Ghislaine Maxwell
Photo: Getty

There is a quote from New York Magazine’s feature on Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s ex-girlfriend, who has been accused of participating in his alleged sexual abuse of underage girls, that seems to encapsulate the public’s reaction to her. It’s a quote from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who alleges that Maxwell not only “recruited” her at the age of 16 to be victimized by Epstein, but also provided instructions on “how to give Jeffrey what he wants.” Giuffre says, “Being a woman, it kind of surprises you that a woman could let stuff like that happen. Not only let it happen but to groom you into doing it.”

That’s the unspoken thread running through the recent coverage of Maxwell: It kind of surprises.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a deeply-reported look at how Maxwell allegedly helped “recruit masseuses to help satisfy [Epstein’s] seemingly insatiable appetite for massages,” which were, according to accusers, “just a pretext for sexual abuse.” There are allegations beyond recruitment: In a 2009 lawsuit, Giuffre alleged that both Epstein, who faces sex trafficking charges, and Maxwell sexually abused her. The Times reports:

She said she had been working as a changing room assistant at the Mar-a-Lago Club when Ms. Maxwell invited her to Mr. Epstein’s home with promises that she could learn massage therapy and earn a lot of money. Once there, she said, Ms. Maxwell helped Mr. Epstein force her into sexual activity with him, and then paid her $200 that day. She said it was the beginning of an arrangement that lasted several years. She also claimed that Ms. Maxwell took sexually explicit photos of her. Ms. Maxwell denied the claims.

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As New York Magazine highlights, Giuffre told the Miami Herald: “The training started immediately. It was everything down to how to give a blow job, how to be quiet, be subservient, give Jeffrey what he wants. A lot of this training came from Ghislaine herself. ” The Times also reports on a civil case in which Maria Farmer alleged that both Epstein and Maxwell “sexually assaulted her in 1996 when she was a graduate student and that they also flew her 15-year-old sister to his ranch in New Mexico, ordered her to take off her clothes and improperly touched her.”

The seemingly widespread surprise around these allegations as they relate to Maxwell is partly due to the reality of statistics: The majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men. (That said, women who perpetrate sexual abuse are both understudied and more common than often thought, according to research.) It also arises from notions of women as protectors and nurturers, the moral stewards of the human race; and of men as walking disasters of roiling id. These gendered ideas inform the media landscape, which in turns biases what we think we know about women sexual abusers. When stories of alleged women perpetrators gain traction in the news, they often exist at extremes, with minimizing language about student-teacher “sex” (it’s not sex if the alleged victim is underage) and sensationalistic headlines around “sex cults” and “sex slaves” (see: Allison Mack). Often, these stories feature conventionally attractive women, who are demonized at the same time they are eroticized. No wonder we’re confused.

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With Maxwell there is, apparently, the additional psychological wrench of her social standing. “The ‘Lady of the House’ Who Was Long Entangled With Jeffrey Epstein,” reads the New York Times headline. “The Socialite on Epstein’s Arm,” says New York Magazine. She is not only a woman, but a lady woman. Not just a woman, but a socialite. Both stories lead with her proximity to wealth and fame—the private jets, mansions, townhouses, and royalty, the “film screenings and store openings and fashion shows”—before turning to ghastly abuse allegations. Here, it seems there are dual classifiers—of both gender and class—that are difficult to reconcile with the allegations of sexual abuse.

We are culturally biased on multiple fronts against making any sense of Maxwell and the allegations against her. We lack the appropriate tools to understand. Maybe, as this case moves forward, we will start to build them.