The wealthy and well-connected financier and registered sex offender was arrested this week in New York on accusations of child sex trafficking. He just may bring a lot of bad men – and a few bad women – down with him.
Epstein allegedly groomed and recruited dozens of underage girls, many of them vulnerable runaways, for sex with him and his friends. Despite being caught by authorities, Epstein has largely evaded serious punishment. Thanks to heroic reporting by Julie K Brown at the Miami Herald, Americans learned that back in 2008, Epstein was given an exceptionally favorable plea deal by then-prosecutor Alex Acosta – now Trump’s secretary of labor. The deal was shamefully hidden from Epstein’s victims, and while it forced Epstein to register as a sex offender, it allowed him near-total freedom for the 13 months he was technically in jail – he was allowed to leave the facility to work in his luxurious private office instead of serving life in prison.
It’s unclear why Epstein was given such favorable treatment. But given who his friends are, speculation has run rampant that his powerful connections (and the potential wrongdoings of other powerful men) may have had a hand in keeping him in relative freedom.
Epstein’s friends and contacts include President Donald Trump, President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and high-powered attorney Alan Dershowitz, among many others. In 2002, Trump characterized Epstein as a “terrific guy” who enjoyed the company of girls “on the younger side.”
In the immediate aftermath of Epstein’s arrest, Twitter exploded with political gotchas. On the right, it’s near-gospel that President Bill Clinton and Epstein are jet-setting pals, and that Clinton is at best complicit and at worst a participant in Epstein’s sex crimes. (We know Clinton used Epstein’s private jet for work related to the Clinton Foundation; according to Clinton, they were always accompanied by Secret Service agents or Clinton Foundation staff.)
On the left, Trump opponents wonder if the president was ever a participant in Epstein’s sexual crimes. Trump was at one point accused by a young woman of raping her at Epstein’s New York home when she was 13; the lawsuit in which those accusations were made was withdrawn by the accuser. We also know that Trump and Epstein socialized, that Trump’s various phone numbers were written in Epstein’s notorious little black book, and that Epstein was once asked whether he had ever been around Trump and underage girls – and he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
This is not a story in which anyone should find satisfaction. Dozens of vulnerable girls were allegedly sexually exploited and abused by Jeffrey Epstein. A great many adults, who should have done the right thing and stood up for these children, chose to look the other way. A few may have even participated in exploitation and rape.
The only way forward is to demand accountability from Epstein, his co-conspirators, and his enablers, without exception and without excuse. Who knew what was going on? Who participated? How, exactly, did Epstein get such a sweet plea deal in Florida?
Wherever these questions lead prosecutors and reporters must follow. And the public must demand real accountability, no matter the answers.
What happens next will be revealing. Any person who participated in or knew about Epstein’s alleged trafficking ring should face (in addition to jail time) total public rejection. If they hold public office, they must resign or be forced out. If they are a lion of politics or public life, they must retreat, live with this profound shame, and know it will taint their legacy forever.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how we’ve treated abusive and predatory men for most of human history. While that’s changing – the #MeToo movement has made an incredible impact – it still seems that a man’s punishment remains contingent on who he is, how powerful he is, and who his allies are. It’s also looking increasingly partisan. While Democrats are far from innocent when it comes to letting badly-behaved men off the hook, the American left has largely stepped up in recent years and demanded accountability from its own. Well-loved men like Al Franken have stepped down in the wake of sexual misconduct. Men whose bad behavior has been long known, like Bill Clinton, are seeing their legacies stained as modern feminists are increasingly willing to criticize their bad acts. When it comes to Epstein, the left is ready and willing to take down anyone who let him get away with his crimes – whoever they are, and however they vote.
But is the political right ready and willing to do the same? Aside from the hopeful conservative claims that Clinton is going down, the actual commitment of conservatives to punishing men for sexual wrongdoing is an outstanding question. Many, many times over, we have seen prominent conservative figures accused of sexual harassment or assault, only to have the most prominent figures on the right just deny it. Women who accuse liberal men of wrongdoing, the thinking seems to be, are to be believed. Women who accuse right-wing men are liars.
Just look at Brett Kavanaugh, who sits on the Supreme Court despite a credible claim of sexual assault and attempted rape. Or Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual misdeeds by more than two dozen women – and most recently of rape. Or Alex Acosta, Trump’s labor secretary, who is the reason Jeffrey Epstein isn’t sitting in federal prison. Too many of the same people salivating over the possibility that some liberal men will be indicated in the Epstein case are too happy to shrug off serious allegation of sexual crimes when those allegations are leveled against men whose politics they share.
Holding people accountable for abusing girls should be a nonpartisan affair. Sadly, in the Trump era of lowered expectations and even more dismal behavior, we can’t even count on that.
Jill Filipovic is the author of the The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness