Since Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest on sex trafficking charges on Saturday, TV news anchors and radio hosts have repeatedly trotted out a telling oxymoron: “underage women.” The phrase on its own is contradictory—a woman is an adult, while an underage person is a minor—but it’s especially so in context. Consider the CNN reporter who recently said on-air, “Epstein [allegedly] lured underage women, some as young as 14 to massage him and engage in sexual acts.” A 14 year old is not an “underage woman.” No “woman” is underage.
Epstein is charged with sexually exploiting and abusing dozens of minors, and paying victims to “recruit” additional minors for abuse. The indictment against him alleges that “victims were initially recruited to provide ‘massages’... which would be performed nude or partially nude, would become increasingly sexual in nature, and would typically include one or more sex acts.”
Since his arrest over the weekend, there have been over 90 radio and TV mentions of “underage women” alongside Epstein’s name, according to the searchable database TVEyes. This includes instances on local TV news, as well as MSNBC and CNN. (It’s not just broadcast news, either.) You might accurately call his alleged victims “girls,” “minors,” or “underage.” You could even combine terms, if you like: “minor girls” is used by the indictment. But the insistence by many on instead calling them “underage women”—or in some cases, “young women”—reveals a disturbing cultural impulse: a need to empathize with (certain) accused men.
Some might be using the phrase unthinkingly, simply repeating what they have heard others say, or what has been scripted for them, but you have to wonder why it’s gained traction and what it is not-so-subtly telling us.“Underage women” implies that Epstein’s alleged victims performed a sneaky sleight of hand by looking like women while being underage. It suggests that they are girl-woman hybrids, edge cases. Consider, though, that the Epstein indictment alleges that he “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18.” Again, some were as young as 14.
The “underage women” phrase hints that the girls’ purported womanliness trumps their being underage—as though their minor status is a heavily air-quoted technicality. What “underage women” effectively says is: They are minors, but ehh. It is a more socially acceptable way of saying what Robert Trivers, a Rutgers University biologist, said a few years ago of Epstein’s alleged victims: “By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous.”
Most devastatingly, the phrase “underage woman” points to an urge to empathize with Epstein over his alleged victims; to give a wincing shrug of the shoulders, all in the space of two not-so-simple words. It shows how the scales of public opinion are so often weighted—and it’s not toward underage girls.