that civil suits are less anonymous than criminal cases, often take longer and tend not to be covered by rape shield laws, so “complainants expose themselves to more extensive questioning about their sexual histories when they file civil claims.”

Amy, 40, who works in advertising in Georgia, knows this firsthand. When her boss pinned her to the wall of an elevator and groped her during an overnight work trip in 2017, she complained to HR, and after a drawn-out internal process the company eventually fired her boss, but it also required her to relocate to Texas or lose her job. And so, Amy hired a lawyer and made a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on retaliation grounds. She ended up being awarded just over $100,000 in compensation, and overall, she’s happy with the result. In fact, she says she’d “totally encourage” women in her position to know what their rights are and not to hesitate to act on them. 

But it wasn’t an easy road, either. The legal process was at times “extremely stressful” because the company where she worked defended the EEOC charge aggressively, and Amy says the line of questioning from the company’s lawyer felt like a “character assassination.” “I’m 40 and single and I don’t want children, and I also have breast implants. It was unreal levels of things like that coming out [during the case],” she explains. “They were like, ‘Well, we realize that you have breast implants,’ and I was like, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ That’s one thing that I wasn’t prepared for and that I’d tell other women.”

Despite “winning,” Amy says there was “a multitude of costs” involved with the case, including emotional stress, lowered self-esteem, relational fallout and stunted career progression — not to mention the $13,000 cost for her lawyer. And even though her social media feeds were full of praise for women speaking out during #MeToo, Amy didn’t feel especially supported. “When you do this, no one’s going to throw you a party — don’t expect this to be an act that’s celebrated,” she cautions. “You’ve got to understand the price [of suing], and that it’s going to cost you a lot personally.” 

It’s no wonder, then, that so many victims avoid the legal system entirely. Some of them might turn instead to structured restorative justice processes of the kind that Hagendorf facilitates, hoping for a more progressive, survivor-centered approach. Others might ask an abuser for money directly, especially if that person has indicated a willingness to make amends, like Dave purported to do with Lucy.

But there’s no guarantee that these informal amends processes will go any better. The abuser may refuse to pay or hand over a paltry amount, either because they deny that they should have to pay, or don’t have the means to do so. “People not having money is the biggest [barrier], or just generally being selfish,” Hagendorf tells me. “So many people are just living hand-to-mouth at this point, all over the world, that it seems likely that the perpetrator has no extra money.” 

Concerns about legal liability might prevent an otherwise willing offender to shell out, too. Making payment to a victim could be construed as an admission of guilt, evidence of which could prejudice the accused in any parallel civil or criminal case. Informal amends processes rely on the good faith of victims not to go to the police or sue participants later, and some offenders simply won’t trust them on this. 

Informal amends processes also often involve continued contact between the victim and offender, which might be undesirable for the victim because of safety concerns or fears of being retraumatized. And in the worst cases, they can end up being more about the offender’s need to assuage their guilt and safeguard their reputation than about the victim’s healing. This is how it felt for Lucy, who now finds her conversation with Dave entirely regrettable. “[After the amends conversation], he can sleep a lot better at night because he knows I’m not going to go on social media and ruin his life,” Lucy says. “It’s damage control, it’s about controlling perceptions and images.”

Lucy also doesn’t like that, even in cases with a genuinely remorseful offender, the outcome for the victim depends on the attitude, cooperation and compliance of the offender. “There’s this really perverse power you give them, like the key to your healing, whether that’s financially or not,” she says. “And that bothers me.”

For this reason, financial compensation might be better distributed by a community-level system rather than by individual offenders. Such a system could be informal, like mutual aid funds, or a formal program administered by the state, like the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) scheme in New Zealand. ACC is the world’s only national, no-fault accidental injury compensation scheme that helps cover the cost of treatment and recovery for victims of injuries, including sexual violence. This means that if you’re sexually assaulted in New Zealand, ACC can help pay for your treatment and rehabilitation, including for counseling or therapy, as well as other types of support like travel costs and help around your home. If you can’t work because of the assault, ACC will cover up to 80 percent of your income while you recover. It also supports education programs to prevent sexual violence from occurring in the first place. 

If a scheme like ACC had been available to Lucy, or if she lived in a country with a free and comprehensive health-care system that fully covered her PTSD treatment, she would have avoided the amends conversation with Dave entirely. “These conversations need to be all about empowering women to heal from trauma, and that has nothing to do with [the abusers],” she says. “If women have the resources to heal, who gives a fuck what the abuser says or does?” 

“We put far too much responsibility on individuals to fix problems that are community problems,” she adds, “and abuse is most definitely a community problem.”