Editor’s note: This story contains details of sexual violence.
American financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy on July 6. Since then, increasingly shocking details of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse of minors over many years have emerged, leading many to ask how such large-scale abuse was allowed to occur for so long in a country with ample laws in place to prevent such crimes.
“The United States has great laws to protect kids from sex trafficking on the books, but if the system is not going to implement those laws then what does it matter?” Carol Smolenski, executive director of anti-child sexual exploitation nonprofit ECPAT USA, told Global Citizen.
“And that’s what the Jeffrey Epstein episode really demonstrates — all of the systems have to be willing to implement those laws and that was the big failing here.”
The same day authorities arrested Epstein at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport on Saturday, shortly after he arrived from Paris in his private jet, the FBI found nude photos of girls who appear to be underage locked in a safe in his multimillion-dollar Manhattan home. And while the discovery may have been surprising to some, it seemed to confirm nearly two decades’ worth of allegations against the businessman.
Though his alleged sexual exploitation and abuse of young women appears to have been something of an open secret, the financier was charged just last week with trafficking dozens of girls in Florida and New York dating back to at least 2002. He is currently in jail awaiting trial.
His private jet, reportedly dubbed the “Lolita Express,” on which he is believed to have transported many underage girls, is now being investigated as a site of abuse. And federal investigators are seeking information on its previous passengers, which include former US President Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, Duke of York.
Over the past 17 years, dozens of women and girls have come forward with accusations of molestation, sexual assault, and sex trafficking against the 66-year-old New York native. Several say that Epstein offered them money, often for massages, during which he would touch them. Later he would offer them money to recruit other underage girls to do the same.
After being arrested on several charges in 2005, Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution — the lesser of the state charges against him — in 2008. Federal investigations into his other sex crime charges involving minors were then stopped. His plea agreement was a lenient one — signed by Alexander Acosta, the US attorney for Miami at the time — that allowed him to serve a 13-month jail sentence, from his office in Palm Beach, Florida, six days a week, but required him to register as a sex offender.
Yet, despite this conviction, and stacks of accusations against him, it still came as a shock to many that such a wealthy man could conspicuously abuse so many young women on US soil without devastating consequences.
“There are a lot of Americans who don't understand that sex trafficking happens here, too — they think it’s something that only happens in countries in Africa or Asia — but it happens across the board,” Smolenski said. “And within the US there’s no one geographic area, no one cohort of individuals, where it happens. Cases of trafficking and exploitation take place in very wealthy neighborhoods and in very poverty-stricken neighborhoods.”
And while most people think sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children only happens in the latter, the Epstein scandal demonstrates that it happens in wealthy communities, too. The common factor across the US and the globe, Smolenski said, is that victims tend to come from low-income, unstable households, where they often have also experienced abuse or neglect.
“The same factors are contributing to the sex trafficking problem in every country: the vulnerability of youth, poverty, and a lack of a social safety net,” she explained.
“Those factors might be weighted differently depending on the country and its resources, but the world over, kids who are being trafficked tend to be from less privileged families — and the privilege of men to control children’s and women’s bodies is the same the world over.”
Nearly 25,000 victims of human trafficking were detected globally and reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2016, and most of these people were trafficked to be sexually exploited. However, this figure reflects only the number of cases detected and reported to UNODC. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 5 million people were victims of forced sexual exploitation — 1 million of them children — in 2016.
The majority of identified trafficking victims around the world are female — according to UNODC, 49% of the victims reported were women and 23% were girls in 2016 — and this pattern holds true in the US, where nonprofit Polaris estimates that 8,561 out of 10,600 human trafficking victims in 2017 were female.
Of the approximately 10,600 people trafficked that year, more than 70% were sexually exploited. On average, victims began to be sex trafficked at age 19, though hundreds were trafficked as minors, with 15- to 17-year-olds making up the single largest age group of those sex trafficked in 2017, according to Polaris’ analysis.
Though there are laws at the federal and state levels aimed at protecting children under the age of 18 from exploitation, these kinds of abuses have become so common they no longer incite the same level or shock and anger, Smolenski said.
The presence of young girls under questionable circumstances in Epstein’s life has long been noted by several journalists and high profile figures, including President Donald Trump — yet Epstein was largely not held accountable for the long list of abuses he is accused of committing.
“When pre-pubescent kids are bought and sold into the sex trade, there is universal outrage, but as soon as a child reaches the age of physical development, which can be as young as 11, 12, 13 years old, they are integrated into these sex markets,” Smolenski said.
“It’s become so accepted that there is no outrage, but just because they are physically developed, they should not be fodder for the adult sex market.”
The sex trafficking of underage children is driven by demand, but poverty fuels the supply. Whether they are sold into trafficking or are lured into a pact they are powerless to break with the promise of money, children living in poverty — from the Philippines to Tanzania to the US — are uniquely vulnerable to being trafficked.
Sex traffickers and pimps also target children in their early teens because they are easier to control than adults, Smolenski said.
“Pimps go online or on the street to chat up kids and find out about their backgrounds to ‘befriend’ them and begin the process of grooming them by offering them help and support as if they are a friend,” she explained.
Often, they target children who come from poor, abusive, or unstable homes, who are unlikely to have someone watching out for them or a support system to turn to in order to extricate themselves from exploitative relationships.
“A kid who comes from a family where they have not been protected or love is going to be very vulnerable to a pimp saying all the right things, and then once they're in that system, it's really hard to get out, Smolenski said. “Who are they going to call? The only thing they have now is their pimp.”
