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What kind of monster is Jeffrey Epstein?
The question has become pressing for commentators across the political spectrum. The evidence points to a vast network of sexual exploitation in which some of the most powerful men in the world traded girls’ bodies like party favors. By the time all this is over, many well-known men will be implicated — and quite a lot of people are anxious to shield themselves or their perceived allies from that reckoning. But in trying to pin Epstein’s sins on some partisan “enemy,” we miss the point. The villain here isn’t any one group. It’s patriarchy, where male success is measured in access to women’s bodies. We all live in that system; none of us have clean hands when it comes to rape culture.
The list of Epstein’s connections is long and nauseating. Woody Allen and Bill Cosby both reportedly visited him at home. President Bill Clinton was a friend who flew on Epstein’s private plane on a few different occasions; so was President Donald Trump, who told New York magazine in 2002 that Epstein was a “terrific guy” who “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” One of the attorneys who brokered Epstein’s sketchy 2008 plea deal, Alexander Acosta, is now Trump’s secretary of labor. One of Epstein’s alleged victims asserts she was forced to have sex with both Prince Andrew and Allan Dershowitz.
All of these men deny knowledge of Epstein’s sins or claim to have cut ties with him. Yet the fact remains: The names we have now are only the tip of the iceberg. The list is only going to get longer in the days to come, and it seems spectacularly unlikely that all of them could be completely unaware that their frequently accused, plea-deal-making, convicted sex offender friend might have some unhealthy attitudes about children.
Epstein’s friends were Republicans, Democrats, Jewish, Gentile, white, and black—the only common denominator was that they were all men.
So that’s the kind of monster Jeffrey Epstein is: a collective one, whose sins are one extreme manifestation of a deeper culture-wide rot. Like the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the Epstein story exposes a large-scale system of exploitation and sexual violence. It reveals the horror of how power has always worked: Any man who amasses enough wealth and influence has the presumptive right of sexual access to whatever woman or girl he sets his sights on. Female bodies are routinely presented as trophies for men, whether that’s spring break frat boys doing Jell-O shots off a girl’s stomach, businessmen eating sushi off a naked lady, or, in this case, the enforced sexual servitude of dozens of young girls. We tell men the reward for success is sex, and we don’t particularly emphasize that the sex needs to be consensual, then we recoil in horror when something like Epstein’s alleged sex ring surfaces even though it is the inevitable result.
There have been many attempts to narrowly politicize the Epstein case. Republicans have crowed over the Bill Clinton connection while tap-dancing around Trump. Democrats have seized on the Trump connection. White supremacist Stefan Molyneux blames the whole thing on Jews. “Did Jeffrey Epstein abuse any Jewish girls?” he tweeted on Monday when the allegations broke, implying that Epstein was part of some grand Semitic plot to defile non-Jews.
But the sheer number of men caught up in the Epstein horror and the range of their professions and political affiliations defy partisan logic. Epstein’s friends were Republicans, Democrats, Jewish, Gentile, white, and black — the only common denominator was that they were all men and that they were all wealthy and powerful enough to sexually abuse people and get away with it. Epstein could not have gotten away with his violence for so long if he did not live in a culture that encouraged and facilitated his worst acts.
We’ve always known that one feature of male power is the ability to use and discard women. It was what people meant when they talked about Weinstein’s “casting couch,” and it’s what Donald Trump meant when he said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” Epstein’s pedophilia was out in the open, glossed over as a mere “girl problem,” as one former White House official once admitted to journalist Vicky Ward. Trump banned Epstein from Mar-a-Lago, where many of the abuses are alleged to have taken place, yet never reported him to the authorities; even when Epstein’s behavior created problems, they were not the sort of problems you talked about outside the inner circle. Epstein himself felt comfortable enough to publicly laugh the matter off: “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender,’” Epstein joked to the New York Post, speaking about his 2008 plea deal. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by the casual display put on by Epstein and his cohort. Until very recently, such behavior was not just unexceptional, it was aspirational. It seems like every male rock star — Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Steven Tyler — has a story about abusing underage girls. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have been ferociously defended by some of the greatest talents in Hollywood. Multiple members of Congress — people like Dennis Hastert and Al Franken — have had to resign after their sexual misconduct was brought to light, and no fewer than two Supreme Court justices have been credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault. CEOs, princes, presidents: For most of history, access to girls, including girls who don’t or can’t consent, has been a perk of our most powerful jobs.
Epstein’s arrest is forcing us to reckon with that system and its human cost. It is making us look at the girls who were fed into the machine and mangled by its gears—all the suffering that has been inflicted on them over the years, all for the benefit of the men on top. It’s natural to want to distance oneself. (Even more natural if you are a man: I have a lot of problems, but I don’t have that one.) But the most important thing to recognize about that system is how deeply implicated all of us are. We’ve all enjoyed movies and songs and books and jokes in which women’s bodies were framed as a reward for men’s accomplishments because that message is everywhere in our culture, and we were all brought up to believe it; we’ve all helped to build and maintain the system that victimized these girls and so many more like them.
What kind of monster is Jeffrey Epstein? He’s the monster we created.