Allegations against Maxwell challenge common views
Female socialite doesn’t fit predator stereotypes
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
Ghislaine Maxwell, seen in 2013, pleaded not guilty to perjury and conspiracy charges on Tuesday.