Al­le­ga­tions against Maxwell chal­lenge com­mon views

Fe­male so­cialite doesn’t fit preda­tor stereo­types

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Alia E. Dasta­gir

Ghis­laine Maxwell, the woman ac­cused of help­ing Jef­frey Ep­stein re­cruit, groom and sex­u­ally abuse girls, pleaded not guilty to per­jury and con­spir­acy charges Tues­day.

Both Ep­stein and Maxwell al­legedly knew the vic­tims were un­der age 18 and as young as 14. In some cases, she al­legedly par­tic­i­pated in the abuse her­self.

Maxwell’s at­tor­neys have said she “is not Ep­stein.” She’s not. But many find her case equally hor­ri­fy­ing, dis­may­ing – and some­thing else, too: con­found­ing.

The Maxwell case shocks peo­ple be­cause it de­fies stereo­types about pre­da­tion, gen­der and class. But sex­ual vi­o­lence ex­perts say the case un­der­scores how in­cor­rect and in­com­plete our ideas are about how sex­ual abuse hap­pens.

“This is not a be­hav­ior that we as­so­ciate with women. There’s this un­der­stand­ing that women would pro­tect other women, or that women would pro­tect chil­dren, and that is un­for­tu­nately not the case,” said Laura Palumbo, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at the Na­tional Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Re­source Cen­ter. “Peo­ple from all walks of life com­mit sex­ual abuse.”

Re­search on fe­male per­pe­tra­tors is lim­ited. The Rape Abuse and In­cest Na­tional Net­work said the Maxwell case has prompted it to look more deeply at fe­male of­fend­ers, but they are dif­fi­cult to study be­cause they aren’t often caught.

“Partly as a re­sult of this case, it’s prompted our re­search team to start go­ing back through our hot­line data, to iden­tify cases where there was a fe­male per­pe­tra­tor and see if they can learn any­thing or see any pat­terns,” said RAINN Pres­i­dent Scott Berkowitz.

De­fy­ing stereo­types about women

“Nur­tur­ing” and “em­pa­thy” are among the top traits so­ci­ety val­ues in women, a 2017 Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey found. Shock at Maxwell in part re­flects stereo­types about women be­ing gen­tle, emo­tional, in need of protection.

Neg­a­tive stereo­types of mas­culin­ity in­clude vi­o­lence, dom­i­nance, un­con­trol­lable sex­ual urges. But it’s an er­ro­neous idea that a sex­ual of­fender must be ag­gres­sive, ex­perts say. It’s why men with “good guy” rep­u­ta­tions may be over­looked as abusers, as was the case with Bill Cosby and Matt Lauer.

“One of our psy­cho­log­i­cal de­fenses against feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble our­selves is to cre­ate this idea that it must take some kind of mon­ster to com­mit sex­ual as­sault,” said Sherry Hamby, found­ing editor of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion jour­nal Psy­chol­ogy of Vi­o­lence.

These stereo­types are also why male vic­tims of sex­ual abuse strug­gle to come for­ward, ac­cord­ing to RAINN. Feel­ings of shame are com­pounded by the be­lief they should have been “strong enough” to stop their per­pe­tra­tor or, if the per­pe­tra­tor is fe­male, that they should have en­joyed it. Fe­male vic­tims of fe­male per­pe­tra­tors also face stig­mas re­gard­ing sex­u­al­ity.

Kris­ten Houser, a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ex­pert in sex­ual abuse, said the invisibili­ty of fe­male per­pe­tra­tion is a prob­lem. Men are more likely to com­mit sex­ual vi­o­lence, but that doesn’t mean women don’t. Our un­der­stand­ing of fe­male sex­ual abusers, how­ever, is often con­fined to tropes.

“We often think about it within a teacher-stu­dent re­la­tion­ship ... but it’s cer­tainly not lim­ited to that just be­cause that’s what we pay the most at­ten­tion to,” Houser said.

The me­dia may be partly to blame. Au­thors of a 2019 study look­ing at the “cul­ture of de­nial” around fe­male sex of­fend­ers the­o­rized that me­dia re­ports re­in­force gen­der stereo­types and limit aware­ness of sex­ual of­fenses com­mit­ted by women.

A 2017 study an­a­lyz­ing data from four large-scale fed­eral agency sur­veys con­ducted by the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion and the Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics found gen­der stereo­types can ob­scure the preva­lence of fe­male sex­ual per­pe­tra­tion and min­i­mize its im­pact.

