Current Affairs Opinion

Does gender matter?

There’s no doubt that the myriad of sex crimes commited by Jeffrey Epstein globally over two decades were anything but heinous. His death last year, while awaiting trial for charges of sex trafficking, resulted in the case being dismissed and the investigation being brought to an apparent halt. However, the FBI arrest of his former lover, turned confidante, Ghislaine Maxwell earlier this month has reignited not only an official inquiry into the late American millionaire, but also has posed further questions about how society should treat women like Maxwell, who are in a position to assist and protect serial abusers. 

The federal charges against Maxwell read as: “Conspiracy to entice minors to travel in illegal sex acts; Enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts; conspiracy to transport minors; Transportation of a minor, with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity; as well as two counts of perjury”. In commonspeach, Maxwell is accused of assisting in the procuring of underage girls as paid ‘masseuses’ for Epstein, who would then go on to sexually assault them in the privacy of his own home. Maxwell has also been accused by survivors of joining in with the assaults and threatening victims who went to the police, although these offences are not recognised by the FBI charges (see the Netflix documentary ‘Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich). 

There is further reason for the intense interest in Maxwell’s role with Epstein, and that is to do with how we perceive gender in the paradigm of sexual assault. When I first heard the full extent of Maxwell’s involvement with Epstein’s operation, I was horrified in a manner that I hadn’t felt before. I soon realised that this feeling was a sense of betrayal and upset on behalf of women* victims of sexual assault. The momentum of the #MeToo movement and subsequent campaigns surrounding sexual assault was due in part to the solidarity of women* and their capacity to empathise with and understand other survivors due to the frequent and permeating nature of man on woman* assault. It is incredibly unsettling to hear of a woman* being not only aware of the sexual assault of young girls and doing nothing to stop it, but actually being an active member  promoting the sick practice. It dismantles a lot of our societal mindsets, and practices which arise out of such mindsets.  

Women* are viewed as inherently ‘safe spaces’.  For example, If a child  finds themselves separated from a parent in a public space, they are told to seek out a woman* (preferably one with children) to look after them until they are returned to their guardian. This made  me briefly consider whether my very strong feelings of disgust towards Maxwell’s behaviour were unjust collateral damage from the ingrained belief of a maternal instinct that society automatically imposes upon women*. Was it fair of me to heap so much blame and revulsion upon Maxwell just because she was a woman*, who society (incorrectly) expects to intrinsically have maternal feelings towards children? Was I expecting her to ‘do more’ than a potential man in her position would have done just because of her gender? However, these feelings were brief, and it did not take long to stop feeling guilty about Maxwell’s complicitness in these crimes.

Moving on from the issue of the assumed maternal instinct, there is a further question of gender in regards to the treatment of Maxwell. The ‘female abuser’ was and remains a taboo in our society. There is a reason for this.  Only men* can be rapists under UK law; and male victims in general are less likely to come forward due to social stigma, meaning that women* perpetrators are often not held accountable for their behaviour. This gives rise to a vacuum of information, awareness and examples of female abusers. Papers exploring the concept suggest that women* abusers are often part of a ‘triangular’ relationship that involves them, a male companion, and a child that is being abused. It is reported that the woman* abusers will frequently act on the behest of the man in the relationship, carrying out sexual assault on children because she feels threatened by him, even though she does not want to.

Maxwell’s close friend Laura Goldman also shared with journalists that she believed Maxwell always believed she would end up marrying Epstein. The statement closely echoes those of the police reports of Epstein’s underage victims, many of whom were experiencing Stockholm Syndrome and defended Epstein’s abuse because they loved him and thought they were going to marry him.  However although there are rational explanations (and they are merely explanations, not excuses) for such behaviour from female abusers, it does not at this point seem to ring true of Maxwell. Her 20+ year association with Epstein saw them progress from lovers to something perhaps even more intimate and binding – ‘best friends’ and confidantes. Maxwell does not seem to have acted out of fear of Epstein. Even if this was the case, it does not excuse the sheer amount of young women she knowingly fed to him to be abused. Indeed, she assisted him in building one of the largest sex trafficking rings operating in the US. She lured young girls in as masseuses for $200/hour and told them to tell their friends about the opportunity. In a toxic reinforcing spiral, their friends in turn told their respective friends and so on.

It was such an extensive scheme that when many of the young girls came forward to the police to report Epstein, they were actually also sanctioned for procuring underage girls for illegal sex acts, despite they themselves being underage and acting under emotional duress. If Epstein’s victims,  young vulnerable innocent girls, were punished for ‘recruiting’ others, then there is absolutely no excuse for Maxwell.  She was an influential middle-aged socialite, who knowingly and maliciously abused her wealth and power repeatedly to manipulate underage girls. 

It definitely is important to consider the implications of gender in terms of how we treat Maxwell and why it is significant. But ultimately, she should be treated the same as male accomplices and sexual abusers. She did nothing to stop the 20 year cycle of women* and underage girls being raped and molested by Epstein. Her elusive nature means that there is little to go off so far other than the facts stated by the FBI team. If the investigation reveals that she was herself a victim of Epstein as previous female abuser models have suggested, perhaps through emotional manipulation or blackmail, then she still should be treated with contempt and considered a criminal.

Not everyone who goes through abuse becomes an abuser themselves; it is a deliberate choice. Maxwell knowingly placing hundreds of victims into the hands of a rampant paedophile and allegedly joining in makes her complicit in Epstein’s offences and the charges against her should reflect this. It is my hope she is landed with the full 35 year sentence which she is facing, because the young girls* that she fed to Epstein will deal with the subsequent trauma for the rest of their lives.