In the US, runaway and homeless youth are among the most vulnerable to sex trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 7 children who ran away from home in 2018 likely became a victim of sex trafficking.
At least one of Epstein’s alleged victims, Virginia Roberts, fits this description. At age 11, Roberts says she was molested; by 13, she was in the foster care system; and at 14, she was living on the street as a runaway, and later fell under the control of a sex trafficker named Ron Eppinger in Miami, the Miami Herald reported.
After Eppinger was indicted on trafficking charges, Roberts relocated to West Palm Beach, where her father helped her get a job at the Mar-a-Lago hotel in Palm Beach. There she met Ghislaine Maxwell, who Roberts says groomed her and connected her to Epstein.
Now in her 30s, Roberts says she was sexually abused by Epstein and his friends — and that she was made to help recruit new, younger girls on Epstein’s behalf — for three years. Her involvement with Epstein began around the same year the US passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), a robust set of anti-trafficking policies that should have prevented such abuse.
“There were plenty of tools in the US Attorney’s [disposal] to charge him with sex trafficking, but he just didn’t,” Smolenski said, referring to Acosta.
While much progress has been made in anti-trafficking efforts in the US since the TVPA was passed, the implementation of strong policies at the state and local levels still has a long way to go.
Because the US has several simultaneous systems of governance, it is not only difficult to track the true scale of sex trafficking in the country, but lack of consistency and coordination between these systems also makes it possible for convicted perpetrators of sex trafficking, like Epstein, to slip through the cracks.
As part of his 2008 plea agreement, Epstein was required to register as a sex offender, which he did in Florida and New York. However, he was able to evade mandatory check-ins with authorities in New York by moving his official residence to the Virgin Islands, the New York Times reported.
However, in New Mexico, where Epstein owns a sprawling ranch, authorities decided in 2010 that the businessman would not be required to register as a sex offender because his victim was 17 — the age of consent in New Mexico is 16. However, Florida’s attorney general has said Epstein’s victim was actually 16, and reports dating back to 2008 say she was just 14 when he began paying her $200 for “massages.”
Epstein was essentially free to do as he pleased within the state without being monitored.
Several people have since come forward with allegations of abuse by Epstein, and New Mexico’s office of the attorney general has said it is investigating the accusations.
Many of Epstein’s victims were solicited and recruited in person in the early and mid-2000s, but as technology and the internet have become integral to daily life and widespread in developing countries, sex trafficking has become a booming online industry.
Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar global industry, and the internet has enabled it to become the fastest growing illegal business in the world, according to nonprofit Equality Now. And because of privacy laws and technology that enables people to obscure their identities and locations, online human trafficking and sexual exploitation is extremely difficult to track.
"Tech companies can be a force for good and provide tech solutions. It is with their technology and on their platforms that traffickers are recruiting, grooming, buying and selling their victims,” Shelby Quast, director of Equality Now's Americas office, told Global Citizen.
“Some have knowingly facilitated sex trafficking,” she added.
Websites like Backpage and Craigslist have come under fire for allowing sexual services by children and adults to be sold on its platform. In fact, by the time Backpage was shut down by federal authorities last year, it was the “largest online US marketplace for sex trafficking,” according to Polaris chief executive Bradley Myles.
"Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation happens every day in every community, and the increased use of the Internet has expanded the pool of victims, and victims can be from any background,” Quast said.
But while the internet has certainly fueled the sex trafficking industry, it is not to blame for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people.
“Ultimately, exploitation — both online and offline — is about power and abuse of power, and is rooted in gender and systematic inequality,” Quast said. "Women and girls are the majority of victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, and from our experience adolescent girls are particularly at risk of online sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.”
The internet has boosted sex trafficking business’ ability to traverse state lines and international borders with ease. What Epstein was able to do with the use of his personal private jets, the internet has empowered traffickers of more moderate means to do.
To stop this kind of exploitation, laws aimed at stopping perpetrators like Epstein — whose case continues to evolve daily — from continuing to sexually abuse minors must be enforced. And sexually exploited children should not be criminalized, Smolenski said.
More than 30 states have already adopted “safe harbor” laws that decriminalize exploited children, who might otherwise be charged with offenses like promoting prostitution as a result of being trafficked, but Smolenski said these policies need to be widely adopted and implemented.
“Part of that has to do with training for law enforcement officers and judges to understand that when a 13-year-old is arrested because she was with a pimp that she should not be treated as a criminal,” Smolenski said. “Instead they should see her as a kid who actually needs help and protection.”
The other part of preventing the sex trafficking and exploitation of underage children, and particularly girls, is educating youth around the fact that they are vulnerable to this industry. Teaching youth to be able to identify signs of grooming and recruitment into sexual exploitation is key to keeping youth out of the industry.
And if a child or adult thinks they are being recruited or have witnessed sex trafficking or exploitation, err on the side of caution, Smolenski urged. She said people are often hesitant to call trafficking tip hotlines or relevant authorities because they are worried they don’t have enough information or are being alarmist.
“But you don’t know what information authorities already have. Maybe they have information, but not enough to act, and you could have the little bit of information that makes the case,” she said.
“So even if you’re not sure what you are looking at, if you have a suspicion, call.”
If you are a victim of human trafficking, believe that someone is trying to groom or recruit you, or believe you have information about human trafficking activity, call the free, confidential National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text "HELP" or "INFO" to 233733, or chat online here.
To report child pornography or online sexual expoloitation, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (843-5678) or submit a tip online here.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org. You can find international resources here.