What the Ghislaine Maxwell Conviction Means to Sexual Abuse Survivors
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
On December 29, 2021, Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on five of six charges against her in a high profile sex trafficking case involving the now deceased Jeffrey Epstein. Allegations involved Maxwell aiding Epstein in recruiting, grooming and otherwise enabling the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls as young as 14 years of age. Several of the victims, now women, came forward to bravely testify as to the atrocities they had endured.
Following Epstein’s suicide, many believed that nobody would be held accountable for the heinous crimes against these girls. I have followed the entire case in detail and was personally distraught on behalf of the girls after his death, understanding that once your abuser is dead there is no longer any chance at justice, which is such an integral aspect to healing from this kind of trauma.
When Maxwell was subsequently arrested and put on trial I found renewed hope that these women could finally have their voices heard, their stories believed and their lives vindicated. As the verdict came in I actually broke down in tears, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what had occurred and feeling for the first time as though there was a shift in the way in which sexual abuse cases could be handled moving forward. A new era if you will, that has been building since the dawn of the #MeToo era began and the high profile trials of sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and Larry Nassar.
1. Victims being believed and treated with dignity
In several interviews with Gloria Allred immediately after the verdict came in, Allred noted that in the past the women or girls themselves would have been treated like criminals, arrested or otherwise held responsible for their actions. The fact that we are now beginning to see the victims as having been violated and coerced into their actions and that they are being believed is a huge shift away from a victim-blaming mentality and a powerful message to survivors of sexual violence that what they endured matters.
2. Education on the processes of grooming
Those of us with sexual abuse histories know firsthand what grooming is and how insidious it can be. This case in particular brought to light in stark detail the myriad ways in which victims are identified as vulnerable and those vulnerabilities are exploited to get them to engage in whatever deviant sexual behaviors their abusers want them to engage in. Many of the victims in this case were poor and the promises of gifts, money and things that they otherwise could not have afforded were powerful means of coercion.
3. Enablers of abuse being held accountable
The case of Larry Nassar is why this particular point is so relevant. Nassar could not have gotten away with years of abusing those girls without the failure of a lot of people and organizations either intentionally overlooking it, not implementing proper safety measures or outright helping him in some way. Prior to this case the enablers have rarely been held accountable because the burden of proof is often too high to get a conviction. In Maxwell’s case there were plenty of bank records, Epstein’s infamous black book, corroboration from housekeepers and other witnesses to unequivocally place her in the position of being an integral piece of what one of the victims called “a pyramid of abuse.” It is my hope that this may lead authorities to take a more careful look at other enablers, like the Karolyi’s in the case of Nassar, and hold them accountable for both their actions and inactions.
4. Privilege, money and connectedness won’t get you off the hook
It has often appeared in the past that there was some inherent protection built in for those with the means to hire the best attorneys, who are white, elite and have friends in high places. Some rumors circulated initially about the validity that Epstein died by suicide… suggesting either foul play or some other kind of more sinister underlying desire to make the problem go away so to speak so as not to incriminate anyone else in a high profile position. The list of purported clients and friends of Epstein’s who allegedly engaged in illicit sexual activities with these girls is extensive and reaches deep into the political, financial and entertainment world. It wouldn’t be far fetched to assume that these individuals didn’t want their names to get out there. I do hope that in exchange for a less severe sentence, Maxwell will be willing to give up some of these names as I believe these individuals deserve just as severe a punishment for their engagement with these girls.
5. Although it is less common, women can be perpetrators of sexual violence too
Statistically the majority of sexual perpetrators are male. However, there are women who perpetrate sexual abuse and assault and they are less often represented by media, with a few exceptions often involving female teachers with male students. This creates stigma for victims whose perpetrators were female and a much higher burden in terms of fear of victim-blaming, because the facts of their case are contrary to the traditional narrative. I feel like this is particularly difficult on male survivors who are less likely to report anyway because of the shame and stigma male victims may feel around the societal expectations of masculinity and power. Maxwell being female gives representation and credibility to those who have been victimized by women.
All in all, I do feel that this case has the potential — along with revamping statutes of limitations, educating law enforcement on how to sensitively question victims and ending the back log of unprocessed rape kits — of influencing positive changes in how cases of sexual violence are handled, tried and prosecuted. This I think is a win for survivors of sexual violence as a group and perhaps will embolden more victims to come forward to name their abusers and bring them to justice.
Note: As of the writing of this article there have been some questions regarding one of the jurors on the trial having a history of sexual abuse and whether or not this will lead to a mistrial. While this remains to be determined, statistically speaking if one in four girls and one in six boys have experienced child sexual abuse, out of a jury of 12, the likelihood of at least a quarter of the jurors on any case having a history of abuse is pretty high. In my opinion this in no way invalidates the jurors ability to effectively deliberate the case. It also presupposes that a survivor of abuse is more likely to find the abuse of children to be egregious and criminal. That goes against not just the rule of law but against any rational human beings interpretation of what is and is not morally acceptable.
For more on this topic, check out “3 Ways to Educate Your Kids About Child Sexual Abuse.”
Image via PBS NewsHour YouTube page