IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein and the women who abuse other women

If we want to understand not just Maxwell but also the complicated reality of sexual violence and exploitation, we have to cut through the stereotypes and clichés that cut both ways.
Image: Audrey Strauss, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announces charges against Ghislaine Maxwel in New York
Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for southern New York, announces charges against Ghislaine Maxwell in connection with the sexual exploitation and abuse of minor girls by Jeffrey Epstein in New York on Thursday.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein's right-hand woman, was arrested Thursday in connection with Epstein's sex trafficking scheme, which included the sexual exploitation of underage girls. According to the indictment, Maxwell helped Epstein "recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse victims" who both Epstein and Maxwell knew were children, some as young as 14.

All of this, prosecutors say, was an effort to groom the girls for abuse at Epstein's hands: Maxwell helped to "normalize sexual abuse."

The indictment is detailed and damning. Prosecutors accuse Maxwell of befriending the girls, sometimes taking them shopping or to the movies, and of encouraging them to accept Epstein's financial assistance. Prosecutors allege that she would talk about sex in front of the girls, undress in front of them, massage Epstein herself and push the girls to massage him with everyone involved in various states of undress.

All of this, prosecutors say, was an effort to groom the girls for abuse at Epstein's hands: Maxwell helped to "normalize sexual abuse," which enabled Epstein to abuse his teenage victims; she was present for some of the abuse and even participated in it; and, the indictment says, her "presence during minor victims' interactions with Epstein, including interactions where the minor victim was undressed or that involved sex acts with Epstein, helped put the victims at ease because an adult woman was present."

Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

The Ghislaine Maxwell story fascinates us not only because it involves some of the world's most powerful people, but also because her role is so unusual and her motives so incomprehensible. It simply doesn't comport with our understanding of who commits sex crimes and how women behave. And to be fair, there's good reason for that: Men are many, many times more likely than women to sexually assault and abuse others. Women like Maxwell are rare.

But that doesn't mean they're nonexistent or that actions like those Maxwell is accused of are unprecedented. If Maxwell was as effective a manipulator and groomer of girls as the indictment suggests, it's for the same reason she's such a difficult character for the public to understand: We don't expect adult women to sexually prey on girls; we expect that, if an adult woman is in the room with vulnerable teenage girls, any men present will behave better. We expect women to moderate men's bad acts, not abet them.

But if we want to understand what exactly happened — if we want to understand not just Maxwell but also the complicated reality of sexual violence and exploitation — we have to cut through the stereotypes and clichés that cut both ways. We can and should expect men to behave decently, and when they don't, it isn't the fault of female temptation or lack of female oversight. And on the flip side, women aren't always victims or temptresses, and they are perfectly (and hideously) capable of behaving badly on their own accord — including engaging in calculated violence against other women.

If Maxwell was as effective a manipulator and groomer of girls as the indictment suggests, it's for the same reason she's such a difficult character for the public to understand.

The crux of the public fixation on Maxwell is this: If she committed the crimes she's accused of, what in the world did she get out of helping Epstein abuse teenagers? Maxwell was already a wealthy and well-connected socialite when she met Epstein; she didn't want for money, and according to prosecutors, she has millions at her disposal. She dated Epstein but continued to assist him after their romantic relationship ended. She wasn't turning a blind eye to a husband's bad acts to maintain a marital fiction; she is alleged to have understood everything and helped it all to happen.

E. Jean Carroll, a writer who says Donald Trump sexually assaulted her, cleverly tweeted a photo of Trump and his wife, Melania, standing next to Epstein and Maxwell with the comment "One of these women has protected a man who's been accused of sexual assault by 24 women. The other is Ghislaine Maxwell."

Carroll is generalizing a bit — Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct in various forms, including assault, by about two dozen women. But she is correct in her assessment that women have stood by and covered for male abusers since time immemorial. Some of those women are abused themselves, sticking with awful men because they have few options and have been so psychologically broken down that leaving feels impossible.

Too often, women who are themselves victims are held criminally responsible for their male partners' actions — some have been accused of failing to protect their children from men who abuse them, too. Others have faced criminal charges for fighting back against being beaten or raped. We continue to blame women for the bad actions of men, even when those women were also targets. But at least we increasingly have language, and a narrative, for these cases: the abuser and the victim.

Other women may not be abused themselves, but they are partnered with men who are exceptional liars and manipulators, and these women may believe their male partners when they proclaim their innocence. The women may be willfully ignorant or perhaps naive, gullible and grossly credulous, or they may be, simply, complicated human beings who find their reason clouded by emotion after they're drawn into the web of a particularly cunning person. Whatever the explanation, we also slot these women into a mundane role in a recognizable story: the Svengali and the naïf.

Other women who stand by bad men may be much less sympathetic, but they are nonetheless walking well-trodden ground. Melania Trump, to use E. Jean Carroll's example, is a familiar archetype: the greedy, insecure and unscrupulous woman who has clear incentives to act as a shield to her wealthier, more powerful husband. Without him, her social stature, financial bounty and privileged lifestyle would suffer. It's not like she's a victim; when you marry a man famous for cheating, who has long been unapologetically and publicly misogynist, you know what you're signing up for.

There's little evidence that Melania Trump objects to her husband's degrading comments or that she expects him to behave any better than he does. A troubling number of men seem to think that women's bodies are simply part of an entitlement package that comes with being born male, and a troubling number of women seem to agree — or at least to believe that men can't help themselves or shouldn't face serious consequences for sexual misdeeds. Men like Trump also give the women who stay with them convenient defenses: It didn't happen; all these women, and maybe even the media, are just out to get him. Melania Trump becomes, fairly or not, a one-dimensional villain in another clichéd story: the rich guy and the unscrupulous gold digger.

We can recognize and understand, even if we disapprove of and are disgusted by, wives and girlfriends who enable men like Trump. We can certainly extend empathy to women who are abused and terrorized by their male partners and who, as a result, feel powerless when it comes to their partners' hurting others. And, of course, we can avoid sexist tropes that make women responsible for what the men in their lives do while still holding women accountable for the choices they make. Melania Trump has chosen to cover for her husband, which is indeed odious. But there is no evidence that, as loathsome as she is, she set women up for her husband to assault.

None of this appears to apply to Maxwell. If the allegations are true, she wasn't simply looking the other way in the manner of so many wives, girlfriends, friends and associates of abusive men for all of human history. She hasn't claimed to have been abused or coerced. She wasn't dependent on Epstein. She is certainly not naive. Maxwell is often talked about as an "enabler," which is technically accurate, but she is accused of doing much more than simply allowing Epstein to abuse children — not just allowing the abuse to happen under her nose, but participating in it.

We may never understand Maxwell's motivations. But it would be a good start to step away from the clichés and easy categories if we want to understand female aiders, abettors and enablers of men's sex crimes, or women at all. Women, it turns out, are just as complicated as men. And just as men are as capable as the stereotypical adult woman of temperance, nurturing and decency, women are as capable as men of genius and greatness, of naivete and stupidity — and of abuse, exploitation and evil.