In the final weeks of 2021, I spent every day sitting two feet away from Ghislaine Maxwell. As one of only a handful of reporters allowed in the courtroom for the duration of her federal sex trafficking trial, I grew to understand a lot more about her than I imagined, by observing her interactions with her lawyers, her family, and even with me. I don’t believe we should be drawn in by her lawyers’ comments – made in response to the newly unsealed files naming many high-profile associates of the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein – that this case is “all about men abusing women for a long period of time… and it’s only one person in jail – a woman”.
Maxwell tried to make this argument – that she is being punished for the sexual crimes of men – in front of a federal jury, and they didn’t buy it: she was found guilty of multiple charges of child sex trafficking. There is some underlying truth in the idea that women who engage in sexual offences committed primarily by men are disproportionately demonised by society. We have a long history of being more punitive towards women who commit or enable male violence than the men who, much more frequently, personally commit these crimes. It’s also factually correct that in an enormous sex trafficking ring which, based on my investigations, involved trafficking minors to a large group of men, the only person who has been jailed is the woman who arranged the trafficking and participated in some elements of it.
Maxwell was convicted of four counts of engaging in a conspiracy to traffic underage girls – but no one has been convicted for their abuse. Epstein, of course, evaded justice when he died in jail in 2019, and no other male clients of the trafficking ring have been prosecuted. This, as a plain fact, is confounding and must ultimately be corrected by holding those clients to account in a court of law. But that doesn’t mean, as Maxwell’s lawyer is trying to suggest, that this is why she has been punished.
“Ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple, women have been blamed for the bad behaviour of men, and women are often villainised and punished more than the men ever are.” This was the very first sentence of the opening statement given by Maxwell’s defence lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, on the first day of Maxwell’s trial. On the last day, prosecutor Alison Moe countered with the following: “In her opening statement, defence counsel said something to you about Maxwell being blamed for something a man did.”
“Let me be very clear,” Moe continued. I can remember this moment vividly. From my seat in the press gallery, Moe looked emotional. “The evidence at this trial showed you that Ghislaine Maxwell made her own choices. She committed crimes hand-in-hand with Jeffrey Epstein. She was a grown woman who knew exactly what she was doing.”
Ultimately, the jury sided with Moe. After hearing both these statements in courtroom 318 in December 2021, the jury returned a unanimous verdict: Ghislaine Maxwell is guilty. They didn’t believe Maxwell when she said she was a scapegoat for the crimes of men – because they saw what I saw: several weeks of hard evidence that she was guilty of the sex trafficking of minors. A conviction for which she is now serving a 20-year sentence.
In her sentencing remarks, in the same courtroom six months later, Judge Nathan made this point extremely clear: “Ghislaine Maxwell is not being punished as a proxy, but for the role that she played in the scheme.” Nathan paused after the words “she played”, letting them hang in the room.
I know that women are often blamed for the crimes of men. Female victims are blamed in headlines when killed by their male partners or ex-partners. Women who engage in sex crimes are routinely the subject of more sordid fascination than the men who represent the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. All of that is true. But this is not why Ghislaine Maxwell was punished. Her decision to continue to use this argument when it has been rejected by a federal jury shows it for what it is: a cynical attempt to manage her reputation post-conviction.
[See also: Pax Americana’s last gasp]