Trigger warning: This article contains references to and descriptions of sexual abuse.
“No matter who you are, no matter what kinds of circles you travel in, no matter how much money you have, no matter how many years have passed since the sexual abuse, justice is still possible”.
These were the powerful words uttered by Lisa Bloom, the attorney for eight of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims at the recent trial of Ghislaine Maxwell. For the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, to name a key player in a circle of the accused perpetrators of prolific sexual abuse beginning as early as 1985, the conviction of Maxwell on 29th December 2021 will hopefully feel like a move towards vindication.
Prior to her conviction, Ghislaine Maxwell was a socialite educated at the University of Oxford and the ex-girlfriend of American financier Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell was connected to a network of powerful individuals, including the likes of Bill Clinton and the Duke of York. Maxwell met Epstein in 1991 through mutual friends and indulged in Epstein’s abundant luxuries such as rides on his private jet and staying at his homes. We now know that this was a toxic relationship that would go on to result in a trail of devastation for many young women.
Epstein and Maxwell lured in teenage girls who often came from troubled backgrounds with promises of funding their education for example. This honeytrap was used as a ruse to convince these young girls to repay Epstein’s assumed generosity with sexual contact. This was power play was part of a ‘grooming’ process, according to prosecutors, used on many young girls who have fought to expose this chain of abuse in recent years.
Following her arrest by the FBI in July 2020, Ghislaine Maxwell was put on trial in New York for grooming young girls for sexual encounters between 1994 and 2004. The victims present at Maxwell’s hearing painted a powerful picture of the abuse. Three victims opted to testify under pseudonyms – Kate, Carolyn and Jane, whilst the fourth Annie Farmer stood before the jury using her own identity.
During the trial, Maxwell’s accusers described a striking pattern of events or common factors in their experiences. All four women stated that they were experiencing either financial or familial struggles when they met Epstein and Maxwell. Kate, Carolyn, Jane and Annie all described how Maxwell had made them feel secure and had eased any concerns around the intentions of Epstein.
Jane testified that Maxwell groomed her when she was 14 years old at the Interlochen Center for the Arts youth camp in Michigan in the summer of 1994. Jane says that the abuse took place around every two weeks for the following three years. She stated in court that sometimes Maxwell was present for the abuse and other times she was actively involved. Jane recalled that “there were hands everywhere’ Kate recalled that she had been invited over to Epstein’s home by Maxwell and asked to massage his feet which led to following occasions where Epstein initiated sexual encounters.
Carolyn described a similar series of events where massaging Epstein led to further sexual abuse. She stated that she visited Epstein’s home ‘over 100 times’ between the ages of 14 and 18. Carolyn also said that prior to one of the massages, Maxwell had touched her and remarked that she had a ‘great body for Mr Epstein and his friends’. Annie Farmer described how Maxwell not only facilitated the abuse but actively partook in it. Farmer testified that Maxwell gave her a nude massage when she was 16 years old at Epstein’s ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The defence portrayed Maxwell as a ‘scapegoat’ for Epstein’s actions, whilst the prosecution put forward a case for Maxwell’s active involvement in the crimes where she sought sexual and financial benefits. Maxwell was defended by a female lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim who tried to undermine the testimonies of Maxwell’s accusers stating:
“ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behaviour of men, and women are often villainized and punished more than the men ever are… The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein, she is not like Jeffrey Epstein, and she is not like any of the other men, powerful men, moguls, media giants who abuse women”.
Maxwell was convicted on five counts – for sex trafficking of minors, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.
The prosecution’s closing statements depicted Maxwell as a ‘sophisticated predator’ who was an integral part of a ‘pyramid scheme of abuse’, whilst the defence accused witnesses of altering their testimonies and the government of ‘sensationalism’. Many questions are left to be answered after Maxwell’s conviction. Though she is yet to be sentenced, the Guardian reports that ‘it is likely she will spend the rest of her life behind bars’.
This story is a minefield for feminists. Overall, the most important outcome regarding Maxwell specifically has been achieved. Whilst the abuse can never be undone, it is crucial for the victims and also for society’s general attitudes towards victims telling their stories, that perpetrators of sexual abuse are held to account. For this reason, however, a question mark hovers over the many influential figures who are yet to be held accountable for their accused involvement in Maxwell and Epstein’s crimes.
Jeffrey Epstein will never face the consequences of his actions, but also there are still high-profile male figures at large who have been accused of involvement with Epstein and Maxwell.
For example, the Duke of York’s case is gaining a significant amount of media attention currently despite being described as a ‘mere footnote’ by the Guardian in the proceedings against Maxwell according to The Guardian. As this case develops, we see the voice of Giuffre for example being amplified as Prince Andrew is stripped of his military titles and use of HRH. Giuffre claims that Prince Andrew had sex with her after she was trafficked by Epstein as a teenager. It can be asked – is Maxwell being treated more harshly by the judicial system because she is a woman, or will the male key players now be held to account also?
Ultimately, there is still a lot of work to be done before women like Giuffre and Farmer see justice. But as Lisa Bloom states Maxwell’s conviction is a step in the right direction.