Maxwell / Epstein Case in Context
January 27, 2022

After years of allegations and prolonged intense media attention, the Ghislaine Maxwell trial finally ended in conviction last month. Because it received so much public attention, it might be helpful to put this case in context, to shed light on sex trafficking–both in how it aligns with how most cases of trafficking happen and also in how it was strikingly different.

Here’s What the Maxwell Trial Has in Common With Other Trafficking Cases

There Was Grooming

Grooming is the process by which a trafficker prepares their victim for exploitation. It involves various means of trying to initially engage the person, reduce their barriers or defenses against exploitation, and make them feel like they’re “willing” participants in what can even look like a consensual process, but is actually abuse and exploitation. Ghislaine Maxwell was accused of being highly involved in identifying and recruiting young girls, pressuring them into giving massages, or performing other sexual acts.

In four women’s testimonies, they “all describe being vulnerable when they met Maxwell, such as suffering financial precarity or strained family relationships. They said that Maxwell made them feel comfortable before Epstein’s misconduct and that she made them feel special by asking questions about their lives. She served as a reassuring presence that tempered concerns or suspicions about Epstein.”

There Was an Abuse of Power

This case is perhaps a most egregious example, but traffickers prey on a power differential, where they hold something their victim wants or needs. It could be love, affection, money, or in this case, the lure of the social milieu of incredibly rich and powerful people.

They Prey on the Vulnerable

Victim-survivors who’ve come forward about abuses by Epstein have shared that the girls targeted were “basically homeless,” girls “he thought no one would listen to,” who came from trailer parks or came from an abusive situation as a runaway from foster homes.” This is the classic textbook case of who traffickers will target: children who are impoverished or disadvantaged and socially isolated.

Justice Can Take Years

The allegations of abuse and exploitation go back to the 1990s and continue on through the 2000s. That’s an incredibly long time. However, it’s not uncommon that it takes many months or years between when trafficking happens, to when the trafficker is eventually caught and put on trial. This expanse of time opens up a window for victims to have their memories questioned for veracity, making it that much more difficult to prosecute a case.

And finally…

The Role of a Female Trafficker

The stereotype is that traffickers are male. However, women can also be traffickers, and this can especially be true in the role of the “bottom”–a woman who herself was trafficked, who gets turned into a trafficker. Some wonder whether Maxwell herself was an example of this. That part is unclear. However, we do know that Epstein’s victims have come forward and shared that this kind of thing had happened to them. He had even offered them a “bounty” for recruiting other underage girls and bringing them to him.

Here’s What is Different About This Case

It Got A Lot of Attention

Due to the involvement of so many wealthy and powerful people, this case garnered a lot of media attention. Most cases of trafficking would not. News outlets do report on cases regularly, but even that is likely only a small portion of actual trafficking cases out there.

It Involved Lots of Money

There was a fund set up to compensate Epstein’s victims. About $120 million was paid out to 150 people whose stories could be verified by corroborating information, and who would agree not to sue the Epstein estate, but could share their stories with law enforcement and the media. It’s not often that trafficking victims get this kind of compensation–though it should also be noted, that this opened them up to further accusations that they were simply trying to get the payouts. One can imagine that these accusations would only compound the trauma the victims have to face, including for those who were deliberately seeking recourse this way so as to avoid the trauma of a drawn-out trial and media attention.

And finally…

It Ended in Conviction

Given the estimated number of trafficking cases compared to the number of convictions per year, one can extrapolate that most cases never make it to trial, and even those that do, may not all result in conviction. Epstein himself died by suicide in prison while awaiting trial. And even he had already been convicted once, years before, for “procuring a child for prostitution and soliciting a prostitute”–that was a conviction for two crimes, although “federal officials had identified 36 girls, some as young as 14 years old, whom Epstein had allegedly sexually abused.”

Hopefully, this commentary helps put the Maxwell/Epstein case in context. It’s both an extreme outlier, and unfortunately, in many ways, also very representative of how trafficking happens.

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