Commentary: ‘Epstein is the tip of a very large iceberg’

In this July 30, 2008 file photo, Jeffrey Epstein appears in court in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via AP, File)

Jeffrey Epstein got away for years with raping underage girls, and the public is properly outraged that powerful people seemed to shrug and let him off easy.

But the problem isn’t one tycoon but many tens of thousands of men who pay for sex with underage girls across the country. And society as a whole reacts with the same indifference that authorities showed in the Epstein scandal.

“We see it as this singular narrative about this one guy,” said Rachel Lloyd, who wrote a superb book, “Girls Like Us,” about her own experience being sexually trafficked as a teenager. “There’s a much larger narrative out there about girls, often girls of color, who are commercially sexually exploited, often with impunity.

“It’s part of the same behavior, part of what we allow as a society,” Lloyd added. “He got away with it because society said he could, and that’s what other johns think as well.”

Lloyd now runs a first-rate program, GEMS, in New York for girls and young women who have been trafficked. The people she helps haven’t been whisked off to Caribbean islands on private jets, but the pattern is the same: sordid exploitation of vulnerable girls by older and more affluent men who get away with it.

Indeed, girls across the U.S. are often treated even worse than in the Epstein case: Some end up arrested for prostitution while their rapists get off scot-free.

If we want to channel our outrage at the Epstein case in a productive way, we could: A) ramp up prosecution of pimps who traffic children; B) prosecute johns who rape girls and boys; C) assist programs for survivors of trafficking; and D) support initiatives that help vulnerable youths avoid being victimized by predators.

“They’re not billionaires, but it happens all the time,” said Shelia Faye Simpkins, who ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.

She was raised by an alcoholic who was addicted to drugs and taught her, when she was 6, how to perform oral sex on a man. Simpkins said intervention by social workers might have spared her a brutal career being beaten by a pimp when she didn’t earn a daily quota of $1,000.

She estimates that over the years she was arrested about 200 times for prostitution and other offenses; her pimp, never.

Eventually, Simpkins escaped that life and now works with an outstanding program in Tennessee called Thistle Farms that helps exploited women start new lives and find employment.

As world leaders prepare to gather at the United Nations, some 40 million people are effectively locked into modern forms of slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index. That includes sex trafficking but also child marriages and a great deal of forced labor.

In the United States, no one knows exactly how many children are sold for sex, but estimates have run between 10,000 and 100,000 in any given year. Whatever the number, it’s too many.

President Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump have both denounced sex trafficking, with the president saying he will leverage “every resource” to address this “urgent humanitarian issue.” Ivanka Trump has said that fighting trafficking is a major priority of her father’s administration.

But while the attention is welcome, it seems to be largely hot air — and Trump’s lurid descriptions of trafficking seem mostly to be a misleading rationale for his border wall. In fact, under Trump, the federal government is easing up on human traffickers.

Federal prosecutors initiated only 171 human trafficking cases last year, substantially fewer than the 241 in 2017 or the 223 in 2016, according to the Federal Human Trafficking Report series. Bradley Myles of Polaris, the organization that runs a human trafficking hotline, (888) 373-7888, notes that the number of T visas, which are given to trafficking victims, has also dropped, and a housing program for trafficking survivors has been canceled.

“I’m glad the issue has bipartisan support, but I don’t think enough is happening,” Myles said. “Epstein wasn’t this one bad apple; this is more of a systemic issue.”

If we could leverage outrage, there’s evidence of what works abroad and in the U.S. A group called the Freedom Fund has a report coming out this month showing that expanding grassroots initiatives could lead to huge reductions in forced labor in India.

Likewise, new studies of My Life My Choice, a Boston program for children who have been trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked, find that the girls become less likely to use drugs, engage in delinquent behavior or be arrested when provided counseling, mentoring and other support. The program’s participants on average were first sexually exploited at the age of 14 which should remind us that we need more help for vulnerable children, and less impunity for pimps and johns who exploit them.

“What was so painful about the Jeffrey Epstein case is that it wasn’t shocking,” Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-founder of My Life My Choice, told me. “A wealthy white man leveraged his money, privilege and power to sexually abuse, to rape, young girls.”

Or, as Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children put it: “Epstein is the tip of a very large iceberg.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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