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Changing the conversation around sexual assault: The case against Ghislaine Maxwell

WHO IS GHISLAINE MAXWELL?

Ghislaine Maxwell is often described as a British Socialite and, while that is true, it doesn’t describe all of who she is. She is 58 years old and she comes from a once very powerful family. Her father, Robert Maxwell, was a member of parliament in the 1960’s and a British publishing tycoon. At the time of his mysterious death on his yacht in the Canary Islands, he was worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ghislaine Maxwell attended university in Oxford and has citizenship in France, the UK and the US. Her friends are a who’s who of the world’s rich, famous and powerful. From princes to presidents, CEOs, actors and models. But most importantly, she was the long-time girlfriend and associate of billionaire banker Jeffrey Epstein.

NETFLIX’S ‘FILTHY RICH’ JEFFREY EPSTEIN

Jeffrey Epstein was arrested last year in New Jersey and charged with sex trafficking. Epstein was accused of recruiting young girls for abuse at his homes in New York and Palm Beach. He was found dead in his Manhattan jail where he was awaiting trial but the investigation into his case continues to shake popular culture. His death sparked public outcry as it robbed his accusers of justice and put a halt to all possibility that the dark secrets of the rich and powerful might be revealed.

THE CASE AGAINST GHISLAINE MAXWELL

However, the Epstein saga burst back into the public discourse when Maxwell was arrested on July 2. Prosecutors in the US now say it was Maxwell who recruited the girls for abuse by Epstein. She has been formally charged with six counts, including perjury and enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts. This is the first time Maxwell has faced charges related to sexual abuse or trafficking.

The allegations against Maxwell go far beyond the typical ‘perpetrator’ as we have come to know them. Laura Palumbo, who works with the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre said: “people from all walks of life commit sexual abuse and harm”. But for most, this is not behaviour typically associated with women. There is a universal understanding that women are ‘protectors’ and ‘carers’, and that is unfortunately not always the case. Sexual violence experts say this case underscores how incorrect and incomplete our ideas are about sexual abuse and who commits it. Palumbo added: “No one is thinking of a British socialite when they’re thinking about who’s a predator of sexual abuse and violence.”

The charges paint Maxwell as a ‘central figure in Epstein’s criminal enterprise’. Prosecutors say she lured girls into Epstein’s grasp and helped “normalise” the sexual abuse by her presence as a mature woman and by creating false friendships with the girls. If Maxwell was the one recruiting the girls, it was a powerful strategy. A child is much less likely to see a woman as having abusive intentions. FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said: “Preserving the innocence of children is among the most important responsibilities we carry as adults… Maxwell chose to blatantly disregard the law and her responsibility as an adult… lure[ing] vulnerable youth into behaviour they should never have been exposed to, creating the potential for lasting harm.” Her arrest teases the satisfaction of seeing the rich and powerful unable to buy their way out of consequences.

Maxwell stood at the very centre of the web of wealthy and powerful figures surrounding Epstein. The network she inherited from her father gave Epstein access to the highest echelons of society. This small revelation led to increased speculation as to who else could be involved in Epstein’s crimes. On July 2, federal investigators publicly addressed their interest in speaking to Prince Andrew, a long-term friend of Epstein. But to date, he has been uncooperative.

NOT GUILTY, YOUR HONOR

Maxwell’s team of lawyers boasts a history of high profile cases including, most notably, Christian Everdell, a former prosecutor who helped bring down drug kingpin “El Chapo”. In a court filing in early July, lawyers for Maxwell argued that still reeling from Epstein’s sudden death, the media were “wrongly trying to substitute her for Epstein”.

But the first fight was quickly lost. In a virtual court appearance on July 14, lawyers asked a federal judge to release Maxwell from jail on $5million bond, arguing that she did not pose a flight risk. However, she was denied bail when US District Judge Alison Nathan vehemently disagreed, citing Maxwell’s personal wealth, three passports and extensive international contacts as points of concern. Maxwell is now being held in a Brooklyn federal prison. It’s a far cry from the glamorous life she is used to.

While Maxwell has repeatedly denied the nature of the charges, investigators and victims say she was the ringleader of the operation. “The indictment against Jeffrey Epstein made it clear that he didn’t act alone and that the government had evidence that other people were also involved” said Jessica Roth, a formal federal prosecutor who teaches at Cardozo School of Law.

THE TRIAL

The case against Maxwell at this stage lacks clarity and we are short of precise details. This is, after all, a developing case. Popular suspicion of Maxwell is growing, with justification. There is potential for a public reckoning that could tarnish top figures on Wall Street, corporate America, in Washington and the British royal family. Perhaps more importantly, however, a trial would give the victims a chance to finally seek justice. But for a portion of the public, the misdeeds of the rich and powerful have surfaced with such frequency in the #MeToo era that they no longer hold the same shock value.

Maxwell has a long wait before her trial, set for July 21 2021. It’s hard to imagine that public interest in this case will fade in the interim. She exists less as a woman now than as a symbol – an illustration of the public’s deep curiosity of high society, our frustrations with plutocracy and our hopes for the progression of justice for sexual abuse victims.

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