When the notification popped up on my phone about the Ghislaine Maxwell verdict, I uttered an internal “yes!” I’ve been afraid to learn of verdicts recently, in this climate of criminal-friendly judgements (See Kyle Rittenhouse, and the pardons of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn) so I expected no less for this woman whose machinations allowed sexual predators to rape and assault teenage girls. However, the jury in fact returned a verdict of guilty—for five of the six charges against her and she faces decades in prison. I don’t know how the women who bravely testified against her made it through the trial but all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief.
And it was only the headline that I was interested in; I wanted no part in “understanding” the verdict or the criminal herself. I didn’t want to hear from Ghislaine’s defenders or her attorneys’ plans to appeal. I didn’t want to know anything about how the brave women who testified against Maxwell were attacked for faulty memories or greedy intentions. No, I only wanted to confirm that this woman who had groomed countless girls to be in service for the despicable sexual requirements of some of the world’s most powerful men had been found—finally—guilty.
What makes a woman—anybody really—but a woman of means and social position indulge in such wicked and dehumanizing activity? “Grooming” is a term that is not often fully understood; it is one of the most reprehensible forms of sexual assault. Grooming doesn’t just abuse the body, it abuses the mind; it relies on manipulating a victim fully by developing a level of trust that not only allows the perpetrator to control the victim’s participation in the abuse but coerces the victim into believing they have consented to the act and to “keep the secret.” Perpetrators of grooming normalize sexualized touching and language, for example when Maxwell asked one of the girls she recruited to “do her ‘a favor’ and come give Epstein a massage, even though she had no massage therapy experience.”
And can we stop calling it sexual favors, by the way? Favors makes it sound like it was a child’s birthday party or a destination wedding. Ms. Maxwell literally instructed a 17-year-old girl “to take off my clothes and to give oral sex to Jeffrey Epstein.” Referring to sexual assault is no favor in any situation. Euphemizing the illicit activities of the wealthy and powerful gives them license to continue, even when they’re caught. In 2008, Jeffrey Epstein was given a “sweetheart deal” when he pleaded guilty to solicitation of prostitution involving a minor and served 13 of an 18 month sentence, but was granted work release, which allowed him to commute to an office outside the jail six days a week. Even registering as a sex offender in the state of Florida didn’t curb his ability to move about in Hollywood and New York society circles. He remained on the A list, along with his so-called “right-hand woman” Ghislaine Maxwell.
The betrayal of women by another woman is particularly difficult to comprehend. Women are supposed to be nurturers—shoulders to cry on, sisters to one another, they lift each other up. Men are almost expected to take advantage of women, but another woman? Men are the monsters, not women. Until now. Because some women are monsters, too.
How does this happen? Did something happen to her? There is always an argument for seeing both sides; as in what made Ghislaine Maxwell into a person whose livelihood and sense of self relied on the seduction and debasement of girls, and not for personal reasons, but as a procurer for powerful men. Was she traumatized as a child? From all appearances she lived a privileged and entitled life, enjoying the status of being a citizen of three countries and speaking four languages fluently. Her history is marked by the kind of scandal that tantalizes rather than criminalizes one’s life—inexplicable deaths, hints of embezzlement, mysterious envelopes delivered via the Concorde—and all outside the long arm of the law.
A guilty verdict grants us the luxury of thinking that culpability—and justice—has been served. But responsibility is something else. When victims are manipulated in a way that allows them to “consent” to power and be led to understand such cooperation is beneficial is when the greatest harm is done. A guilty verdict is essential but its most successful application will not only address the damage inflicted on those who were violated, but clear a path for future victims. Because there will be more.