Reviews | Will Maxwell’s conviction end a culture of complicity surrounding sexual predation?


The conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell for having recruited young girls to serve the sexual desires of Jeffrey Epstein set a milestone: facilitators are not immune from criminal prosecution. In that sense, his conviction was an important and unique moment in the #MeToo era. But real progress always requires a calculation with uncomfortable truth. In the world of wealth and privilege, most catalysts are beyond the reach of criminal law.

Like Mr. Epstein, other wealthy and powerful men who have been convicted of sexual misconduct in recent years have also leaned on others who at best have looked away and at worst have actively allowed l abuse, almost all inconsequential.

The cases of M. Epstein, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly are examples of this cultural complicity. In each case, the abuse was considered an open secret because many people knew or suspected what was going on but did not intervene. Ms Maxwell’s conviction demonstrates that prosecutors can, in extreme cases, hold criminally accountable those who allow attackers.

But we should not be blind to the myriad of ways to enable that fall short of the level of a crime. These are ordinary acts of ordinary people who, whatever their intention, combine to protect abusers – especially men with status, wealth and privilege.

In Mr. Cosby’s case, for example, David Carr, then a media columnist for The Times, signed up on a list of people in the media who knew about it but did not prosecute. “I was one of those who looked away,” he wrote. He recalls interviewing Mr Cosby in 2011 for an airline magazine “and never found the space or the time to ask him why so many women accused him of drugging and then assaulting them.” Mr. Carr was hardly an aberration. “No one wanted to disturb the natural order of things,” he explained.

Of course, failure or reluctance to disrupt the status quo is not a crime. It is as it should be. But this is also why the problem of cultural complicity will not be solved by criminal law alone.

Many people have allowed R&B artist R. Kelly to abuse girls and women for a long time. Journalist and music critic Jim DeRogatis, who reported regarding the abuse, said countless people knew or had witnessed Mr Kelly’s behavior. Yet only a few have been charged with crimes related to his abuse.

The story is much the same for Mr. Weinstein. As The Times reported, the film producer “relied on powerful relationships between industries to provide him with cover as accusations of sexual misconduct mounted for decades.”

Mr. Epstein also benefited from this kind of complicity. His crimes came to the attention of law enforcement in 2005. As reported by Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald, the police chief who oversaw the investigation in Palm Beach, Fla. recalled that ‘it was not a’ he said, she said, ‘situation. It was about fifty ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ – and the ‘shes’ were all telling essentially the same story.

Ms Brown wrote that police investigators determined Mr Epstein had formed and operated a “large network of underage, cult-like girls” – mostly between the ages of 13 and 16, many of whom were from disadvantaged families – and forced them to repeat sexual acts.

Instead of pursuing federal charges, however, the then-American attorney agreed to a jaw-dropping deal that two experienced former prosecutors describe as “shockingly indulgent.” Mr Epstein agreed to plead guilty in state court and serve 18 months in county jail. His victims were not told of the deal until it was concluded. He was allowed out of jail six days a week to go to the office, where he continued to manage his hedge fund. That prison sentence, as it was, ended five months earlier, when he was released in 2009.

A fund created by Mr. Epstein’s estate to compensate his victims of sexual assault has paid some $ 121 million to more than 135 people. The fund declined to say how many qualifying claims were for the period since his release in 2009.

One of the reasons lawsuits like Ms Maxwell’s are so unusual and difficult is that the law only prohibits the most extreme enabling behavior. Although criminal laws vary, in the absence of a specific legal obligation to act, individuals are generally not held liable for omissions that cause harm. But when one person’s intentional help is integral to another person’s abuse, the outcome may be different, as was the case with Ms Maxwell. In such limited circumstances, criminal prosecution can play a role in dismantling a culture that protects perpetrators.

According to the accusers’ accounts, Ms. Maxwell did not simply passively allow Mr. Epstein’s abuse; she made it easier. This description was the essence of the government’s thesis.

Ms Maxwell should be held responsible for the untold suffering she has inflicted on vulnerable girls. But his condemnation should not obscure the reality that Mr Epstein’s enablers were plentiful: employees who would have helped him capitalize on the desperation of marginalized girls and women, influential friends who knew or should have known about his project. ongoing, the Florida prosecutors who provided the darling case, the power brokers who by association legitimized his misconduct.

This litany of protectors generally operated within the bounds of the law; Mrs. Maxwell did not. The promise of prosecution is that, like her, the most blameworthy facilitators of abuse can be held accountable. For those who survived Mr Epstein’s predations, this conviction is a long overdue measure of justice.

The rest of us shouldn’t be left with an overly complacent feeling. Impunity for perpetrators is given collectively, and it mainly lies beyond the law. Even more difficult than pursuing the worst enablers is to face the bond that we share.

The #MeToo movement has shed light on the interlocking relationships that protect sexual predators. In speaking out, the victims sought to hold the most powerful men to account. In the same vein, we can all do our part. If people step in when they see or suspect abuse, this culture of complicity around predators will start to crumble. And that will be significant progress.

Deborah Tuerkheimer is Professor of Law at Northwestern University and author of “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers”.


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