What the Epstein Case Means for the Fight to End Sex Trafficking

“By the time I was 16, I had probably brought him 70 to 80 girls who were all 14 and 15 years old,” Courtney Wild told the Herald. “He wanted them as young as I could find them. He wanted as many girls as I could get him. It was never enough.”

Wild was first victimized by Jeffrey Epstein at 14, and later became a recruiter for the multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager who is now facing sex trafficking charges and allegations of running a sexual pyramid scheme, paying girls to recruit other girls to have sex with him. According to Wild, “Epstein preferred girls who were white, appeared prepubescent and those who were easy to manipulate into going further each.”

Wild is not the only victim who has been speaking out. In a groundbreaking investigation, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown identified 80, located 60 and interviewed eight of them—four of whom spoke on video about their experiences. The same week that story broke, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman filed an indictment against Epstein. 

(Emily Mills / Creative Commons)

“This conduct, as alleged, went on for years and involved dozens of young girls, some as young as 14,” Berman said at a press conference about the charges last Monday morning. “The alleged behavior shocks the conscience.”

Berman said prosecutors found in Epstein’s New York City mansion “at least hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of sexually suggestive photographs of fully- or partially-nude females,” who appeared to be underage. Epstein, who is 66 years old, faces a statutory maximum of 40 years.

But this is not the first time Epstein has been charged with abusing girls. In 2005, federal prosecutors in Palm Beach, Florida, filed a 53-page indictment in Miami against Epstein. This earlier indictment described in detail a vast criminal enterprise where Epstein enticed and recruited underaged girls to his homes in Palm Beach, Florida, New York City and elsewhere to engage in sexual acts with him and maybe others.

One young woman involved has accused Donald Trump of raping her at Epstein’s New York city mansion when she was 13. Trump, who once called Epstein a “terrific guy” and used to use Epstein’s private jet, dubbed the “Lolita Express,” has said that Epstein “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

Despite these lurid allegations, U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, now Trump’s Secretary of Labor, did a highly unusual thing—he met privately with Epstein’s lawyers offsite and negotiated an extremely lenient deal allowing Epstein to plea to two state prostitution charges in exchange for immunity from all federal charges, not only for him but for “any potential co-conspirators,” none of whom were named

After signing the agreement in 2007 and pleading guilty in 2008, Epstein got 13 months in the private wing of a county jail, but was allowed work release privileges that enabled him to leave the jail six days a week, 12 hours a day to go to his luxurious West Palm Beach office. He had to register as a sex offender, but the non-prosecution agreement shut down an on-going FBI investigation into Epstein and other powerful people involved in his crimes. New York district attorney Cyrus Vance unsuccessfully argued in 2011 to have Epstein’s sex offender status reduced.

Given the egregious nature of the allegations and the large number of victims, why was Acosta so lenient? To answer this question, you have to understand how much societal understanding of youth involved in the sex trade has changed over the last 15 years.

As I’ve detailed in my recent book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade most people blamed underaged girls involved in the sex trade for their situation and treated them as juvenile delinquents before 2000. Police arrested them, prosecutors charged them with prostitution and judges convicted them and sent them to jail. The criminal justice system ignored the adult men who bought and sold the girls

Feminists led the fight to change the way law enforcement saw and handled such cases. Many, who were survivors themselves, fought hard to redefine girls in the sex trade as victims rather than criminals. In the late 1990s, they fought for a broad definition of sex trafficking in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. For adults, the Act defined sex trafficking as commercial sex by force, fraud of coercion; but for minors, any involvement in the sex trade was defined as sex trafficking and covered by the law.

When passing the Act, members of Congress had in mind children in Southeast Asia, but activists in the U.S. leveraged this legal definition to pressure states to reform how they treated youth found in the sex trade. Activists pushed states to pass “safe harbor laws” that require police to direct youth toward social services rather than the criminal justice system and engaged in public education campaigns to reframe understandings of exploited girls. Human Rights Project for Girls, for example, petitioned the Associated Press to stop calling trafficked girls “child prostitutes” in news stories. Activists also called for holding adults accountable for abusing girls.

Like most sex traffickers, Epstein targeted the most vulnerable—girls living in poverty, or homeless, in foster care or without supportive families that might look out for them. “We just wanted money for school clothes, for shoes,” one victim told the Herald. “I remember wearing shoes too tight for three years in a row. We had no family and no guidance, and we were told that we were going to just have to sit in a room topless and he was going to just look at us. It sounded so simple, and was going to be easy money for just sitting there.”

Just a few years ago, girls like this were not very sympathetic. But years of hard work by feminist survivors and the #MeToo awakening have shifted public consciousness about who’s to blame for youth involvement in the sex trade and given survivors courage to speak out about sexual abuse and hold perpetrators accountable.

What comes next in this case will show us how far left we have yet to go.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.