Can Any Amount Of Money Bring Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors?


Over the past week, two high profile sexual misconduct cases have resulted in large settlements for victims. National headlines have focused on the large monetary amounts of the payouts, which will compensate the women who say their consent and their dignity was violated. But whether Americans should feel satisfied that justice was served is a more complicated question.

On Monday, Johns Hopkins Hospital agreed to pay $190 million dollars to more than seven thousand women and girls who were secretly recorded by a “rogue” gynecologist at the prestigious medical center. According to the Associated Press, the preliminary settlement is one of the largest on record for a case involving a physician’s sexual misconduct. And on Friday, the University of Connecticut announced it will pay nearly $1.3 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by five women who accused the school of mishandling their sexual assault cases.

For many of these women, the legal victory doesn’t necessarily translate into overcoming the ramifications of being violated. For instance, the lawyer who represents the women who sued Johns Hopkins says that his clients remain “extraordinarily upset” over the images and videos that were taken without their knowledge by a medical professional whom they trusted.

“They are in fear, dismayed, angry, and anxious over a breach of faith, a breach of trust, a betrayal on the part of the medical system,” their lawyer said during a news conference on Monday. “There’s been a huge, devastating result to this whole thing. Many have had changes in their ability to focus, problems with sleeplessness. Some have had changes in their relationships with spouses and significant others.”

And there are sometimes trade-offs when it comes to this litigation, too. The five UConn students who filed suit against their school — including a rape victim who said a campus police officer told her “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter” after she reported her assault — won $1.3 million from the university, but were also paid for their silence. The University of Connecticut will not admit any wrongdoing, and the women are not allowed to make any disparaging statements about the school in the future, or do anything to encourage other people to portray it in a negative light. Those are pretty typical terms for civil settlements involving college sexual assault cases.

Plus, it can be tricky to mete out justice in monetary terms. How much money does a survivor of sexual trauma deserve? More or less than a sexual harassment victim? Those are hard questions to answer, particularly within the context of a society that remains skeptical of sexual assault victims. According to a 2008 review of rape victims’ civil cases published in the Duke Law Journal, the judicial system is “more suspicious of rape suits than of suits seeking damages for other crimes,” assuming that the women seeking compensation for being raped must have “corrupt motives.”

Nonetheless, considering the fact that the vast majority of sexual violence cases don’t go anywhere in our current criminal justice system, settling a lawsuit that’s stretched on for months can certainly be satisfying. “Healing is a journey, and knowing that this part of the process has ended may bring a level of closure for some victims,” Tracy Cox, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told ThinkProgress.

“But it doesn’t take away the pain or difficulties that these victims faced and will continue to face,” Cox added. “There’s no amount of money that could possibly exemplify the seriousness of these crimes.”