The woman who procured girls for Jeffrey Epstein and his friends will die in prison – but most of the men involved still walk free
Last modified on Thu 30 Dec 2021 19.01 GMT
Ghislaine Maxwell is going to jail, and for a very long time indeed. Prince Andrew’s good friend of many decades, and Donald Trump’s regular guest at his Florida retreat, has been convicted of grooming and trafficking girls for sex in a verdict that will reverberate through the highest reaches of the transatlantic establishment. No more invites to Balmoral for the woman who turned vulnerable teenagers into rich men’s sexual playthings, and no more hobnobbing with friendly newspaper editors either. No more private jets or haughty instructions to staff to keep their mouths shut, even as they were picking up discarded vibrators from the bedroom floor. And presumably no more public sympathy of the kind Rachel Johnson expressed recently in the Spectator, fondly recalling Ghislaine’s “naughty eyes” as she flirted with a young Boris Johnson at Oxford, back in the days when none of them had ever heard of the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. For all that Maxwell’s lawyers sought to paint her accusers as gold-diggers chasing damages from Epstein’s estate, the lesson many will draw from this case is that the rich are far more often protected by their money and connections than rendered vulnerable by them.
Well, now the world can finally see the seedy billionaire and his predatory girlfriend for what they were. Much like the guilty verdict handed to Harvey Weinstein almost two years ago, the result goes some way to restoring faith in the battered principle that nobody should be above the law. Yet there’s something profoundly unsatisfying about it nonetheless. That the woman who procured girls for Epstein and his wealthy friends will now die in prison, while the men involved remain either free to live their lives or (in Epstein’s case) beyond the reach of any mortal judge, provokes a nagging sense of unfinished business.
It goes without saying that Ghislaine Maxwell is not the victim here. Although her lawyers made much of the fact that Epstein’s prison suicide left her to carry the can for his crimes, suggesting rage at him had been unfairly projected on to her, the prosecution argued more convincingly that she was in fact critical to the enterprise. A lone middle-aged man asking teenage girls to visit his ranch is creepy, but the same invitation from a couple feels respectable, even benevolent. From an early age, we drum into children the idea that if they’re lost or scared they should seek help from a police officer first and, failing that, a woman. The girls Maxwell lured into her boyfriend’s clutches were reassured by an older woman’s presence and it’s the betrayal of that female trust that feels so monstrous. While these vulnerable teenagers looked to her for support, she was grooming them for sexual exploitation, normalising the perverted anything-goes culture inside his mansion. Strip away the yachts and the servants and all the other trappings of a billionaire lifestyle, and there is frighteningly little separating Maxwell from that tiny but grotesque pantheon of female offenders seemingly so desperate to be loved that they collude in their partners’ abusive fantasies, even to the point of helping persuade someone else’s daughter into a car.
We may never know whether Maxwell got her own kicks from this twisted game or whether she was simply too damaged to resist it, conditioned perhaps as friends have suggested by a childhood in the shadow of her bullying father, the late tycoon Robert Maxwell. But the “poor little rich girl” thesis sits uneasily with some of the stories her accusers told in court, which imply a woman accustomed to dealing with problems as only the rich can: by paying someone to make them go away.
Kate, who was 17 when she first met the couple, recalled Maxwell complaining about Epstein’s voracious sexual appetite and asking “if I knew anybody who could come and give Jeffrey a blowjob because it was a lot for her to do”, much as she might seek recommendations for a butler or a pool boy – except in this case it was imperative they be young. Carolyn, who was 14 when she was first paid to give Epstein one of his infamously sexualised massages, described how Maxwell felt her breasts and bottom much as if she were checking over livestock for sale, and concluded she had a “great body for Mr Epstein and his friends”. And it’s on those nameless “friends” that the spotlight must now fall.
First and most obviously in the firing line are the men against whom direct allegations have been made, chief among them Prince Andrew. Virginia Giuffre, who is currently attempting to bring a civil suit against the prince accusing him of a sexual assault he has vehemently and repeatedly denied, can only be encouraged by a verdict she welcomed with a pointed tweet, arguing that “Maxwell did not act alone. Others must be held accountable.” Whether her lawsuit succeeds or fails, however, the unmasking of his good friend Ghislaine as a convicted sex trafficker makes it almost impossible to envisage a way back to royal ribbon-cutting duties for the prince.
But there are plenty more high-profile men who flew on Epstein’s planes, enjoyed his lavish parties, even stayed overnight in one of those mansions hung with tacky erotic art, and say they saw nothing amiss. Was he simply so discreet that nobody could possibly have suspected a thing? Or could it be that a predilection for teenage girls simply didn’t seem all that shocking, inside a rich man’s world where trading in an ageing first wife for someone barely older than your daughter is no big deal?
Meanwhile, in the US, there are disturbing questions to answer about a long, oddly flat-footed investigation into Epstein that left victims fearing they would never get their day in court and conspiracy theorists emerging to fill a judicial vacuum. That Maxwell held her tongue even when she eventually came to trial, refusing to testify in her own defence in a way that meant she could be asked no incriminating questions about the household names peppering the victims’ testimony, has only encouraged the latter.
Some still hope she might share whatever she knows now, given the conviction has left her with nothing much to lose. The family’s decision to appeal makes that unlikely at least in the near future, and it remains to be seen whether a woman who has traded on her connections all her life is capable even now of turning on them. But she cannot be the only one who knows more than she is telling about that tainted circle through which so many powerful men have moved. Justice is surely neither done, nor seen to be done, until all their dirty little secrets are out.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist