Part of the reason that Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of girls and women fascinates is that he belonged to such a remote, rarefied world. Private jets, princes, billionaires, the daughter of a media magnate to act as his madam. For those who would like to believe that the powerful and wealthy exist in a state of ultimate corruption, here is ample material.
But the truth is that beyond the vulgar surface glitz and the celebrity names, grooming and trafficking is always only grooming and trafficking. Always only rape. Swap Mar-a-Lago for a care home. Swap the Lolita Express for a minicab rank. Swap the private island for a grey industrial estate. The differences are superficial. The underlying exploitation of female bodies is much the same.
It starts when the exploiter finds a person he can exploit. Sometimes, that means someone who’s already been abused: Virginia Giuffre, the Epstein victim who is currently pursuing a civil suit against Prince Andrew, has said she’d gone through “so much abuse already” before she met Epstein. Sometimes the vulnerability is love. Sammy Woodhouse, one of the victims of the Rotherham grooming scandal, believed that the man in his twenties who started raping her when she was 14 was her boyfriend.
Power is fundamental to all sexual abuse. Epstein’s power was most obvious in his money and connections, but it was also inherent to his sex. For the abusers of Woodhouse and all the other girls like her—the ones in Rotherham and Rochdale, the ones we know about and the ones we don’t—power consisted simply in being male. Their victims, being girls, were of no value. The police would look right at them in the passenger seat of an adult man’s car and ask no questions.
The fact that men as a whole have more power than women as a whole is the most unfashionable intersection. On the left, it is easy to talk about race, about sexuality, about gender identity. Sometimes, social class is even brought into the picture. But if sex is brought into the picture at all, it’s usually done dismissively. What about Maxwell? (Well, what about Maxwell? There have always been female pimps, acting for men and against other women and girls.)
White women as a group are discussed in terms of their privilege—so-called “Karens,” up to their necks in complicity. The oppression of black women can be acknowledged, but only in terms of their race, and often as a means of undermining “white feminism.” The injunction to remember that sex is not the only axis of oppression is applied to mean that, in effect, sex is not a real axis of oppression at all.
By the time one has worked through the liturgy of all the ways a woman might have advantages over a man, any sense that women might share a common social vulnerability has long been dissolved. This has depressing consequences for almost every aspect of politics regarding women’s lives, but it has a particularly egregious effect when it comes to the discussion of sexual exploitation.
Without an understanding of men’s power in general over women in general, it becomes impossible to make sense of an Epstein, a Rotherham, a Rochdale. It is impossible to make any sense of the sex industry as a whole: it simply becomes a baffling patchwork of people (who happen to be mostly female) providing services (which happen to be sexual) to other people (who happen to be almost exclusively male). No structural forces here, just arbitrary and individual choice.
That’s if the buyers are brought into the discussion at all. Usually, conversations about the sale of sex are conversations about the people—the women—who sell it. The men simply melt away into the background, undiscussed, unmentioned, too unremarkable to draw comment; a strange, faceless inevitability. The vast majority of research on prostitution focuses on the prostituted rather than the punters.
Perhaps that’s because most research into prostitution starts from the ideological position that “sex work is work,” and so examining the character of the men who drive the industry would be an obstacle to normalising it, as the researchers want to. Buyers are not the only sources of harm against women in prostitution, but they are a significant one: the UK 2020 Femicide Census recorded the killings of 32 women involved in prostitution, 18 of whom were killed by clients. Research into men who buy sex has found they score highly for sexual aggression, and (unsurprisingly) lowly on empathy for women in prostitution.
We don’t know whether the act begets the attitude or the attitude begets the act, but it seems plausible that the influence runs both ways. What’s interesting, though, is that when such a man is brought into public view—a man like Epstein, who used girls and young women, and passed them around his friends, if not for direct financial gain then for social advantage—he is seen, rightly, with revulsion.
To exploit another person for your own pleasure is a grotesque thing to do, and a thing that can only happen under a terrible mismatch of power. We can talk about a woman’s “choice” to sell sex, but it is a choice that can be made only when a man decides to buy it. Epstein was not extraordinary. He was any pimp and any punter, and his wrongs are the wrongs of the entire trade in women.