No such thing as a child prostitute: holding Maxwell to account
Picture Credit: Navin75

On the 2nd June at 8:30am, Ghislaine Maxwell was led away from her secluded hideout in Bradford, New Hampshire and accompanied by officers from at least six US law enforcement agencies to Merrimack county jail. 

Aptly named ‘Tuckedaway’, the socialite’s 156-acre hideaway home served as her protection from public scrutiny following revelations that she was complicit in grooming underage girls for her former partner Jeffrey Epstein, to sexually abuse between 1994 and 1997. 

Maxwell’s arrest follows the release of the explosive Lisa Bryant documentary, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, which narrated the financier’s trail of abuse in graphic, sobering detail through interviews with survivors. The four-part series details numerous facets of the Epstein case, ranging from the silencing of Maria and Annie Farmer, the first of his victims to come forward in 2008, to the victims’ abuse at the hands of prominent public figures such as Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz, both of whom deny all claims against them. 

Brad Edwards, the Florida-based lawyer who represents a number of Epstein’s victims, offers valuable insight into the public and legal perception of minors who fall victim to sex trafficking. The rebranding of what has been widely referred to as Epstein’s “paedophile ring” as a “molestation pyramid scheme” shines a crucial light upon the murky nature of victimhood.

Haley Robson was lured to Epstein’s Palm Beach residence under the guise that she would be giving him a massage. Following his attempts to molest her, the billionaire “recruited” 16-year old Robson to bring him friends of hers that he planned to abuse, offering to pay $200 in exchange for each new girl she brought to his $65 million mansion. 

Since coming forward, Robson has been labelled a “schoolgirl pimp”, and the friends she brought to Epstein referred to as “underage prostitutes”. Such language, saturated with blame, is reminiscent of a scene in the 2017 BBC true-crime drama, Three Girls, which revisits a case in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham, played by Maxine Peake, reassures the parents of Amber*, a child caught up in a sex trafficking ring:  “There is no such thing as a child prostitute, what this is- is a child that is being abused.” 

Victim blaming in the media reinforces the idea of the “model victim”, and demonstrates complete disregard for nuance and circumstance. These portrayals have real-life consequences, as is explored in Three Girls. Upon the case being brought to trial, Amber, who was forced to take on the role of “recruiter” for the paedophile ring, was named a co-conspirator by the prosecution. The re-enacted police station and court scenes are harrowing to watch as underage girls are subject to intense and unforgiving questioning, with crude remarks being made in regards to their abuse. Upon coming forward to the police, one victim is asked, “Do you not feel you were putting yourself in a compromising position?” 

The refusal to acknowledge Amber, who was physically and sexually abused by multiple older men, was simply a victim of paedophilia rather than a facilitator, sheds light upon why victims of sexual abuse are often reluctant to come forward. Putting aside fears that they may be outright ignored or branded liars, to risk being blamed for their own childhood abuse is understandably a position many sufferers are unwilling to place themselves in.

This could explain the dramatic reduction in cases of sexual assault reported to law enforcement in North America. 40% of rapes were reported in 2017, and just 25% in 2018. Instances of assault increased in the same period, with the self-reported incidences of rape or sexual assault almost doubling from 1.4 instances per 1,000 persons 12 years or older in 2017, to 2.7 in 2018. 

Yet Bryant’s documentary, Filthy Rich reveals how Epstein’s victims faced greater hurdles still. In the unlikely case of a conviction being made, incredibly wealthy perpetrators such as Epstein are able to utilise their money and influence to demand a lesser sentence. 

Despite having been charged in a federal abuse investigation involving a minimum of 40 underage girls, Epstein’s legal team and attorney Alexander Acosta developed a secret non-prosecution deal for Epstein in 2008. Instead of facing the charges and risk receiving a life sentence, Epstein pleaded guilty and was jailed for only 13 months, but was allowed to leave the prison compound for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Such leniency allowed Epstein to continue abusing children, taking them aboard his private plane to Little Saint James, the financier’s private island in the Caribbean, since nicknamed“paedophile island”. 

Acosta has expressed a complete lack of remorse for the role he played in facilitating the continued sexual abuse of vulnerable underage girls. He briefly referenced the case when he resigned from Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of Labor due to resurfacing criticism of the 2008 plea deal: “It would be selfish of me to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s twelve years old rather than the amazing economy we have right now.”

Not only does Acosta’s blasé reference to “a case” misrepresent the magnitude of his involvement in allowing Epstein to benefit from a plea deal, it is vital to refer not to the Epstein “case”, but to the many Epstein cases. To view this as a singular issue is to conflate and amalgamate each individual victim who suffered at the hands of Epstein and his associates, and to unjustly roll their trauma into one manageable, monolithic mass. 

Although the sudden death of Epstein in August of 2019 may have appeared to signal the death knell for the victims’ quest for closure, one survivor, Jennifer Araoz, spoke of how she could now “breathe a sigh of relief” following the arrest of Maxwell. “Day after day, I have waited for the news that Maxwell would be arrested and held accountable for her actions. Her arrest is a step in that direction and it truly means that the justice system didn’t forget about us.”

Undoubtedly, a number of prominent people involved with the pair still remain free, many yet to be named publically. However, both the decades-long abuse conducted by Epstein and the 2012 Rochdale grooming scandal present one crucial commonality: irrespective of whether abuse occurs within the uber-wealthy, elite community of Palm Beach or the underfunded, working-class town of Rochdale, there is not, and never can be, ‘a child prostitute’.