There are some things that should go without saying. Pizza is delicious. We really do not deserve dogs. There was absolutely, positively room for Jack on that door at the end of “Titanic.” Until fairly recently, “Men who sexually exploit and abuse children are bad, regardless of their political affiliations” seemed like it sat firmly among such self-evident statements.
But last weekend brought the news that Jeffrey Epstein, a longtime fixture of the moneyed New York and Palm Beach social scenes, had been arrested at New Jersey’s Teterboro airport; in a joint effort between the FBI and the public-corruption and sex trafficking departments of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, he was charged with the sex trafficking of minors in New York and Florida between 2002 and 2005, crimes to which he pleaded not guilty.
And as more details about Epstein ooze into the news cycle, the most buzzed-about names are the two presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, with whom he was known to keep company. Which means there's been a battle underway in the media (and on social media) to portray the arrest as somehow good for one political party and bad for the other. It's understandable that the involvement of two of the most polarizing figures in modern history in a global story involving what prosecutors call the systematic exploitation of young girls is a high-stakes issue. But the only people who view sexual predation as a partisan problem are those who treat victims as nothing more than rhetorical cudgels.
As was once the case with other wealthy, smirking men for whom time is now up, Epstein’s network of powerful friends and enablers in media, politics and law enforcement let him continue allegedly abusing and silencing girls as young as 13. And just as the behavior Epstein is accused of was an open secret, so too are the boldface names who associated with him: In 2015, the now-defunct website Gawker published details from the flight logs of Epstein’s private plane, known as the “Lolita Express”; prominent passengers included Britain’s Prince Andrew, law professor Alan Dershowitz, and former Harvard president and treasury secretary Lawrence Summers.
Epstein’s alleged penchant for soliciting “massages” from underage girls, subsequently coercing them into sex by offering cash and then paying them to recruit more underage girls has been a matter of media record since at least 2006, when the Palm Beach Police Department, after a year-long investigation, filed a probable-cause affidavit recommending that Epstein be charged with four counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and one count of lewd and lascivious molestation. Instead, he was given a remarkable secret non-prosecution, and just 13 months in jail, by then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta in 2008. Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown estimates that it was “one of the most lenient sentences for a serial sex offender in U.S. history.”
Those familiar with Epstein’s social notoriety — he hosted celebrity-packed parties at his Manhattan townhouse, and his private Caribbean island, Little St. James, was informally known as “Orgy Island” — know that both Trump and Clinton are long rumored to have benefited from his sleazy largesse. Gawker began covering Epstein as early as 2006 in part because of his ties to Clinton, regularly referring to him as a “billionaire Bill Clinton pal.” Vicky Ward, who wrote a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Epstein, has said that Graydon Carter, then editor of the magazine, assigned the profile because Clinton’s trip to Africa aboard the Lolita Express had sparked curiosity about the wealthy financier’s murky background. And a 2011 episode of “Law and Order: SVU” titled “Flight” earned its ripped-from-the-headlines bona fides with a lead character known for being both a “billionaire pervert flying in underage girls for sex” and the buddy of “a former president.”
Trump, meanwhile, is on record with a 2002 quote about his friendship with Epstein — “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side” — that was already unsettling but is now a lot more so. One of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts, said she was lured into his ring when she was a 16-year-old spa employee at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club; speaking on the record as part of the Miami Herald’s investigative series about the Epstein case, titled “Perversion of Justice,” Roberts recalled with heartbreaking straightforwardness her trajectory of being “trained” to please Epstein and eventually “lent out to politicians, and to academics, and to ... royalty.”
But if it’s not surprising to see a sprawling case like this recast as one more arena for Republicans and Democrats to take potshots at one another, it’s a depressing confirmation of how easily horrific crimes against vulnerable young women are weaponized for political score-settling. On Sunday, Noah Shachtman of the Daily Beast, one of the first outlets to report Epstein’s arrest, issued a breathtakingly cynical tweet: “I’m seeing lots of folks on the left and the right who seem absolutely sure that Epstein is going to give up their political enemies. Hot tip: he’s just as likely to give up your allies.”
Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee official and the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), warned — also via Twitter — that it was “quite likely that some of our faves are implicated” in Epstein’s trafficking operation. Trump defenders have, predictably, mobilized on social media to argue that if their man had any involvement in Epstein’s sleazy enterprise, “his enemies would have played that card” in 2016. Just as predictably, Fox News personalities have been so eager to blame Epstein’s sweetheart plea deal on Barack Obama that they haven’t bothered to check whether he was president at the time. (Spoiler: He was not.) And Tuesday’s news of new sex trafficking charges against businessman, gay activist and Democratic donor Ed Buck is contributing to the tennis match about the allegations of Epstein’s horrifying sexual predation.
Epstein’s indictment may end up implicating big names other than the ones we already know. And though I wish this didn’t need repeating, the fact that people on “the other side” may have been enablers of and participants in Epstein’s crimes does not make enablers and participants on “our side” any less guilty — and vice versa.
Indeed, anyone who lobs out "Guess what? Your political allies are sexual predators, too!" as though it's some kind of magnificent gotcha is conveying more about their own concerns than about anyone else's. Having a long record of accusations of exploiting and abusing minors should disqualify Epstein from being counted among anyone's political allies, just as the charges against Buck should persuade politicians to rethink campaign donations from him. But as we learned from Roy Moore's Alabama Senate campaign last year, there's an unnerving number of people who look at allegations of sexual coercion not as a criminal or ethical matter but as a partisan one.
Of course, powerful people engaging in a pattern of sexual misconduct is always small-p political, and the Epstein case is a nauseatingly clear illustration of how power, wealth and connections weave a protective ring around awful men. When “Perversion of Justice” was published in November, it focused largely on Epstein’s plea deal with Acosta, which unavoidably pointed to White House connections: Trump made Acosta secretary of labor in 2017, and Epstein’s defense attorneys included Dershowitz, now a noted Trump defender and media surrogate, as well as former Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. But Brown, for one, has been clear that she refused to let go of the story in the hopes of long-overdue justice for Epstein’s many victims, who were never informed about the deal. (Acosta resigned from his role as secretary of labor on Friday morning.)
A reasonable person can recognize that sexual predation isn’t unique to one political party or allegiance, and you would think that the near-constant abuse-of-power revelations over the past few years might have convinced even the less reasonable. And yet a constant current of anger and suspicion hums beneath party politics, a sense that the wrong people are apologizing because the right ones won’t. A not-insignificant number of Democrats, for instance, remain mad that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pushed former Minnesota senator and staunch progressive Al Franken to resign in 2017 over sexual misconduct allegations; a glut of Twitter accounts are surely gearing up to tweet BUT WHAT ABOUT BILL CLINTON?!?! at anyone daring to suggest that Moore might do well to end his 2020 Senate bid.
Women are used to seeing our lives, bodies, careers and very humanity leveraged as political capital or thrown under the proverbial bus according to the whims of the politicians, institutions and systems that claim to represent and stand for us. But in such a polarizing time, it’s increasingly important for everyone — especially those who consider themselves progressive — to recognize that demanding accountability from sexual abusers isn’t a political weakness but a promise to those who are abused that we see and hear them. Those who can’t or won’t are not allies worth keeping.
Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of “We Were Feminists Once.” She speaks frequently on the subjects of feminism, activism and popular culture.