We’re Using All the Wrong Words to Describe Jeffrey Epstein’s Victims

Why do media outlets continue to use language that frames some of Epstein’s actions as consensual sex?

A protest group called “Hot Mess” hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the Federal courthouse on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

WeWe still don’t have the language to talk about sexual violence — and nothing exemplifies this reality better than the case against Jeffrey Epstein.

Dozens of Epstein’s victims showed up at a federal courtroom in Manhattan on Tuesday to attend a hearing about dismissing the indictment against the late sex offender, who faced two sex trafficking-related charges at the time of his suicide. Much of the coverage was disturbingly — though predictably — indelicate, given the subject.

“He… engaged in sex acts with the girls during naked massage sessions,” the New York Times reported. CNBC described Epstein’s pedophilia as “sexual obsessions.” The Associated Press said the teenage girls had “[fallen] into Epstein’s web” when talking about the process by which the financier groomed dozens of teenage girls to become abuse victims. In each instance, these news outlets failed to emphasize the depth of Epstein’s abuse, glossing over the fact that Epstein’s teenage victims were forced into circumstances they did not consent to.

Tuesday’s coverage followed a familiar pattern of whitewashing. In the four days following Epstein’s arrest in July, Jezebel counted at least 90 mentions on TV and radio news outlets of the term “underage women” to describe Epstein’s victims, who were actually teenage girls. (Some of the victims mentioned in his indictment were as young as 14.) Prestigious print and digital outlets also fell prey to this oxymoron. But even after news outlets rightfully moved away from the term, they continued to frame — often unintentionally — some of Epstein’s actions as consensual sex or downplay his abuse.

Of course, the problem goes well beyond Epstein. Susan Ehrlich, a professor of linguistics at York University in Canada, has done extensive research on the language surrounding sexual violence at criminal trials. She tells GEN that judges often describe sexual assault in terms that more closely resemble consensual sex in their decisions, even when the perpetrator is guilty. For example, they may use the word “fondled” instead of “groped.”

Ehrlich says abuse like Epstein’s is often framed as consensual because society struggles to understand and label coercion of young victims. “If a woman says ‘no,’ and a man persists and rapes her, somehow people understand that as a sexual violence,” she says. “But if a woman — or someone who is young like those who Jeffrey Epstein abused — complies and submits, it’s difficult to understand and difficult to have a language to describe that as a violence.”

Epstein targeted girls whose age was just one of several factors that made them vulnerable to abuse — many of them came from impoverished households or were in foster care, had witnessed abuse and drug addiction in their families, and often did not have reliable caretakers. In her research, Ehrlich has found cases involving coercion are often stripped of context in court. “You have to look at these acts within a context — the man is older, potentially aggressive, violent. In this kind of conditions, women may indeed comply or submit because if they don’t, they run the risk of greater violence or death,” Ehrlich says. “When I’ve looked at judges’ decisions, often they don’t look at the context and they just look at this single act of a woman seemingly agreeing, without looking at what surrounds it and the kind of coercion that is involved.”

And it’s the victims who suffer from these linguistic follies, says Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The impulse to use terms like “underage women” or diminish the severity of his abuse — for example, saying that someone “performed oral sex” versus saying that person was “forced to perform oral sex” — could make the public less sympathetic or believing of victims’ stories.

“You have to keep the language of threat, coercion, and force included in the coverage — and not sanitize it.”

“When we continue to, as a culture, use sanitized, anesthetic language to talk about sexual assault, we’re denying the incredibly traumatic experiences that these things represent. We are ignoring the gross harm that is inflicted,” Houser says. “It makes it harder to believe victims when they are brave enough to talk to us about what’s been done to them. If you think that it wasn’t that serious because the language we use to talk about it has never conveyed the seriousness, they are never going to get the support and understanding they need.”

Houser says that while Epstein’s case drew the most attention because he was a public figure, there are dozens of cases involving sexual violence victims that are not discussed responsibly: Instances of sexual abuse between schoolteachers and their student victims, for example, are still often described as affairs, and are discussed in a salacious style that belies the predatory nature of the educators in question.

“You can’t erase the very reasons why these stories are making headlines,” Houser says, adding that we are talking about criminal behavior. “You have to keep the language of threat, coercion, and force included in the coverage — and not sanitize it.”

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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