The Rolling Stone magazine writes about “7 shocking revelations” from the Netflix documentary about Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual exploitation scheme, but who are these revelations really that shocking to? We are not, or at least we shouldn’t be, surprised to hear of a powerful man’s ‘sexual pyramid scheme’ to abuse girls and women. If we are, then we haven’t been listening to the 1 in 5 women in the UK who have been sexually abused or the 1 in 6 American women who have been the victims of an attempted or a completed rape (not including other sexual assault).
We live in a world where billionaires have a license to take advantage of women, where powerful film producers use their position to exploit actresses, where medical staff and trainers to an Olympic team repeatedly abuse underaged girls in the disguise of medical examination, where one of the world’s most powerful countries is led by a man who thinks it’s okay to ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’. They are licensed by society as a whole because we are faced with a society where rape is accepted and expected.
At every level, we see that the historical use of sexual assault, rape and marriage to intimidate and control women is still present. It is accepted because perpetrators are arrested in very few cases – 5,7% in the UK – and it is expected because women are told not to drink too much, to be careful when walking at night, to always to walk in pairs and to take other measures conveyed by our mothers, sisters and fellow females to protect us. How, then, can men and women be equal if there is such a high presence of a dominance-seeking abuse tactic towards one gender?
Through constantly fearing and avoiding abuse we also fear and avoid men, creating a scheme to avoid rape which doesn’t do away with the problem itself. The way we react to abuse places responsibility on women and feeds into the traditional perspective which views women as somehow being at fault for being abused.
I have heard numerous people judge the victims of Epstein as being at fault by placing responsibility on them for having perpetuated his scheme through bringing in more girls. Yet, the people who make these judgements often aren’t in a position where they can understand or pass judgement on the experiences of girls and women abused by Epstein and the likes of him. To me, this is dangerously close to the ‘her skirt was too short’ defence of rapists. We are told that wearing a skirt that is too short, drinking too much or being too flirty makes it our own fault that we are raped, that we ‘asked for it’. Indeed, a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped . Combined with the low arrest of perpetrators, this becomes another way in which men in power may easily take advantage of girls whilst being facilitated by society. While in a black and white world these girls may have helped Epstein by bringing in more victims, in the real and nuanced world a powerful man took advantage of their positions to manipulate and use them to serve his own purposes.
Despite all of this, I have heard various people claim that in the Western world men and women are equal. Although we are very lucky to be living in a part of the world in which we have more opportunities than ever before, to say that we’re better off than women in so many other countries is a senseless argument. Just because women in some places are still discriminated against, doesn’t mean that discrimination somewhere else should be tolerated.
Neither does making discrimination illegal ensure that it doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t happen systematically. For example, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the UK wage gap was in fact 17,3% among all employees in 2019 and 8,9% among full time employees. This issue becomes even more complex when we take into account the fact that white women and women of ethnic minorities are affected differently. For instance, Hispanic women earn 61% of the earnings of white males annually in the US, as opposed to the 81% of white women (). The issue our society faces then, is far more complex than simply one of gender and we cannot face it without considering intersectionality.
We are perhaps not surprised either that despite rape having also been made illegal, it is still inflicted upon a large number of women yet it is only reported in about 15% of cases in the UK (rapecrisis.or.uk). Let us imagine all crimes as a violation of the self; in the case of theft we wouldn’t think twice about reporting that something had been stolen from us. We also wouldn’t ask someone whether their car was red because if so, it would be the car’s fault that it was stolen because of its irresistible red colour. Sexual assault then, as the ultimate violation of one’s self, is not reported because, ultimately, we live in a society in which we are shamed and held accountable simply for being women.
Our biased justice system and fear of shame leads to women having to ask themselves whether they want to report being assaulted, creating a vicious cycle where oppression becomes ingrained in society. However, we need to break free from such a narrative which is deeply rooted in historical, violent, and oppressive tactics to help us achieve true equality. We need to leave behind the outdated propagandistic story of Adam and Eve, which frames women as sinful and men seduced and innocent, so that bias can be removed from the gender sphere. Whether this is possible or not depends on the individual choices that we make; affirmative action, gender laws, equal pay laws and quotas can only take us so far if the individuals in a society don’t want to recognise a problem and make an effort to change.