Ghislaine Maxwell Isn’t The Bad Guy

Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

If Ghislaine Maxwell participated in child sexual abuse, she is guilty of crimes that are malum in se — intrinsically evil. But before we turn on her, fangs bared, and mercilessly tear her limb from limb in retribution for her sins, we would do well to remember that vengeance is not the same thing as justice, and Ghislaine Maxwell is not the Bad Guy in this story.

Jeffrey Epstein was a prolific sexual predator, whose last ignominious act was slithering out of accountability, and robbing his survivors of justice. Did he kill himself? I think he did. It was an unrepentant act of cowardice in keeping with his character and the way he lived his life.

Whether Jeffrey Epstein killed himself, or was murdered to protect the powerful men he could have implicated at trial, his death has created a vacuum of blame. Ghislaine Maxwell may seem like the next best thing to a flesh-and-blood villain, but no sentence or punishment imposed on her can substitute for what Jeffrey Epstein deserved.

Mercifully, most of us will never know what it was like to be entangled in a longterm psychosexual relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. But it only takes a small amount of empathy to recognize that Ghislaine Maxwell did what she did under the influence of someone whose powers of manipulation also bamboozled two Presidents, a member of the British royal family, the current U.S. Attorney General, and numerous Harvard professors.

Nothing at all excuses her actions; and she must be brought to justice. But the same is also true of all the powerful and influential men who took Epstein’s money, and covered for him — all the while knowing that his life revolved around having sex with underage girls. Every single adult who participated in child sex abuse at any of Epstein’s residences needs to be brought to justice. Everyone who got him off the hook for child sex trafficking in 2008 — starting with Alex Acosta — needs to be held accountable for all the crimes Epstein committed in the decade that followed. The Bad Guys in this story are numerous, and most of them are still at large.

Ghislaine Maxwell knows things. She was there. In the broader arc of the search for justice, her utility now as a witness far outsizes her stature as a villain. If she tells the whole truth about what happened, and exposes what kind of leverage Jeffrey Epstein had over the powerful men in his orbit — and helps bring those people to justice — she has the opportunity to do real good. What is justice, if not a system of righting wrong actions?

The profound injustice of this case, the filth and corruption it exposes at the highest echelons of money and privilege in this country has made a lot of us mad as hell. But where we channel that anger matters. It’s a lot easier to destroy Ghislaine Maxwell, a 58-year-old woman, than to take down the patriarchal power structures that enabled a rich man to make a lifestyle out of raping kids in the first place.

We can and must hold Ghislaine Maxwell responsible for her crimes, without ritualistically burning her at the stake for America’s rape culture problem. That is a doozy that goes all the way up to the top. The President, Donald J. Trump, a known associate of Jeffrey Epstein’s, has been credibly accused of sexual assault by twenty-five different women. With those values reflected in our leadership, it’s no surprise that in America, 1 in 5 women report having been raped. The same is true for 1 in 14 American men.

Child sex abuse is also a huge problem in this country. 43.2% of female victims of rape were younger than 18. An even larger proportion of male rape victims — 52.3% — were under the age of 18. According to reporting by The New York Times, 70 million images of child sex abuse were reported to authorities just last year. That’s a lot of kids getting sexually abused. That’s a lot of Bad Guys harming kids. And we have no idea who most of them are.

A society where the sexual abuse of children is common has bigger problems than any one villain; or any one scandal. Throwing Ghislaine Maxwell in jail and throwing away the key won’t make the world any safer for the vulnerable people who are trafficked for sex in the United States. We can’t afford to get distracted by old sexist tropes — the evil Madam, the seductress, the witch. We have way too much real work to do to make sure this never happens again.



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