Not so long ago, there was no public shame in being a dirty old man. While political pundits proclaimed 1992 the Year of the Woman, Donald Trump was manhandling an NFL cheerleader on camera, with pedo-predator Jeffrey Epstein snickering right next to him.
In the early 2000s, when Donald Trump wasn’t putting Melania on the phone with Howard Stern to purr about how much sex they had, he was bragging about how he could “get away” with “inspecting” teenage girls in dressing rooms at his pageant franchises. Har-har-har! went Howard, and millions of listeners laughed along in their cars.
In Florida, during the same years, Epstein was allegedly ordering barely pubescent American and Eastern European girls to stand naked beside him while he masturbated. He was, according to previously filed lawsuits, passing the same girls around to have sex with famous men, while his accused procurers included a prominent British socialite on familiar terms with the royal family.
The public impunity reached all the way into the top echelons of the American justice system. Three years passed between when a 14-year-old’s family called the police on Epstein in 2005, and his first appearance in court. And even then, federal prosecutors in Florida in 2008 let him plead guilty to just two soliciting prostitution charges. By then, more than three-dozen girls and women had accused him of abuse. His punishment — a year and a month of nights in a private cell at the Palm Beach jail — didn’t deprive him of mansion time or access to his business by day.
The 2008 guilty plea, jail-time, and registered sex offender status did not unduly sully his reputation. Harvard still took his money, Katie Couric and British royals still dined at his house, even while, according to reports from flight controllers at the airport on his private island, he was still flying in and out with young girls as recently as last year. Reporting by the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown late last year finally shamed the Justice Department into action, flipping it from his victims and onto him. But until federal agents took a crowbar to the mansion door on East 71st Street, the girls lived in fear while Epstein was welcome among the highest echelons of society.
Epstein got his Florida settlement in part because women were scared of being exposed. A “majority of the victims,” according to the FBI investigator on the case, wanted to keep their names out of it, and make sure their parents wouldn’t find out. The girls were ashamed that they followed instructions and took their clothes off while the rich guy jerked off on the massage table.
Now, Epstein, 66, faces one federal charge of sex trafficking of minors and one federal count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors. He has been denied bail, a decision he is appealing, and hasn’t entered a plea. And yet his unshaven, haggard mug shot has replaced the stock photo of him looking slick and sly in a baby blue polo shirt. Shame’s on him.
It’s been a long time coming, this small milestone in the evolution of justice for women. Epstein’s alleged victims, girls then, now women, can cast the shame onto him: at least a dozen new accusers have contacted lawyers in New York and Florida since his arrest.
But while Epstein sports prison duds in New York, down in Washington, D.C., Trump, accused of sexual predations by 17 women, is not only a free man, but Leader of the Free World, with the bully pulpit to shame them as “liars” from the White House. Not a single investigation has been launched, no Congressional hearing, just a civil suit for defamation. And according to the Mueller Report’s conclusions in the Russia investigation, the Justice Department is literally incapable of charging him with any crime while he is President.
Trump and Epstein were, for a long time, a mutual admiration society. Besides the video of them together snickering and ogling the Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, Epstein has claimed he introduced Melania to Trump (they deny it). In court documents reviewed by the Herald’s Brown, he is quoted as saying “I want to set up my modeling agency the same way Trump set up his modeling agency.” In 2002, Trump told New York magazine: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. 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.” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien recently said on MSNBC that Trump “routinely talked about Jeffrey Epstein as somebody he admired; he felt they were in sync.”
Trump and Epstein belonged to a clique of rich older men in Manhattan, approvingly labeled modelizers, who lived a modified John lifestyle, exchanging money and power for access to pretty women, via model agencies and pageants and, in Epstein’s case, a procured network of teens. Unlike most “hobbyists” — the label aficionados of trafficked women have given themselves — Manhattan modelizers didn’t have to hide. They could count on leering cheerleaders like Howard Stern to validate society’s presumption of their entitlement. The men in this demimonde ran what they called modeling agencies and beauty pageants and “Look of the Year” competitions. The girls moved in herds like prey animals, the weaker separated off, dispatched on private jets or in black cars to parties, into massage rooms, asked to strip. The girls were “sexual snacks,” as one of the men who ran with Trump and this crowd in New York put it to me while I was researching my book on Trump and women last year.
Their silence was presumed, because as everyone now knows, shame silences victims. Women knew with absolute assurance — based on a long list of examples from Anita Hill to Kobe Bryant’s rape accuser to Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” — that they would be subject to public shaming and worse, threats and professional ruin, if they accused a powerful man of sexual assault or impropriety.
In private, of course, the men were not shame-free. In fact, there is research to suggest that sexual abuse and assaults are related to male shame. According to James Gilligan, a psychiatrist and author who has spent 25 years studying sexual violence, sexual abusers are trying to release their own massive feelings of shame and inadequacy by transferring those feelings onto women. “There is no more humiliating thing you can do than to sexually overpower somebody to subject them to unwanted sexual activity,” he says. “The Greek and Latin terms for genitals — pudenda — has a synonym, and it is shame.”
The shift of shame from women to men in these cases has been a long time coming. The dam cracked shortly before Trump’s election, as female employees of Fox News accused Roger Ailes of atrocious workplace abuse. In the following year, down went Fox’s Bill O’Reilly over similar charges, then actresses named and shamed Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo” became a hashtag and name brand men in media, academia and entertainment lost their jobs overnight. The wave of details about famous men masturbating before young women in offices and behind potted plants in hotel lobbies, or trapping women in a network television office with automated door locks, or pawing and seducing female assistants during and after work hours, exposed the other dimension that many women inhabit. The dam might have held, I suggest, had Trump not been elected president — but his win after more than a dozen women’s sexual-abuse allegations and his own confession on the Entertainment Tonight outtake, provoked a wave of anger and solidarity among abused women.
Now everyone is ashamed about Jeffrey — so ashamed that the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, decided to announce in person that he was taking Epstein back to court. So ashamed that Alex Acosta, Trump’s labor secretary, stepped down because he was the architect of Epstein’s 2008 plea deal, and the shame finally caught up with him.
Flipping shame onto the abusers is a critical turning point in the fight for women’s rights. Justice was long delayed in the Epstein case thanks to scandalous and unprincipled legal maneuvers. Trump’s election turned out to be the catalyst for women speaking publicly about other men, starting with the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history the day after his inauguration. In the Epstein case, the legal system could no longer bear the weight of all the public shame. Unlike his old friend, the Abuser-in-Chief can dismiss women’s allegations, and fear no investigation, thanks to the power of the office. That won’t last forever. The clock ticks on the dirty old man.