Why can men like Jeffrey Epstein get away with sexually abusing young girls, for years, in plain sight?
It’s tempting to chalk it up to the power of money and fame, but that’s just the icing on the cake. Wealth enabled Epstein to pay for fancy lawyers and finagle a sweetheart deal for himself even after the feds came knocking at his door more than a decade ago.
On Thursday, federal Judge Richard Berman ruled that Epstein will have to remain in jail while he awaits trial on sex trafficking charges. The 66-year-old, who is accused of abusing dozens of girls in New York and Florida during the early 2000s, is facing up to 45 years in prison. His lawyers had argued that before trial, he should simply be confined to his townhouse in Manhattan ― one of the most opulent in the city, valued at between $56 million and $77 million.
That Epstein is actually facing consequences for his actions is unusual. He has successfully evaded justice for a long time, and not merely because of his money. You don’t have to be a millionaire or a celebrity to get away with abusing girls. Or assaulting and raping women, for that matter. Anyone can do it. When you’re not famous, it’s even less likely anyone will care.
In a country ruled almost exclusively by men, there’s power simply in being male. That’s patriarchy. Men, particularly white men, hold the reins. They get the benefit of the doubt. Women, particularly girls, and especially those who are poor or of color, do not. They’re playthings and sexual objects starting from a heartbreakingly young age.
When they’re abused, they’re often blamed or ignored.
The facts are damning. In 49 out of 50 rape cases, the rapist goes free, according to a report this week in The Atlantic. Typically, these men — rape is a male-dominated occupation — do it again. Most rapes and sexual assault never get reported.
Women know what they’re up against at the police precinct. We’ve read the reports about the rape kits sitting untested in warehouses. We’ve all watched as it’s taken many, many women or girls to simply make the case against one single abuser (see: Nassar, Cosby, Weinstein).
To get to any kind of justice, it’s almost always he said, they said.
“We don’t like admitting how deeply misogynistic our culture is,” said Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center speech project. “It’s very clear. You and I can say everybody gets away with [rape and sexual assault abuse] and it sounds like we’re exaggerating. But in fact, it’s just a description of the fact.”
With the advent of Me Too, there’s clearly been progress. Epstein is behind bars right now, thanks to the dogged efforts of a female journalist at the Miami Herald and the bravery with which his victims came forward to tell their stories.
But it is still common for rape victims to be treated as criminals, interrogated for hours about how much they’ve had to drink or questioned about what they were wearing. Teenage boys who are accused of rape, like the one in a recent New Jersey case, are deemed more credible by judges who remark on their “good family” and their grades in school.
“So much of sexual harassment and abuse just goes unpunished and unnoticed and unbelieved,” said Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and senior advisor of education at the National Women’s Law Center.
She’s working on several cases in which a young girl was sexually assaulted at school, and the administration effectively blamed her for what happened. These girls were bullied while school administrators did nothing to protect them. “Often girls are being punished and pushed out of school,” Chaudhry said.
These are instances in which both parties are kids. When a man is white and rich and goes after young, vulnerable girls, the power differential is an abyss. That was the case with Epstein, a man with multiple multimillion-dollar homes ― including a private island ― and billionaire and politician friends.
What is unusual about the Epstein case is that he’s actually facing federal trafficking charges, said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls, a human rights organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence against women and girls.
“We work with both young adults and minors. The men that pay to rape them are quite often let off with no consequences,” she said, adding, “It’s still a ‘boys will be boys’ environment.”
Perhaps that’s how the wealthy and powerful men and women in Epstein’s circle ― including Donald Trump, Prince Andrew and Bill Clinton ― saw it.
“It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” Trump told New York magazine in 2002.
The first time Epstein ran afoul of the law, for abusing girls in his Palm Beach mansion, he brokered a sweetheart deal, courtesy of Trump’s disgraced former labor secretary, Alex Acosta. He pleaded guilty to soliciting minors for “prostitution.”
Vafa said that’s not uncommon. Viewing underage girls as complicit in their own abuse is a widespread issue. The term “child prostitution” is an abomination her group is working to eradicate.
Often these girls wind up in jail. That’s part of rape culture, Vafa said. A society in which girls are sexualized from a very young age ― where websites have actually counted down to the day that former child celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Lindsey Lohan, the Olsen twins and Emma Watson turned 18.
“Between 1982 and 1985, no less than three major label artists ― including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Aerosmith and Eric Clapton ― recorded or released different songs titled ‘Jailbait,’” noted this San Francisco Chronicle reporter in a piece written a decade ago ― when Epstein was partying with scores of girls in Palm Beach.
“Women and children are hypersexualized and objectified,” said Vafa, adding that this normalizes the idea that men can buy sex from children. “Whether we admit it, we’re all complicit in it.”
This story has been updated with the judge’s denial of bail for Epstein.