What the Jeffrey Epstein Case Means for #MeToo

Amid the cases of Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Cosby, can the #MeToo movement keep up its momentum in exposing sexual predators?
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Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy American financier, was found dead in his prison cell in an apparent suicide on August 10, 2019. He had been awaiting trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges, to which he pleaded not guilty in July. This article by Ellis Cashmore, author of “Kardashian Kulture,” was written prior to Epstein’s death. Click here for an interactive timeline on Jeffrey Epstein.

#MeToo and Jeffrey Epstein

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Donald Trump told New York magazine in 2002. He was talking about Jeffrey Epstein, described as a “mysterious, Gatsbyesque figure … with cash to burn, a fleet of airplanes, and a keen eye for the ladies.”

Now, President Trump’s buddy Jeff has emerged improbably as the raw material for a litmus test. The handling of allegations against him involving sex offenses against young women under the age of consent has raised suspicions of political cronyism and excessive leniency, prompting many to wonder whether #MeToo is just another quirky cultural moment, or whether it has genuinely upended all the usual questions about men’s historical rights and immunities. In an era in which gender has become a burning or at least smoldering issue, a case implicating the US president, his labor secretary and perhaps other as-to-yet undisclosed dignitaries promises to test the resilience of the #MeToo movement to its limits. Will the movement prevail, or will the patriarchal old guard restore business as usual?

Not yet two years since the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s profuse sexual maleficence and there are already doubts over whether #MeToo can maintain momentum. Dozens of cases involving public figures, many with the kind of status and influence that would have insulated them against scandal in the past, have been paraded in our media, leading many to assume a new era has arrived. After all, dozens, perhaps even hundreds of predatory men have been exposed, shamed and ruined. But actual prosecutions have been few.

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But Weinstein apart, there hasn’t yet been an accused to rival Epstein in terms of wealth — estimated by the Financial Times at more than $500 million and his annual income over  $10 million — or political connections. Rolling Stone lists his powerful associates: Apart from Trump, Epstein is on good terms with Bill Clinton, Attorney General Bill Barr, former Harvard President Larry Summers, Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the media mogul Robert Maxwell, and Britain’s Prince Andrew.

Epstein stands accused of trafficking and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at his homes in New York and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005. The latest case, which has been brought by the Manhattan US attorney’s office, comes over a decade after a controversial plea deal in Miami that enabled Epstein to escape a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to state prostitution offenses. In July, he pleaded not guilty to the charges at an initial hearing, at which he was denied bail, the judge deciding Epstein’s “alleged excessive attraction to sexual conduct with or in the presence of minor girls [that] … appears likely to be uncontrollable,” designating him as a flight risk.

On one level, the trial will be about an individual with an unwholesome criminal appetite for young girls and a penchant to use his influence either to cover up his maleficence or minimize the fallout. On another level, it will be a major confrontation in the post-Weinstein culture war, a war that is being won by #MeToo advocates who have successfully persuaded hundreds of women — and some men — to come forward and name their abusers, even after many years.

Yet there is still a lingering suspicion that the Epstein trial could be different. Will a man who has sedulously cultivated friendly associations with the rich and powerful and, for years, staved off attempts to incarcerate him, finally be brought to book? Or will he feature in a show trial, an exhibition designed to satisfy public opinion rather than ensure justice?

Those who believe #MeToo is an unstoppable force, much like the River Alpheus that coursed through King Augeus’ putrid stables that hadn’t been cleaned for 30 years. If the #MeToo movement is still flowing with fury, Epstein will face a punitive prison sentence, the maximum being 45 years, according to CNN.

The Case of Bill Cosby

It’s a plausible argument in favor of #MeToo’s effectiveness. Consider the case of Bill Cosby, like Epstein, a well-heeled figure with influential friends and, in his case, an A-list celebrity presence. Once one of the most popular comedy actors in the world, Cosby was charged with sexual assault and, in 2017, went to trial. It resulted in a hung jury and declared a mistrial. Cosby walked. Remember: This was before the Weinstein case broke.

The retrial was conducted in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal and resulted in Cosby’s conviction. He is currently serving a three-to-10-year prison sentence and is presently appealing the conviction. The cultural shift inducted by the scope of the Weinstein allegations was crucial in determining the different outcomes. In the #MeToo era, jurors are less likely to defer to traditional forms of authority or uncritically accept the testimonies of powerful men.

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There are a few differences worth nothing, though. While Cosby was comparably rich, better known and had several friends in high places, he couldn’t boast the interconnected circles of contacts in international politics, global finance, philanthropy and academia. And, of course, Cosby is African-American. Epstein is white — a factor that may, or may not, be significant. One of the consequences of #MeToo is that it has challenged everyone to criticize historical assumptions, not just about men’s droit du seigneur, but about an erroneous white moral superiority.

Doubters are waiting for #MeToo to run out of steam. A favorable verdict for Epstein will be a reliable indication that they’re right. But can he possibly get a light sentence? It would be extraordinary, though not impossible. Epstein has not helped his own case with his acknowledgment that he does lust after women, even after pleading guilty in 2008 to state charges of soliciting prostitution; nor by his astonishing claim that his sexual behavior was not merely motivated by carnality. In a plan he might have lifted from “The Boys From Brazil,” he apparently wanted to impregnate up to 20 women at a time in order to enrich the human race with his genes, according to The New York Times.
How the association with Trump plays out is anybody’s guess. Previously, the 45th president of the United States was effusive about Epstein: “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” This now seems sickening, and Trump may yet be forced to explain his tribute, even if it was long ago.

A Verdict on #MeToo

There is a point in any cultural movement’s life where you want to stop the clock and examine what is happening here and think about what comes next. This is that point. #MeToo has transfigured the landscape, changing not only attitudes and perspectives, but entire institutions and the behavior of people who operate those institutions. Its effects radiate through societies, almost everywhere in the world.

The question remains about what comes next. Much turns on the Epstein case. Here we have an overprivileged white male who appears to have indulged his taste for underage women with relative impunity. He has been able to do so, we learn, not just because he is a man who happens to be white and wealthy, but because he has the best kind of friends — ones that can grant favors.

If he succeeds in securing a softish verdict, it will remind us that, for all the advances initiated by #MeToo, conservative forces can overpower anything and keep the status quo intact. If he receives the punishment the available evidence suggests he should, #MeToo will gain fresh impetus and restore the belief that genuine change has happened and will continue to happen.

*[Ellis Cashmore’s book, “Kardashian Kulture,” will be published on August 30.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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