Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9 FM. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
At ESPN Magazine, a few male executives had a common lunchtime joke. It went something like this:
“Be back after lunch,” one would say as he headed for the elevators. Another would respond: “Have a happy ending.”
Everyone understood what they meant. Our midtown Manhattan offices were surrounded by Asian day spas that advertised facials and massages but were known to also sell sex. Snarky, sexist banter was the norm among many of the white men in our newsroom culture – including joking about the city’s hidden-in-plain-sight brothels.
I know, the magazine was not so different from other workplace environments, where misogyny is taken in stride, even in today’s #MeToo world. We need look no further than President Trump, who was able to use his millions, his misogyny and his white privilege to win the White House while dodging multiple sex scandals.
But it now turns out two of his billionaire buddies – Robert Kraft and Jeffrey Epstein, may not be so fortunate. Both are in legal trouble over their own alleged (in Kraft’s case) misconduct linked to separate sex-trafficking investigations. And then there is the arrest Saturday of the music superstar R. Kelly, who was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
What the accusations against each of these three men – and the workplace tales of some of my former magazine colleagues – have in common is the systematic exploitation of young girls and women who often are poor, vulnerable, ignored and silenced.
Each of these cases points to a disturbing story of just how easily justice is denied to certain women in America, and how invisible these women remain – often in their own communities – despite all the high-profile marches and equality movements.
Kraft, the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots owner, was implicated in a statewide human trafficking sting in Jupiter, Florida, last week. The 77-year-old was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution involving two alleged visits to an illicit day spa.
Police said they have video of Kraft engaged in sex acts.
Kraft’s lawyers said he’s innocent. His friend, the President, in a press conference last Friday, reminded the nation that Kraft “denies it.”
The two separate misdemeanor violations could mean up to a year in jail, fines and community service under Florida law.
Unlike Kelly, Kraft, though charged with crimes, has yet to be arrested.
Florida authorities are working with advocacy groups to help the women, mostly from China, who were forced to live at the spa, police say
“These girls are there all day long, into the evening. They can’t leave and they are performing sex acts,” said Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey in an interview with TCPalm.
Another Trump friend, Jeffrey Epstein, a former New York hedge fund manager, is now facing the possibility of further legal action after he was indicted in 2007 for abusing more than 30 underage girls. Palm Beach Police then described has activities as “assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls – with the help of young female recruiters – to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day,” according to Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown.
Epstein’s prey? Underage girls, as young as 13, who were poor and vulnerable. Some were homeless or from nearby trailer park communities, according to reports.
Last week, thanks in part to Brown’s award-winning investigation, a federal judge ruled illegal the secret non-prosecution agreement given to Epstein 11 years ago by the office of then Miami US Attorney General Alexander Acosta (he is now Trump’s Labor Secretary). The sweetheart deal allowed Epstein to avoid a life sentence in federal prison and gave immunity to any co-conspirators who may have participated in his crimes. Instead, Epstein served just 13 months in a county jail, during which time he continued to go to his office and entertain friends, including women, records show.
The worst part? Epstein’s victims were not told of the deal. Acosta and his office broke the law, the judge said, when he didn’t tell the victims about the plea agreement – as prosecutors are required to do – and misled them to believe Epstein’s crimes remained under investigation.
Today, Epstein’s victims are in their 20s and 30s and the women are no longer silent or vulnerable. They want justice. They want the plea deal invalidated and they want Epstein in federal prison.The judge gave the women 15 days to confer with their lawyers to agree on a settlement in the case.
Epstein remains a free man. Acosta remains in the White House, though some Democrats are calling for his resignation for his role in failing to protect the girls.
Trump seems unbothered.
“Seems like that was a long time ago. He’s a great labor secretary,” the President said Friday.
Far from the palm-lined streets of South Florida, musician R. Kelly has for decades, prosecutors say, preyed on underage black girls, many from poor families on the South Side of Chicago. After dozens of accusations – even an acquittal in 2008 after a young girl allegedly shown in a sex video with Kelly denied it was her on the tape and refused to testify – the entertainer was arrested Saturday on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four alleged victims, dating from 1998 to 2010.
Unlike Kraft, Kelly’s arrest came quickly after he was charged. His bond was set at $1 million. He denies forcing anyone to have sex, his lawyer said.
Kelly has no friend in the White House defending his character. And it’s not white privilege that’s helped the Grammy winner elude jail time for his alleged crimes. Kelly’s protection from the law was his fame and fortune, combined with enormous support from the music industry, media, law enforcement and far too many in the black community.
For decades no one listened when parents and loved ones of the alleged victims, as well as local activists, begged police to protect young girls from Kelly. Parents were blamed, the girls were blamed, greedy agents were blamed; everyone but Kelly was held accountable for his alleged sex crimes.
Thank goodness for Dream Hampton. She is the courageous woman and black filmmaker whose recent Lifetime documentary, “Surviving R Kelly,” forced prosecutors to take another look at Kelly. Immediately after watching the film, Chicago’s Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, another black woman, went on TV to urge any women who had been abused by the music artist to come forward.
And they did.
One victim turned over a graphic video that allegedly showed Kelly having sex with her when she was 14 years old. Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, gave that video to prosecutors. Soon after that, charges were filed.
Time will tell what type of justice these three privileged men face.
Still, it is progress that they are even being held accountable for sex crimes against women that are too often ignored.
But I still have concerns that arise any time race, class and crimes against women collide in our justice system. Will arrest warrants, jailhouse perp walks and viral police mugshots follow for Kraft and Epstein as they did for R. Kelly or actor Jussie Smollett in his hate crime – or hoax – case?
Will the white privilege of the super-rich protect men like Kraft and Epstein – even Acosta – at the expense of women’s lives? Will Kelly’s fame finally fade enough to ensure he’s held accountable?
We shall see.
Women like me, inspired by women’s marches, and the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, like to proclaim “women are winning.” But it’s dangerous to confuse progress with winning. And it’s a mistake to allow the tone of our movement to become a catchy mantra for privileged Hollywood stars or frustrated professional working women.
When justice looks the same for every woman, regardless of her zip code – and even when she doesn’t have one – that’s when we’ll know women are finally winning.
Until then, fight on my sisters.