Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book, “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Ghislaine Maxwell is not ready to face the music. Maxwell, the longtime friend and companion of mysterious millionaire and alleged sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, is on trial for what prosecutors say was her role in a sex-trafficking operation, recruiting underage girls for exploitation by Epstein. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty. Epstein killed himself in jail in 2019, before he could be tried.
If the many, many allegations against him are true, then Epstein, obviously, is the chief criminal here. But that doesn’t make Maxwell a “scapegoat” as her lawyers have argued. The women who have accused Epstein of sex crimes made clear that he was not acting alone; they say Maxwell had a clear hand in the operation, and that both Maxwell and Epstein made their wealth, power and connections clear – perhaps a suggestion that the girls brought to Epstein should feel special, and a reminder that Maxwell and Epstein were untouchable.
The good news is that in seeking to hold Maxwell accountable, prosecutors appear to be assessing the whole structure of abuse beyond just the alleged abuser. The bad news is that Maxwell seems to have little remorse or interest in even being honest about what happened.
It’s a step forward that we are increasingly understanding abuse as a system rather than a single bad act. It’s distressing, though, how much the victim-blaming stays the same.
So far, two women have testified about what they say Maxwell’s role was in their sexual abuse by Epstein, and two more are scheduled to appear. All were minors when the alleged abuse occurred. The Maxwell defense thus far has amounted to “memory, manipulation and money,” as Maxwell’s lawyer Bobbi Sternheim put it during her opening statement. In other words: The women testifying can’t accurately remember 20-year-old events; they are manipulating the system by only coming forward recently; and they are chasing a payday, not justice.
It’s an ugly set of accusations, made uglier by the fact that Sternheim has shamed and blamed the women for their personal struggles and for making the same decisions made by sexual violence survivors the world over – namely, to hesitate before coming forward. One of the accusers, pseudonymously called “Jane,” didn’t hire a lawyer until charges against Epstein and Maxwell were publicized. Sternheim suggested that was evidence of Jane capitalizing on the circumstances and not of genuine victimization. In reality, it follows the pattern of so many women who came forward on the wave of #MeToo accusations: It wasn’t until one woman went first and accused a powerful man of wrongdoing that other women who had experienced abuse from the same man felt brave enough to speak out.
Of course, Maxwell is entitled to a defense, and it’s totally possible that Jane didn’t speak out sooner because she’s lying now. But given the volume of claims against Epstein and Maxwell, and given the bulk of the research on sexual violence, that is, sexual violence survivors routinely keep the abuse they suffered a secret, it’s abhorrent to see Maxwell’s defense apparently hinge on attacking the credibility of a woman who behaved perfectly normally given the context.
Sternheim described the other woman who testified, a British woman pseudonymously called “Kate,” as a “jet setter” who was also “ambitious” in her career as a model; Kate, Sternheim suggested, cut a deal with prosecutors to get an American visa for abuse survivors – Kate clarified on the stand that she did not apply for that kind of visa.
Sternheim also pointed to Kate’s history of drug and alcohol abuse as evidence that she may not be remembering events clearly and perhaps isn’t to be trusted. Kate rebutted that claim by saying that she was not allowed to use drugs or drink alcohol in Epstein and Maxwell’s presence, and remembered the events just fine.
That line of attack is particularly pernicious. First, Kate very well may have been using drugs because she was being abused – research suggests that sexual violence survivors are at elevated risk of substance abuse as they try to blur their trauma away. And second, the kind of serial sexual abusers who groom girls are often quite skilled at identifying vulnerable children – those with unstable home lives, drug or alcohol use, past traumas, disconnection with family – and targeting them. After all, those kids may not have a safe adult to report to, and may find themselves not believed if they do speak out. Kate could have been one of them.
Perhaps even more offensive is Sternheim’s invocation of feminist ideas to defend her client. In her opening statement – as she prepared for a defense premised on the decidedly anti-feminist strategy of ripping alleged victims to shreds – she portrayed Maxwell as the victim of a patriarchal society.
“Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple. Women have been blamed for the bad behavior 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,” Sternheim said.
It’s a defense lawyer’s job to defend her client to the best of her ability. But it’s also a human being’s job to own up to wrongdoing and make amends. Maxwell has spent the trial in silence, while her lawyer attempts to dismantle the characters of women who are just two names on a very long list of women who have accused Epstein and Maxwell of wrongdoing. This same narrative that “troubled” or even “ambitious” women and girls cannot be trusted is exactly what enables abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful. It is, by these women’s accounts, what allowed Epstein and Maxwell to operate for so long, in plain view of other wealthy and powerful jet-setting men.
The fact that this trial is even happening is an indication of progress. But Maxwell’s lawyer clearly believes she can tarnish the accusers’ reputations to win her case. And that’s a sign of just how far we haven’t come.