So­cialites not seen as preda­tors

In court fil­ings ahead of Tues­day’s bail hear­ing, pros­e­cu­tors re­asserted their claim that Maxwell rep­re­sented a se­ri­ous flight risk, cit­ing her vast fi­nan­cial re­sources and cit­i­zen­ship in mul­ti­ple coun­tries. They said Maxwell has not been forth­com­ing about de­tails of her wealth. The judge or­dered her to be held with­out bond.

Her father, Robert Maxwell, was a pub­lish­ing ty­coon and for­mer mem­ber of the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment who died in 1991 af­ter fall­ing over­board from his lux­ury yacht, Lady Ghis­laine, named af­ter the youngest of his nine chil­dren.

“No one is think­ing of a Bri­tish so­cialite when they’re think­ing about who’s a preda­tor of sex­ual abuse and vi­o­lence,” Palumbo said.

But it may be part of how Maxwell al­legedly groomed vic­tims. Court doc­u­ments de­scribe Maxwell and Ep­stein al­legedly ac­com­pa­ny­ing vic­tims on shop­ping trips and movie out­ings, de­signed to put the girls at ease.

“Hav­ing de­vel­oped a rap­port with a vic­tim, Maxwell would try to nor­mal­ize sex­ual abuse ... by, among other things, dis­cussing sex­ual top­ics, un­dress­ing in front of the vic­tim, be­ing present when a mi­nor vic­tim was un­dressed and be­ing present for sex acts in­volv­ing the mi­nor vic­tim and Ep­stein,” pros­e­cu­tors al­lege.

Ex­perts say peo­ple often fail to ac­knowl­edge vic­tim­iza­tion can be per­pe­trated by and hap­pen to the ul­tra rich.

“That’s part of why her role in this story is so shock­ing to peo­ple, be­cause we let class cloud re­al­ity for us,” Houser said. “If you stop and think, we all can prob­a­bly point to nu­mer­ous places where wealth and pres­tige and power con­trib­uted to abuse and did not pro­tect against abuse.”

In cases of men, class is often ini­tially used in their de­fense, as in “he could get any woman he wants, why would he rape?” or “she’s mak­ing it up be­cause he’s rich and she wants money.”

These ar­gu­ments per­sist de­spite women com­ing for­ward against fa­mous, wealthy men be­ing met with death threats.

Class also mat­ters in how vic­tims are tar­geted. Sex traf­fick­ers often tar­get vic­tims who are poor, lack sup­port net­works and live on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety, ex­perts say. They es­pe­cially tar­get chil­dren with a his­tory of abuse and ne­glect, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

In 2018, Mi­ami Her­ald re­porter Julie Brown iden­ti­fied 80 vic­tims Ep­stein abused from 2001 to 2006. The Her­ald spoke with eight of the ac­cusers and found “most of the girls came from dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies, sin­gle-par­ent homes or foster care . ... Many of the girls were one step away from home­less­ness.”

‘Their sto­ries mat­ter more’

Sex­ual vi­o­lence ex­perts are care­ful not to spec­u­late about Maxwell’s his­tory or in­ten­tions, but they do note that sex­ual vi­o­lence in­volves com­plex dy­nam­ics.

With groom­ing, for ex­am­ple, a vic­tim may align with the vic­tim­izer as a way to pro­tect them­selves.

Re­search also shows fe­male sex of­fend­ers have a high in­ci­dence of phys­i­cal, sex­ual and emo­tional abuse in their his­to­ries.

It’s un­known whether Maxwell was ever a vic­tim of sex­ual abuse her­self. We may never know her mo­ti­va­tions, and some would say we don’t have to.

“We have so many peo­ple who have come for­ward and pro­vided rather ex­plicit in­ven­to­ries of her role in re­cruit­ing, in abus­ing and mak­ing peo­ple feel trapped,” Houser said. “What­ever her story was, their sto­ries mat­ter more.”

If you are a sur­vivor of sex­ual as­sault, you can call the Na­tional Sex­ual As­sault Hot­line at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

Con­tribut­ing: Kevin John­son, Kevin McCoy and Kris­tine Phillips, USA TODAY

LAURA CAVANAUGH/GETTY IM­AGES

Ghis­laine Maxwell, seen in 2013, pleaded not guilty to per­jury and con­spir­acy charges on Tues­day.

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