Sex trafficking takes place in the seediest of motel rooms and in the most extravagant mansions of the rich and famous. Traffickers come from a diverse range of socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups. Yet, when a wealthy, powerful individual is implicated in sex trafficking, Americans seem to have a hard time holding the accused perpetrator accountable. A recent case in point: millionaire financer Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2008, Epstein plead guilty to two counts of solicitation of prostitution; one of these charges involved soliciting a minor under the age of 18. Epstein served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in the private wing of the Palm Beach county jail. Anthony Acosta, appointed Labor Secretary by President Trump in 2017, was involved in Epstein’s 2008 plea deal. In 2019, facing mounting criticism for facilitating such a lenient deal for the sex offender, Acosta resigned his position.
Epstein was arrested again in July of 2019 on charges of sex trafficking. Prosecutors accuse him recruiting girls as young as 14 for sex at his New York and Palm Beach residences. According to federal law, any person under the age of 18 involved in a commercial sex act is a victim of sex trafficking. Epstein denied the trafficking charges. Epstein recently committed suicide while awaiting trial for these new trafficking charges, according to law enforcement sources.
Influential social connections and immense financial resources had allowed Jeffrey Epstein to assemble a team of powerful allies who protected him from being held accountable for his crimes. At least until recently. With the MeToo movement elevating the voices of sexual assault survivors, we are beginning to examine our assumptions about the kind of people we believe are – and are not – capable of sexual violence.
These kinds of conversations illuminate the dynamics of privilege. In an article for vox.com, Emily Crockett writes, “The idea that rape is a crime against a woman, and specifically a crime against a woman’s body, is relatively new. For most of human history, rape has been treated as a property crime against a woman’s husband or father, since they effectively owned her.” While we may flatly reject the idea that women are the property of men, this mindset has deep roots that continue to penetrate our current thinking about sexual violence. Just listen to the interrogations that many survivors must contend with when their family, friends, law enforcement and the media learn about their assault: What were you wearing? Why were you walking there? Were you alone? Were you drinking? Did you flirt? It’s as if we are saying: Your body is not your own. If you are not constantly vigilant, then of course somebody will take it.
After facing intense scrutiny of their appearance and motives, many sexual assault survivors find that their claims are simply dismissed. Implicitly or explicitly, they are told they are liars. Because of the trauma they endured, survivors may not be able to provide coherent, detailed narratives about the abuse. Crockett points out, “We are only just beginning to understand the science of how the brain processes trauma. Memories are stored in a fragmented way, and emotional reactions can seem ‘off.’ Both of these things can raise suspicions among police officers who are accustomed to using rigorous interrogations to ferret out inconsistencies in a story, and rigorous interrogation only makes things worse.” According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, between 2 and 10 percent of sexually assaults are falsely reported. This means that the vast majority of sexual assault claims are true. Yet, despite these statistics, we continue to discount survivors. In an interview on PBS, writer and media critic Soraya Chemaly speaks about why many women do not disclose their abuse, “I think there’s fear of shaming, of blaming, of retaliation, of being doubted. It’s very hard, because we have a cultural predisposition to perpetuate a lot of rape myths. And one of those is that women excessively exaggerate as victims, that they make things up, that there are misinterpretations.”
When we begin to deconstruct the entitlements that allow sexual perpetrators to continue to offend, we also expose the biases that silence and disempower their victims. These conversations begin to build a culture where even wealthy and powerful sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein, as well as the allies and institutions that enable them, can finally be brought to justice. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, please contact us to learn how our attorneys use civil law to hold perpetrators of sexual violence and the institutions who support them accountable.
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